Jim Tonkowich
Libido Dominandi: St. Augustine and the Lust for Domination
The whole thing started with what seemed a reasonable request and ended as a mud-slinging mess. A friend and her 5-year-old son toddled down to the town public library so that he could get his very own library card.

Five-year-olds are not the most reliable people in the world, so the library requires a parent's signature as the party responsible for all books, videos and CDs checked out by the child. No problem there. The library also requires parents to sign a statement acknowledging the child's right to privacy. This means that though the parent is responsible, the library will not tell the parent what it is that the child has checked out — that's between the librarian and the 5-year-old.

My friend thought this was crazy and petitioned to have the rules changed. Then the dam broke. How dare she question those in charge of the library? Her character was maligned at town council meetings; she was annoyed on the street and ridiculed in the town newspaper. Though a veteran of state and national politics, she had never seen anything like the kind of onslaught she experienced over library cards for 5-year-olds.

And, of course, it's not just a problem in local politics. Church politics are often unspeakably vicious. Workplace turf battles can be sneaky and underhanded. And crumbling marriages and divorces are often hotbeds of manipulation, meanness and vengeance.

Even though Christians talk about love for neighbor, too often when we disagree, the bare-fisted mêlée that results makes our neighbors weep.

In his magisterial work The City of God, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) contrasts the City of God with the City of Man. The Church is the City of God on pilgrimage through this age to the Eternal City. It is the divine commonwealth ruled by God and governed by the law of love.

Augustine writes of the City of God:

For if we inquire whence it is, God created it; or whence its wisdom, God illumined it; or whence its blessedness, God is its bliss. It has its form by subsisting in Him; its enlightenment by contemplating Him; its joy by abiding in Him. It is; it sees; it loves. In God's eternity is its life; in God's truth is its light; in God's goodness is its joy.1

By contrast, the City of Man is the secular order. It is the earthly city ruled by humans for their own gain using their own rules. Above all, says Augustine, it "is itself ruled by the lust of rule."2 "The lust of rule" is a translation of the Latin libido dominandi. As Richard John Neuhaus puts it, libido dominandi is "the lust for power, advantage, and glory." It shouts, "My way or no way!"

This lust for domination doesn't just characterize politics in the City of Man, it characterizes each of us. The libido dominandi is that within each of us that plots and strives to have our own way and force others do as we say. As such, it is the controlling passion of our fallen nature and, thus, of our fallen world.

We see this lust to dominate beginning with the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:4-6)

The desire to "be like God" — great, glorious, and in control — led to all the misery in the world. Soon Cain murdered Abel.

The first song recorded in the Bible was the one Lamech sang to his wives. Rather than praising God or perhaps his wives, Lamech celebrates revenge and murder.

I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times. (Genesis 4:23-24)

The examples multiply through the Old Testament. Think of the stories of the Kings of Judah and Israel and Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Medes who conquered them. Haman in the book of Esther wanted all Jews in the Medo-Persian Empire killed because one Jew would not bow to him. It was this same libido dominandi (see Esther 3:1-6).

In the New Testament, Jesus did not have to fear for His life until He was perceived as a threat to those in power. After the raising of Lazarus from the dead the Sanhedrin met saying "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation" (John 11:47b-48). Jesus became a threat and as such needed to be dispatched quickly. A week later He was dead.

The City of God stands in marked contrast to the City of Man and every citizen of the City of God — Christians — in marked contrast to the citizens of the City of Man. Augustine writes, "[T]he two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God even to the contempt of self."3

Rather than libido dominandi, the attitude of "My way or no way!" that marks the City of Man, Christians are marked — or at least are supposed to be marked — by humility and love of God and neighbor. Most of us know that. The question is how to make that a reality.

First, we need to affirm the providence of God. My need to force things to happen my way is an indication that I don't really believe that God is in charge of this world. Augustine, putting it negatively, said, "For he who denies that all things, which either angels or men can give us, are in the hands of the one Almighty, is a madman."4 The sane person knows that God providentially rules all things. I tend to be a madman believing that I must wrest what I desire out of the world and other people rather than sanely trusting the Almighty.

Augustine is not commending a disposition of radical quietism where I lie limp as life rushes over me. If he believed that he certainly would not have written The City of God, which presents a vigorous defense of Christianity in light of the fall of Rome in AD 410. Part of God's providential care for us and for those around us is the gifts he has given. We are to employ those gifts to the fullest extent we can while relying entirely on God to bring about the results.

Second, we need to become sensitive to the lust for domination that is part of our fallen nature. It comes out in disguised and insidious ways. We are adept at using acts of service to manipulate others and get our way. Sometimes when making a strong point in a discussion with my wife, I feel an odd thrill. It's not the thrill of pursuing the good, true, and beautiful in partnership with someone I love. Instead it's the thrill of winning or, to put it more accurately, it's the thrill of her losing. I'm dominating. It feels good at home, on the job, in the Church, and in the Public Square. It's giving in to libido dominandi and is cause for repentance. Loving truth is good; loving being right and lording it over others is sin, plain and simple.

Jesus told his disciples:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)

Jesus contrasts the way of the City of Man with the way of the City of God: the lust of domination with loving service. Every day we choose between the two until the pilgrimage is over and loving service becomes the natural choice through the eternal day.

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1Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods. Random House (1950). Book XI.24, page 369.
2Ibid., Book I.Preface, page 3.
3Ibid., Book XIV.28, page 477.
4Ibid., Book X.14, page 319.

Copyright 2008 James Tonkowich. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article was published on Boundless.org on February 6, 2008.