skip to Main Content

Rape, Shame, and Guilt in Augustine’s City of God

Rape, Shame, And Guilt In Augustine’s City Of God

Guilt and Shame

It is, to this author’s knowledge, a unique occurrence within the ancient world for a writer of stature to dedicate any significant volume of ink to the matter of rape, and likely unheard of for any to dedicate their energies to giving comfort to the victims of rape. Yet this, in fact, proves to be the matter of no fewer than six chapters of Book I of The City of God, in which St. Augustine gives himself over to particular tasks. First, of exculpating from guilt those holy virgins of the Church, those children, and (it is at least suggested) those men, whom have suffered the “violation” of the “sanctity of their bodies” at the hands and members of the Gothic hordes of Alaric during the sack of Rome of 410AD. Second, and following closely, comes the task of theodicy – of exculpating from guilt the God whom one might blame for not preventing the violation.

In the process of these efforts, the reader may sense the depth of novelty in his task, in that there often appears to be a palpable straining against the very boundaries of the language with which the defence must be composed. For, against or alongside the conventional language of “shame” and “pollution”, with which any Latin-speaker of the ancient world must surely have possessed familiarity, the Bishop added both conventional and philosophic categories of “virtue”, and the then purely Judeo-Christian conception of “sin”. In this, novel, though sometimes awkward reconfiguration and combination of language, one senses an attempt to communicate the distinction of “guilt” from “shame” – a distinction which is independent from the purely legal conception of guilt as guilty-with-respect-to-the-law.

In The City of God, one senses the attempt to ground and to acknowledge both shame and guilt as experiential phenomena of embodied human beings, and to thereby separate those phenomena from the purely conventional, and temporal, opinions constituting the political order of the earthly city. That is to say that Augustine’s defence and exculpation of the victims of rape, and of God, serves to both acknowledge the experience of shame as essentially embodied, immanent, and independent of political order qua order. But it also reveals guilt as a real ontological phenomenon, which itself exists independently of merely conventional legal classifications, and which thus transcends both the earthly city and all of the earthly city’s potential proposals for remedy.

Shame, it would seem, is an endemic feature of the earthly city which persists independently of guilt. Augustine’s consolation is therefor perhaps best understood as an attempt at the cathartic relief of victims from shame through the revelation of their freedom from guilt with respect to the act of sexual violation. His theodicy, on the other hand, which is inextricably tied-up with his consolation, seeks to exculpate God of not only guilt, but also of shame (though not necessarily of anger or of charity). The task here, then, will be to investigate the language by which the Bishop attempted to distinguish shame from guilt – their places, origins, natures, and the means by which one becomes aware of them — and the limitations which his definitions may place on his theodicy.

In Book I, chapter XVI, Augustine employs unambiguous terms with regards to the act of rape, describing it as a “violation”, and thus invoking the symbolism of a breach of boundaries. He furthermore distinguishes the act of consenting to lust from the violation of rape in equally unambiguous terms, “that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person suffering it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin.”

Neither can betrayals by one’s body during violation – the physical illusions of, or actual experience of, unwanted and uninvited sensual pleasure – be taken as a consent of the will, nor as a lack of virtue or holiness of either soul or body. To put more tersely that which Augustine relates discreetly in chapter XVI, those girls or women who both suffered violation and the added indignity of their bodies and members responding with the illusion of consent – either in the outward sign of secretion, or the internal experience of some unwanted, physical pleasure – are blameless, in that there is no true consent, save the consent of the will. Having said that, though, Augustine is then forced to admit that, in spite of the blamelessness of the victim – their lack of “fault” – that, much as the boundaries of the body are violated in spite of the will, “shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit from which modesty has not departed – shame lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure should be believed to have been committed also with some consent of the will.”

Already then, from a brief chapter, we begin to see both a phenomenological distinction being drawn between guilt and shame. But, we also come to perceive a difficulty with which the author is forced to grapple. For, though the victims of rape are unambiguously free of any fault of virtue or holiness – therefor free from any fault of the will or soul with regards to the rape itself – much as the integrity of the body has been breached and its boundaries “violated”, so too may the integrity of the soul be “invaded” by shame. Nor is there any doubt expressed as to the cause of shame; it is the fear of the appearance of consent of the will to the breaching of one’s body which gives rise to victims’ shame. Therefor, it is appearances, or the fear of appearances, which are revealed as the mode by which “shame” (as distinguished from “fault”) “invades” the soul.

