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.

Freedom from the Passions: New Old Ways of Talking about $!n in Public

From left to right: Evagrius Ponticus, John Climacus, and some other dude. The first two are well-known guides to the passions of the human heart. Who knows about the other guy.

Apologies for not having blogged here a bit more of late. I’m in Paris, and the blog where I publicly disclose my name has been getting more attention (I have a slight paranoia about the religious nature of these postings and my future). But today, I had a thought worthy of the pocket scroll. So here it is.

One of the images/concepts of human salvation that is part of the older Christian tradition, and has been continually popular in Eastern Christianity, is the image of salvation as healing. Christ is our Physician, and he cleans and heals our wounds. Each of us wounded in spirit, in soul, in mind.

Part of this disorder of the human heart is misdirected and misguided desire. The Fathers, especially the desert ascetics, (and Aquinas) call this concupiscence. Rather than seeking first things first, we seek second things first, thus losing both (as CS Lewis once famously noted). Concupiscence reveals itself in the pleasures of the senses — in gluttony, in fornication, in other sensuous excesses that can lead us down the dangerous road of addiction, of alcoholism and sexual compulsivity.

Our concupiscible part exists to direct us towards goods that are there both for our survival and our pleasure. Food and booze are tasty on purpose. Sexual intercourse is supposed to feel that way. However, we must allow these pleasures to be enjoyed according the rules of God’s law and natural law. Concupiscence drives us away from that aspect.

Another aspect of our human disorder is irascibility. When ordered rightly, this produces righteous indignation, when we see the poor downtrodden, the alien shunned, the planet raped of her resources. When disordered, it produces selfish and proud rage, ire, and flares of temper that do not lead us to righteousness.

Irascibility and concupiscence are traditionally termed ‘passions’ in those parts of Christian moral and ascetic theology that treat of them, places where our similarities to Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics are clearly visible. A passion is something that you yourself undergo, something that acts on you, that moves you (hence its relation to passive verbs, patience, and patients).

The passions are not themselves sinful. Some people have claimed that they are, but these people are wrong. The passions are part of our human makeup. And, just as we can grow fat or our bones can become brittle in the physical realm, so our passions can go wrong in the metaphysical.

What the ascetic fathers, such as the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, and Maximus the Confessor, recommend is that we control our passions. In your anger do not sin, as the Psalmist says.

The question for the straight, young, red-blooded, Christian male is not, ‘Do you find hot chicks hot?’ or, ‘Do you like boobs?’ Rather, it is, ‘What do you do about the fact that you are attracted to hot chicks and boobs?’ If the answer is honestly, ‘I choose not to lust,’ then one has gone a looooooong way to overcoming a certain aspect of concupiscibility.

We could repeat this process. Not, ‘Do you like wine/beer/coffee/chocolate?’ but, ‘Do you consume wine/beer/coffee/chocolate in moderation?’ Not, ‘Do people who jump the queue anger you?’ but, ‘Will you treat queue-jumpers with love and respect?’* And so forth.

And thus we come to a point I’ve avoided very carefully on this blog. When people ask Christians who are traditionally-minded about homosexuality, the question seems often to be, ‘Do you think homosexuality is a sin?’

This is an inane question.

Homosexuality is a passion, not a sin.

What the traditionally-minded Christian would have to say, to follow what seems to be both a biblically-faithful and tradition-adhering approach, is, ‘The question is not, “Do you find other men/women attractive?” but, “Do you have sex with them?”‘ That is, sin is in the action, not the desire.

This draws us now closer to the inevitable question of overcoming these desires, of reordering our passions as we were meant to, to be able to live lives of fullness and wholeness in the arms of our Bridegroom and Lover, Jesus Christ.

And that, my friends, is a subject for another time. But it a path as hard for each person as any other. If conservatives seek to lay the burden of celibacy upon homosexuals, they should also consider which of their own many disordered passions need treatment from the great Physician.

People Who Wrote on the Passions

The Desert Fathers. A band of ascetics living in Egypt-Syria-Palestine in the fourth through sixth centuries. Most famously quoted in the compendiums of sayings: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. B. Ward. There is also a short collection at OrthodoxWiki. My page about them here.

Evagrius Ponticus. Try his Chapters on Prayer, online here — there’s also a translation from Cistercian that I couldn’t find on amazon at a reasonable price; mindblowing and awesome is the Kephalaia Gnostica.

John Cassian. People who endured with me for the few long years of this blog will know Cassian, subject of my first MA thesis. Books 5-end of his Institutes treat of the eight ‘thoughts’, beginning here.

*’There are no queues in France.’ Real quotation.