Augustine on Property Rights

"The biblical account of Cain and Abel is surely of great interest for us. Cain represents the ambivalence of human civilization. He is the first to ascend to a cultivated the soil, the first who is said to have become the builder of a city. He was, in short, what we would call a benefactor of humanity and to that extent the first man susceptible of being praised by men. It is he who, properly speaking, begins human history, at least the history of civilization. It is he who puts to best use, in any case to the most active use, the resources he had in hand upon leaving the garden of Eden. At the same time, of course, he represents the violence and murder that come with human civilization.

"As for Abel, he was not concerned either to plant or to build. He was a shepherd who pastured small livestock. Where is Cain, farmer and builder, sought to dwell on the earth and settle it, Abel was, Augustine says... like a stranger -- a stranger to the earth, or on the earth.

"So Cain killed his brother Abel... Augustine explains things roughly in the following way. The character of the good, it's natural tendency so to speak, is to be shared. It becomes greater, it becomes better, by being shared. The goodness of Abel would not have been diminished if his brother had rejoiced and shared in the divine favor of Abel... The logic of the good, one could say, is as follows: the more it is shared, the more it is possessed. It is the contrary of the logic of appropriation, even though what we desire to appropriate are of course the same good things. Concerning the truly good things, 'anyone who refuses to enjoy this position in partnership will not enjoy it at all.'" -- Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, pp. 277-278

Of course, Augustine is not a Marxist: while private property is a symptom of our fallen state, one cannot cure the disease by getting rid of the symptom. While the desire to appropriate is sinful, in fact, in the City of Man, the best way to handle that desire is to define clear property rights. Otherwise, the desire will lead to violence. But private property is a "non-natural, remedial institution." Natural property rights grant the entire earth to the righteous, not to "first appropriators" or "the most productive." In the City of Man, instead, property rights are allocated by "the King" (the civil authorities). In general, secure private property rights are justified by the fact that they help secure civil order. But when they do not, it is clearly within the domain of the civil authorities to modify those rights: for instance, should a capitalist elite have arisen that has garnered a huge share of a polity's property through manipulating the legal system, it can be quite just to redistribute goods from them to the poor. Such a maneuver is certainly not "theft," per Augustine, since the ownership of all those goods on the part of the rich was, in the first place, simply a "remdial" step taken by the civil authorities to reduce conflict over goods in our post-lapsarian world.


  1. If it didn't interfere with the civil order too much, would it be acceptable to Augustine for there to be a redistribution from the unrighteous to the righteous from time to time, to conform with "natural property rights"?

  2. Anonymous3:23 AM

    From thence forth, I will call you "Arbitrary Gene".

    1. Henceforth, I shall call you "Unmotivated Name-Calling Joe." Deal?

    2. Anonymous4:41 AM

      Nope, no deal!

      My statement was motivated by your conclusions, which I think are "Gary North" bat-shit crazy. Thus, it is not "unmotivated", and is still quite non-arbitrary.

      Come to Earth, Gene. It isn't all that bad here. There are limits, however; which I can see that you don't like too much.

    3. Anonymous4:48 AM

      Wow, it's actually pretty funny that I used the "there" and you used the "here" (thence vs hence). We were both grammatically correct considering the context, I just didn't expect such a thing to occur.

    4. 1) first of all, did you notice that I am describing Augustine's conclusions?

      2) Secondly, while Augustine things property rights of conventional, that does not mean he thinks there arbitrary.

      3) thirdly, if someone describe something as arbitrary that is arbitrary (e.g., which electrical charge to call "negative" and which to call "positive"), that does not mean he himself is arbitrary!

      I can only conclude that Augustine's thoughts were so disturbing to you that they left you on hinged in making your reply.

    5. Anonymous5:42 AM

      1. Yep, I noticed that. But certainly you gave your own interpretation and the approval of such (mostly your elaboration upon it).
      2. Okay, property is a normative concept. I agree with that. And certainly that does not make it arbitrary, nor does it make it concrete. So what? Certainly property only exists in the minds of humans (at least in the terms of structural ethics), but why should one group of humans have a better claim than others? Shouldn't the normative concept of property be universalizable to all humans? Such that each and every human has the same rights as the other?
      3. Right, positive charges are differentiated from negative charges, go on ... Are you saying that this distinction is arbitrary? Or are you trying to say that human knowledge is arbitrary? I know that you're using you iPhone and often run into problems, is that arbitrary? Perhaps the iPhone is arbitrary. I don't know what you're trying to say here. Sorry.

      "I can only conclude that Augustine's thoughts were so disturbing to you that they left you on hinged in making your reply."

      No, not at all. It was your thoughts, Gene. And to be honest, it is Manets' thoughts that are disturbing to me (by way of you).

      Like you, he seems to be all over the map and without a compass. These "insights" might make sense to you--which I applaud--but they make absolutely no sense to me at all. It is as if he is making statements without any direction at all (and trust me, I've been reading you updates), and certainly without any sort of definitive conclusions. Your attempt at a conclusion or summary only seems to muddle in all up; which is why I called you "Arbitrary Gene".

      Where's the line? Or is there no line? Does a line exist? What is existence?

