St. Augustine’s Analysis of Emperor Obama and the Somali Pirate

The U.S. Navy, it appears, will be directed to take more vigorous action against pirates off the coast of Somalia. “We are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region,” Emperor Obama said. Moral philosophers must busy themselves in answering the question: Is this action just?

For classical authors, justice consisted of “giving to each man what is his own.” But on this definition, Augustine says, Rome was not a just society, for she did not give to the true God what is His own (City of God XIX.21). Rome at her best was not only not just, but fundamentally unjust. What the Romans called “justice” in their political order was merely a certain degree of social safety and stability. So, says Augustine of the classical political ideal of justice, “Justice being taken away, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are bands of robbers themselves but little kingdoms?” Here the oft-quoted story of Alexander the Great and the pirate, drawn from Book III of Cicero’s On the Republic, makes its appearance. Alexander caught a pirate, and tried to judge him for his crimes. But the pirate would have none of it: “When the king asked him what he meant by infesting the sea, the pirate defiantly replied: ‘The same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a little ship I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet, you are an emperor” (City of God IV.4).

(For the foregoing commentary, I am pleased to credit Societas Christiana.)

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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