Patristics, Property, Modernity

If you’re going to host a hoedown on Christian proprietary theories, you’re going to confront a certain list of people and Augustine is going to be among them. I got a great book recently called “Rediscovering Abundance: Interdisciplinary Essays on Wealth, Income, and Their Distribution in the Catholic Social Tradition.” I was pumped to see Augustine in the preface by Daniel Finn. Let me emphasize that it’s a good introduction and I have absolutely no problem with Finn’s thrust, which is to set up the reason we need to get a grip on matters of wealth and distribution in the peculiar age of industrial/post-industrial market capitalism. But I did notice that his use of Augustine in thinking about property mirrors the way a lot of writers use Augustine to think about property, that is, to say that his thoughts are vaguely ethically useful but no longer directly applicable given historical shifts in how we acquire wealth.

Here is Finn:

“Some sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine was urging his prosperous listeners to be generous toward the poor. Like the other Fathers of the early Church, he offered numerous reasons. Most important of these was that God as Creator gave the world to humanity in order that the needs of all be met. Another of the arguments he made is particularly telling. Augustine rebuked the wealthy by saying that they had “found” their wealth here; they did not “bring it with them” at birth. In Augustine’s day, of course, as throughout the pre-modern world, the wealthy were largely those who owned land. This is what provided them with the lion’s share of its annual produce and distinguished them from the ordinary working people of their era. Today we are aware that wealth is not simply “found” in the world, although it remains true that great wealth is frequently passed on in inheritance within families. In the modern world we are far more conscious of the role of human labor and ingenuity in the production of wealth.”

What Finn is getting at is more or less that Patristic wisdom on the nature of property isn’t exactly helpful anymore, and it’s a fair tack to take when you’re trying to occasion a book of essays reprising the intent of much Patristic writing, e.g. to articulate a Christian ethic of ownership.

But I’m still not sure this is a right reading of Augustine’s whole proprietary theory. Under Finn’s read, Augustine basically has a desert theory of wealth, that is, he believes entitlement to wealth arises through having come to deserve it somehow, and since the rich ‘find’ rather than ‘create’, they haven’t necessarily met the full requirements for just desert. But, Finn then posits, the relationship between creation, entitlement, and wealth is now no longer so obviously weak, because most wealth doesn’t come from sneaking up on a lemon grove and calling it yours as it once did. We really do labor and engineer our own stuff now, Finn appears to argue, with the correct exception for inheritance; therefore, in the Finn analysis, Augustine’s proprietary theory just doesn’t apply like it once did.

Yet there is a wrinkle. Augustine wasn’t a desert theorist. That is, he did not understand entitlement to wealth to arise through activities that make one deserving of them. This approach is sometimes called the “labor-desert” theory of ownership, and it’s Lockean. And yet here are Augustine’s thoughts* on that, 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.’”

Augustine’s worst episode was his use of Roman state force to strip the heretical Donatists of their property. In this letter, he’s responding from letters from the Donatists saying “please stop using Roman state force to strip us of our property, because we’ve worked for it and it is ours.” In other words, they’ve used a rudimentary labor-desert theory defense to explain to him why what he’s doing is bad. But he responds that there are actually two ‘layers’, if you will, to property ownership:

Layer 1: the Divine layer. Nobody has an absolute right to property because the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and nobody’s claim can equal or supersede God’s. Instead we rely on his law, which is his gift: God gives the earth in common to all for the needs of all to be met. This layer of Augustine’s thought comes directly from his teacher Ambrose, who writes:

“Just as idolatry endeavors to deprive the one God of his glory, so also avarice extends itself into the things of God, so that, were it possible, it would lay claim to his creatures as exclusively its own — the creatures which he has made common for all. Hence God says through the Prophet: “Mine is the silver and mine the gold” (Haggai 2:8). Both are inimical to God, for both deny God the things that are his.”

Point of order, Ambrose is a complete beast. Augustine is sharp on property, but Ambrose will slap you right on your face. I mean how often do you see Haggai quoted ever? But that is just how Ambrose is. Anyway, the reasoning here is carried on quite clearly in Augustine’s proprietary theory: you cannot absolutely own privately, because to do so would be to seek a claim equal to or above God’s claim to all things. Instead we understand our relationship to God’s creation to be one of legitimate stewardship and the meeting of the needs of all. But Augustine does make space for private property ownership as we understand it.

Layer 2: the earthly layer. This is the way we handle property in the saeculum, the time between Edenic accord with God’s will and the eventual restoration of that accord. It is totally reliant upon our governing structures, the systems we create to order ourselves, whatever those may be. Here he explains, in his Tractatus in Iaonnis Evangelium 6:25-26:

“By what right does every man possess what he possesses? Is it not by human right? For by divine right ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ (I Cor. 10:26). God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors.”

In other words, since we’re not paying attention to God’s wishes for property at this point (fallen and whatnot) we rely upon governing institutions to create and maintain their own proprietary systems. These bundles of rights are human creations; they are, as Augustine says, the rights of kings and emperors. This is the legal realist position that I have talked a lot about.

So in total, what Augustine is saying to the Donatists is: you have two shots at ownership. You can say you are entitled to something via divine law, or that you’re entitled to it by human law. Since you are not being righteous (i.e. you are heretics) you can’t claim divine entitlement, and since the state is telling you that the law now says you’re no longer entitled to what you have, you don’t have a human right to it either. Thus, Augustine says, quit trying to act like what is happening to you is not legit.

Now, I’m not advocating his tack here; it’s pretty well and rightly agreed this was a bad thing to do. Other pieces of his writing contradict his argument that only the righteous can access the divine plan for the common use of the earth by all, and I do think the pieces that contradict it are stronger than the pieces they oppose. They track a lot better with Ambrose as well. But the notion that only the righteous have access to the divine plan for creation is secondary to the notion that creation itself registers a claim on God’s part that prevent absolute ownership by humanity, which is the real meat of the setup at any rate.

But, it does prove that the Augustinian theory on property is emphatically not a liberal labor-desert theory. At its most full development, it’s more like a “Christian legal realism”, or a legitimate-use theory that provides strong directives for civil translation.  Thus I don’t agree that Augustine’s proprietary theory is too antiquated to make much modern use of. Augustine accounts for labor-desert theories and dismisses them with solid theology, and points toward a more complicated entitlement structure bound up with Christian ethics. Rather than old guys we should read to pay due reverence to, then, I think we can still read the Patristics for directly applicable theological proprietary wisdom today.