During his inaugural address, Joe Biden quoted someone who is near to my heart – Augustine. That quote can be found here:

And I pledge this to you: I will be a President for all Americans.
I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.
Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.
What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?
I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.

This quote from Augustine comes from Book XIX, Chapter 24 of City of God. However, like any fragment of a sentence from any work of Augustine, it could be used for purposes other than what Augustine intended at the time or would even dream of intending. I read City of God a few years ago as part of my current project of reading through Augustine’s works. As I was looking through my highlights, I actually had marked this same quote as it stood out to me at the time.

In the title of this post, I asserted that Joe Biden quoted Augustine poorly. This assertion is twofold. First of all, the quote itself is somewhat truncated and misses the mark due to what was left out. Here is what Augustine actually wrote (and no, I don’t believe that one can just say that Biden’s quote is just a different translation, as you can see from the actual citation):

a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love

Rather than saying that a people was “defined by the common objects of their love”, Augustine gives us a far richer statement that takes on a different meaning. Biden left out a key clarifying phrase as Augustine stated that the people was “bound together” by “a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” It’s not that a people can be looked at and “defined” as a unified people because they love certain things. But rather they are known as a people because their common agreement on the objects they love binds them together!

This is just the first way that I believe Biden quoted Augustine poorly, and it is the one that is simple to see and draw your conclusions from the edge of the forest. But we must go farther into the woods now in order to see what Augustine’s point was. So, lace up your boots and grab your walking stick as we explore some of what Augustine wrote in the chapters surrounding this quote in Book XIX (keep in mind that a “chapter” is more often than not a single paragraph or a grouping of a few paragraphs). Although I loathe them, I will have ellipses in some of these sections to keep this post shorter. But feel free to read all of the chapters in Book XIX to form your own conclusions and please let me know if you think that I have misrepresented anything below.

In Chapter 20, Augustine states that we cannot experience happiness in our life on earth (the City of Man) unless we have that happiness as a hope of our future blessed life. The happiness that we would have is false and is actually “profound misery.”

And yet, if any man uses this life with a reference to that other which he ardently loves and confidently hopes for [i.e. the eternal future life], he may well be called even now blessed, though not in reality so much as in hope. But the actual possession of the happiness of this life, without the hope of what is beyond, is but a false happiness and profound misery. For the true blessings of the soul are not now enjoyed; for that is no true wisdom which does not direct all its prudent observations, manly actions, virtuous self-restraint, and just arrangements, to that end in which God shall be all and all in a secure eternity and perfect peace.

Then we move on to Chapter 23, which immediately precedes the quote that Biden referenced. In this chapter, Augustine sets out his definition of “a people”. Allow me to summarize Augustine’s statements below – God gave His People a law that is known to all, being published in writing. In that Law we find written in Exodus 22:20 that “He that sacrifices unto any god, save unto the Lord alone, he shall be utterly destroyed.” Christians, God’s people now, are His “most notable and worthy sacrifice”. Wherever there is not found the righteousness of “sacrificing” to God alone, Augustine says that such an assemblage of people is not “associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and by a community of interests.” The key phrase, as it pertains to Biden’s vision of a people defined by common interests, is “if our definition be true” – Augustine sees the above as his definition of what “a people” are.

The God of the Hebrews, then, to whom this renowned philosopher [Porphyry] bears this signal testimony, gave to His Hebrew people a law, composed in the Hebrew language, and not obscure and unknown, but published now in every nation, and in this law it is written, “He that sacrifices unto any god, save unto the Lord alone, he shall be utterly destroyed.”… Hence the Psalmist in the Hebrew Scriptures sings, “I have said to the Lord, You are my God, for You need not my good.” For we ourselves, who are His own city, are His most noble and worthy sacrifice, and it is this mystery we celebrate in our sacrifices, which are well known to the faithful, as we have explained in the preceding books…. And therefore, where there is not this righteousness whereby the one supreme God rules the obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him, and whereby, in all the citizens of this obedient city, the soul consequently rules the body and reason the vices in the rightful order, so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself — there, I say, there is not an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and by a community of interests. But if there is not this, there is not a people, if our definition be true, and therefore there is no republic; for where there is no people there can be no republic.

We arrive now at Chapter 24. This chapter begins with the passage in question immediately following what I quoted above. Here is that first sentence in full:

But if we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.

