Gray sky thinking: Augustine and institutional resilience

Thomas Cole/Lebbeus Woods. The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836)/Sarajevo: Scar (1993). Image altered.

Nearly every apocalyptic text presents the same paradox. The end is never the end. […] Something is left over, and that world after the world, the post-apocalypse, is usually the true object of the apocalyptic writer’s concern. – James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (1999)

Augustine of Hippo (354 CE – 430 CE) was a Roman North African bishop, Christian theologian, and political philosopher, whose arguments and reflections on free will, grace, sin, and time, at first glance, might seem very far removed from the existential concerns of the secular present. From an intellectual historical perspective, of course, Augustine is indispensable, for his effect on the history of Christianity is difficult to overstate, and the history of Christianity needs to be understood if we are to understand other histories, such as the history of capitalism, liberalism, or the Anthropocene itself. Similarly, he exerts a profound influence on the development of political philosophy over the past 1500 years. From just war theory to the night watchman state to reflections on coercion, punishment, and torture, Augustine’s contributions still afford complex, even controversial ideas to contemporary political thought, some of which continue to structure political disputes today. (To highlight only one example, refer to the broadly Augustinian sensibilities of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society [1932], the influence of which extends to figures as diverse as Hans Morgenthau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama, and which remains a crucial text for understanding the rationale behind American political realism.)

The breadth or depth of his influence notwithstanding, what can Augustine teach us about gray sky thinking?

To answer this question more fully, we need to examine two conceptual interventions Augustine stages. These interventions involve suicide and apocalypse, and each one speaks to a specific dynamic – revolutionary pessimism and revolutionary optimism, respectively – operative in the politics of early Christianity in late antiquity. These dynamics cut through the strata of time. They resonate with the (secular) politics of today, given the numerous exigencies of political decay and the strange collapsarian trajectories that take shape in late imperial times. Nevertheless, more important than exactly what Augustine says about suicide and apocalypse is how he reconfigures and repurposes these thematics, which is to say, how he registers certain problems rather than merely how he endeavors to resolve them. Gray sky thinking involves speculative engagements with new assumptions, and Augustine repurposes the standard assumption to spectacular effect. This is his speculative defection. Effectively, he prognosticates and salvages the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in order to propitiate the indefinite survival of Christian institutions. Accordingly, his political theoretical interventions identify and exploit dissipative intensities and use them to power and propel forward his own political and theological projects. (Augustine could be compared productively here to the military strategic theorist John Boyd [1927-1997]; see Boyd’s “Creation and Destruction” [1976].)

In short, Augustine gives us a general use case for gray sky thinking. On the one hand, he rejects the standard assumption shared by early Christian millenarians or revolutionary pessimists and by the apologists or idolaters of Roman imperial power. On the other hand, he repurposes the standard assumption to a new end, namely, the development and promotion of institutional resilience. Recall that resilience refers to “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” For Augustine, the most pressing task is always to redefine and reinforce both the doctrinal norms and the ecclesiastical institutions or structures of the Catholic Church. This may not be our task (it is not mine), but, nevertheless, we can learn much from how Augustine goes about doing this, precisely because of how he grounds resilience thinking in the very circumstances of collapse or crisis that necessitate it. In this regard, he is a creative or imaginative realist. For him, the imperfection of political life – which is to say, the occurrence or recurrence of political decay throughout history – becomes a kind of speculative engine, the very means of generating projects and trajectories that surpass and survive their conditions of origination. To learn from Augustine’s example, then, we need to look at his interventions first.

Let’s proceed with some degree of rapidity and conceptual ruthlessness.

