The grammar of continence in Augustine’s doctrine of Christian love
First presented at the North American Patristics Society. June 1, 1996. The full version is available in the Journal of Early Christian Studies 6:1 (Spring 1998): 59-92.
In recent years scholars have increasingly recognized that Augustine’s close attention to “concupiscence” grew not from a crude preoccupation with sexuality but from a complex analysis of the sources of all human behavior. Peter Brown has called it a shadowy “drive to control, to appropriate, and to turn to one’s private ends, all the good things that had been created by God to be accepted with gratitude and shared with others;” for Augustine, concupiscence “lay at the root of the inescapable misery that afflicted [humanity].”
It is time to extend to continence the same pattern of analysis. It is time to pursue Augustine’s suggestion that continence is key not just to dealing with errant sexuality, but is key to the righting of all human relationships. Augustine did not always make this explicit, and so a central task of this article will be to discern how a grammar of continence shaped his teachings on love, even when he did not explicate that grammar.
“In truth, you command me to be continent with regard to `the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the ambition of the world,'” wrote Augustine at a critical juncture in book ten of the Confessions. If his love was to remain single — unified in one love for the One God — he must be continent with regard to all possible sins and temptations.
To be sure, some of the rhetorical moves that Augustine later made within the Pelagian controversy have encouraged readers to focus exclusively on the sexual dimension of both concupiscence and continence. Yet eventually the Pelagians also forced Augustine to clarify that sexual continence is only one instantiation of a “higher continence” of the heart. Sometime between 417 and 421, Augustine wrote a treatise On Continence. While acknowledging that sexual continence is the kind “most chiefly and properly to be called continence,” Augustine sought to shift the focus of his debate with the Pelagians to “the higher continence, concerning which we have been some time speaking [, the kind that is] preserved in the heart.” From this “higher continence” of the heart, he argued, proceeds every right thought and deed
Notice Augustine’s passing claim that he had been speaking of this higher continence “for some time.” Actually, the term “superior continentia” appears nowhere else in the Augustinian corpus! How could Augustine claim so unselfconsciously that the notion was nothing new? My contention is that even when Augustine did not name continence at all, much less “higher continence,” its logic had long been shaping his doctrine of Christian love. In the deep and formative grammar of Augustine’s thought, trustful clinging to the God who is one’s highest good consistently contrasted with every kind of manipulative grasping after other goods. In the Augustinian phenomenology of love, the operations of charity and continence are entirely coordinate, while the two larger movements of cupidity and charity are mutually exclusive. For as he remarked in Sermon 125, love is “the hand of the soul”:
Consider a man’s love: think of it as, so to say, the hand of the soul. If it is holding anything, it cannot hold anything else. But that it may be able to hold what it is given to it, it must leave go what it holds already. This I say, see how expressly I say it; “Whoever loves the world cannot love God; he has his hand engaged.” God says to him, “Hold what I give.” He will not leave go what he was holding; he cannot receive what is offered.
According to Confessions 13.7, nothing is more like yet more unlike the movement of charity than the movement of cupidity. The “hand” that opens in order to cling to God, after all, must be a hand that continently refrains from grasping all those smaller goods it might close in upon and manipulate, or so dream.
The Grammar of Grasping
To reach out, seize, acquire, contain, hold, and possess — these are the actions by which human beings manage their physical existence and eat every bite they need to survive. Still, Augustine displayed a certain reticence when he spoke of the proper ways for human beings to relate to the objects they desire, love, and in some way acquire. The more important (or “higher”) an object, the more problematic human endeavors to grasp it were likely to be. This is the pattern that emerges when we examine Augustine’s use of verbs for having and grasping:
Everyone must necessarily grasp and possess at least some nonhuman temporal goods, yet those on pilgrimage amid the earthly city must use temporal goods without grasping them so tightly that they were instead held tight (capitur) by them. With temporal goods, however, it is not really the external goods themselves but one’s own illusions of permanent, private possession that present the most serious temptation, according to De Trinitate 12.9-10. The attempt to control permanently may in fact the critical moral variable in human grasping.
Augustine’s general reflections on the death of his friend in book four of the Confessions show that wrongly grasping is both sinful and ultimately in vain — but his specific choice of words underscores this. Upon first recounting the death of his friend, Augustine insisted that theirs had not been a true friendship because God must glue together such friendship among those who cling to God through the caritas of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, the “love that comes from the body’s senses” could also apply a glue to the soul, but one that worked through fixation with passing goods. The soul might seek to rest in its attachment to the good of human friendship; yet because such goods flee on in time, desiring them apart from God ends up tearing away part of the soul. Thus, even before they flee and while they are still close at hand “who can grasp them?”
