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AUGUSTINE ON LUST
Cameron, Andrew. “Augustine on Lust.”
In Still Deadly: Ancient Cures for the Seven Sins,
edited by Andrew Cameron and Brian S. Rosner, 33-49.
Sydney South: Aquila, 2007.
(c) Andrew Cameron 2007
ng David had at least six wives and five concubines. Yet
still he lusts after Bathsheba and felt compelled to sleep with her. The adventurer and diplomat Giacomo Casanova claims in his memoir to have had sex with 122 women. Various sportsmen, actors and male celebrities are reported from time to time as having slept with dozens or even hundreds of women.
Men reading this chapter, who may have slept with only one or zero women, have moments when they wish they were King David, Casanova, or the others.
Let’s face it: this is a chapter about men, by a man in conversation with another man, about something particularly experienced by men. The extent to which the reflections of this chapter are of use to women will be for them to judge, but what is perhaps most ‘useful’ is that it concerns men taking responsibility for their sexual thoughts and feelings. Like the biblical authors, Augustine did not turn male sexual lust into a woman’s problem. He opposed those who blamed women, and AU G U ST I N E O N LU ST 33 even now he reminds men that each man finally has to do business with this vice.
However, we may find that Augustine’s investigation helps all who struggle with intense sexual thoughts and feelings, whether male or female. And he may assist us in our other desperate longings, whether sexual or not.
Augustine’s defence of the body But—what are we playing at here? Why would sexual thoughts and feelings be something to ‘struggle’ with? Casanova surely didn’t. The infamous womanisers of fiction and history—Don Juan, James Bond, Rasputin, and so on—would laugh at the idea of sexual thoughts and feelings being a ‘struggle’. They wouldn’t care if we called them ‘lustful’, and would suggest that lust is only a ‘struggle’ because we call it a ‘struggle’. If you just go with it, the ‘problem’ goes away and becomes fun.
Therefore many objectors argue that Christians ‘struggle’ with sexual thoughts and feelings because Christianity has bred a subtle but deep hatred of the body and its sexuality. Some also blame Augustine as the founder of such attitudes. For one commentator, Christianity displays a ‘hatred of this world and of the body’.2 She thinks Augustine helped to shape this view by teaching that our errors of judgment are ‘rooted in the body 3 itself and its sexuality’ since people’s bodies are just ‘incidental 4 accretions from the world of sin’.
People who despise the body and demonise sexual desire can be found in all religions and ideologies, not only among Christians; but Augustine was certainly not one of them.
There is no need, then, in the matter of our sins and vices, to do injustice to our Creator by accusing the nature of flesh, which, of its own kind and in its due place, is good. But it is 34 S T I L L D E A D LY not good for anyone to forsake the good Creator and to live 5 according to a created good … In other words, our sins and vices are not the fault of our physical ‘flesh’, which God has made good. That assertion is bedrock for Augustine. ‘The nature of the original fault had, for Augustine, nothing essentially to do with the creation of the 6 body’ because ‘Augustine had come to a firmly-rooted idea of 7 the essential goodness of created things’. He also discovers the
excellence of the body through Jesus Christ:
Augustine’s high view of our sexuality is connected to his high view of the body, for ‘what pertains more closely to a body than 9 its sex?’ How good goes bad What really interests him, though, is the way something so good can often ‘malfunction’ to produce great evil. Augustine sums up another of his great themes when he observes that ‘it is not good for anyone to forsake the good Creator and to live 10 according to a created good’. Evil happens when we lose perspective, when we stop seeing things as they really are, when some good thing is no longer enjoyed in its ‘due place’ but as an end in itself and we desert God for it. This logic of good things ‘malfunctioning’ brings Augustine to speak against what he calls ‘concupiscence’—those strong desires that spring from within our bodies, by which we are sometimes propelled into AU G U ST I N E O N LU ST 35 evil. We can be ‘concupiscent’ for all sorts of things: power, food, money, recognition. We can also be ‘concupiscent’ for sex, which is what is usually meant by the term ‘lust’.
It is worth noting that sexual lust was not a major focus in Augustine’s investigation of concupiscence. For example, the first reference to sexual lust in his enormous City of God occurs after fourteen and a half chapters, and then only as one among a list of many strong desires that humans typically experience.
Conversely, when he specifically addresses sexual lust, he 11 immediately thinks of our other strong desires as well.
Augustine was fascinated by the common denominator between sexual lust and other kinds of strong desire: the way humans seem to be voracious and insatiable for what is good. We fall into the trap of thinking that because a thing is desirable we can never get enough of it. We switch into a kind of overdrive to soak up as much of the good thing as we can. The desperation that people display from infancy for everything good is seamless with the desperation that many people experience, as adults, for sex.
Augustine’s revolution (and his mistake) When he does turn to examine sexual desire specifically, Augustine tries to imagine what sex would be like between Adam and Eve before they committed the first human sin. This is obviously a key moment in what Augustine thought about sex. If he really thought that human sexual desire is a sin springing from a faulty body, then he would imagine that Adam and Eve started out as non-sexual beings. Of course the Bible says no such thing.
Genesis describes nakedness and a joining to become ‘one’ in verses that are overtly sexual (2:24-25), and which share the Bible’s generally joyous and erotic optimism about married sex. But subsequent to biblical times, some sub-Christian thought 36 S T I L L D E A D LY implied that the ‘sin’ committed by Adam and Eve was their having sex. Is this Augustine’s view?