Obviously, Augustine’s prohibition against suicide has theological origins. The fifth commandment (“thou shalt not kill”) forbids unlawful killing, and this extends to suicide. Suicide, like all sins, substitutes the confused or depraved desires of the individual for the will of God, as well as tragically foreclosing on the possibility of future repentance or salvation. However, Augustine’s prohibition against suicide also serves an expressly political theoretical function. Note the degree to which the sack of Rome in 410 CE (and, indeed, imperial service disruptions long before that) contributed to the dark, strange, and threatening atmosphere that dominated the late Empire. To many, the afterlife may have seemed plenty preferable. Furthermore, early Christianity had always been prone to cults of martyrdom, which is to say, to the glorification of dying as a martyr for the Christian cause, which was ostensibly guaranteed to provide the martyr with redemption and, potentially, even beatification. But Augustine is not concerned only with losing adherents to despair or to voluntary martyrdom.

Rather, he is concerned with the following question: How to temper the enthusiasm or fervor of adherents, but without dampening that enthusiasm or fervor? It is much a trickier question than it seems. On the one hand, the fervor of adherents is absolutely indispensable for ideological expansion (i.e., gathering converts), for building and exercising power (i.e., guiding collective action), and for establishing reliable mechanisms of political control (i.e., crafting stable and enduring institutions). Without enough fervor, mass politics collapses, because adherents will abandon collective action projects. On the other hand, if there is too much fervor (or if it is channeled improperly), then politics grows fractious and violent. Factions make war upon each other. In the imperial-provincial context of the Roman North African periphery, violent factionalism among Christians also tended to attract the wrong sort of attention from the Empire, including brutal punishments and sanctions.

So Augustine’s prohibition against suicide forbids acting from despair. But, perhaps more importantly, he intends it to curb outgrowths of revolutionary pessimism according to which either capitulation to Empire or, alternatively, the apparent collapse of Christian imperial ambitions warrants “martyrdom from obstinacy,” mass suicide, or even withdrawal from the public sphere into closed enclaves of zealotry, itself a kind of political suicide. Revolutionary pessimism was rife in Augustine’s time (as in ours), and its practice and promulgation adversely affected or even undercut various attempts to curate political institutions capable of surviving the end of Empire. (Reference must be made here to Augustine’s relentless critical engagement with Christian schismatics, or those who would fragment the Church, like the Donatist rigorists, who were obsessed with punishing and purging the ideologically impure, or the Pelagian libertarians, who thought their understanding of metaphysical freedom might be able to undo the necessity of ecclesiastical or political institutions altogether.)

Augustine is also rightly considered the theologian who definitively extirpates millenarian philosophies of history from the orthodox Christian worldview (at least until much later). In other words, Augustine shifts the political meaning of apocalypse. Early Christianity had always struggled with apocalypticism, with expectations and predictions to the effect that Christ’s imminent return would end history, initiate the Last Judgment, and right all worldly wrongs. This had deep political significance for Christians, especially at a time affected by apocalyptic panics attending the sacking of Rome and by deep uncertainties regarding the possibility or prospects for a Christianized Roman Empire. Prognosticating the Day of the Lord was a booming business, and apocalypticism in its many forms constituted a mode of revolutionary optimism that promised the advent of a millennial kingdom on earth or, at least, soon-to-be forthcoming redemption for the elect and retribution for the damned. For Augustine, however, such predictions or promises both misconstrued the temporal relationship between divine providence and worldly affairs and also fostered dangerous, unstable political expectations among the faithful (and especially among the large number of reluctant or tepid recent converts who had adopted nominally Christian beliefs following the advent of imperial Christianity earlier in the 300s).

The problem with apocalypse now is not just that failed predictions or false promises of its imminence would alienate disappointed Christians, although Augustine certainly worries about this. However, Augustine is more primarily concerned with political stakes. Recall the basic world structure that Augustine describes throughout The City of God against the Pagans, his principle work of political philosophy. The work is organized around the conflict or necessary tension between the Earthly City, which is to say, the existential and moral habitus of the pagans, who are dominated by their desires and who seek pleasure or self-satisfaction above all else, and the City of God, the invisible congregation of those who struggle against their sinful natures in order to submit to the divine will. Note that Augustine never simply equates the natural world (much less the political world) with the Earthly City, nor does he identify the hereafter, nor even the visible church, with the City of God. To the contrary, the Earthly City and the City of God are more like two contrary trajectories that pull at human beings throughout the course of their mortal lives, the consequences of which are heavily contingent upon efforts of individual sinners and, more importantly, upon the providential dispensation of grace.