One is thus faced with the uncomfortable conclusion that while “fault” or “non-fault” are states or attributes of the soul which proceed from the intentionality of the will – that is to say, from the soul’s own activities – “shame”, on the other hand, proceeds from appearance. Appearance, though, is, strictly speaking, neither a state nor an attribute of the soul, nor even of the body, of a being, but rather an opinion or image (“belief”) regarding that being. It is something which is held by another or else some plurality of others, or else at least believed to be held by others. Shame, one must conclude, proceeds from the outside of the victim, whereas fault proceeds only from her interiority and thus remains within her will and consent. This results not only in a conundrum, but a phenomenal tragedy – that a faultless victim may indeed be subjected to not one, but to two violations of her integrity, quite against her will, though she is quite blameless. First, the violation of her body by another body, second, the invasion of her soul by shame.

To this trouble, Augustine is at pains to offer an adequate remedy. If shame, as has been supposed, is, in its essence, a product of appearances, then it would seem that it ultimately escapes the control of the afflicted. This leads to the further question of whether it is logical, to say nothing of effective, to then counsel a victim of violation to “not feel ashamed”, if shame itself is a phenomenon which “invades” the integrity of the soul.

One is seemingly led to the conclusion that, metaphorically speaking, shame is indeed best diagnosed as an affliction, and guilt as a disordering, of the soul. To speak thusly, then, leads to the formulation of the problem in terms of prevention, in advance of diagnosis, and of treatment, in procession from diagnosis. And, while shame, understood as affliction, cannot be characterized as “preventable” in any unqualified sense (any more that influenza can be “prevented” in an unqualified sense), one might speak coherently of treatments, as opposed to non-treatments.

Indeed, it is to the issue of non-treatments of the affliction which Augustine most immediately addresses in chapters XVII, XIX, and XX of Book I, when he denies suicide to be an effective, let alone desirable, response to personal violation, amounting as it does to the slaying of an innocent (the guiltless victim of rape) to cure the crime (“sin”) of another (the violator). Suicide, as a willful act, and thus carrying with it the weight of sin, is furthermore explained to be ineffective, in that it amounts to an attempt to treat an affliction of uncertain duration with what amounts to a permanent disorder – dying in a state of sin. It is thus an invalid response to the shame of appearances.

That being said, one is left to ponder what might be Augustine’s remedy to an affliction which defies prevention through any act of the will of the sufferer. Having exculpated the victim of guilt, what of shame? To this problem, the response seems threefold.

Firstly, having differentiated the phenomenon of shame from that of “fault”, the theologian differentiates the feeling of shame (“being ashamed”) from the feeling of guilt. Secondly, by differentiating their causes – imagination, belief, or appearances in the case of the one; the will of the sufferer in the case of the other – he differentiates the experience of sinless affliction from the feeling of sinfulness. Thirdly, by continuously affirming the unbroken virtue, sanctity, and holiness of the victim, in spite of both violation and invasion, he puts forth hierarchies of both goods and ills, which assure the victim both of her continued possession of the higher goods of the soul, and of the lesser burden which is her affliction of shame in comparison to the weight of her goodness.

Thus, the affliction of shame stemming from sexual violation, while not perfectly curable, and not wholly preventable, is revealed to be subject to treatment and mitigation, with hope for its passing and the mending of its wounds with time. Above all, the violated are counselled against harming themselves, though the weight of society be unjustly against them.


However, in addition to these two phenomena of shame and guilt, the Bishop seems compelled, in Book I, chapter 18, to contend with a third phenomenon, which he perceives to be of concern – the experience of “pollution”. Pollution, in common understanding, consists in nothing in so much as a state of contamination of one body by another, in such a fashion that its “purity” is compromised and its constitution altered. Furthermore, as a consequence of the alteration of its constitution, contact with an impure body may may be conceived as undesirable, for the reason that the contact of a relatively “pure” body with an “impure” one carries with it the danger of spreading contamination – of compromising the constitution of other bodies through contact with the polluted one. The fear of pollution can thus give rise to concern with sanitation as an activity by which a state of purity might be maintained, or, at worst, recovered (i.e. through purification). And, in so far as sanitation is chiefly concerned with maintaining a body’s constitution, insofar as a living body is implicated, we may refer to sanitation as an activity by which one maintains or recovers “health”.

