What do St. Augustine (354-430) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) have to do with the recent riots in Baltimore? Lots.
For many centuries the civilization of the Western world (the world that used to be called Christendom) was based on the Augustinian theory of human nature, according to which human nature is basically bad. Due to the Fall of Adam and Eve, we — each and every one of us — suffer from an irresistible inclination to sin or immorality. We all deserve to go to Hell.
But about 300 years ago we — or at least the most “advanced” thinkers among us — decided to repudiate this dark view. We adopted a brighter view, holding that human nature is basically good. We are inclined by nature to goodness — to helping our fellow man and to feeling compassion for his suffering.
If Augustine best articulated the older and darker view, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who best articulated the new and brighter view. So let us say, for the sake of convenience, that we used to be Augustinians, but we are now Rousseauvians.
Both views had to account for apparent exceptions to their theory. For the Augustinians there was the puzzle that some persons, despite their natural badness, were good, and in some cases were actually saintly. How could this be? The answer: they were good by virtue of the grace of God. Human nature was dragging them down, but the grace of God, more powerful than nature, lifted them up. It followed from this that we should seek the grace of God, earnestly praying for it night and day; and we must not make the fatal mistake of repudiating it when it is offered to us.
The Augustinian view also implied that, when it came to persons who were not saints (persons, that is, who had not received the grace of God), it was important that they be restrained from evil by the forces of society and government. These restraints will of course not make them good, but at least they will usually prevent them from committing many of the grosser forms of evil to which their nature inclines them. They will still be sinners (sinners deserving of eternal damnation), but at least they won’t be robbers and rapists and murderers.
For Rousseauvians there is the puzzle that many persons, despite the fundamental goodness of human nature, are in fact immoral, some of them grossly immoral. How can a Rousseauvian explain the world’s robbers and rapists and murderers? How can he explain Hitler and Stalin and ISIS? The answer is that many persons, despite their natural inclination to goodness, have been corrupted by a still-imperfect society. The practical implication of this is that society must be re-made so that it no longer blocks and distorts our natural tendency toward goodness.
If, then, you are a Rousseauvian (and all of us moderns are more or less Rousseauvians), you will be a social improver, a world-betterer. If you are moderate, you’ll be a social and political reformer; if you’re radical, you’ll be a revolutionary. And if you run across somebody who says, “I’m neither a radical nor a reformer, I’m a conservative, I hate Rousseau,” it usually turns out on examination that he really means to say, “I’m a slow-motion reformer.” Very few of our so-called conservatives are Augustinians, which is what they should be if they mean to be anti-Rousseauvians.
When the mayor of Baltimore retracted her use of the word “thug” to describe her city’s rioters, and substituted the locution “misguided young men,” she was speaking like a true disciple of Rousseau, putting herself in the same club with Robespierre and Lenin. The boys who demolished the CVS, for example, thereby greatly inconveniencing the old black women and old black men who were using CVS to pick up their meds — these boys were not bad boys (for there is no such thing as a bad boy), they were good boys who happened to do bad things. And why did they do bad things? Because our still-imperfect society had “misguided” them.
And how did society misguide these boys? According to President Obama (our most conspicuous Rousseauvian), by having racist cops and by not “investing” enough taxpayer money in the ghetto.