      That's the problem that I'm running into, there is no definition, no "this is what I mean".

  3. Gene, I really don't think I'm doing a knee-jerk libertarian response here. (For example, if you said Augustine thought the early Christian community described in the Book of Acts repudiated our notion of property rights, I would be sympathetic.)

    I don't see one iota of a property rights discussion going on in the summary of Augustine. Cain had real estate, and Abel had livestock. What does that have to do with property rights?

    1. "The logic of the good, one could say, is as follows: the more it is shared, the more it is possessed. It is the contrary of the logic of appropriation..."

      'But private property is a "non-natural, remedial institution."'


    2. It seems to me that goodness is always attached to some manifest thing. That's a good car, this is good music, etc. I can share a car and I can share music, but how do I share "the good"? Does he mean good intentions? If so, I don't see how that contradicts with property rights. Not wanting to steal or tax seem like pretty good intentions to me.

  4. Like a lot of Christians, Augustine doesn't seem to understand his own religion. Property is not a "remedial" condition created to "fix" problems resulting from the fall, because the fall is not an action like appropriation or a feeling like possessiveness. It isn't something to be corrected or undone. The fall is clearly spelled out as eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the solution lies not in undoing the knowledge of good and evil, but in eating of the tree of life, which as best as I can tell, involves some kind of transcendent understanding wherein all the components of life, including property rights and all other goods and evils, are understood under a single perspective. A lot more could be said on the tree of life, but that's another topic. For our purposes, it's sufficient it to say that it is not returning to ignorance of, nor perfecting, the knowledge of good and evil (if they'd have meant either of those, they would have said so). The specifics about what is good or what is evil are not the concern here . It may be good for civil authorities to redistribute property, or it may not be, but the allegory of "the fall" that St. Augustine is drawing on does not lend support one way or the other.

    Once it's understood that property is not properly described as a "remedial" to fix or patch up conditions resulting from the fall, then most of your commentary does not follow. There is no "pre-fall" state of purity to return to. It is true that property rights are a piece of knowledge of good and evil, but when you make this claim....

    """"Natural property rights grant the entire earth to the righteous, not to "first appropriators" or "the most productive.""""

    ...all you're doing is engaging in further speculation about the various specifics of what is good and what is evil. This is not the tree of life we are told to eat from, it's your opinion about what is good and you need to support it. How do you know that natural property rights grant the entire earth to the righteous and not to first apporpriators or the most productive? And more importantly, even if that's true, who are the righteous? You say property exists to reduce conflict or violence, but why are conflict and violence bad? None of that has been resolved here.

    1. The idea that Augustine does not understand Christianity is rather silly.

      Beyond that, you seem to of confused Augustine and me. *I* don't need to defend anything, or have anything follow from anything else. I am trying to understand and describe Augustine's view. And obviously what I have offered here is far from complete. The man wrote many many books. I wrote a few paragraphs.

      The fact that this blog post did not resolve every single issue brought up by Augustine's philosophy is hardly surprising, is it?

    2. OK, replace "you" with "St Augustine" where appropriate. I misread the 4th paragraph as your thoughts. I would edit it if I could.

      My thoughts were addressing what you put forth from Augustine specifically. He may clarify elsewhere, but here his mistake is that he sees property as a human "remedy" to conditions he thinks result from the fall, as if our desire to appropriate is the sin. But the desire to appropriate doesn't have anything to do with the fall, the fall concerns the knowledge of good and evil.

    3. "But the desire to appropriate doesn't have anything to do with the fall, the fall concerns the knowledge of good and evil."

      For Augustine it sure does: the knowledge of good and evil makes doing evil possible. The desire to appropriate is an evil, for Augustine. Therefore, it arose from the Fall.

  5. "Of course, Augustine is not a Marxist"

    Here you've hit upon a key point: The problems with placing all conceptions of property on a sliding scale when that isn't the way philosophy works.

  6. Also, it's worth pointing out that the Bible contains no references to natural rights as some may like to believe. Oddly, though, it's always seemed to me that the more famous natural rights crowd (Fox News conservatives) sometimes comes with more authoritarian opinions. I'm sympathetic to natural rights, but, as Ayn Rand correctly put it, rights only make sense in a social context (i.e., when there are two or more people).

    1. What does "proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" mean? Is that a different notion of liberty?

    2. 1) It is certainly not a mention of natural rights!

      2) It refers to the jubilee, every 50 years, when ALL DEBTS ARE CANCELLED. The "liberty" is liberty from debt, and something most libertarians would regard a stripping the creditors of their property rights.

    3. It is certainly not a mention of natural rights!

      I know. I was just making a general point since Bob has cited parts of the Bible to lend credence to the property scheme that he supports.

    4. What does "proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" mean? Is that a different notion of liberty?

      Liberty has different meanings to different people. Gary Kilgore North is a great example of someone who holds a notion of liberty that is extremely counter-intuitive to most people. Similarly, Rothbard's definition of liberty as property runs counter to almost everyone's ideas of liberty. It makes about as much sense as saying that cheese is the essence of socialism or that taxation is sexual assault.

    5. I was answering MathMan, Samson, who seemed to think it was.

    6. OK thanks, I didn't know that.


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