Augustine’s seemingly sudden concern with pollution in chapter 18 would not, it seems, be an idle tangent, in that sanitation, as an activity, must necessarily be persistently engaged in by any living body which concerns itself with health. Given such a state of affairs, it should be no surprise that both the pre-political body of the family and the body of any political order must develop some concern for it.  As a lengthy work on, among other things, political order, The City of God should, one might suspect, address the matter in some fashion. However, “pollution” as a phenomenon was not brought into the discussion in an arbitrary manner, but rather is specifically introduced within the context of a discussion on rape. It is thus implied by context that pollution has been associated with the victims of rape, that this phenomenon is something quite apart from guilt or shame, and which must therefor be contended-with in its own distinct manner.

“Pollution”, as we have noted is generally thought to primarily consist in the experience of contact by one body with another, in such a fashion that either one or both lose some measure of their “purity”. Further, the pollution of a living body may be conceived of as synonymous with the rendering of that body into an unhealthy, contaminated state, capable of spreading that contamination to others. When Augustine speaks to the issue of the perceived pollution of those violated by Alaric’s hordes, he thus addressed the concern of those who would say that the living bodies of the violated are contaminated, unhealthy, and potentially infectious.

Augustine justification of the victim, in this case, takes an unusual tack, in that he attempts to wipe-away the stigma of their perceived pollution through a re-definition of terms. Rather that concerning himself, or his readers, with the problem of bodily purity, the theologian substitutes the problem of spiritual purity, and proceeds to argue that pollution of the body follows only from the corruption of the spirit. As he puts it, “But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?” (COG, I, 18)

As one might perceive, however, by choosing this tack, Augustine introduces an odd, and (one might daresay) uncomfortable problem. As we have said, Augustine has made an issue, if not a quest, of justifying both the victims of rape and God with respect to the act of violation. In the process of doing so, three distinct phenomena associated with the violation are identified, each of which requires that it be addressed in its own manner, proper to its nature.

With respect to the experience of pollution, however, one might justifiably sense that a bit of verbal slight-of-hand has been played. For, by insisting that purity be understood only as a virtue of the soul, Augustine seemingly succeeds in demonstrating that pollution does not proceed from suffering rape. However, while this argument may, in some sense, provide remedy to a social stigma associated with violation, it does nothing to address the physical experience of one’s body as being “impure” in the wake of either rape or molestation.

In essence, Augustine attempts to overcome the issue by treating the experience of pollution as if it were, like shame, a matter of appearances, rather than as what it primarily is, an experience of the body. It seems true that there is an inter-personal element to pollution. It is thus closely resembles shame, particularly with respect to the supposed shame of polluting the senses or imaginations of others by one’s very appearance before them.

However, pollution may just easily be dovetailed with guilt, for who, having contracted the contamination of a “social disease”, does not inherit some moral fault by knowingly spreading it afterwards? And yet, while the experience of pollution may keep company with shame, or even guilt, it need not. This is evinced by the phenomenon in which victims, guiltless both prior and posterior to the event, suffer no public or private shaming for the reason that the violation goes unreported and unrevealed, and yet who, even many years later, report feeling “dirty”, “filthy”, or “disgusting”. It seems clear enough that Augustine is unjustified in treating pollution as primarily a matter of the soul. In the following sections, we shall attempt to further explore the matter of Augustine’s treatment of these issues of the body, and their implications, by first examining his thought on the experience of lust.


 In Book XIV, chapters 10-25 of The City of God, Augustine reflects upon the issue of lust in the context of his exegesis of the myth of the Fall. No longer, as with the consolation in Book I, is the matter of licentiousness treated obliquely, as a particular, outward expression of the domination or the use of a human being by another as if they were an object to be dominated or used. Now lust in itself, rather than the particular expression of lust that is rape, becomes the subject of investigation.

However, the bishop’s framing of that investigation take an interesting turn, for it does not, as one might expect, take the form of with a simple analysis of existing views, nor of a process of pure self-reflection upon his own experiential life, as one might expect in the Confessions. Rather, the investigation into the nature of lust is framed within the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, and is thus interwoven with the myth of humanity’s historical alienation from the Divine.

Lust, as a result of these premises, is conceived as both an historical phenomenon, as symptomatic of one’s distance from eternity, and ultimately as an expression of divine punishment. Augustine’s telling, therefor, takes shape as an exegesis of the narrated events of the book of Genesis, in which said events of the myth are treated as “facts”, and both historiogenetic and anthropogonic speculation mix freely with allegoresis and personal, experiential insight. The result is an oddly personal re-telling of the myth, in which the experience of lust-in-itself is taken to represent one’s personal participation in the aftermath of original sin, and in which the fall from eternity is felt to be continually reproduced in every stirring of one’s own lustful energies.

