The desire in all of us to dominate—to say, “my way or no way!”—is what Augustine calls the lust for mastery.
Augustine opens his magnum opus, The City of God against the Pagans, contrasting the City of God, characterized by “the virtue of humility,” with the City of Man, characterized by libido dominandi—“the lust for mastery.” He warns that this lust for mastery will master all of us. Indeed, he concludes his preface describing how “…that City [of Man] which, when it seeks mastery, is itself mastered by the lust for mastery even though all the nations serve it” (Preface, Book I).
We’ve all experienced this desire. It’s what the kindergartener feels when he shouts, “That’s mine!” It’s what overcomes the recent hire when he tells a lie to advance his reputation at his new job. It’s what motivates a mother to manipulate her toddler’s behavior under the guise of serving her. This lust for mastery is really a desire to elevate self. And it is a perverse desire.
It’s at bottom what caused Adam and Evil to disobey in the garden—to want to “be like God” (Gen. 3:4-6). In that moment, they rejected dependence on God to pursue self-sufficiency. And the lust for mastery will master all of us when we make that same exchange: God for self.
Augustine later clarifies that this lust eventually makes men a slave to all their vices: “Thus, a good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but, what is worse, as many masters as he has vices” (Book IV, chapter 3). Every one of us will end like the man Augustine describes here, completely enslaved to our vices, unless God acts.
And God has acted through Christ to redeem us from the slavery to self. He made us citizens of His City. Yet we are still pilgrims constantly tempted to turn around and pursue our former desires, the strong desire to dominate.
We fight the vice of these desires with the virtue of humility, which proclaims that God alone is sufficient for all we need. And we fight through God’s Word, prayer, and Christian fellowship. Yet, we also fight by studying who we are as humans. One of the ways we do this is by watching humans in this fight.
This Fall, I’ll be teaching a course on Ancient Epics to juniors and seniors in the History of Ideas program at Bethlehem College & Seminary. At the center of each of the four epics we will read—Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid—is a hero who must grapple with the desire to dominate and the consequences for himself and his people. These epics with their larger-than-life heroes exaggerate human faults and failures. Thus, these epics function like magnifying glasses to reveal our own hearts, to expose any lingering desires to dominate.
Augustine concludes a pivotal section on pride and humility in The City of God with a beautiful pastoral prayer (Book 14, chapter 13). He asks, along with David in Psalm 83, that God would expose his enemies in their pride such that shame would turn them to repentance. Similarly, my prayer is that in holding the magnifying glass of these ancient epics to our own hearts, my students and I will better see our own pride and turn to God in repentance. Unless we humbly repent, the lust for mastery will master us.
Instructor of Theology and Humanities
- Pray that God would reveal in all of us the vices we must turn from in repentance.
- Pray for our students and faculty as they begin a new school year on Monday.
- Pray for our new students that they would adjust to life in Minneapolis and the rigors of their schooling well.
- Pray that God would continue to provide financially for both the Serious Joy Scholarship and the Alex Steddom International Student Fund, while praising him that we received enough to provide for our 2 new international students.