In his inaugural address today, President Joe Biden surprised me by quoting St. Augustine. (I expected him to quote Scripture, which he also did.) Notably, he called him “a saint in my Church,” referring to the Catholic Church. That reference – combined with the fact that he attended Mass this morning at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the opening prayer was given by Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ – gave today’s events a certain Catholic inflection.
But what did he quote from the Doctor of Grace? He said that Augustine “wrote that the people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” This is from Augustine’s second most famous work (after the Confessions), the City of God, specifically book 19. Here is the exact quotation (as translated by William Babcock) in context:
Where there is no justice, there clearly is no company of persons joined by a common sense for what is right and by a community of interest. And (assuming that this is the true definition of a people) where this is missing, there certainly is no people. And therefore there is no republic, for, where there is no people, there is no common good of a people.
But if a people is defined in another way—if we say, for instance, that a people is a multitude of rational beings joined together by common agreement on the objects of their love—then it is clear that to discover the character of any people we should take a closer look at what it loves. No matter what it loves, however, if it is an assembled multitude, not of animals but of rational creatures, and is joined together by common agreement on the objects of its love, it is not absurd to call it a people, and it is clear that, the better the objects of its love, the better the people, and the worse the objects of its love, the worse the people. According to this definition of ours, the Roman people is a people, and its common good is without doubt a republic. As to what that people loved in its first days and what it subsequently came to love, and as to the moral decline by which it fell into bloody seditions and finally into the Social and Civil Wars, thus violating and corrupting the bond of concord which is, so to speak, the health of a people, history bears witness to all this.
The more mundane or classic definition of a people, as Augustine relates it, is a “company of persons joined by a common sense for what is right and by a community of interest.” That definition, no doubt, still holds. But Augustine suggests a more specific definition that can be used to judge the quality of a people: “common agreement on the objects of their love.” This raises the question: what does the American people love in common?
Here is how President Biden answered the question: “Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.” An inaugural speech should not be overly partisan, and this answer is non-partisan. Former V.P. Mike Pence was standing right by during the swearing in, and I’m sure he agreed that these are fundamental American values.
As a fellow Catholic, I hope Biden will use his presidency, especially right now during the pandemic, to promote those high values. They are good objects of love. Some people, on both the left and the right, have given up on any semblance of civility, common purpose, or common values. Instead, it’s all about political power, to be obtained by any means necessary. Going down such a path could lead us down the same road that Augustine described or the Roman Republic: bloody seditions and civil wars, which broke the bond of concord. This danger is all too real, as the events of January 6 at the Capitol showed.
Biden, however, has repeatedly emphasized that he wants to be a “President for all Americans,” who will pursue bipartisan legislative solutions to our grave problems. Whether that will come to pass, I don’t know. But I exhort all my fellow Americans (especially Catholics) to pursue these higher objects of love: dignity, respect, truth. If we do, then we can truly be, as Augustine said, a better people.
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).