To understand what is meant by this, it is perhaps best to relate the theologian’s reading of the proceedings of the Fall, and its consequence in the form of lust. The bishop relates one telling in Book XIV, chapter 13: An exoteric reading of the story of Adam and Eve’s respective temptations, their eating of the fruit, and their exodus from Eden, suggests that the Fall was posterior to temptation. However, argues the bishop, a logical analysis would reveal the Fall as having first manifested in that moment in which the wills of Adam and of Eve wandered from the love of righteousness, onto the path of pride. Therefor, logically, the inward condition of the Fall preceded the external manifestation of Falleness in the form of unrighteous action. By Augustine’s interpretation, the eating of the fruit and the exile from Paradise were nothing more than the flowering of the seeds of Adam and Eve’s already fallen wills (COG, XIV, 13)

Following the eating of the fruit, lust makes its appearance within the process of history, as a divine act of punishment. The nature of this punishment is also made clear: that Adam and Eve, having eaten the fruit, should “know” their nakedness. In Augustine’s interpretation, that is to say that, as punishment for their willfulness, the pair would find that their members would quite visibly ignore their wills, and instead respond to the “independent autocracy” of lust. Said “autocracy” would thenceforth drive their pudenda to embarrassing and shameful displays.

Human beings would thus, because of their fallen wills, suffer a twofold punishment. First, the partition of the control of their bodies between the will itself and the “independent autocracy” of lust, and, second, the entirely new phenomenon of shame, which accompanies the visible appearance of a lack of control over the pudenda. As the bishop puts it, “In short, to say all in a word, what but disobedience was the punishment of disobedience in that sin? For what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself, so that in consequence of his not being willing to do what he could do, he now wills what he cannot?” (COG, XIV,15)

Augustine finds a scriptural basis for this thought on the origin and the meaning of lust in Gen. 3:7, in which it is written, “[They ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.] And the eyes of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”

Thus, Adam and Eve’s covering of their genitals, he posits, is indicative of their shame, and that shame must naturally find its basis in appearances – specifically, the appearance of arousal which marks a will for physical congress, or, conversely, the appearance of non-arousal in spite of such willingness. Shame arises in Paradise, therefor, as the manifestation of a disjunction between the actual intent of Eve’s will, and the opinion which Adam forms regarding her will, when judging from the appearance of her sex organs, and vice versa.

In effect, external, physical appearances have decoupled from internal, spiritual reality. Therefor appearances must thenceforth be managed via the device of hiding one’s metaphorical fruits from the equally metaphorical tree. And, with the decoupling of the reality of the body from the reality of the will, history is born in the form of a struggle towards a state in which one is once again “spiritual even in his flesh” rather than “fleshy even in his spirit” (COG, XIX, 15). Lust, consequently, is to be understood as an impediment to achieving a state of peace, in that it is a manifestation of a lack of harmony with oneself; it is effectively indicative of a state of war between the “generative appetites” and the intent of the will, in which the latter is all too likely to submit to the former as a slave.

With the definition of lust as, simultaneously, a symptom of God’s punishment, a symptom of Adam’s descendants’ participation in the fall from eternity, and as a burden on one’s individual efforts to return to the divine presence, chastity would seem to acquire a peculiar importance as an ascetic exercise. As an exercise of the will, chastity would be understood as, quite literally, the exercise of the will’s mastery over the body’s obstinate organs of generation. Such mastery would thereby remove at least one force which might pull one astray from the path of righteousness. As an activity, chastity would be understood as achieving its end in that virtue of the soul which Augustine, in Book I, dubbed “purity”, though here, in Book XIV, tends to refer to as “holiness of the will”.

Here again, then, the reader is confronted with the concept of “purity” and of its converse, “pollution”. For, if purity is what is lost along with the “holy continence of the will”, then one must logically concede pollution to be the resulting state of non-virtue (COG, I, 18); whether or not it was intended by Augustine, however, this chain of logic comes with a number of consequences.

