A recent book A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s Political Thought offers a thoughtful examination of the importance of hope in Augustine’s thought while challenging interpretations that view Augustine as a pessimist. Below is an interview with the book’s author, Michael Lamb, about what he learned in writing this book and why he thinks it’s important for us to take greater account of hope:

Q: When did you first read Augustine, and do you remember what your first impression of him was?

A: My first impression of Augustine wasn’t positive. I read portions The City of God in a “Search for Values” course in college, where I remember learning about the “two cities” and thinking that Augustine was too much of a pessimist for me. His thought seemed too dark and world-denying, and his view of human nature too bleak. I was more drawn to thinkers who emphasized the possibilities of virtue rather than depths of vice.

But in graduate school, I began to see a more nuanced and hopeful picture of Augustine. Reading texts beyond City of God, situating his thought in his own context, and understanding how the former professor uses rhetoric to shape the character of his readers helped me see new ways of understanding his texts and recognize how some ideas have been misinterpreted. My book aims to help readers—like the younger version of myself—understand what Augustine was saying and doing within his context and why that might be relevant to us today. I want to show how Augustine can actually help us to develop more robust and realistic hope.

Q: Your book A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s Political Thought challenges pessimistic interpretations of Augustine. What do you think we learn when we look at Augustine and his thought through a lens of hope?

A: I think we see a more holistic vision of Augustine and a more nuanced account of hope. In particular, we see a theologian who is not singularly focused on sin but who also recognizes the goodness of the world. We see a philosopher who is drawing on the Roman and Christian traditions to offer a sophisticated virtue of hope as a virtue and identify the vices that oppose it. We see a skillful teacher and trained rhetorician who is not simply indicting the world with vivid descriptions of its evils but offering rhetorical contrasts to shape his audiences’ hopes and loves. And we see an engaged bishop who, rather than being “antipolitical” and “otherworldly,” is heavily involved in Roman public life, hearing cases in the bishop’s court, writing letters to Roman officials, advocating on behalf of the poor, and serving his fellow citizens in North Africa. So, when we put Augustine in his own context, we see a much more complex and instructive thinker who can offer valuable resources for thinking about hope and politics in our time.

Q: Your book seeks to speak to both theologians and political theorists who are interested in Augustine. Why do you think it is important to bring these different scholarly readers together? How do you hope to engage them?

A: Augustine lived before any division between academic disciplines, so he didn’t distinguish between theology and political theory. His theology is inseparable from his politics, yet many political theorists tend to ignore his theology and focus on works that seem most “political,” such as The City of God. The result is that they inherit a truncated and often distorted view of Augustine’s thought. Meanwhile, many scholars in theology and religious studies focus on the theological foundations of Augustine’s thought without necessarily considering their political implications or applications. My hope is to bring insights from both fields together so that we might develop a more contextualized and comprehensive account of Augustine’s views.

I also hope this cross-disciplinary work will help scholars benefit from recent developments in both fields. The last two decades have seen a revival of scholarship on Augustine within theology and religious studies, but much of this work has not yet been engaged by political theorists, who often draw on the mid-20th-century interpretations of realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Herbert Deane. Moreover, political theorists tend to read only narrow selections of City of God (especially Book 19) that focus on Augustine’s diagnosis of evil and ignore more “theological” texts where he offers nuanced applications of key concepts such as hope. As a result, their more “pessimistic” accounts do not capture Augustine’s complex vision of faith, hope, or love or its implications for politics. Bringing recent research from theology and religious studies into political theory can offer a more nuanced portrait.

As a political theorist, I also want to show how important concepts from political theory can help us understand some of Augustine’s key ideas and extend them in politically relevant ways. For example, in the book, I suggest that Cass Sunstein’s idea of “incompletely theorized agreement” better captures Augustine’s understanding of the agreement that unites a commonwealth than interpreters’ frequent analogies to John Rawls’s political liberalism. Ultimately, my hope is to show how political theory can offer valuable resources to the study of Augustine and how the study of Augustine can be relevant to political theory. We can learn a lot, I believe, by engaging Augustine’s thought from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Q: In your book, you suggest that Augustine remains influential for thinking about our politics today. What is one thing in particular you think Augustine can teach us?

