More than Animals: The Location of Desire in the Early Church

Aristotle’s Ethics situates “desire” within the soul (or psyche), separating action from choice. This allows for activity to be conducted voluntarily and not by compulsion or force. It is this ability, to do or not, that Aristotle points to as a defining difference between the desire of humans and the instinct of animals. The contemporary viewpoint of human anthropology begins and ends with a corporal or physically-composed entity. This entity may or may not have a Cartesian self. In both cases, the individual is circumscribed by physicality. This begs the question of where one puts “desire.” Since contemporary anthropology has only a physical entity to investigate, desire is considered an aspect of physicality, typically discussed by means of neural transmitters and hormones. (e.g., dopamine) The placement of desire solely within the physical attributes of human anthropology leads to an ontological identification of an individual with their desire(s). (e.g. I am a heterosexual.) The removal of a spiritual/psychic aspect to human anthropology has the following consequence in relation to the desires of the individual. Because desire cannot be articulated as possessed in anything but a physical manner, all desire is therefore viewed as ontologically associated with the individual. (i.e., While different in nature, I AM heterosexual, I AM a male human, and I AM a Christian are all equally true ontological statements in this view.) In effect, this view of human anthropology regresses humanity to an animalistic status, as desire is no longer a voluntary choice but an “involuntary compulsion.” This description of human anthropology is a departure from more ancient considerations of human anthropology. The Early Church composed numerous treatises on the soul, its nature and powers. This paper intends to argue that by reengaging the spiritual/psychic placement of “desire” within the theological anthropology of several of the Early Church fathers, one is able to retrieve a different scheme for the discussion of desire which in turn offers a restoration of human anthropology. While Origen refused to write a treatise on the topic, Tertullian (De anima), Ambrose (De Isaac et anima), and Augustine (De quantitate animae, et al.) all authored treatises on the soul. Gregory of Nyssa put forward the first systematic “investigation of man” in his “The Making of Man.” These works form a central corpus for retrieving and applying a spiritual/psychic placement of “desire” to our modern theological anthropology.

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