First though, we must reconstruct the logic which unfurls from the definitions and the exegesis of Genesis which transpire in Books I and XIV. To begin, we are presented with something of a differentiation of guilt, shame, and pollution, alongside an identification of the respective areas of reality in which they operate, and the means by which they are contracted. “Guilt”, we learn, is associated with moral fault and a state of disharmony of the soul, and exists irrespective of whether or not any immoral activity proceeds from the immoral thought. Shame, by contrast, flows from appearances, or else the fear of appearances, and “invades even a thoroughly pure spirit” (COG, I, 16).

Pollution, on the other hand, is said to proceed from a loss of purity by the soul, which results from a loss of continence of the will – particularly continence with respect to lust. Lust itself, though, is conceived of as a force or efficient cause behind the disorderly motion of the sex organs, together with the disorderly pleasures and wandering of the mind which attend the movements of lust. In its status as an efficient cause, lust thus carries an equal status to the efficient cause known as the will, but acts at cross-purposes to it at the best of times, or even masters the will on less auspicious occasions.

At this point, certain consequences of these definitions become apparent. Firstly, lust, and its immediate power to move the pudenda, becomes, as Augustine states, a cause of shame, as well as the inspiration for the invention of the apron. Secondly, and quite apart from the shameful, unwilled appearance of arousal, the pleasure of lust can master the will and lead one into incontinence and thereby into impurity. Thirdly, because purity has been defined as a virtue of the soul, it is a virtue which can be lost independent of any purposive, intentional activity of the body.

Fourthly, however, one must observe that, if purity and pollution of the body proceed from the purity or pollution of the soul, then pollution becomes an affliction which is consequent from the experience of lust, whether or not that lust culminates in any physical activity. However, as we have observed, the experience of pollution is not attributable to only those who have consented to lust. Rather, the feeling of being “polluted”, “dirty”, “revolting”, and so forth, is commonly reported by the victims of rape, whom Augustine worked, in Book I, to console and to exculpate. If, though, pollution of the body proceeds from lust, then the feeling of pollution may itself be construed as a sign of a lustful heart, and therefor of guilt.

Thus, having worked precisely to exculpate rape victims from any sense of fault, Augustine develops a conundrum in which their feelings of guilt are seemingly justified, as are the invasions of shame to which they are subjected within the realm of appearances.

The difficulties are compounded by the conflation of holiness of the will with purity. For if, as has been proposed, the experience of pollution is an indication of the impurity of the soul, then the sense of physical impurity accompanying violation can only be concluded, by the experiencer, to be indicative of their lack of holiness. By conflating the issues of purity and lust, Augustine creates the pernicious situation in which one may be perceived, and perceive oneself, as suffering in a state of sin as a result of being raped.

Sin & Theodicy

It is at this point at which it becomes of interest to inquire as to how, or if, these difficulties, which arise from Augustine’s consolation of rape victims, effect the wider matters of theodicy and the nature of sin. As we have seen, one principal goal of the theologian’s consolation has been to exculpate those subjected to violation, and to clean them of any sense of sin with regards to the attacks themselves.

Secondary to the immediate goal of consolation, however, comes the issue of justifying Providence in light of the “gross and violent outrage” suffered by even the holy virgins of the Church. Indeed, one might initially suspect that a sufficient justification of God’s Providence has been performed by attributing the crime to the falleness of the will of the criminal. However, much as complications arise in the consolation as a result of the bishop’s choice of definitions and methodologies, similar complications arise in his theodicy.

To review, as has been observed, by choosing to treat pollution as if it were a logical problem to be solved by redefining terms, rather than as an experience requiring analysis and reflection, Augustine develops what is, at best, the illusion of a consolation. For, though the consolation is technically logical in its course, it becomes oddly abstracted from the experiential reality of rape, in which victims are all too likely to experience their embodied selves to be “polluted” or “impure” – and this in spite of any assurances that any such feeling is illogical.

Indeed, on this issue, Augustine seems to have fallen into the easy trap of advancing an agenda through the application of sophistic rhetoric – of attempting to bend reality, or the perception of reality, to fit the intent of an argument, rather than bending the argument to conform to reality. One is very much reminded, by this point, of the bishop’s former profession as an itinerant teacher of rhetoric (Confessions, IV, ii, 2).

As we have noted, Augustine’s conflation of purity of the body with purity of the soul actually opens the door to an exacerbation of the problem of pollution by tying the experience of physical impurity to a state of spiritual impurity. The potential for one’s spiritual purity to be questioned within the realm of appearances is similarly increased, should a state or feeling of physical impurity be suspected or revealed. As a result, whereas the violated are consoled with one hand, they are unintentionally pushed back into the anxiety of guilt and shame with the other. Given this state of affairs, it certainly behooves one to investigate the effectiveness of Augustine’s exculpation of God.

