Philosophy Theology

Augustine’s City of God, XI: Understanding the Libido Dominandi

The libido domanandi is a Latin term that can be roughly translated as “lust for domination.” The lust for domination is, for Augustine, the driving impulse of fallen man and his society (the city of man). The twentieth century philosopher Eric Voegelin surmised that the libido dominandi was man’s “will to power” to borrow a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Libido Dominandi in the City of God

Augustine informs us in the preface that the lust for domination is a major theme that he will be examining in the course of his work. “Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.”[i] This lust for domination, as what drives life—or more accurately from Augustine’s view, destroys it—is motivated by service to the self and want to control everything: control what is good, control what is “fact” or “true”, control how others behave, control who receives laurels and praise, and so forth. This lust for domination runs counter to the ethic of service of others (love of others). The libido dominandi is tied to the incurvatus in se (inward curve to the self) for the lust for domination is all about the self: The self’s want for domination of the world and all in it.

Following the Fall of Man Augustine anthropology hinges on this the lust for domination. With a depravation of self (having been stripped of a relationship with God), depravation of relationships (having been stripped of relational harmony with others), and depravation of truth (having fallen into a life dominated by falsity by living by one’s own standards), man is totally given over to this internal lust for domination. Man is dominated by lust itself. Unable to recognize that his problem rests with his alienation from God, others, and the world, man turns his alienation against everything in the world. In short, man seeks to find his refuge by possessing everything possible. Only in this possession can man find his contentment—or so he thinks.

The ramification of the libido dominandi is, ultimately, objectification. Man begins objectifying others, and the world, as an object to control and be controlled. Johann Fichte and Georg Hegel used the language of the Other. Karl Marx used the language of commodification. Herbert Kelman uses the language of depersonalization. Martha Nussbaum calls it instrumentalization. Across the history of philosophy, you find this attempt to explain the objectification of others, but Augustine was the first to pinpoint his finger on this problem and all others are in his shadow when dealing with the phenomenon of objectification.

Objectification begins by losing sight of the God and the soul. For in losing God humans lose their souls. Worse, as was the case with Rome, the gods become the justification for domination. Insecurity and the need to possess—to overcome insecurity—drives the libido dominandi to a renunciation of love itself. This is because the lust for domination strives after power. Power becomes that which is sought after and in possessing power humans then utilize their power against others (and the world). Love is a surrender of the self over to others (hence why God lowers himself and surrenders himself on the Cross to the world; Christ’s renunciation of power is his affirmation of love). The lust for domination is a surrender of the self over to the lust for domination in-of-itself, which manifests itself in the self’s exertion of power over others (seen most visibly in Cain murdering Abel and Romulus murdering Remus).

To glorify oneself is a form of libido dominandi. It is the lust to control praise of others—praise directed to oneself. Civic mythologies, as Augustine so poignantly critiqued in books II and III, also embody the lust for domination; civil mythology covers up the nakedness of the libido with ideas of glory, nobility, and civilization, thereby turning the lust for domination into something to strive for. “By this lust Rome was overcome when she triumphed over Alba, and praising her own crime, called it glory.”[ii]

Describing the destruction of Troy, and the peculiarities as it related to the gods, Augustine reflects on how the sanctuaries of the gods proved no place of rest. Rather, they became the altars of bloodlust and murder. “[T]he place consecrated to so great a goddess was chosen, not that from it none might be led out a captive, but that in it all the captives might be immured…There liberty was lost…There bondage was strict…Into that temple men were driven to become the chattels of their enemies.”[iii] Virgil was useful too, here, for Augustine. Readers of the Aeneid will remember that when the Greeks poured out into Troy, they spared no one. Andromache, Hector’s faithful and pious wife, was stripped of her garments and had Astyanax ripped from her arms and flung from the walls of Troy by Achilles’ son with a rage and venom equal to that of his father but in a more animalistic nature.

The city of man, in being given over to this lust for domination, exhausts itself in domination. Thus, history—as Augustine recounts in Books XIV-XIX—is one long bloody power struggle between the nations. Nations rise and fall. But the Church, protected by God, perseveres. This is not to say the Church doesn’t suffer from the libido dominandi—especially the libido of others—but God does ensure that a remnant is always preserved. Thus, from the libido dominandi emerges Augustine’s “dark” understanding of  (fallen) man. Man is a killer. Man is a brute. Man is a domineering creature. The Church exists in history, and in nations, to be the remedy for the lust for domination. So too does the law—though the law does not save.

