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Latreia and Its Parodies: Political Reflections on Augustine’s Theological Anthropology

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Augustine in a Time of Crisis
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In this brief chapter, I explore the political implications of Augustine’s theological anthropology, focusing in particular on his claim that human beings are, at bottom, beings who worship, and more than this, desire to worship communally. Finding that Augustine’s account helpfully clarifies the nature of a problem that secular liberalism obscures, namely, the problem of political idolatry, I consider what follows from the failure to adequately recognize the cultic aspect of human nature and what Augustine would have us do in order to address it. Ultimately, I maintain, Augustine cautions against a superficial solution to the problem. Showing us its complexity and ubiquity, he highlights the importance of true conversion and a rich ecclesial life for its mitigation.

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  1. 1.

    The emblematic indictment of liberalism from recent years is Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). For examples of popular pieces that compare Liberalism to a religious phenomenon, see Howard P. Kainz, “Liberalism as Religion,” Touchstone Magazine, May 2006; and Vermeule, Adrian, “All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological,” Church Life Journal, July 26, 2019.

  2. 2.

    In “All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological,” Vermuele provocatively suggests that the inner nature of liberalism is “to publicly and conspicuously celebrate its great liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the dynamic overcoming of the darkness, superstition, and slavish authoritarianism of the irrational past.” Cf. Adrian Vermeule, “Liturgy of Liberalism,” First Things, January 1, 2017. He takes this from Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (New York: Encounter Books, 2016) and has repeated this claim in other popular essays.

  3. 3.

    Eric Voegelin, “The Political Religions,” Modernity Without Restraint, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 5, ed. Manfred Henningsen, James L. Wizer, (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), pp. 19–74, 24. Notably, this essay is also cited by Vermuele in “All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological.”

  4. 4.

    Ibid., p. 70.

  5. 5.

    Ibid., p. 32.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., p. 60.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., p. 31. I am grateful to John von Heyking for clarifying the language that Voegelin used to describe his own approach.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., p. 32.

  9. 9.

    Ibid., p. 60.

  10. 10.

    Ibid., p. 71.

  11. 11.

    Ibid., p. 70. He then goes on to explain that secular account will not do, even if it translates these forces into areligious categories.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., p. 29.

  13. 13.

    Ibid., p. 71.

  14. 14.


  15. 15.

    Ibid., p. 69.

  16. 16.

    Ibid., p. 67. On this point, I would like to offer a literary vignette, which, though extreme, clarifies Voegelin’s claim. It is a scene from one of the greatest twentieth-century dystopias, 1984. In it, the protagonist Winston has been caught and tortured by Party leader O’Brien, a man whom he once considered an ally in his resistance to Big Brother. Now, O’Brien gives his great speech:

    “You are thinking,” [O’Brien] said, “that my face is old and tired. You are thinking that I talk of power, and yet I am not even able to prevent the decay of my own body. Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigor of the organism. Do you die when you cut your finger-nails?”

    He turned away from the bed and began strolling up and down again, one hand in his pocket.

    “We are the priests of power,” he said. “God is power …. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone-free-the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal” (George Orwell, 1984 (London: Signet Classic, 1961), p. 264).

  17. 17.

    It is not hard to see how, in our own regime, the individualism that once worried us has given way to other worrying dynamics: we are not only saturated in party politics, but also identity politics. Indeed, many are particularly troubled by the recent rise of the Alt-Right. On this point, Matthew Rose’s 2018 article “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right” is particularly apt (Matthew Rose, “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right.” First Things, March 1, 2018. Exploring the ideas of the movement’s intellectual heroes, what Rose finds is that the movement is actually religious: it seeks the realissimum in race and the sacred state. In arguing that Christianity is destroying the West from within, Benoist, one of the leading intellectual figures in the European New Right, explicitly calls for a return to Paganism.

  18. 18.

    Admittedly, “The Political Religions” is an early essay and Voegelin wrestled with these questions throughout his lifetime. My point here, however, is that the approach modeled by Voegelin is inherently limited because it lacks a theological foundation. Without the foundation provided by Christian revelation, it is only possible to contrast inner-worldly with transcendent religiosity. On this view, inner-worldly religiosity emerges as a kind of false consciousness; a psychological phenomenon that exists even as those who participate in it deny its existence. To be sure, this is an insight worth having but it does not exhaust the issue. If we want to grasp the scope and difficulty of the problem that idolatry presents for politics, it is not enough to indict inner-worldly religiosity for its inattentiveness to the transcendent. We must also embark on the more difficult task of identifying and dealing with our own self-deception and self-worship. A theological vision that presents idolatry as a parody of latreia at least point us toward the direction that we must go for this undertaking.