To begin to do so, it is worthwhile to note Augustine’s definitions of sin and evil, what is meant by original sin, and how these phenomena are thought to have come about. Regarding the nature of evil and sin, the bishop is consistent and unambiguous, and we much glean much from one paradigmatic passage; “And, indeed, this is already sin, to desire those things which the law of God forbids and to abstain from them through fear of punishment, not through love of righteousness. Away, I say, with the thought, that before there was any sin, there should already have been committed regarding that fruit [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] the very sin which our Lord warns us against regarding a woman: ‘Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart [Matt, 5:28]'” (COG, XIV, 10)

Both sin and evil, we are thus told, originate in an intent of the will upon something other than what is righteous, in a love of something other than God, or the yearning for other than the peace and blessedness which come in cleaving to Him. The term of “original sin”, moreover, is understood as a reference to the first sin, committed by the progenitors of the human race, in the garden of Eden – the formulation of an intent to do that which is forbidden. In every case of sin, then, it finds its immediate efficient cause in the free will of the individual; it is the misuse of God’s free gift to the rational begins of His creation. But, much as Socrates recounts in Plato’s Republic in the context of the myth of Er, and the selection by the souls of the departed of their future lives and destinies, “The choice is yours, the God is blameless” [Republic, 617e].

This, at least, would appear to be the initial position of Augustine with regards to the place of evil in his theodicy. However, matters quickly complicate as he advances both the argument for His continuous intervention into the immanent, physical world, and the argument for the presence of His punishment within the bodies and souls of human beings in the form of lust.

Lust, we are told, originated as God’s punishment of Adam and Eve for the original sin, and functions thereafter as a sort of second efficient cause behind their activity – particularly the disorderly activity of their pudenda. However, because of the anthropogonic and historiogenetic dimensions of the myth of the Fall (setting aside the cosmogonic dimensions of Genesis), the punishment takes on a collective character, in which the unborn share in the punishment for sins which precede their existence in time.

Augustine, however, is not insensitive to this oddity, and presents interpretations which would salvage justice from the jaws of an apparently unreasonable vengeance. First, he rejects the option of rejecting the anthropogonic and historiogenetic characteristics of the myth in favour of a purely allegorical reading. Augustine remains wedded to an interpretation of Genesis which maintains its character as an aetiology and history of humanity’s fall from Being.

Second, he proposes that God, in His Wisdom and foreknowledge, makes use of the wickedness of those of evil will on behalf of the good, “For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antithesis.” (COG, I, 18); thus, much as the freedom of the will to choose or not to choose righteousness enhances the moral stature of the good, so does the existence of the bad serve to enhance the beauty of the good.

Thirdly, Augustine very much implies that the continual temptation by, and struggle with lust both serves as an ascetic exercise for those who hunger for righteousness, and, once again, as a means of embellishing the good. “Nevertheless this lust, of which we at present speak, is the most shameful on this account, because the soul is therein neither master of itself, so as not to lust at all, nor of the body, so as to keep the members under the control of the will… [But] when the soul conquers itself to a due subordination [e.g. when the will subjugates lust], so that its unreasonable motions are controlled by reason, while it again is subject to God, this is a conquest virtuous and praiseworthy.” (COG, XIV, 23); thus, while the appearance of lust in time became the origin and cause of shame, the conquest of lust becomes a cause of praise – praise which would scarcely be possible were the sex organs still under the iron rule of the will.

Fourthly, we are presented the argument that, at the end of time, having passed through the second resurrection into the heavenly city, the penal curse of lust will be lifted from the saints, and the genitalia will take on “a new beauty” as they revert to the control of the individual will. There, they are posited to take on a vegetative or non-functional character as reminders and veritable medals of the battles for righteousness. “For my part, they seem wiser who make no doubt that both sexes shall rise. For there shall be no lust, which is now the cause of confusion. For before they sinned, the man and the woman were naked, and were not ashamed. From those bodies, then, vice shall be withdrawn, while nature [which is good] will be preserved. And the sex of woman is not a vice, but nature. It shall then indeed be superior to carnal intercourse and child-bearing; nevertheless the female members shall remain adapted not to the old uses, but to a new beauty, which, so far from provoking lust, now extinct, shall excite praise to the wisdom and clemency of God, who both made what was not and delivered from corruption what he made.” (COG, XXII, 17)

