Classicism Is Not Enough: Politics and Theology in Charles Norris Cochrane

Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study in Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine is something of an outlier in Liberty Fund’s book catalog. While the majority of the Liberty Fund imprint focuses on early modern Europe or the American founding, Cochrane’s work takes as its subject the transition away from the classical world of Greece and Rome wrought by the arrival of Christianity. Despite its ancient subject, Cochrane’s book is very much the product of the early twentieth century and outlined a fundamental connection between theology and limited government. For Cochrane, the rise of Christianity generated the concept of limited government, and the diminution of the importance of Christianity within the society in his day was opening the door for the growth of limitless state power. Originally published in 1940, it is clear from the beginning of the book that Cochrane had one eye on the ancient world and the other on his own times.

In his preface Cochrane writes, “The history of Greco-Roman Christianity resolves itself largely into a criticism of [the idea of creative politics, namely]…that it was possible to attain a goal of permanent security, peace and freedom through political action, especially through submission to the ‘virtue and fortune’ of a political leader.” Writing his masterpiece throughout the 1930s, Cochrane recognized that the coming ideological and political crises of the twentieth century were bound up with Christianity’s support for limited government, and its contemporary challenge through growing faith in political aspirations and projects of ideological leaders.

The Political Theology of Christianity and Classical Culture

It is impossible to grasps the full character of Cochrane’s work without understanding the lens of political theology motivating his study of the period. Against the backdrop of classical scholarship’s favorable view of realpolitik, and the contemporary rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, Cochrane resisted that era’s tendency towards blind admiration for classical sources. As such, he hesitated to use parallels to the classical world as a direct model for present politics. In contrast, Cochrane writes in a 1937 review essay, “The Augustan peace was a pax imperfecta, an enforced order which, while perhaps requisite for a people capable neither of freedom nor of servitude, yet depends for its ultima ratio upon the sword.” Such statements have led Ian Wood to claim that, “[a]long with other historians of the early twentieth century, including the Russian Mikhail Rostovtzeff, Cochrane saw the Roman Empire as a peculiarly oppressive institution.” However, there is more to Cochrane’s critique than resistance to formal oppression. Cochrane’s critique is more fundamental, as he continues to explain,

Statecraft constructs; it does not create, since the material with which it deals consists of native moral and spiritual forces which are presupposed in all forms of activity. These forces it may indeed stimulate and direct, as it may also pervert or destroy them. But, in that case, its function is purely and simply one of social mechanics; to describe it as one of regeneration is to subscribe to one of the most dangerous fallacies of the political mind.

Words and ideas like “regeneration” or “remaking the world” had clear salvific overtones for Cochrane, and he resisted the theological implications of such a view. Cochrane writes,

It is an exaggeration to describe [the political program of the Caesars] as one of regeneration for [their] deeply decayed country. What Julius accomplished was rather a task of social and political reconstruction, and this was inspired by ideas, all of which fell within the ambit of Greco-Roman thinking, which hardly contemplated…the notion of rebirth.

This distinction between what classicism was able to conceive or accomplish and the new idea of salvation or regeneration that comes with Christianity guides Cochrane through the whole of his magnum opus, which is divided into three sections: reconstruction, renovation, and regeneration. In turn, each of these themes encapsulate his view of a representative figure of the period, respectively: Augustus, Constantine, and Augustine. His overriding concern throughout his lengthy examinations of the transitions in the Roman Empire is to condemn the pretension of classical politics which claims for itself the power of political salvation.