  19. 19.

    Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 2003), XIV.13. Hereafter “COG.”

  20. 20.

    Ibid., XIX.12.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., XIX.12.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., XIX.13.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., XIX.12.

  24. 24.

    In the Confessions , Augustine makes this point with great eloquence: “People love truth in such a way that those who love something else wish to regard what they love as truth and since they would not want to be deceived, are unwilling to be convinced that they are wrong.” Augustine, Confessions , trans. Maria Boulding (New York: New City Press, 1997), X.23.24.

  25. 25.

    All this is contained in his comment that the devil is “deceived and deceiving” in his effort to “counterfeit an unreality” (COG XI.13).

  26. 26.

    Ibid., X.3, X.5.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., X.6.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., XV.7.

  29. 29.


  30. 30.

    Thus, Augustine’s position leaves significant room for true self-sacrifice; patriotism per se is not a political evil, but part of being a member of an actual community. In fact, as he displays in his famous Letter 91 to Nectarius, he shows genuine respect for the patriotism of upright citizens.

  31. 31.

    COG V.12. I make this argument in greater detail in Veronica Roberts, “Augustine’s Ciceronian Response to the Ciceronian Patriot,” Perspectives on Political Science 45.2 (2016): 113–24.

  32. 32.

    COG V.14

  33. 33.

    Ibid., V.15.

  34. 34.

    Ibid., V.13, XIX.24.

  35. 35.

    This becomes a significant line of argument in the text, culminating in the following passage from Book 22: “Rome believed Romulus to be a god because she loved him; the Heavenly City loved Christ because she believed him to be God. Thus Rome had already an object of her love, which she could readily turn from a loved object into a final good, falsely believed in; correspondingly, our City had already an object of her belief so that she might not rashly love a false good but with true faith might set her affection on the true good” (ibid., XXII.6).

  36. 36.

    Ibid., IV.27, IV.32.

  37. 37.

    John Cavadini, “Ideology and Solidarity,” Augustine’s City of God: A Critical Guide, ed. James Wetzel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 93–110, 108.

  38. 38.

    One thinks of Rome presenting herself as the just city “who spares the humble and beats down the proud” (COG 1.praef).

  39. 39.

    See Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 38–9. In his history of the emperors of the 300s, Cochrane also has a helpful discussion of Eusebius and Lactantius’ very different take on Constantine—the one from which Augustine departs. Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2003), pp. 202–5. Cf. John Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 208, 216, 228.

  40. 40.

    COG II.19.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., XIX.17.

  42. 42.

    Ibid., XIX.24.

  43. 43.

    This is a significant theme in Book 1 of City of God; one need only think of the suicide of rape victims to understand the pressure a political culture can place on its members to reassure it of their righteousness.

  44. 44.

    COG XV.5. Cf. John Cavadini “Spousal Vision: Text and History in the Theology of Saint Augustine,” Augustinian Studies 43.1/2 (2013): 127–48.

  45. 45.

    COG XIX.27.

  46. 46.

    Benedict XVI has developed this line of thought for the contemporary world in numerous essays. In “Freedom, Law and the Good,” he writes: “It is here that I see the public task of the Christian churches in today’s world. It accords with the nature of the Church that it is separated from the state and that its faith may not be imposed by the state but is based on convictions that are freely arrived at” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Freedom, Law and the Good,” Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), pp. 45–52, 52).

  47. 47.

    COG V.26.

  48. 48.

    Ibid, XIX.14–19.

  49. 49.

    In the end, Augustine warns, every community that is committed to a shared goal stands in danger of parodying the ecclesial community until its members learn to give themselves in latreia . The problem is that the ecclesial community is still learning to give itself in latreia .

  50. 50.

    Cf. Rowan Williams, “Augustine on Creation,” On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 59–79, 74; “Politics and the Soul: A Reading of the City of God,” Milltown Studies 19/20 (1987): 55–72. Reprinted in On Augustine. London: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 107–30, 111.


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Correspondence to Veronica Roberts Ogle .

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Ogle, V.R. (2021). Latreia and Its Parodies: Political Reflections on Augustine’s Theological Anthropology. In: Kabala, B.Z., Menchaca-Bagnulo, A., Pinkoski, N. (eds) Augustine in a Time of Crisis. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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