Anselm on beatings

by Jonathan McIntosh

A central tenet of the political thought of St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) is the idea that, although political authority–or the rule of one man over another–is of itself unnatural or contrary to God’s original creation design, it is nevertheless something God has ordained post-fall as a way of checking human sin and pride. In short, political authority is unnatural yet God-ordained. In his dialogue On Truth (De veritate), however, the late tenth-, early eleventh-century Augustinian theologian St. Anselm of Canterbury (A.D. 1033-1109), introduces a distinction containing an implicit yet important qualification of Augustine’s teaching on political authority. In every action, Anselm notes, we can distinguish between the “agent” of the action and its “patient,” and so we can distinguish between the rightness or wrongness of an agent’s committing an action and the rightness or wrongness of the patient suffering it. As Anselm writes:

Thus, depending upon whether agent and patient are subject to the same or to opposite judgments, the two aspects of the action will be judged to be alike or opposite. Therefore, (1) when the one who gives a beating does so rightly and the one who gets that beating does so rightly—for example, when a sinner is corrected by someone whose prerogative it is—both aspects of the action are right because in both respects a beating ought to be. And (2) when, on the contrary, a just man is beaten by an unjust man, neither aspect of the action is right because the just man ought not to get a beating nor ought the unjust man to give a beating, for in neither respect ought a beating to occur. But (3) when a sinner is beaten by one whose prerogative it is not, then a beating both ought and ought not to be, since the sinner ought to get a beating but the other man ought not to give a beating; and so the action cannot be denied to be both right and not right.  (Anselm, On Truth 8, Hopkins trans.) 

For Anselm, in short, that a man ought to receive the beating he gets does not automatically mean that the man giving the beating ought to be doing so, for we can distinguish between the rightness or wrongness of someone being the recipient of an action from the question of the rightness or wrongness of the person who is the agent of that action. Applying this same line of reasoning, now, to Augustine’s notion of political authority, we get the following result. If we grant that men, due to their sin, in some sense “ought” to be ruled over by other men, this by itself would not mean that the latter therefore “ought” to ruler over the former. Indeed, if the rulers themselves are men and therefore sinners, it follows that they “ought” to be ruled in the same way as their subjects. If, for Augustine, all men because of their sin ought to be ruled by other men, it follows that, from a human standpoint, no one is really fit to rule anyone.

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