Peter Brown on Augustine on the Libido Dominandi

In his essay “Saint Augustine”, covering select features of Augustine of Hippo’s political thought, Peter Brown mentions Augustine’s presentation of the “harmonious order established by God”, and how it is “inverted” by sin. [“Saint Augustine” in Trends in Medieval Political Thought, ed. Beryl Smalley (Oxford: Blackwell & Mott, 1965), 9] Given that the harmonies emerge from God, and are dependent on him, Augustine saw “dependence” as “the most basic relationship in the divine order” [Ibid., 9], as the goods constitutive for oneself are received. When this order is “dislocat[ed]” the “most basic symptom” is “domination — the need to secure the dependence of others.” [Ibid., 10] [See The Literal Meaning of Genesis viii, vi, 12; xi, xv, 20]

Thus, first the Devil, then Adam, chose to live on their own resources; they preferred their own fortitudo, their own created strength, to dependence upon the strength of God. [City of God xii.6, 1-14] For this reason, the deranged relationships between fallen angels and men show themselves in a constant effort to assert their incomplete power by subjecting others to their will. [City of God xiv.28] This is the libido dominandi, the lust to dominate, that was once mentioned in passing by Sallust, as an un-Roman vice, typical of aggressive states, such as Assyria, Babylon and Macedon [Sallust, Catilina ii.2; cited in City of God iii.14, 50]; and was fasted upon by Augustine as the universal symptom par excellence of all forms of deranged relationships, among demons as among men. Seen in this bleak light, the obvious fact of domination, as a feature of political society, could make the world of states appear as a vast mental hospital, ranging from the unhealthy self-control of the early Romans to the folie de grandeur of a Babylonian tyrant. This was a bitter pill, which many lay rulers were forced to swallow in later ages. But, as always with Augustine, the outward expression of this ‘lust’ in the form of organized states is merely a symptom. The extent, and even the admitted injustice of the state-building that Augustine observed, and commented on in blistering terms, was of purely secondary importance. A libido, for Augustine, was a desire that had somehow got out of control: the real problem, therefore, was why it had got out of control, what deeper dislocation this lack of moderation reflected. So, to say, as Lord Acton would, that ‘all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, would have struck Augustine as being rather like saying that a man got measles from having spots. [Brown, “Saint Augustine”, 10]

Augustine’s reflections on the libido dominandi, or lust for power, is also treated by Robert A. Markus here and here. It has its own tag here at Into the Clarities.

12 thoughts on “Peter Brown on Augustine on the Libido Dominandi

  1. Pingback: The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 1) | Into the Clarities

  2. I read The City of God some years ago, though now I am not recalling some of the things you mention. I had been doing research on the American Puritans and their connection to Augustine’s sensibility. I can’t say that I understood the implications of the book, and I appreciate hearing more about it here. Thank you.

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    • What a rich topic you were mining! Augustine is so dense, so fertile, that remembering everything would be like digesting the sea. No one should be faulted for not recalling everything from him!

      There are at least a couple dozen posts coming that are on Augustine. So I’m glad you’ve found the ones that have appeared so far to be helpful!

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      • Yes, it was a rich topic. The idea, which originally came from Perry Miller (if memory serves) was that the Puritans had a kind of Augustinian piety, and I was exploring that idea for myself by reading first the Confessions, and then the City of God. I could tell that there was much to understand that I was missing! I look forward to more of your posts!

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        • Carla, I apologize for getting to this only now.

          You certainly read him in the right order. And yes: the Puritans had (and their heirs have) “a kind of Augustinian piety”. Augustine can go in several direction, however, which is why there are people on very different sides of ecclesiastical lines who claim him as their inspiration.

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          • Thank you for the response. I have been on a blog hiatus this summer. Hoping to pick it up again soon. Somehow, Augustine seems to stay with me, though it has been some time since I was immersed in his writing. I look forward to taking it up again in the future at some point.

            Liked by 1 person

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