The political stakes here involve the form and function of institutions apt for, or able to, inhabit and survive the turbid waters of the saeculum, Augustine’s term for the whole span of historical time ranging from the fall to the end, meaning the temporal world as such, in which the profane and the sacred are mixed together and all human sight is darkened. His concern is for crafting resilient institutions that can survive uncertainty and upset indefinitely. If you do not know when time will end, then you do not know how long your institutions may have to last. On the one hand, therefore, Augustine dispenses with the apocalyptic sensibility, for which the end can be demonstrably or knowably nigh. On the other hand, Augustine transforms all of time into apocalyptic time, given that the end of time may come at any time (“like a thief in the night”). This conceptual shift foregrounds the need for institutional resilience against the revolutionary optimism of those who would believe that incipient redemption or retribution obviates that need for stable institutions, even necessarily imperfect ones. As such, Augustine uses his rejection of apocalyptic thinking to curb outgrowths of revolutionary optimism that undercut institutional resilience. Ironically, from Augustine’s perspective, such a curbing of revolutionary optimism makes political gains (themselves necessarily always limited) possible in the first place.

So what do Augustine’s interventions show us about gray sky thinking? First, Augustine breaks with both revolutionary optimism and revolutionary pessimism. Gray sky thinking refuses both, because it leverages and navigates real constraints and contexts in order to ground and project alternative practices of worldmaking. Declines and falls are the engines of creation. That Augustine’s world is not our world is irrelevant for the purposes of this example, which illustrates how gray sky thinking works, not what it tells you to do. In this regard, gray sky thinking is always a form of creative or imaginative realism (in the political sense of this latter term). Second, Augustine’s speculative defection is a salvage practice. He takes up and reworks Christian political theology into a new mode or order, intended to carry this strange amalgamation of ideas and institutions forward through an indefinitely long and tumultuous future. Gray sky thinking is always a salvage practice, because, so to speak, its speculative engagements blast off from the standard assumption, which ultimately functions both as launchpad and as propellant.

Consider, then, the work of salvage. Salvage (verb): the recovery of elements from the battlefield or the deep in order to repurpose wreckage, in order to craft new artifacts or new architectures from debris or detritus, from rubble or ruins. A salvage project is never just about stripping down something old so as to make something new, for repurposing salvage materials always integrates some functional elements from those materials into the new creation itself. In this sense, the world is made of salvage, its elements pressganged and rewired into alien service by impersonal processes. Salvage (noun): lost cargo or wreckage, which is to say, the raw and reworked materials themselves, not merely the act of their recovery and transformation.

Lebbeus Woods. High Houses (2010).

Michael Uhall is a political theorist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He can be found @noirmaterialism, or e-mailed directly at

4 responses to “Gray sky thinking: Augustine and institutional resilience

  1. Good case study in grey sky thinking. I particularly liked this:

    “Gray sky thinking is always a salvage practice, because, so to speak, its speculative engagements blast off from the standard assumption, which ultimately functions both as launchpad and as propellant.”

    What is another way to think of GST? Speculative rationality? Anticipatory intelligence? Cognitive agility?

    And have you ever looked into the notion of post-conventional thought? There seems to be a developmental psychology aspect to higher stacks of adaptive cognition.

  2. Interesting questions. As I talk about in the Plato piece, speculative rationality is one way to start thinking about it. On the one hand, it’s not something programmatic, but, on the other hand, I think these figures (Plato, Augustine, Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli) repeatedly exemplify the kind of approach I am trying to sketch out – if only in certain ways, or on certain dimensions. When I’m done with the historical part of this, I want to revisit some of these terms in more schematic, contemporary terms. In a lot of ways, I’m using these posts to do some of my thinking in public. So I’m happy when you refer to things I am less familiar with (e.g., I have never heard of “post-conventional thought” – care to refer me to anything specific?).

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