A: One of his most important lessons is that hope is a virtue. Too often in public life, we tend to think hope is the same as optimism or positive thinking. Then we either embrace optimism, which presumes that what we hope for will certainly come true, or we recognize optimism’s dangers and instead embrace pessimism, which expects the worst to happen.

We often think we must choose between one or the other, but Augustine offers a way beyond this binary by showing how the virtue of hope avoids the vices of presumption and despair. Some forms of optimism actually reflect presumption, where we hope too much for a particular good or too much in someone to help us attain it. And some forms of pessimism reflect despair, where we lack hope and give up too easily or too soon. As a virtue, hope enables us to resist both vices by regulating our desires for future goods and ordering them in the right ways at the right times.

Of course, for Augustine, the most important goods are eternal goods: God is the ultimate object and source of hope. But he also recognizes that human beings should hope for temporal goods and in human neighbors, so long as they order these temporal hopes properly to God. This means that, contrary to those who assume Augustine’s hope is focused solely on heaven, he affirms the importance of hoping for particular political goods such as justice and peace and in fellow citizens to pursue and protect them. And in his own example as a bishop and citizen in the Roman empire, he embodies this hope for political goods. Part of my aim in A Commonwealth of Hope is to show how Augustine’s ideas and example illuminate a realistic approach to politics that is aware of evil but also attuned to the possibility of goodness.

Q: Why is hope important, particularly for politics?

A: Well, if we presume that particular political outcomes are likely or certain, we risk being complacent, thinking they are easily within grasp. When difficulties arise, as they inevitably will, our hopes are then dashed, leading us into despair. And if we despair about overcoming major challenges, then we won’t do the work necessary to address them. We need the virtue of hope to avoid the complacency of both presumption and despair. Hope motivates action. We only act to realize specific outcomes if we have some hope of achieving them.

Q: Did you learn anything about yourself in the process of writing this book?

A: Absolutely–too much to describe here. But two lessons stand out.

First, I learned how to be more hopeful, not in a naïve way but in an Augustinian way. As I came to understand hope as a virtue, I became more alert to temptations toward presumption and despair in my own life and more equipped to register and resist them. When I was younger, I was more idealistic about politics and did not fully recognize the distorting effects of power and self-interest in politics. Serving as chief of staff for political campaigns opened my eyes to these realities while also showing me that there are people who really do care about the right things and seek public office for the right reasons. I could no longer be optimistic, but I couldn’t be pessimistic either. Augustine’s virtue of hope gave me a more nuanced vocabulary for evaluating my own hope and enacting it in my own life.Second, as I studied Augustine’s use of rhetoric as a writer, preacher, and teacher, I became much more attentive to how I use rhetoric in my own pedagogy and prose. Augustine, for example, frequently diagnoses our difficulties in ways that disrupt presumption yet also offers grounds of hope to help us resist despair. This strategy of taking readers “into hell” but also “out again”—what Kenneth Burke calls a “structure of encouragement”—can offer a valuable model for us today. We are often quick to diagnose and lament all the problems we see, but in offering a vigorous critique, we sometimes fail to identify reasons for hope or provide positive examples of how to address the challenges, which tends to leave us in despair. Augustine takes a different approach, acknowledging challenges without being debilitated by them. As I studied his work, I thought more about how I could employ a “structure of encouragement”—whether in writing an article, giving a speech, or providing feedback on student essays. Writing this book helped me to see how rhetoric forms us in ways we often do not recognize.

Q: Do you have a favorite passage from Augustine’s writings?

A: One of my favorite passages is from Sermon 80: “Bad times, hard times—this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: such as we are, such are the times.” When we look around and see all of our problems, we often tempted—rightly—to despair. But Augustine reminds us that we are not passive victims of our times but active citizens who can shape them by how we live. If we are the times, then we must embody the character and leadership needed to make them good. That is a profound call for civic action and virtuous hope.

Michael Lamb is the F. M. Kirby Foundation Chair of Leadership and Character, Executive Director of the Program for Leadership and Character, and Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Wake Forest University