In more recent times, situations like Jonestown, or Waco, or Islamic fanaticism makes it clear that changes in ideas are ultimately the only things that can really stop certain kinds of terrorism. Augustine was aware of this dilemma that eventually confronts all actual political societies. Augustine’s realism, as it is called, is not a principle for justifying evil deeds, but it is an awareness that evil deeds and deeply flawed thoughts that cannot be absolutely separated do exist and do cause unavoidable problems for any commonwealth, for any tyranny, for that matter.
Augustine’s realism has, however, been said to protect bad regimes. It should be recalled, in this context, of course, that one of the functions of Aristotle’s description of good and bad regimes, was to indicate that a change in regime will not necessarily mean a change for the better. But change is justified only if it is a change for the better. For the most part, Augustine advises citizens and Christians to obey the Emperor, as St. Paul himself recommended (Romans, 13:1-7). By failing to seek a radical change, Augustine is said to contribute to keeping the worst regime in power. But Augustine’s strategy, as that of Paul, was to realize that changes of regime are often better achieved by working to save and foster what is good even in a bad or tyrannical regime.
Augustine was in fact always talking about changing things. His whole personal life is a witness to such change. In addition to being aware of Aristotle’s notion that we could change from a bad regime to one even worse, something Augustine would have had no trouble understanding, it was primarily a question of what to change first, oneself or one’s state. Indeed, it might be argued that Augustine has elaborated for us the most radical political philosophy possible by the very fact that he changed himself, changed himself, that is, as he tells it in The Confessions, by the grace of God, and, we might add, by the sharpness of his own insights into himself and others.