 

[i] See City of God, Preface.

[ii] Ibid., 3.14.

[iii] Ibid., 1.4.

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14 comments

  1. It sounds like you have a book there. I mean a book that you’ve written. What is this like your 10th long post on Augustine city of god? I’m sure you got like 800 page book there

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    1. Haha. And we’re not done yet — the total series is like 22k-23k words. But there are plenty of books on Augustine and City of God. While I’ve fancied myself — having written my thesis on Augustine and having multiple professionally published pieces, both articles and essays — entering that field but not in a summary introductory manner. Plus, in my charitable spirit, I wanted to share the education for free! :p

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      1. And thank you for sharing it. At some point in the future I feel that I’m going to need to draw upon your expertise of Augustine. 🤘🏾

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  2. This was a great post. Thank you!

    Whitehead wrote that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He might have said “the safest general characterization of psychology is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Augustine.”

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    1. Thanks. The very last post of the series addresses Augustine and psychology; and believe you’re right if Whitehead had written about the development of psychology he would say that about Augustine. But his statement on Plato also rings true through on Augustine — insofar that that the bishop of Hippo was a philosopher, he was an ardent Neoplatonist.

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  3. I believe that “A Canticle for Leibowitz” captured the theme of the City of Men exhausting itself and the perseverance of the Church quite well, in my opinion, need to read up on it again.

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  4. Thank you! This is a beautiful, elegant, succinct, and fulsome commentary on Augustine’s notion of “libido dominandi.” I feel that I am potentially (God willing) a better, more capable, and more serene man just for having read it! I do have some questions, however. I wonder how Augustine’s notion of “libido dominandi” relates to the American Dream. I partly have in mind how the character Ben Loman and Willy Loman represent the American Dream in the play “Death of a Salesman.” I partly have in mind how the character Henry F. Potter, the rich man and big bank owner in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents libido dominandi, and George Bailey, the barely-getting-by owner of the town’s saving and loan institution, who helps the non-college-educated white working-class people of the town get a decent home to live in, represents the Depression Era concept of the American Dream. Also, how does Donald Trump relate to the concept of libido dominandi? Is President Trump legitimizing, promoting, and glorifying the sense of libido dominandi? Also, does libido dominandi relate to the Marxist concern about Imperialism? And how does libido dominandi relate to the fact that “Natural Law” philosophy (see, e.g., Aristotle) justifies human slavery? And how does libido dominandi relate to Ayn Rand’s life and teaching? Can Ayn Rand’s teachings (and all of Libertarianism, really) be boiled down to a disguised exaltation of libido dominandi? It’s easy to see libido dominandi in Hitler, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. But what about President James K. Polk in how he orchestrated a war with Mexico in order to gain California? Or what about Lincoln invading the Southern states in order to force those states back into the Union? And what about the fact that, as depicted in the Book of Revelation, when Christ returns to the world he does so as a conquerer who seeks and attains domination of the whole world (mainly by destroying all of his enemies and opposers)? In this world and in this age, is it not inevitable that some person or group will dominate? So, logically, shouldn’t one seek that it be oneself or one’s group that dominates? I.e., better me than him, and better us than them? Isn’t it better to be the top-dog than the underdog? Do we really want to suffer and die in humiliation like Christ? Isn’t it better to rule and make others suffer instead of ourselves and our loved ones? Isn’t this the stark choice we face in life in this world? Either we are the Ruler or we are the Ruled. Isn’t it much more fun and pleasant to be the Ruler, or to be in the Ruling Class? So, shouldn’t each of us strive, insofar as possible, to defeat/dominate others and thereby get on the top of the Social-Economic Hierarchy? Wasn’t it too easy for Augustine to write out all his idealistic concepts, given that he sent away his common-law wife (abandoned her, basically, even though she was the mother of his child), and took on a life of being fully supported by donations to the Church? Augustine had a privilege that most laypeople never have, namely, to step out of the need to work and struggle to earn money by which to live. Augustine, though his connections, was elevated quickly to one of the princes (aristocrats, in a sense) of the Church, and so found it easy to write idealistic treatises, just as Henry David Thoreau could write his idealistic treatise out there in his cabin at Walden Pond, given that he could rely on family money and so he could afford to eschew the world of commercial interests? isn’t there some truth in this line of critique? Many have said that the Christian faith cannot serve as a guide to the conducting of foreign affairs between nations. But isn’t it just as true that the Christian faith is of no use as guidance in the matter of how to conduct commercial and business affairs? Isn’t the profit motive in business the same as libido dominandi? Doesn’t American prosperity all derive from the profit motive of Capitalism? Didn’t Trump defeat all his Republican rivals in the 2016 Republican primary contest because Trump had a fierce libido dominandi, whereas the other Republican candidates were easy-going, play-fair “nice guys”? Isn’t Augustine’s critique of the world (the “City of Man”) very similar to that of Karl Marx, even though Augustine and Marx had very different remedies in mind?