When he imagines them having sex in a sin-free time and place, his vision of this sexual intercourse is a vision of deep 12 peace. He makes one mistake, to which we will return in a moment. But he pictures sex for this innocent couple as being a thankful, joyful, bodily, pleasurable and honest love. So much is the body and sexual pleasure not regarded by Augustine as sinful or offensive, that scholars have found he offered a revolutionary antidote to the views of his contemporaries. Paul Ramsey shows how Augustine’s deep affirmation of human sexuality is actually 13 his distinguishing feature. According to Peter Brown, who is an expert in ancient attitudes to sexuality and the body and also Augustine’s foremost biographer, ‘the pace of his thought on sexuality was set by firm if courteous disagreement with other Christians and upholders of radical ascetic ideals,’ against whom 14 Augustine gives ‘a call to moderation’.
He had come to envision, in a manner far more consequential than many of his Christian contemporaries, Adam and Eve as fully sexual beings, capable of … a glorious intercourse, unriven by conflicting desires, without the shadow of sin upon it. … two fully physical bodies follow[ing] the stirrings of their 15 souls, ‘all in a wondrous pitch of perfect peace’.
So where does Augustine go wrong? He imagines that Adam would have been able to give his semen to Eve without the involuntary moment of orgasm. This view seems very strange, and it is; but in order to discover what drove it, we need to pause and remember the way Augustine was puzzled by human concupiscence in general.
He is trying to unravel the mystery of human desperation for what is good. What could cause us to act in such demented ways about good things? Babies crave desperately for good things in a way that blends into the way adults crave for good things.
AU G U ST I N E O N LU ST 37 Perhaps the father’s orgasmic moment of intense desire, which inaugurates human conception, is to blame. Perhaps this moment of a father’s ‘lust’ commences the continuum of human voracity that appears in all people even from infancy. Augustine’s view of ‘original sin’ then follows: human concupiscence, both sexual and otherwise, is a judgment from God in response to Adam’s strong desire to eat the fruit, to ‘know good and evil’, and to be ‘like God’.
Ever since, humans are conceived in a concupiscible moment, live concupiscible lives from infancy to death, and so are in solidarity with Adam. (These ideas are used in a discussion with Augustine’s Pelagian opponents, which is beyond our scope.) Augustine concludes that sexual lust is a just punishment for humanity—a loss of rational control for a race who had so brazenly sought to 16 seize control. On this view, the problem with concupiscence is the way it overthrows our ‘reason’, or our ability to see how things really are. The involuntary nature of our sexual arousal is, he thinks, a miniature example of this overthrow.
But Augustine has overstated his case. Eight centuries after Augustine, Thomas Aquinas observes that to stop thinking too hard during sexual intercourse and just enjoy it, does not mean 17 we have overthrown the order of reason! That is, we do not stop seeing things as they really are just because we sometimes put thinking on hold for a bit. After all, we do the same when we fall asleep.
In fact Augustine knows that his account has some problems when it comes to marriage. He thinks sex finds its proper home in marriage, and so he becomes a bit tangled when trying to defend marriage while also defending his account of sexual lust.
Augustine thinks that although a residue of sexual lust remains within marital intercourse, ‘[c]arnal concupiscence … must not be ascribed to marriage: it is only to be tolerated in marriage. It is not a good which comes out of the essence of marriage, but 18 an evil which is the accident of original sin.’ Sexual pleasure in 19 marriage can be ‘honourable’. The ‘carnal delight’ of marriage 38 S T I L L D E A D LY 20 ‘cannot be lust’, he says, when ‘used’ rightly: ‘in the indispensable duties of the marriage state,’ sexual concupiscence ‘exhibits the 21 docility of the slave.’ But his defence of married sex is a bit strained, if only because a desire is not really ‘concupiscent’ when it is ‘docile’! More to the point, a man whose project is to honour his wife until death does not engage in sexual desire in the same way as a womaniser, who lives for his desire and not for the woman. The first man lives for his wife in precisely the kind of loving devotion that God wants from married men. Of course ‘docile’ is not the best word for this kind of sexual desire: wives generally do not want ‘docile’ husbands! But this picture of sexual desire that is ‘docile’ as a ‘slave’ tries to distinguish between sexual lust that serves only itself, and sexual desire that serves a wife and builds a marriage.
So Augustine is a bit fanciful to equate the involuntary nature of sexual desire and orgasm with the overthrow of reason; and he gets a little tangled when trying to defend the good of married sex.
But even if his account needs revision at these points, it does perhaps highlight some truths that we easily forget. Modern Westerners love to imagine that we have arrived, that ancient views like Augustine’s have nothing to offer, and that modern Western sex is all about freedom, liberation and fun. But by wrestling with whether concupiscence even threatens marriage, Augustine reminds us that sexual desire and its expression are not always untrammelled delight. There are darkly terrible secrets stalking our state of modern sexual ‘enlightenment’, ranging from disorders of desire that damage and deaden marriages, through to sexual obsessions that require imprisonment. These would come as no surprise to Augustine. He knows that even married people walk in the same wilderness into which Adam and Eve were cast. Married sex is no longer always a ‘glorious intercourse’ where two bodies follow the stirrings of their souls in a wondrous pitch of perfect peace, uncut by conflicting desires. We do well to keep listening to Augustine on lust.
AU G U ST I N E O N LU ST 39 Lust’s real problem (from bitter experience) Augustine’s account is on stronger ground when he asserts a fundamental difference between sex within a marriage as compared to sex outside of a marriage. This kind of sex exemplifies people living for their desires, rather than their desires serving someone. For what would propel people to have sex without the commitment of marriage? In these arrangements, sexual 22 concupiscence ‘plays the king’, or as we might say, is in the driver’s seat. He sorrows over the breakdowns in relationship that follow from this use of sex. Men become isolated, women are devastatingly disappointed, and children are scorned.