Be this as it may, the fact remains of Augustine’s characterization of lust as a purely penal condition, instituted by God as punishment for the original sin, and remitted of the saints after the second resurrection. It is therefor considered to be of a wholly negative quality, in that it is unnecessary to any proper function of mankind, and serves only to indiscriminately vex and punish the will of the good and the bad. In addition, activities touched or inspired by lust partake of its negative and sinful quality, such that lustful activities are, by their nature, tainted by evil. This is true inasmuch as they debase human nature, which is meant to aspire to spiritual rather than carnal goods, with the highest good defined as the peace and felicity enjoyed in the presence of God (COG, XIX, 12). This peace is made possible by the shedding of lust by the grace of God, by which is removed the spiritual dichotomy represented by the self’s two incommensurable efficient causes, lust and the will, one of which is understood to be entirely negative in its intentionality, the other to be at least capable of redemption to the proper order.

In this temporal life, though, it is understood that lust is a persistent condition, as well as a persistent indication of both God’s punishment, and one’s own sinfulness. To lust is to sin, and to sin is to deserve God’s punishment, and to need prayer for the sake of beseeching His forgiveness. Thus, lust itself is a punishment which leads to the sin (lusting), which deserves punishment, for which one must seek forgiveness through prayer. By the unfolding of Augustine’s logic, lust itself is revealed to be the inducement for the continuous, ascetic exercise of the good will, which strives towards continence (both bodily and spiritual) and turns to prayer for God’s grace, forgiveness, and remittance of sin.

Because the cycle of punishment, sin, and punishment is circular, the exercise of continence and prayer is without any immanent end-point. Its completion comes only in death, when the granting and accepting of grace bears its final fruits with the breaking and transcendence of the cycle. In this way, God is seen to turn even the first sin to the advantage of the good, by allowing the punishment to flow down the generations of mankind from Adam and Eve, and become the perpetual drive for the redemption of the individual will to the path of the righteous.


In spite of the apparent redemptive qualities of Augustine’s cycle of punishment, sin, prayer, and forgiveness, their remain certain oddities in his theodicy, in so far as it encompasses his already clearly problematic consolation of the victims of rape. For one, the bishop is at pains to explain why God allows rape to occur, and can only offer vague assurances to the effect that either the violation must serve as a check on the sin of pride, or the possibility of pride arising in the future, or perhaps serve to reveal to the victims that true continence and purity lie in the soul, rather than in the integrity of the body – particularly the hymen. The passage in which these musings occur, though, seem rather awkward and hesitant in both composition and tone (COG, I, 28). We might, in fact, question why the passage was included at all, at least in the form which it took.

Given all that has been said regarding Augustine’s conception of original sin and lust, one might have expected the statement that man, not God, commits rape – that the choice is man’s, and God is blameless. Upon reflection, it seems that the problem is that Augustine has conceived for himself a tremendous problem by supposing that God is continuously active and intervening in the inner world of the soul in the forms of grace and punishment. Because the punishment takes the form of lust, which has the prescribed end of driving the soul to redemption through grace, it is supposedly justified in the full sense of the word. To be fully justified, though, the punishment – because it exists by the supernatural decree of God, and not by the nature of His creation – must be justifiable in terms of its activities. For, as Augustine argues, lust is a second efficient cause operating within the souls of human beings, and which exists by divine decree; the sins of lust must, therefor, be fully redeemable, at least in principle, in order to maintain that God is wholly just.

The difficulty, then, is that the bishop is forced to consider how that sin of lust known as rape is justified in the eyes of God, for both the aggressor and the victim. For, if the victim is blameless and only injured by the violation, but in no conceivable way redeemed by it, then Augustine has opened-up the door to the implication that God causes harm maliciously or arbitrarily rather than justly. To accuse God of such a thing, however, would be a moral obscenity greater than that which Augustine accuses his pagan opponents of committing throughout Books I through V.

Rape, therefore, must at least potentially lead to redemption. To say, though, as Augustine must, that there must be some just reason, in the eyes of God, for one to be raped is precisely to undo and to contradict his consolation. For, as we have noted, his principle motive was to exculpate the victims. And yet, in Book I, chapter 28, he is forced by his own logic to find in them some fault which may be corrected by the violation. To avoid complete obscenity, though, he ultimately – at the end of chapter 28 – evades the question of finding some moral fault in the victims, and deems the likely fault to be essentially noetic rather than moral. In other words, he poses the possibility that the victims were in error inasmuch as they might have considered purity to be a state of the body, rather than a virtue of the soul. He then pronounces, “From this error they are probably now delivered.” (COG, I, 14).

