St Augustine on Concupiscence, Blog 1

Would St Augustine have liked the songs of Carly Simon?  Would St Augustine like this chorus,

You says it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of my own, you and me,
That’s way I always heard it should be,
You want to marry me, we’ll marry.

Were St Augustine alive today, I think he would enjoy Carly Simon songs.  We should not forget that St Augustine was one of the few Church Fathers who was not initially a monastic, who spent many years as a family man, with a common law wife and Adeodatus, his son, his gift from God.  In his Confessions he confesses he was quite in love and quite attached to his common law wife.  Indeed, before we decide we have nothing to learn from St Augustine, that he is too hostile to modernity, we must read and ponder his Confessions, we will find St Augustine far more modern and enlightened than we imagined.

Would St Augustine mind that marriage is mentioned in the fourth line of the chorus rather than the first line?  Marriage is important, as marriage is a promise of commitment, but more important than the promise is the actual commitment.  Carly Simon sings of the frustrations of the years together, singing of the night’s angry dawn, singing of lovers hiding scars, angry at themselves, singing of couples who cling and claw, drowning in love’s debris.  St Augustine would agree marriage is the loyal patience of commitment, living your life for others, your children, your spouse.

St Augustine’s most famous quote, made before his ultimate conversion, was a prayer to God, “Please, Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet.”  This shows that St Augustine was quite human, just like us, and quite honest about his struggles with intimacy.

This struggle generates tension in his works, but let us give St Augustine the benefit of the doubt, let us read him hagiographically, for even though the modern world with modern technology differs greatly from the world of the ancient Christian, St Augustine has much to teach us, and we can benefit from his teaching, finding purpose in our family life, working out our salvation through the raising of our children and through our relationships with our spouse and other family members and close friends.

We must not forget that St Paul and the early Church Fathers lived in a Greek culture.  St Augustine tells us in his Confessions that he experienced a double conversion from the false philosophy of the Manicheans, first a conversion to the transcendent ideas of the Platonists, which prepared him for his conversion to Christianity.  The Platonic and stoic philosophers rejected crass hedonism, living a life in moderation, controlling the passions, seeking to improve the soul and the state, and both greatly influenced Christianity.  Greek philosophy was what theology is today, Socrates teaches us that the unexamined life is not worth living.  As William Harmless so aptly writes, “Augustine asks, ‘What is philosophy?  A love of wisdom.’ . . . Philosophy is life shaped by a love-spurred search for wisdom. . . Philosophy demands a change of life, a conversion, renunciation of wealth and fame, ongoing ascetic purification,” fasting and controlling the passions.[1]

We in the modern world instinctively dislike St Augustine’s teachings on concupiscence, but this tells us more about ourselves than St Augustine, for the modern Freudian world view tends to err on the side of hedonism, letting loose our deepest passions lest they devour us, whereas the ancient Church Fathers stress instead a life of prayer and obedience, controlling the passions, encouraging the virtues.

Putting this in another way, Professor Philip Carey posits that the difference in world view between the ancient and modern world mean that the ancient anxiety differs from the modern anxiety.  The ancients did not have large cities and lived closer to nature and closer to wild beasts that could possibly tear them to pieces, so the ancient anxiety is our passions would rule us so we would become like the wild beasts.  The modern anxiety, see in movies like 2001 Space Odyssey and the Terminator series, is we will become cold and dispassionate like the computers who more convincingly mimic human speech and thoughts, so the modern anxiety is we will be cold and uncaring like the unfeeling computers we interact with on a daily basis.[2]

This is a prescient observation, but it is probably more on point to emphasize the great debt Christianity has to the Greek stoic philosophers.  Although concupiscence, the using of others solely for your personal pleasure or advantage, is a Latin word of St Augustine, this concept definitely is at the core of stoic philosophy.  The belief that physical intimacy is morally wrong outside of marriage, and within marriage should be restricted to the begetting of children, was first taught not by St Augustine but by the stoic philosophers, Lucinius Rufus in particular.  His student Epictetus talks about the passions thus: “It is enough for animals to eat and drink and copulate, and do all the other things they do.  But for men, who God has given the intellectual faculty, these things are not sufficient; for unless we act in a proper and orderly manner, conforming to our nature, we shall never attain our true end.”[3]

Our error is we instinctively assume that the past twenty centuries are just like our twentieth century, and nothing could be further from the truth.  If Christians from ancient Rome, from St Augustine’s time, were able to peek forward fifteen centuries, they would be awe-struck and dumbfounded, life is much more unimaginably better today than anything they could imagine.  Marriage in the ancient world was for bearing children, not for love, marriage was serious business in the ancient world.  The infant mortality rate was sky high, most infants did not live out their first year, and those who survived often died before the age of ten.  The ancients had no aspirin, children and adults both often died from fever.  Most children died before their tenth birthday.  Many mothers had a dozen children, so some would survive to their twenties.  Many wives died in child birth.

Marrying for love is a modern luxury, the thought of going to a sterile and safe modern hospital with anesthesia and surgical staff on hand to deliver little Johnny would have been totally unimaginable to the ancient Christians.  Faced with the risks of childbirth many ancient couples decided abstention was superior to risking the lives of the wives.  Abstention makes sense in the ancient world when letting loose the reins of our passions, when letting loose the raging stallions in our souls could place our beloved spouse in great risk of grave injury and possible death in a time when medicine was primitive and superstitious.  We cannot fault the ancient Christians for their views on love and marriage, insisting that these risks are best justified in the bearing of children.  We can thank God that we live in a day when love in marriage is indeed blissful and with greatly reduced medical risks.

St Augustine on Concupiscence, Blog 2 http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/st-augustine-on-concupiscence-blog-2/

[1] William Harmless, “Augustine In His Own Words,” (Washington DC: The Catholic University Press, 2010), 39.

[2] Phillip Cary, “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint,” lectures recorded by The Great Courses, (www.thegreatcourses.com, 1997)

[3] Epictetus, “On Providence,” in The Discourses of Epictetus, In the Stoic Six Pack – Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and More, The Complete Stoic Collection, translated by Hastings Crossly,(Enhanced media, 2014, first published 1909) 138-139.

About Bruce Strom 127 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.