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    1. I’m glad you found this helpful! After all, these summary posts are meant for the public!

      It isn’t fair to critique Augustine as having the privilege to write idealistic treatises. He was a pastor first and foremost in an age when bishops were on the grounds with their parishioners in a way totally unlike the contemporary church and he wasn’t made remotely wealthy since the church’s finances were pitiful in Late Antiquity. By all evidence, Augustine spent most of his day listening to confessions, preaching to parishioners, and being actively engaged in the lives of the Christians in Hippo and under his care: seeking them in the streets, the hospices, and tending the sick and poor when not presiding over mass. He wrote, or dictated, late at night when those responsibilities subsisted. On the contrary, he wrote precisely because of his first hand experience with domination and abuse. He wasn’t lost in an idealistic world of the mind when writing.

      Augustine would reject the strict dialectical oppositionalism you have put your thumb on, he sees — through the church and Christ — a third alternative between domination and dominated: peace through healing. The primary mission of the church and Christians is to be a mediator of peace and healing in this world where the lust for domination is curbed and the dominated are afforded dignity and care. Does that really happen? One might quibble on that point. But that is what Augustine certainly believes and teaches at other points in his many writings, especially the City of God.

      As an Augustine scholar (my thesis was on Augustine’s political theology and I’m contributing a chapter in a forthcoming academic book on this precise topic of sovereign love and reconciliation, notwithstanding I have more than a half dozen published essays and articles on Augustine), it is clear to me, however, that “earthly success” is veiled in the language of the lust to dominate as you seem to intuit. “Glory,” fancy term to disguise the lust to dominate. Ayn Rand’s freedom, ditto. Socialism too, ditto (claiming compassion and justice as the veils for their own lust to dominate). So yes, essentially everything you question as relating to the lust to dominate Augustine would be in agreement with. Once you tear the veil what you really find is the libido dominandi precisely because that is what governs the earthly city, its politics, and its desires (however dressed up it is).

      Augustine and Marx are, however, vastly different insofar that Augustine doesn’t blame the system for exploitation as Marx does. Augustine always locates the lust to dominate in the corrupt and lustful heart of men. After all, a system, in of itself, is not oppressive per se. It is made oppressive by those who occupy it and use its apparatuses and institutions for self-gain. The institutions of democracies and republics are, today, arguably far more oppressive than any of the monarchies of old not because the systems and institutions are intrinsically bad, but because the domineering individuals who use them do so for libidinal ends. The remedy of healing the heart and mind of men through Christ logically follows. A la Marx, since the system itself is bad (not men) one merely changes the system to alleviate the problems. Augustine and Marx are world’s apart as such. Though, it is now commonplace for post-Marxists to admit strong influences taken from Augustine in their contemporary critiques of liberalism and imperialism, Antonio Negri, Jacques Lacan, even Slavoj Zizek have all acknowledged or did acknowledge the debt to Augustine’s insights on their own thinking. An Augustinian might well be able to see the value in Marx while explaining his shortfalls and why Marx can’t resolve our dilemma absent of the only one who heals the world (some, in fact, have and do today). On a technical chronological note, then, it isn’t Augustine’s critique that is similar to Marx but Marx’s critique that carries with it a certain similarity to Augustine.

      I hope this is also helpful to you!

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  5. Thank you for your additional beautiful elucidation of the thinking of St. Augustine. I hope you keep making your writing available to the public for a long time. This blog has analysis that is really relevant and which goes to the heart and the spirit as well as to the head.

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  6. I am surprised that no one brings in the obvious: human biology. Not only Trump or Hitler are obsessed with dominating others. No only libertarians are basing their theories on this natural need. We all do at any given moment. it is the very will to live. There is no other. Every tree grows to its maximum until it is stopped by another tree. Every species reproduces until it is stopped by others. We expand at others expense. We are all biologically wired to this. Augustine saw it as evil. But is it? This healing alternative of so to say love is a fairy tale, it never worked. I am a historian and I cannot remember one instance when it did.

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