This, however, does little to remedy the problem, because, as noted in the first section of this essay, a victim of rape, in the wake of violation, is more likely to experience themselves as having been polluted – rendered impure – than to suddenly pontificate upon the matter of whether purity is related to the state of the body or is a virtue of the soul. It is manifestly absurd, for instance, to expect a girl to wax philosophic on whether her virginity is lost with the integrity of her hymen, in reaction to losing it in an assault.

The thought that such attacks could be God’s means of educating His creatures is as vain as the thought that He induces such assaults maliciously. Whichever of these two paths of logic is taken would certainly sacrifice Augustine’s theodicy in the process. Indeed, what seems clear is that the bishop has weaved a net in which he has caught himself. For, having first exculpated the victims of rape from fault, then implicated lust as God’s temporal punishment of humanity for the original sin, but having also affirmed God’s justice, reason, and love, when Augustine poses himself the question of why God permits rape to occur, he has left himself with the choice that either i) God is malicious, or ii) rape is God’s just means of punishing sin and of driving the victims to seek forgiveness and grace. Either choice is equally unpalatable, and it becomes clear why he, in essence, walked away from the problem in Book I, chapter 28, with so much half-hearted hand-waving.

For our part, however, the source of this problem in the consolation and the theodicy is readily identifiable. Moreover, it seems to relate less to the injustice of God or the justice of rape than it does to problems in Augustine’s definitions and logic – at least insofar as The City of God is concerned. The source of the dilemma regarding the meaning of rape is fivefold:

First, there comes the rather questionable definition of purity as a virtue of the soul, in which the body partakes.

Second, and closely related, comes the association of impurity with lust, and lust’s association with sin and evil.

Third comes Augustine’s acceptance of the historical authenticity of the anthropogonic and historiogenetic characteristics of the myth of the Fall.

Fourth comes his choice to interpret Adam and Eve’s “knowledge” of their nakedness as proof of their shame at their newfound lust, and its control over their pudenda.

Fifth comes his association of this newly manifested force as God’s punishment, which is not of humanity’s original nature, but is a relatively “new”, supernatural curse, of which the saints will be relieved in the afterlife.

If any of these five assertions or interpretations of Augustine’s had been absent, then the absurd problem of rape and theodicy might not have arisen. For, if impurity were merely a matter of the body, then it would remain, essentially, a matter of sanitation and purification, and not of supernatural religion per se. If lust were not affirmed to be essentially sinful, then it could not be affirmed to be necessarily associated with impurity of soul and body. If the myth of the Fall were not accepted as an anthropogony and historiogenetic myth, then then there would be no need to affirm it as a factual history of the causes of humanity’s fall from Being. If Adam and Eve had, literally, simply “known” that they were naked, and had not been affirmed to have felt ashamed at the newfound affliction of lust, then there would be no reason to associate lust with original sin. Finally, if lust had not been affirmed to be God’s punishment, one employed to good use in both exercising the good wills of the saints and separating the wheat from the proverbial chaff, then there would be no need for Augustine to explain how God in His Foreknowledge makes good use of rape for the sake of the victim.

In fin, the problem of rape and theodicy, as it appears in The City of God, need not have occurred, and originates from a handful of decisions of the author – none of which demands the consent of reason. There is no particular rationale, for instance – Scriptural or otherwise – for qualifying lust as essentially sinful, to declare it God’s punishment of Adam and Eve, to assume that the curse would be transmitted genetically to all future generations, and that it would then play a part in the rape of men, women, girls, and boys throughout the ages of history, thereby requiring that it be, in some way, justified in its existence, in the eyes of God, by St. Augustine of Hippo. Indeed, one need only affirm that rape, and not lust, is a sin, and that the choice to violate is man’s; the God is blameless.

Colin CordnerColin Cordner

Colin Cordner

Colin Cordner is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and completed his Ph.D. at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in 2016, where he is an instructor and occasional poet in the Department of Political Science. He is also owner of Fall's Edge Editing. His recent research focuses upon the works Plato and Michael Polanyi on scientism qua sophism, and the origins and therapies for the attendant spiritual crises and political disorders.

Back To Top