On the other hand, the way to love a neighbor, friend, or enemy rightly was, for Augustine, to “seize and carry up to him with you as many as you can — “rape ad eum tecum quas potes.” At first the notion may in every case seem to suggest violent forms of grasping at worst, paternalism at best. Rapere could serve as the word for sexual rape, a raptor was a thief, and Augustine might characterize Christians as dovelike creatures who lacked a grasping, rapacious nature. If, in spite of all such overtones, Augustine nonetheless insisted that one might somehow rapere other human beings who are one’s equals, and carry them up to God, the reason was that this implied a relinquishing of control — at least eventually, at least in theory. (Lot’s of problems in practice, of course…!)
In some sense, people should of course seek to learn, apprehend, comprehend, and otherwise grasp the truth, especially of spiritual and eternal things. Augustine might also speak of acquiring wisdom, the truth, the Supreme Good, and, along with any good, joy. The cognitive grasping of comprehension or apprehension is a special case — precisely, perhaps, because it does not involve coercive manipulation of external goods, but rather internal reception of God’s gifts. And even here, Augustine was careful. In an apologetic or homiletic context he might appeal to the desire of readers and listeners to acquire the goods of wisdom, joy or truth for themselves. But he almost always went on to insist that they could only “acquire” such goods as gifts, which were not therefore of their own making.
But what about God? For Augustine the Supreme Good, of course, is God’s own self. Is one to grasp or have or contain God? Surely one should not be concupiscent toward God. Biblical language in texts such as the Psalms does allow the possibility that God could in some way be one’s “portion,” “inheritance,” or possession. Augustine nonetheless remained circumspect. The great mystery of the opening chapters in the Confessions was the question of what or who could know, call upon, and contain (capere) God. Yet everything in the work conspired to reverse the question: How, rather, does God call and grasp us? As Augustine’s narrative shifted in book eight from his own frustrated questing to God’s gracious saving, his prayer hinted that God would be the one to call, seize and carry him back (rapere). By book ten Augustine was making clear that no place within him could contain (capere) God’s light, and no time could seize (rapere) God’s voice. As he opened book 13 of the Confessions Augustine prayed:
I call upon you, my God, my mercy…. I call you into my soul, which you prepare to accept you [ad capiendum te] by the longing that you breath into it. Do not desert me now when I call upon you, for before I called upon you, you went ahead and helped me, and repeatedly you urged me on by many different words, so that from afar I would hear you and be converted, and call upon you as you called upon me.
Before all else, God’s initiative in sending God’s own Son as Mediator is what makes it possible for human beings in some sense to obtain God. Could one then grasp Christ, the Word made flesh, the Mediator? Augustine generally preferred to speak of Christians as clinging to Christ, or as having Christ (habeo) and holding onto Christ (teneo). There is a subtle difference. These are general terms that lack the manipulative connotation of verbs such as –prehendo or other words for grasping. As Christians drifted down the river of time in their love of temporal things, then looked in desperation to Christ planted beside the river, they should indeed take hold of the tree. But Augustine’s exhortation was this: “Tene lignum…. Tene Christum.“ One could hold on to Christ, apparently, but not seize him by grasping, for Christ was the stable one on the river bank.
The Grammar of Clinging
Human beings cling to God by loving God, in recognition that God is their supreme good. Such clinging is basic to the love that enjoys rather than uses, for “To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake.” Clinging to God brings spiritual health, everlasting joy, virtues, and unity among believers. Thus, it is what repentant sinners must do, what the unconverted Augustine knew that he had to do, yet is also what he knew he could not do on his own. Even as a Christian, then, to cling to God was Augustine’s constant prayer. Human beings, after all, cannot cling to the good except as God grasps hold of them through Jesus Christ. Augustine also spoke of clinging to Christ, though less often.
Augustine might also speak positively of clinging to other goods — the words of someone wise, the solidity of truth, the foundation of God’s scriptures, the Church, and the common good. Notice that Augustine would have thought of all of these as so much bigger than himself that they were impervious to his own control. Part of what distinguishes continent clinging from concupiscent grasping is that the objects to which we properly cling are too big for us to manipulate anyway; we cannot close in upon them domineeringly with the hand of our soul. Imagine clinging as holding onto a huge rock for dear life — perhaps the Psalmist’s “rock of salvation.” Imagine grasping as finding a rare baby bird there, and seizing it so impetuously that one either chokes off its life, or falls to one’s death, or both.
