Being Consumed (2) Augustine and Desire

Augustine is the classic source for Christian reflection on desire. Cavanaugh has him in conversation with the two beliefs underpinning the free market.

How familiar personally and true to life do you find the following sketch about disordered desire and how consumerism works?

  1. Freedom is not just absence of interference from others (like the state) – what matters is what freedom is for.
  2. Rather than freedom being maximized when individuals can choose their own ends based on nothing but their own wants, the question for Augustine is to what end is the will moved?

Taking these in turn:

Freedom is found within the grace of God. It finds purpose within his will. To be left to ourselves, is to be left under the power and control of sin. It is grace that frees us from the sickness and slavery of sin, to be able to choose freely.

In other words, we can only choose freely when we are liberated from sin and are able to desire rightly. Such right desire is to love and please God. This means that free market thinking sketched in the last post is, at best, naive about human nature. There is no such thing as the free autonomous individual. That ‘self’ needs itself to be freed in order to live freely – just like a slave or addict cannot free himself or herself.

“Freedom is something received, not just exercised.”

This means that wants are not just neatly internally generated and then acted upon by the autonomous individual. For Augustine, it is more that the self is a battleground of competing loves, both internal and external.

So the bigger question (unasked by pure free-market thinking) is what kind of desires drive our choices? There are true and false desires and, says Cavanaugh, we need a telos, a bigger narrative purpose, to tell the difference between them.

Freedom depends, not purely on the autonomy of the will, but on the end to which that will is moved. And for Augustine, therefore we need liberated from the tyranny of our own wills. Such change comes from without, from the grace of God.

So to Augustine and the free market: for the latter the only thing that matters is free choice of the individual to pursue his / her own desires. Choice itself is inherently good and all that is necessary whatever the circumstances. For example, Cavanaugh puts it like this,

“when there is a recession we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.” (13)

But for Augustine such desire is cut off from their source and end in God. They become desires for ‘nothing’. We want without any reason for why we want what we want. This is disordered desire.

And it finds expression in (for example) the Western addiction to shopping. Addiction rates, says Cavanaugh,  for shopping outstrip those of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Fuelled by desire for more; leading to a purchase without meaning, leading to a repeated and endless cycle of buying.


One thought on “Being Consumed (2) Augustine and Desire

  1. Nice. Disordinate desire, or that expectation of something too small being able to fill the eternal soul, is hard to recognize. We are not happy unless our hearts rest in Him, as Augustine would say. Thank you so much. This was a lovely post…God bless…

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