Splendid Vices and Secular Virtues: Variations on Milbank's Augustine
John Milbank's case against secular reason draws much of its authority and force from Augustine's critique of pagan virtue. Theology and Social Theory could be characterized, without too much insult to either Augustine or Milbank, as a postmodern City of God. Modern preoccupations with secular virtues, marketplace values, and sociological bottom-lines are likened there to classically pagan preoccupations with the virtues of self-conquest and conquest over others. Against both modern and antique “ontological violence” (where ‘to be’ is ‘to be antagonistic’), Milbank advances an Augustinian hope for the peace that is both beyond and prior to the peace of (temporarily) repressed antagonism. One aim of this essay is to consider whether virtues conceived out of such a hope are really all that different from the virtues they are taken to replace. I take a critical look at Augustine's critique of pagan virtue, Milbank's appropriation of that critique, the applicability of that critique to Plato, and the polemical value of Augustine's notion of original sin. I end up being skeptical of the notion of a peculiarly Christian way to turn antagonistically conceived virtues into love, but I am not unsympathetic to Milbank's concerns about a loveless and self-complacent secularity.