Augustus, Constantine, and Augustine

In his first section, focusing on reconstruction, Cochrane outlines the pretensions of the classical view of state power. After the disintegration of the Roman Republic, Augustus’ challenge was to reinvigorate the classical idea of the commonwealth which had decayed as a result of the factional strife that had fissured Roman society. Put another way, “The effort of Classicism was…an effort to rescue mankind from the life and mentality of the jungle, and to secure for him the possibility of a good life. That is to say it was envisaged as a struggle for civilization against barbarianism and superstition.” If successful, Augustus’ program would not only have justified his own power in Rome and Rome’s power in the world, but this also would have supported the claims of classical politics as an enduring solution to the problems of communal life. Classical politics would have forever solved “the problem of politics” in finding a way to “reconcile ‘liberty’ with ‘authority.’” In carrying forward its pretentious vision, Cochrane claims the “task of creative politics” is “an elaborate and comprehensive scheme of social planning in which, with the [telos] of man constantly in view, ‘function’ shall be ‘adjusted to capacity’ and ‘instruments to both.’” The peace that resulted from Augustus’ consolidation of power and long reign gave a false sense of security for a long time, but it was not to last.

In moving into his renovation section, Cochrane credits the Emperor Constantine for grasping the first possibilities for the improvement of classical society that were presented by the advent of Christianity, but it is important from the beginning to understand the limitations of this renovating project. Constantine and his successors hoped for nothing more than to patch the foundations of the classical world while continuing on with its project of creative politics.  Constantine’s limitation was the assumption that the classical world required only a reworking on slightly more Christian lines. As Cochrane notes of Constantine’s chief ecclesiastical proponent, “What Eusebius looked for in the age of Constantine was nothing less than a realization of the secular hope of men, the dream of universal and perpetual peace which classical Rome had made her own, but of which the Pax Romana was merely a faint and imperfect anticipation.”

According to Constantine’s view, Christianity was useful for social policy and, therefore, was implicitly subordinated to the political project just as religion always had been in classical thought. According to Cochrane, Constantine’s renovation held that “the purpose of the Evangel is fulfilled if it serves merely to enlighten and inspire.” He continues, “Superficial even by classical standards, this gospel points to nothing but a progressive amelioration of conditions…a new era of softer manners in which the lion is to lie down with the lamb. At the same time, it subtly defers to an indefinite future its promise of an earthly millennium, resting its real hopes meanwhile upon the state.” Constantine sought to renovate the creative politics of classicism with an injection of Christian ideas, but this only produced a “peculiar mixture of pagan humanitarianism and Christian sentiment which goes by the name of Christian socialism.” The failure of which, Cochrane thought “forecast the probable outcome of analogous movements in modern times.”

Cochrane’s final section on Augustine and the Christian concept of regeneration makes clear that regeneration is not a function of the state, despite the state’s continual claims of such an exalted power. While many claim that the modern secularized world has removed religion from political discussions, it has simply masked its ever-present character because politics without limits can best be understood as claiming a form of salvation in this world. Unlimited politics seeks to use public policy as the means of salvation, and so mistakes the fundamental character of the state. Cochrane writes, “The role of the state is purely formal; as such, it can ‘reconstruct’ or renovate,’ but it cannot possibly ‘regenerate.’ In these terms Augustine marks a sense of the limitations of political action.” If Cochrane “rejects the pretentions of creative politics,” however, he does not go to the other extreme of “claiming the right to isolate himself either physically or morally or intellectually” from society. Unlike Tertullian, Augustine was not opposed to Christians engaging in politics at all levels of its operation. Instead, Cochrane explains,

To subvert the ideology of secularism was not to destroy the actual structure of secular society; it was merely to envisage it in a new light. Yet this was of immense importance. For it was to see the state, no longer as the ultimate form of community, but merely as an instrument for regulating the relations of what Augustine calls the ‘exterior’ man.

Cochrane’s seminal text, therefore, is important in articulating the influence of Christianity on limited government and demonstrates how theology was a foundation for later developments of freedom. This brief outline, however, has only scratched the surface of Cochrane’s monumental text. While it is not possible to outline the full scope of Cochrane’s political philosophy in this space, it is important to mention that Cochrane’s work is far richer than just providing a theological basis for limited government. His examination of the transition from the classical world also offers a great deal of other insight into our modern world, and at minimum contemporary readers should read (or re-read) Christianity and Classical Culture keeping an eye out for his comments on ideology, progress, and power. Those who have previously encountered Cochrane may also profit from reading his recently released Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane, where he expands his development of Augustinian political philosophy.