Clinging can apply to creatures, however. When human beings rightly love their neighbors, friends, and fellow Christians in God, according to Augustine, they also cling to one another rightly. Among the narratives in book eight of the Confessions is the story of two ambitious Roman friends who agreed to bond or cling together (adhaerere se) as comrades in service to God. On a larger scale, all those who share in the good of clinging to God “have holy fellowship with [God] to whom they adhere, and also among themselves;” such mutual adherence, whether on pilgrimage yet on earth or at rest together with the holy angels, constitutes the one City of God.
Years before he wrote City of God Augustine had identified the city of those citizens who comprise God’s house in a single “pure mind, most harmoniously one by the established peace of holy spirits,” as the “heaven of heavens.” For Augustine this “heaven of heavens” was the archetypical — and archetypically faithful — creature, whose very faithfulness means looking to God as its only source of light and nourishment, thus clinging to God so fully, so joyfully, and so continently, that it almost shares in God’s own immutability.
Metaphysical speculation aside, Augustine’s discussion of the Latin Hebraicism offers a limit case for the possibilities of all creatureliness. The “heaven of heavens” supplied the ultimate standard against which Augustine might measure himself as a creature. Alienated from God, he had heard a distant voice beckoning him to return, so that he burned and yearned for God’s “fountain.” The lesson was not, however, that such “erotic” longing itself might lead to God, but precisely the opposite: “Let me not be my own life: badly have I lived from myself: I was death to myself: in you I live again. Speak to me, speak with me.” Thus, it is the voice of Paul, not Plato or Plotinus, that emerges with the final word in Augustine’s Confessions — Paul confessing that “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” by faith — Paul insisting that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”
What Augustine as a creature must therefore learn (but must necessarily learn through God’s grace) was what the archetypically faithful creature had never forgotten: No creature could ascend through its own agency, nor control its own destiny, nor create itself, but must recognize its entire life and self as an undeserved gift of God’s pure uncoerced love. Even the highest lights or spiritual creatures of heaven did not have any light of themselves, but must cling to God in order to retain their light.
Having by Not Having
To say that the phenomenology of grasping and clinging formed part of the deep grammar of Augustine’s thought is to indicate how the same can be true about continence itself. The one who loves rightly opens the “hand of the soul” in order to cling to God. In so doing, he or she also clings mutually with others who cling to God as their common good. Thus loving “in God,” those who love rightly receive even temporal goods as gifts, so long as they receive them in the right ecology of interrelationship that is the common good, rather than through strictly private possession of private goods. So then, “this whole rich world belongs” to the “person of faith, … who, by clinging to [God] whom all things serve, is as one having nothing yet possessing all things.” Those who love in this way surely possess much but they do so through a fundamentally nonegocentric, nonviolent way of acquiring. For they “acquire” by continently respecting. They do not grasp; rather, they “have” by not having. They acquire by refraining.
Understood within a larger web of Augustinian meanings, continence is not simply negative self-restraint, but is rather this trustful, nonmanipulative way of having right relationships with the objects of one’s love. Fittingly then, Augustine portrayed the interior movement of his conversion itself as a chaste embrace with a “virtuously alluring” woman whose very name was Continence. Notice the impasse that she represented. He could not have her by grasping and thus violating her, for he would thus have marred the very beauty of her “alluring” virtue. No, to “have” a dignified, serene, and joyous woman named Continence in the “embrace” of a right relationship required that he not “have” her in a disrespectful way. Some goods — the most important goods — one may not “have” or “acquire” or “possess” at all through grasping at them. To attempt to manipulate and control the friend, the spouse, the destiny, or the divine, inevitably means to treat the goods that one claims to love as something less than they truly are, thus degrading either the object of love, or the one loving, or both.
Still, if the alternate way of “having” such goods is continence, the virtue of continence itself must necessarily be “had” continently, through faith not willpower, as a gift of God. This was the core argument in Augustine’s anti-Pelagian treatise On Continence. To attempt self-control through our own will-power, after all, actually acquiesces to the greater incontinence of uncontrolled pride. Continence is only continent, therefore, if it recognizes itself as God’s gift. Its work is not simply to refuse consent to those evil inclinations, but above all to confess that whenever one does good, it is Christ, “not I,” who now lives one’s very life.
Continence is the gift of God. But through Christ who lives within those who know that “Where not I, there more happily I,” God is giving it — already in this life. Certainly the mature Augustine never expected any Christian to reach perfection in this life. Yet by his own standard of realism, continence remained the highest possible earthly perfection for those who knew they would be struggling against sin all their lives.
