I was leafing through one of Augustine’s many screeds against the Donatists when I came up with an interesting piece on the framework he deploys in figuring the process of property ownership. Two things are of interest here: 1) Augustine totally revolutionized letter-writing; 2) he really did want to correct the Donatists. A short discussion of each:
1.) Jennifer Ebbeler, Disciplining Christians: “In Augustine’s hands, these textual exchanges provided the medium for the in absentia correction of supposedly errant Christians. What was innovative about Augustine’s epistolary practice was not his inclusion of rebuke in a letter — multiple examples of this type of letter survive. Instead, it was his expectation that a letter of rebuke would be reciprocated, that it would initiate an ongoing correspondence between Augustine and the object of his epistolary correction.”
2.) By the time we find the letter of Augustine’s I’m about to quote, any hope he’d had of correcting the Donatists (a group of heretical Christians enjoying some popularity in North Africa at the time) had pretty much collapsed, and he’d lost some faith in the letter-writing schema of correction. Instead he fell back on legal power, supporting long ongoing (since 317 CE) Roman imperial efforts to confiscate Donatist property. I clarify all this to make it clear Augustine is not being theologically loose here, because in his letters he intended to create a kind of Christian paideia that could correct as well as rehabilitate and secure the ongoing robustness of the total Christian community.
So the Donatists write Augustine to complain about confiscation of their property, and he responds:
From Letter 93:52:12: “We disapprove of everyone who, taking advantage of the imperial edict, persecutes you, not with loving concern for your correction, but with the malice of an enemy. On the one hand, since every earthly possession can be rightly retained only on the ground of divine law, according to which all things belong to the righteous; or human law, which is the jurisdiction of the kings of earth, you err in calling those things yours which you do not possess as righteous persons and which you have forfeited by the laws of earthly sovereigns; and it is beside the point for you to plead, ‘we have labored to gather these things’, for you may read what is written: ‘the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just.’”
Such an interesting move. The overall theme is to at once criticize Christians who are maliciously trying to make bank by collecting former Donatist property and yet to emphasize to the Donatists that they have literally forfeited all right they have to it. He’s saying: since you’re heretics (and thus unrighteous) you have no divine right to use of that property, so quit telling me you want it back; and since you broke the law and the law is the originator of all property, then you have no legal right to it either. Further he points out that their labor-mixing theory of property (d.h. ‘we have labored for it and therefore it is ours by some metaphysical process) is emphatically not the schema God employs in the distribution of property. He says, rather: so what if you labored for it? Labor-mixing isn’t the schema God gives out for deciding just property allocation, and if it’s not honored legally either then it literally has no impact on whether or not you own the land. This is in direct confrontation with, say, Locke, ch 5 of the 2nd treatise:
“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”
Locke is at pains to allude to what Augustine does, e.g. there are certain divine parameters on property ownership, as Bruenig explains here. But it’s important to note that Augustine totally disagrees with the Lockean ontology of labor-mixing; that is, for Augustine, no amount of labor mixing does anything to God’s will for creation, which utterly defines its existence. Anyway I just thought that was interesting. (To be clear as there’s been some misunderstanding: I find the objection to the Lockean schema of property ownership interesting; the confiscation of property of heretics is not even consistent with Augustine’s final assessment of handling disagreement in City of God. By all accounts, his response to the Donatists was not his proudest moment.)