Augustine on the Etiology of Imperialism: Peccatum Originale, Libido Dominandi, and Imperium Romanum

By:
Dr. George Heffernan
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In the "City of God" ("Civitas Dei") (413/427), a response to the sack of Rome by the Goths (410), Augustine (354–430) performs a trenchant critique of empire. He argues that the imperialist inclination in the human being is an effect whose cause is an original sinfulness (peccatum originale) that yields an evil desire for domination (libido dominandi). He claims (1) that by disobeying God the first human beings substantially harmed human nature, especially free will; (2) that, as a result, subsequent human beings suffer due to the fact that their flesh cannot obey their spirit; and (3) that, for this reason, they seek to compensate for their own inadequacy by wielding power over others. Thus human beings seek to dominate others because they fail to control themselves. Augustine illustrates his narrative with a survey of the prevailing imperialist institution, the Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum). Neither celebrating nor lamenting the fall of Rome, Augustine explains the Roman quest for empire as an elaborate expression of the depraved desire for domination.

This paper argues that Augustine’s account of imperialism, while perhaps otherwise praiseworthy, is theologically motivated, anthropologically unjustified, and philosophically untenable. The evidence for his theory, both the empirical evidence from secular history and the speculative evidence from salvific history, is judged insufficient to meet the burden of proof required in the humanities. The aim is to challenge Augustine’s clarification of human imperialism by contesting his theologically foundational but empirically unsustainable doctrine of “original sinfulness”—a notion that he virtually invented.


Keywords: Philosophy, Theology, Empire Studies
Stream: Philosophy, Ethics, Consciousness
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Augustine of Africa


Dr. George Heffernan

Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Merrimack College
North Andover, Massachusetts, USA

George Heffernan earned his B.A. and M.A. at the Catholic University of America and his Ph.D. at the University of Cologne. He was Instructor at the University of Bonn and Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame. He works in the areas of Classical Phenomenology, Early Modern Philosophy, and Hellenistic Epistemology. His publications include Isagoge in die phaenomenologische Apophantik (1989), Descartes’ Regulae ad directionem ingenii/Rules for the Direction of the Natural Intelligence (1998), and Augustine’s Contra Academicos/Against the Academicians (forthcoming).

Ref: H06P0502