One does not necessarily flirt with Pelagianism, therefore, if one notices ways we too need continence to acquire rightly those goods for which we most deeply long. In an article sketching the outlines for an “Augustinian vision” of politics, ethicist Gilbert Meilaender quoted favorably a remark by the English writer Samuel Johnson that “to be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor.” Yet we live in a society in which the average size of the houses we call our homes keeps growing, and where the images on our televisions tell us to relate to the natural world by racing through some pristine forest churning up the earth in a plush four-wheel-drive easy chair. Lest any disturb these comfort zones, we erect them at suburban remove from the poor and will go to war for the oil needed to fuel our illusions.
“Our hearts are restless” and so they will remain until they find rest in God, but our consuming and plundering and grasping erodes conditions even for that provisional rest at home which points beyond itself to the fullness of life in God. To recover the place of Augustinian continence is not then a matter of scholarly curiosity alone, but a human imperative. However we conceive of our salvation, it is not in grasping at the good, but in trusting God so that we may also respect God’s creatures, thus receiving our security, our joy, and our very life as God’s gift — a gift not of our own devising or manipulation.
1. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Lectures on the History of Religions 13 (New York: Columbia U. P., 1988) 418. Brown’s book as a whole makes clear that a juxtaposition of sexual issues with issues of power and ambition was hardly unique to Augustine.
3. Though anti-Manichaean themes once led scholars to date De continentia from around 395 or 396, recent work has argued persuasively that Augustine wrote the treatise somewhere between 418 and 420. Accusations by the Pelagian bishop Julian of Eclanum that Augustine had reverted to Manichaeism account for the convergence of both anti-Pelagian and anti-Manichaean themes in the work, and for the later date. Cf. David G. Hunter, “The Date and Purpose of Augustine’s De continentia,” Augustinian Studies 26:2 (1995) 7-24; Michael R. Rackett, “Anti-Pelagian Polemic in Augustine’s De continentia,” Augustinian Studies 26:2 (1995) 25-50. For De patientia, a dating at 417 or 418 has long been standard.
4. Cf. De continentia 2.5 (CSEL 41:146.3): “Ac per hoc illa quae genitalibus membris pudicitia refrenatis, solet maxime ac proprie continentia nominari, nulla transgressione violatur, si superior continentia, de qua jamdiu loquimur, in corde servetur.” Translation from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, first series (NPNF) vol. 3; for all quotations from the NPNF I have taken the liberty of updating the nineteenth-century English without comment.
6. As I employ the English words “cling” and “grasp,” they stand for two sets of words that Augustine freely interchanged. Behind “cling” (or in older translations, “cleave”) stands various Latin verbs with haereo at its root — inhaereo, adhaereo, cohaereo, and haereo itself. Behind “grasp” stands various Latin verbs — appetere, rapere, adipisci, capere, possidere, as well as various words with prehendeo at their root (comprehendeo, adprehendeo, and prehendeo itself), at least in their noncognative senses.
9. The high drama of Augustine’s conversion as it climaxed in the garden of Milan could hardly do without the more mundane action of seizing and picking up a book of the apostle Paul: “Arripui, aperui et legi in silentio capitulum, quo primum coniecti sunt oculi mei” (Conf. 8.12.29 [CCSL 27:131.32]).).
13. Cf. Conf. 4.6.11 (CCSL 27:45.2): “Miser eram, et miser est omnis animus vinctus amicitia rerum mortalium, et dilaniatur, cum eas amittit, et tunc sentit miseriam, qua miser est et antequam amittat eas.”
14. Conf. 4.10.15 (CCSL 27:48.19). Cf. 4.11.17 (CCSL 27:49.16): if natural senses cannot comprehendere temporal parts of the universe, much less “ad totum comprehendendum esset idoneus sensus carnis.”
15. Conf. 4.12.18 (CCSL 27:49.5). Cf. 4.12.19 (CCSL 27:50.35): “Dic eis ista, ut plorent in convalle plorationis, et sic eos rape te cum ad Deum, quia de spiritu eius haec dicis eis, si dicis ardens igne caritatis.”
19. De doctrina christiana 1.4.4 (CCSL 32:8.17). We must place the early chapters of De doctrina within the apologetic or philosophical genre because Augustine began this work by appealing to a priori categories that he believed universal to all human experience. In the very next sentence, in 1.5.5 Augustine began to introduce the claims of revelation, but most of book one of De doctrina continues to support those claims by appealing to philosophical universals.
