This week’s selection from the City of God comes again from Book XIX, this time from Chapter 6. The context is the broad theme elaborated in Chapter 4–that though the virtues of this life are “its best and most useful possessions,” they are in the end only constant reminders of the miseries of this life and cannot be the final good: “Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness.” The immediate chapters that follow Chapter 4 represent particular ruminations on and applications of the theme. Chapter 6 considers “the error of human judgments when the truth is hidden.”
The problem for judges in the earthly city is that they are required to pass judgment but that they “cannot discern the consciences of those at their bar.” Their judgments are therefore “melancholy and lamentable.” All the more so because judges are driven to use coercive methods to compensate for their ignorance of the truth, which in turn drives the innocent to confess falsely, “[a]nd when he has been condemned and put to death the judge is still in ignorance whether he has put to death an innocent or a guilty person….[C]onsequently he has both tortured an innocent man to discover his innocence, and has put him to death without discovering it.” Augustine paints a dark picture of justice in the earthly city in this chapter.
The problem, moreover, is not one of the specific coercive methods used by the judicial systems in particular earthly cities (though several sources note Augustine’s opposition in several letters to torture and capital punishment). As Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “We shall miss the point of this if we confine ourselves to observations about the barbarous laws of evidence which obtained in the late empire….For [Augustine] it is a universal problem about judicial process everywhere. It is a guess as to which party is lying and which telling the truth, and any inquisitorial process adopted to reduce the element of hazard may backfire and defeat its own ends.” Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God 19,” in Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present 70 (2003). An interesting feature of Augustine’s discussion about torture in this context is that it emphasizes consequentialist considerations–the trouble with torture that Augustine targets here is that it does not assist, and in fact may be counterproductive, in ascertaining the truth. See Henry Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo: A Life 140 (2009). And yet, the problem of the elusiveness of truth is not resolved by a refusal to give judgment. Thus arises the dilemma: the necessity to give judgement in the earthly city together with the knowledge that ignorance of the truth will infect the judgment.
I was especially struck by Augustine’s focus in the very last part of this selection not on the substance of the judgment, or on the methods to be used in judging, but on the mood or cast of mind that the dilemmas of the judge ought to inspire in him (“wise” is not an honorific here). Augustine is interested in what the miseries of judgment do for the character of the judge–and what they ought to do–as he contemplates the fulfillment of his duties in the earthly city:
If such darkness shrouds social life, will a wise judge take his seat on the bench or no? Beyond question he will. For human society, which he thinks it a wickedness to abandon, constrains him and compels him to this duty. And he thinks it no wickedness that innocent witnesses are tortured regarding the crimes of which other men are accused; or that the accused are put to the torture, so that they are often overcome with anguish, and, though innocent, make false confessions regarding themselves, and are punished; or that, though they be not condemned to die, they often die during, or in consequence of, the torture; or that sometimes the accusers, who perhaps have been prompted by a desire to benefit society by bringing criminals to justice, are themselves condemned through the ignorance of the judge, because they are unable to prove the truth of their accusations though they are true, and because the witnesses lie, and the accused endures the torture without being moved to confession. These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must nonetheless condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as a guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God: “From my necessities deliver Thou me.”