Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is a unique—and uniquely readable—book. It skillfully constructs a case for the continuing force of political discussions of rights, properly understood not only in their “possessive” articulations, but also more broadly as social articulations of “rights against” others in pursuit of life-goods. The point of this rather subtle turn is to take on those who would reduce rights discourse to a kind of flattened and shallow individualism, as well as to argue against modern eudaimonist thinkers who would reject the language of rights altogether. Wolterstorff’s case is cogent in an analytical sense, even as an important historical/textual point needs further examination and elaboration. That’s what I want to do in a small way here, more in a humble spirit of Lockean “underlabouring” than anything else. This approach suits my particular ken as well, which is that of a political theorist thinking and writing mainly from within the continental tradition.
My main interest, (and objection?) concerns Wolterstorff’s reading of Augustine, and I suppose by extension the dubious nature and place of the Christian tradition in any rehabilitation of rights discourse that fits comfortably within the modern liberal frame. Wolterstorff focuses on Augustine’s refutation of ancient pagan articulations of the philosophical pursuit of the “good life.” According to the contours of this argument, Augustine represents a “break with eudaimonism,” especially motivated or, to be more specific, inspired by his famous conversion to orthodox Catholic Christianity. Central to this inspiration is the charitable principle, which Wolterstorff foregrounds in the following way:
I think there can be little doubt that Augustine found Christ’s love command unsettling for his received way of thinking… Augustine interpreted Christ as saying that just as I am an object of my love, so also my neighbor is to be an object of my love.
Augustine’s interpretation of “Christ’s love-command” is the correct one, Wolterstorff confidently concludes, “and…it is indeed incompatible with eudaimonism.” One has to respond with at least some small qualifications.
First: Where is Paul? Wolterstorff mentions Paul glancingly in a footnote, with a promise to address the Pauline vision in a future work. One can legitimately agree about the centrality of the gospel accounts of the command to love thy neighbor, but philosophically and theologically (as well as historically) speaking, the formulation in Romans is prior. By attending to Paul one discovers usefully and rather early on that “Christ’s love command” qua theological utterance is in fact central to a distinct hermeneutic, one that prioritizes multiple allegorical transformations (sarx to pneuma, old to new, “Jew first and then Greek,” and so on). For Paul, this allegorical passage means that the (old) unfulfilled commandment reaches its highest and fullest expression in a (new) universalistic ethic which wraps the entire human race into a single fabric of charity and compassion. This Pauline ethic, however, cannot be extricated analytically from the evental experience that grounded it; Augustine apparently agreed with this insofar as he testified to the power of the conversion of the will and indeed narratively constructed his own experience in terms that were explicitly reminiscent of Paul’s own conversion. When Augustine hears the voice that tells him to “tolle, lege,” for example, which text does he scan? None other than Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, of course!
This leads to a second, related observation. If Paul’s imperative to neighbor-love was ordered around an extreme sense of temporal collapse in messianic expectation—a reading that follows Agamben’s interpretation in The Time that Remains—then Augustine operates under the assumption of a temporal extension of the saeculum. For better or worse, this is a key to his vision of human history in the City of God. When understood in this context, the imperative to love thy neighbor becomes a kind of ethical promise that always remains unfulfilled in the civitas terrena, and in fact, what is worse, the promise becomes a mask for the deeper wellsprings of hostility and exploitation operative in the libido dominandi. Prima facie this might seem to support Wolterstorff’s case against the unreflective individualized discourse that attends everyday discussions of rights: my expression of a claim of a right to this or that particular good can quite easily be seen as an expression of my drive or desire to dominate another person or group of people. If social and natural goods are scarce, and the battle over them is a zero-sum game, then my rights-claim has to occur as an assertion against the satisfaction of others. In fact, social reality is much more complex and (thankfully) much more interesting: I would suggest that the tension that resides at the heart of the more common individualized rights-claims also resides at the heart of the exercise of the kind of rights discourse that Wolterstorff wants to bring to the foreground, namely one that revolves around my rights against others, especially when my perception involves the sense of denial, of having my claims to life-goods unfairly or arbitrarily rejected, of being wronged. What makes me think that this is the case?
Augustine’s critique of the drive to dominate doesn’t stop short of those claims that refer to my rights against being wronged; in fact, it actually focuses on those claims as a highly concentrated place where the libido dominandi might find expression. In this sense Augustine shows his true colors as a kind of theoretical forefather to the radically negative perspectives proffered in the modern world by non-theologians like Rousseau or Adorno. For while Augustine’s saeculum becomes temporally extended, its order always remains a mimetic realm in which social life is cohered incompletely under a kind of love (cupiditas) which always strives imperfectly and wrong-headedly to unify the human experience. In this kind of world, the furniture of social life is constructed from the raw material of human suffering-in-fallenness, and serves in a structural sense to sustain that suffering. Attempting to transfer the language of charitable love into a discursive framework of rights—even “rights against” instead of “rights to”—does nothing to transcend this condition: instead, as Rousseau would later argue (in an Augustinian vein), under the sign of secularity my extension to you in vulnerability and dependence damages both of us, and extricates us in bonds of mutual resentment. From here it only gets worse: the mandate of Freud’s kultur means the sublimation of resentment, which in turn provides the impetus for the expression of social contractarian images which haunt modernity with an untenable choice: either the promotion of the development of the radically independent “natural” being, or the construction of a contract that totalizes and universalizes radical dependence. Or in the terms familiarized by the Judith Shklar’s critical reading of Rousseau, modernity leaves us with the choice between Man or Citizen as social exemplars.
Such a narrative strays far from the thinkers and problems that populate Wolterstorff’s work, but that is my point: Christian thought serves as one ground for a radically negative critique of immanence even while serving (simultaneously!) as the fundamental origin of the modern, spatialized saeculum. It constructs the modern world as well as founding a distinctly critical vision of contemptus mundi. The Christian tradition contains multitudes, and some of its richest and most “positive” systematizers—theologians like Augustine for example—convey as well a subterranean apophatic sensibility, in essence accepting categorizations such as “rights” even while standing at a certain distance from them. This makes the place of the tradition in any rehabilitation of rights discourse at least somewhat problematic.