A number of times, some of which I hardly remember, all of which I try to forget, I left an apartment where I had a sexual encounter and things had happened that made me feel violated. Though I had also felt lust, or pretended to—the difference between being and pretending is not always easy to gauge. Perhaps I had wanted not to want, and the lust came from feeling myself outside myself, from the lewdness of ceasing to be an agent. Was I giving him the impression that I wanted it? Did I want it? Perhaps there are two selves in me: one wants, the other doesn’t. Perhaps there are more than two.
Even if I mostly adhere to my perplexed disjunction, I can see why claiming a grievance can be empowering. It marks the moment when self-doubt subsides. No. I did not want it. The clarity of grievance constitutes a Cartesian moment; a new, unified and resolute subject emerges. In completely negating the event, I own myself. I was wronged, therefore I am.
An unlikely philosopher of the current avalanche of social-media grievances is a North African Catholic bishop who lived over 1,500 years ago. When Augustine of Hippo completed the City of God in 426, he meant his book to console Christians over the Sack of Rome by the “Barbarians” sixteen years earlier. The Germanic Visigoths had occupied the center of the declining empire for three days, plundering its lavish basilicas and temples. Imagine that Osama bin Laden, instead of toppling the World Trade Center, had wrapped it in his black banners and broadcast worldwide from Times Square—for 72 hours.
Less than a century earlier, the Romans declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, bowing to its growing grassroots popularity. Following the Sack of Rome in 410, the Roman aristocracy, some of which was still pagan, tried to capitalize on the colossal humiliation of the Christians: the empire used to be great and Christianity is to blame for its disaster. Only by returning to the old gods could Rome be made great again.
In response, Augustine, the foremost Christian intellectual of the time, took up the mantle of defending the predominant yet struggling ideology. During the Sack of Rome, Christian women had been “defiled,” and one question Augustine asked was how violent rape could be the reward for their evangelical righteousness. As is often the case, a woman was a proxy for men’s politics. The reputation of the defiled women had to be recovered. If the Christian woman could be saved, perhaps there was still hope for Christian Rome, too.
Augustine’s solution was nothing short of brilliant. The title of Chapter 16 of Book 1 of City of God reads: “Violation of chastity, without the will’s consent, cannot pollute the character.” He writes: “If that will continues unshaken and steadfast, whatever anyone else does with the body or to the body, involves no blame to the sufferer.” Rather than console the women for their defilement, lament the evil of the barbarians or vow revenge, Augustine strikes at the very premise of the situation: it’s not that those women should not have been defiled; they were not defiled. Not really. Only their bodies were.