Note that Augustine begins the next paragraph with a “but”. He is willing to set aside the definition he just previously gave of what “a people” is and will discuss another definition. And he further states that if we wish to discover the character of any people, we can observe the objects of their love.

According to this new definition, Rome could be considered as a people. History shows what it believed in its early days and how it “rotted off the bond of concord” needed to be a healthy people. This would be the case for any nation. As we saw the definition of “a people” in Chapter 23 as being one which obeyed the commands of God in worshiping Him alone, Augustine says that this ungodly city of Rome (or any nation not worshiping God) would be “void of true justice.” That, indeed, is a strong statement!

Yet whatever it loves, if only it is an assemblage of reasonable beings and not of beasts, and is bound together by an agreement as to the objects of love, it is reasonably called a people; and it will be a superior people in proportion as it is bound together by higher interests, inferior in proportion as it is bound together by lower. According to this definition of ours, the Roman people is a people, and its good is without doubt a commonwealth or republic. But what its tastes were in its early and subsequent days, and how it declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists, history shows, and in the preceding books I have related at large. And yet I would not on this account say either that it was not a people, or that its administration was not a republic, so long as there remains an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of love. But what I say of this people and of this republic I must be understood to think and say of the Athenians or any Greek state, of the Egyptians, of the early Assyrian Babylon, and of every other nation, great or small, which had a public government. For, in general, the city of the ungodly, which did not obey the command of God that it should offer no sacrifice save to Him alone, and which, therefore, could not give to the soul its proper command over the body, nor to the reason its just authority over the vices, is void of true justice.

He proceeds in Chapter 25 to discuss how this is related to true virtues. A nation may have what it believes are virtues. However, those virtues may be seen as vices without reference to God and, furthermore, they are inflated with pride.

It is for this reason that the virtues which it seems to itself to possess, and by which it restrains the body and the vices that it may obtain and keep what it desires, are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter. For although some suppose that virtues which have a reference only to themselves, and are desired only on their own account, are yet true and genuine virtues, the fact is that even then they are inflated with pride, and are therefore to be reckoned vices rather than virtues.

It is here that I would like to look back at what Joe Biden said should be the objects of our love as Americans:

What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?
I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.

I would argue that Joe Biden would call those objects of love “virtues”. And certainly they would appear virtuous. But as Augustine said, virtues are inflated with pride when they do not reference God. I don’t believe that I need to expound on this too much, but a couple of examples will do.

What is the substance of what Joe Biden would see in, say, liberty? It is the freedom of people to live however they please by sleeping around and then using their freedom to murder their unborn children. Furthermore, Americans who do not see this as a common good should be forced (i.e. having no liberty) to pay for this infanticide. This is liberty devoid of God and full of pride in one’s autonomy.

This is liberty void of true justice.

What is the substance of, say, truth? It is being able to force others to speak a lie that someone has changed from being a man to a woman overnight, or vice-versa. This, of course, is said to be giving that person the dignity and respect (other objects of love that Biden mentioned) that they believe their life choice affords them by no longer referring to them as how they were created in God’s image. But this is not truth. This is what truth becomes when it is devoid of God and full of pride.

This is truth void of true justice.

Many of the other things (under Joe Biden’s definition) which would be labeled as virtues would not be seen as such by Augustine. Joe Biden is asking America to be defined by the virtues that he listed. Yet, if one of our objects of love is truth, we must be honest with ourselves as a nation that we are divided over the substance of those virtues.

Augustine was not only a prolific author, but he was a pastor and bishop who did not leave his readers without application. He would go on to say in Chapter 26 that even though we must tarry this earth while “the two cities are commingled” we are told by Paul “to pray for kings and those in authority that we may live a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness and love.” Then he concludes with a chapter on the Christian’s hope followed by a warning on the second death that the wicked will experience. I will leave you with his Chapter 27 on our hope of perfection. It is a “life done with bondage” – it is true liberty!

But, in that final peace to which all our righteousness has reference, and for the sake of which it is maintained, as our nature shall enjoy a sound immortality and incorruption, and shall have no more vices, and as we shall experience no resistance either from ourselves or from others, it will not be necessary that reason should rule vices which no longer exist, but God shall rule the man, and the soul shall rule the body, with a sweetness and facility suitable to the felicity of a life which is done with bondage. And this condition shall there be eternal, and we shall be assured of its eternity; and thus the peace of this blessedness and the blessedness of this peace shall be the supreme good.

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