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.

8 thoughts on “Augustine’s City of God, XI: Understanding the Libido Dominandi

  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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    • 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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  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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    • 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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