The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines concupiscence as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason” (CCC 2515). Augustine did not invent this concept.[i] In fact the concept of ‘concupiscence’ described in Latin as libido and cupiditas was known to the greatest writers of antiquity (Homer, Plato, Virgil) and of course is of course the concept is a key doctrine for St. Paul (esp. Romans 7). Other patristic writers such as Tertullian (adv. Marc. 5.7) and Athanasius (De incar. 4-7) emphasized this topic. Although some modern scholars have attempted to see Augustine as a theological innovator, claiming that his views were at odds with the views of some earlier fathers, careful examination of the relevant texts does not bear out this hypothesis. Augustine’s treatment of this topic is connected to his doctrine of original sin and to grace. There is no doubt that Augustine’s ever deepening reflections on these topics over his life time profoundly influenced the Church’s later views. Augustine’s reflections are a deepening and systematizing of earlier views.
In Confessions Augustine highlights the triplex concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes and worldly pride following 1 John 2:16. In his case he is called to celibacy and has been granted this grace. Augustine is troubled by his memories of sexual images. He is not bothered much by them when he is awake but during his sleep he finds his control over these faculties greatly reduced and this leads him into involuntary impurity. All he can do it to entrust himself in humility to God.
He moves on to what he can control and discusses the pleasures of eating and drinking. Although this is a necessary activity he recognizes that the pleasure derived from it needs to be tempered in order that it does not control him (10.31.43). While his not greatly tempted by drunkenness he finds gluttony a different matter. By the sounds of his struggle he is much more self-controlled than the average person in our modern culture and he considers excesses in this area to be gluttonous. In the area of pleasant smells he confesses that he is not much troubled by this as sensuality. He doesn’t seek or reject them. In the area of hearing again he feels relatively free though he notes that he was greatly enthralled by this pleasure in earlier days (10.33.49). He notes how “. . . all the varied emotions of the human spirit respond in ways proper to themselves to a singing voice and a song, which arose them by appealing to some secret affinity” (10.33.49). Yet in the Church he sees the undeniable benefits of song since through its pleasures a “weaker mind may rise up to loving devotion.”
Moving on to the temptations of the flesh, he discusses the dangers of the over-indulgence of the eyes. He is attracted to beautiful things and notices how alluring and entangling certain sights can become. This temptation is especially seen in many consumer items which various craftsmen have created. A further temptation is this area is that of ‘curiosity’ which he also counts as a ‘concupiscence of the eyes’. (10.35.54). Augustine sees a distinction between two kinds of activity on the part of the senses that of pleasure seeking and that of curiosity (10.35.55).
The final great temptation is pride (10.36.58). Augustine’s fear is that he can’t be free of this temptation in his earthly life. He worries that the enemy of true happiness lies in wait for those in society who by reason of official positions “must be loved and honored by their fellows” (10.36.59). He fears affection, honors and human flattery. He notes, “We are put to the test by these temptations every day” (10.37.60). These temptations are not easy to discern, and are difficult to apply self-examination and measure his self-restraint. He examines his conscience with some penetrating questions. Is he reluctant to have to have a person who speaks highly of him, to hold an opinion of him that differs from his own opinion of himself? Is he less concerned when some other person is unjustly criticized that when he himself is? (10.37.61).
Augustine retraces the steps he has taken in this book and relates how God has accompanied him in his examinations of his amazing faculty of memory. God is not in the memory but is the Light he consulted throughout his search (10.40.65). He notes that from time to time God led him on an inward experience which gave him “sweetness beyond understanding” (10.40.65) and he notes that if he was granted the fullness of this experience his life would not be what it is now. What he needs to be reconciled to God is the true Mediator, the Word whose example of humility we must follow.
Text © Scott McKellar 2011
All quotes in this series of blogs from Confessions are from, St. Augustine,Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., The Works of Saint Augustine for the 21st Century, Ed John Rotelle, O.S.A., (New York, New City Press, 1997)
[i] Jesse Couenhoven, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin,” Augustinian Studies 36:2 (2005) 359–396.