24. In the Vulgate, see Psalms 15:5, 72:26, 118:57, 141:6, and also note Jeremiah 10:16, 51:19, and Lamentations 3:24. The Latin words hereditas, pars, and portio all serve to translate the Hebrew cheleq. Although the Vulgate does not use possessio in these cases, it can hardly be a coincidence that most of the instances in which Augustine spoke of “possessing God” occur in his Ennarationes in Psalmos. See 5.1 (CCSL 38:19.3), 5.14 (38:25.5), 17.32 (38:99.4), 32/2.17 (38:267.4,5) – 18 (38:267.1,13; 268.24), 36/1.4 (38:341.16), 55.16 (39:689.8), 62.10 (39:800.30), 145.11 (40:2113.18).
25. Conf. 1.2.2 (CCSL 27:1.1): “Et quomodo invocoabo Deum meum, Deum et Dominum meum, quoniam utique in me ipsum eum invocabo, cum invocabo eum? Et quis locus est in me, quo veniat in me Deus meus? Ita ne, domine deus meus, est quidquam in me, quod capiat te? An vero caelum et terra, quae fecisti et in quibus me fecisti, capiunt te? An quia sine te non esset quidquid est, fit, ut quidquid est capiat te?…” Conf. 1.3.3 (CCSL 27:2.1,8): “Capiunt ergo ne te caelum et terra, quoniam tu imples ea? An imples et restat, quoniam non te capiunt?… An quia non possunt te totum capere omnia, partem tui capiunt et eandem partem simul omnia capiunt? An singulas singula et maiores maiora, minores minora capiunt? Ergo est aliqua pars tua maior, aliqua minor? An ubique totus es et res nulla te totum capit?”
26. Conf. 8.4.9 (CCSL 27:118.1): “age, domine, fac excita et reuoca nos, accende et rape, flagra, dulcesce: amemus, curramus.” In 7.1.2 (CCSL 27:93.39,47), Augustine had noted that many of his previous errors had stemmed from the Manichaean idea that all things might contain (capere) the presence of a God who must be material. In 7.18.24 (CCSL 27:108.1,5), he had confessed himself unable to take in (capere) the food of the Mediator Christ Jesus who was truth incarnate, until he first embraced (amplexo) the Mediator; embracing or clinging was clearly a different way of having and relating than was grasping or containing.
32. In Tractatus in Joannis evangelium 50.4 (CCSL 36:434.6) Augustine was commenting on John 11:57, which reports that Jewish leaders had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should inform upon or arrest (adprehendere) Jesus. This allowed the preacher a double entendre: “Veniant ad ecclesiam, audiant ubi sit christus, et apprehendant eum — Let them come to the church, let them hear where Christ is, and let them seize him!” Here the rhetorical and exegetical exception proves the rule — except where Scripture supplied such a usage, Augustine tended to avoid the notion of grasping Christ.
50. Conf. 12.11.12 (CCSL 27:222.23): “Nec invenio, quid libentius appellandum existimem caelum caeli domino quam domum tuam contemplantem delectationem tuam sine ullo defectu egrediendi in aliud, mentem puram concordissime unam stabilimento pacis sanctorum spirituum, civium civitatis tuae in caelestibus super ista caelestia.”
56. Conf. 13.2.2 (CCSL 27:242.1): “Your creation subsists out of the fullness of your goodness, to the end that a good that would profit you nothing, and that was not of your substance and thus equal to you, would nevertheless not be nonexistent, since it could be made by you. What claim on you had heaven and earth, which you made in the beginning?” Cf. 9.10.25.
60. To recognize the need for continence at all is to recognize that one is still struggling against sinful desires, Augustine continued in his treatise On Continence (2.5-3.6). When the New Testament identifies these sinful desires with “the flesh,” it refers not to the body but to the soul’s choice to live according to the standards of the flesh, thereby making bodily pleasures and bodily self-preservation its highest purpose (De continentia 4.11). No one is so perfect that they cease to struggle against the wrongful desires in this life (De continentia 5.13, 8.19); the most one can hope for is the continence that refuses to consent to them — so that one desires not to desire or wills not to will (De continentia 8.19-20, 13.29). This continence, however, must come from the Holy Spirit, who gives the grace human beings need to escape the reign, if not the presence, of sin (De continentia 5.12, citing Romans 6:14). Even those struggling most valiantly against sin, Augustine noted, are still to pray “Forgive us our debts,” for though they are warriors whose purpose is firm, they suffer wounds (De continentia 5.13).