Concupiscence beyond sex – a trip to the Desert

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

In Patristic anthropology, concupiscence is an important aspect of the inner workings of the human soul. Concupiscence is usually mentioned in the context either of the battle over grace & free will or of the early monastic movement. For a number of reasons I don’t have the time or energy or, in fact, will, to go into, concupiscence has a tendency in modern contexts to be framed mostly or only in terms of human sexuality.

I think we need to look first at the Desert.

The astute psychological readings of humanity provided by Evagrius Ponticus and the Desert Fathers, as well as the highly Evagrian author John Cassian, see our interior life dominated by concupiscence, irascibility, and reason. We have desires — concupiscence; we get hot/impassioned/angry/indignant about things — irascibility; we have intellect and rational thought — reason.

As I write this, it passes through my mind that these are the three parts of the human person/human society in Plato. In Plato, the goal is to have reason ruling the other two. St Augustine would certainly agree, and Evagrius might, but not strictly the way we typically imagine someone arguing for it.

What ‘reason’ or the intellective part of the human spirit means to Evagrius is a question for another day, though.

I’m here to discuss concupiscence.

Concupiscence and anger are both tied directly to the passions, on which I’ve blogged before. Concupiscence is swayed by the passions in terms of desire. According to St Augustine, our disordered desires, our desires that act independent of and even contrary to reason, are part of the evidence of the Fall. If the intellective part of a human is the highest part, Augustine cannot see how in the Adamic state something that is clearly concupiscible — the membrum virile and male desire for intercourse — would be so beyond the control of reason.

One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion, says G K Chesteron. St Augustine would also observe that one cannot simply have an erection because reason dictates that it is time to procreate with one’s wife. That’s not how it works.

Thus, because of this Augustinian tradition that is picked up St Thomas Aquinas, when we hear ‘concupiscence’, we think immediately of sex and the human appetite for sex that is not tied directly to the reasoning part of the human soul.

However, concupiscence goes beyond sex.

We need to remember that in our hyper-sexualised culture. A lot of us would think that our job was done if we achieved apatheia — dispassion — in matters of non-legimitate sexuality. That concupiscence had been tamed in such a case.

However, fornication is not the only temptation, not the only logismos in Evagrius’ terms, not the only passion associated with concupiscence. Most obviously, there is gluttony. And greed/avarice. And vainglory and pride, which involve concupiscence for less tangible things.

Because everything can lead back to St Leo the Great, this wider reality of concupiscence — and its less material manifestations — came to me this week as I was reading Ep. 106 in a manuscript. In this letter, Leo rebukes Anatolius, Bishop of Constantinople for concupiscentia. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), it was approved that Constantinople would have honour second only to Rome and gain rights above those of several local metropolitans. Leo saw this as a breach of the Canons of Nicaea, and believed (if we are to take his letters at face value) that Anatolius was filled with his own pride and was seeking his own gain, to the detriment — most particularly — of the Apostolic See. By which I mean Antioch, which was second city to Rome and, when the terminology developed, was one of the Patriarchates, besides being a church founded by Apostles.

Concupiscentia, to Leo, is not about sex, most obviously. It is about grasping after honours — and, to quote Leo, Ep. 14 to Anastasius, Bishop of Antioch, ‘honor inflat superbium’: honour(s) (in this case, technically high office) inflates pride.

Pride. One of the most deadly of the deadly thoughts/logismoi in Evagrius.

The goal of the disciplined Christian life is to overcome these logismoi in order to know Christ better and live for him better. Therefore, we need to learn to control our desires, to make our concupiscence seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. As Abba Alonius said:

If only a man desired it for a single day from morning till night, he would be able to come to the measure of God.

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