Augustine and the problem of bodily desire

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In what sense did Augustine attribute desires to the human body itself? Scholars disagree substantially about how to answer this question, yet it has rarely been treated as anything approaching a scholarly quaestio disputata. Some hold that bodily desire is in principle impossible according to Augustine’s anthropology. Others hold that bodily desire is of marginal significance in Augustine’s system. Still others hold that bodily desire is a central problem in human life according to Augustine. This essay is an intervention intended to prompt further exchange about the interpretation of Augustine’s thought on the issue of bodily desire. To achieve that goal, the essay closely examines two texts from Augustine’s writings against Julian of Eclanum in the early 420s. In book I of De nuptiis et concupiscentia, Augustine argues that the body does have its own desires and they are an extensive problem in human life. Furthermore, in Contra Iulianum we find that Augustine himself responds to three crucial objections that might be raised against my interpretation. In short, late in his life Augustine treated bodily desire as a grave and pervasive problem. The essay does not address his views in his earlier works. As an intervention, the essay inevitably prompts important questions it cannot fully address, especially around Augustine’s philosophy of mind, the development of Augustine’s thought, and the implications of Augustine’s claims about the body for other elements of his theological project. Future investigations will hopefully take up these topics in the scholarly exchange this intervention intends to foster.

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