We can all learn from Regulus’s heroic self-sacrifice

Regulus returning to Carthage (1791), by Andries Cornelis Lens

His actions may baffle us moderns, but they speak to a higher truth

In the first book of Augustine’s City of God, the Bishop of Hippo tells the story of a venerated Roman general named Regulus who had become famous for his victories over the Carthaginians in the first Punic war. Even heroic and victorious generals see defeat, though, and Regulus was captured, and made to swear an oath to the gods that he would secure the terms of a treaty with Rome or return to the Carthaginians to be tortured to death. Regulus goes to Rome, and tells the Senate to refuse the treaty because it isn’t in the republic’s best interests. What he does next baffles my students. Regulus keeps his oath to the gods, and returns to the Carthaginians to be tortured to death. Augustine, far from finding this baffling, praises Regulus as Rome’s best man. 

What does Augustine see that my students, and indeed, many of my contemporaries, do not see? One of the things that Augustine admires in Regulus is that he sees his own personal good as intimately united to the good of the republic. Later in the City of God, Augustine will observe that “the possession of goodness is increased in proportion to the concord…of each of those who share in it.” Augustine sees in Regulus a man who has a real share in the common good of the republic, and indeed, he is a hero precisely because he has possessed the goodness of the republic in a higher proportion than any other pagan in history. This does not redound to his eternal benefit, yet Augustine admires him nonetheless. 

At this point, my students are more intrigued — at least more intrigued than those who would dismiss the common good as dictatorial. They are still baffled though about whether Regulus is to be praised for being selfless or selfish? What is he getting out of this? He is not being selfless, on Augustine’s view, because he has a real share in the good of Rome — it elevates his own personal good. What’s good for Rome is good for Regulus because he genuinely participates in the goodness of the republic rather than just uses it for private advantage, thus debasing both himself and Rome. Similarly, Regulus is not being selfish because he recognizes the common good as something greater than himself.  

What makes Regulus so puzzling to us today, and so praiseworthy to Augustine, is simply that Augustine was a realist, and we tend to be voluntarists. We moderns tend to think that something is good if it conforms to our desires, whereas the realist says that the good necessarily exists outside our will, outside human volition and choice, and thus the realist is always calling for the conformity of our desires to what is objectively good.

The modern voluntarist finds it almost impossible to conceive of the common good as anything other than dictatorial for a very simple reason: they believe the private good always has priority over the common good of the family or the political community, or just as likely, they will believe that the common good simply is the aggregation of their private goods. Such a voluntarist view of the common good, however, would mean that there could never be anything but private goods, because anything which was not a private good would be an alien imposition. It would mean that all talk of the common good was, in fact, a threat to the personal good. 

The irony is that it is not the realist, but the voluntarist view of the common good which is dictatorial. The voluntarist account of the common good is not far from what Benedict XVI liked to call the “dictatorship of relativism” which finally insists only upon the private, and refuses anything common. It is a kind of radical self-enclosure which refuses our participation in anything which is actually good, precisely so we can possess whatever it is we want. It is the city of this world, the heart curved-in on itself (incurvatus in se). Ultimately, the voluntarist refuses not only a realist understanding of the human common good of the family or the polity, but they will finally refuse the divine common good, since they view the goodness of God Himself as an alien imposition rather than “nearer to us than we are to ourselves.”