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Rape, Shame, & Guilt in The City of God

(A sub-section of a much larger paper...)

It is, to this author's knowledge, a unique occurrence within the ancient world for a writer of stature to dedicate any significant volume of ink to the matter of rape, and likely unheard of for any to dedicate their energies to giving comfort to the victims of rape. Yet this, in fact, proves to be the matter of no fewer than six chapters of Book I of The City of God, in which St. Augustine gives himself over to two particular tasks. First, of exculpating from guilt those holy virgins of the Church, those children, and (it is at least suggested) those men, whom have suffered the "violation" of the "sanctity of their bodies" at the hands and members of the Gothic hordes of Alaric during the sack of Rome of 410AD. Second, and following closely, comes the task of theodicy -- of exculpating from guilt the God whom one might blame for not preventing the violation.

In the process of these efforts, the reader may sense the depth of novelty in his task, in that there often appears to be a palpable straining against the very boundaries of the language with which the defense must be composed. For, against or alongside the conventional language of "shame" and "pollution", with which any Latin-speaker of the ancient world must surely have possessed familiarity, the Bishop added both conventional and philosophic categories of "virtue", and the then purely Judeo-Christian conception of "sin". In this, novel, though sometimes awkward reconfiguration and combination of language, one senses what may be expressed in modern English as an attempt at a phenomenological distinction of "guilt" from "shame", which is independent from the familiar, purely legal conception of guilt as guilty-with-respect-to-the-law.

In The City of God, one senses the attempt to ground and to acknowledge both shame and guilt as experiential phenomena of the embodied human being, and to thereby separate those phenomena from the purely conventional, and temporal, political order of the earthly city. That is to say that Augustine's defense and exculpation of the victims of rape, and of God, serves to both acknowledge the experience of shame as essentially embodied, immanent, and independent of political order qua order, but to also reveal guilt as a real, ontological phenomenon, which itself exists independently of conventional legal classifications, and which thus transcends both the earthly city, and all of its potential proposals for remedy. Shame, it would seem, is an endemic feature of the earthly city which persists independent of guilt. Augustine's consolation is therefor perhaps best understood as an attempt at the cathartic relief of victims from shame through the revelation of their freedom from guilt with respect to the act of sexual violation. His theodicy, on the other hand, which is inextricably tied-up with his consolation, seeks to exculpate God of not only guilt, but also of shame (though not necessarily of anger or of charity). The task here, then, will be to investigate the language by which the Bishop attempted to distinguish shame from guilt -- the places, origins, natures, and the means by which one becomes aware of them as conditions -- and the limitations which his definitions may place on his theodicy.

In Book I, chapter XVI, the author employs unambiguous terms with regards to the act of rape, describing it as a "violation", and thus invoking the symbolism of a breach of boundaries. He furthermore distinguishes the act of consenting to lust from the violation of rape in equally unambiguous terms, "that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person suffering it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin."

Neither can the betrayals of the body during the violation -- the physical illusions of, or actual experience of, unwanted and uninvited sensual pleasure -- be taken as a consent of the will, nor as a lack of virtue or holiness of either soul or body. To put more tersely that which Augustine relates discreetly in chapter XVI, those girls or women who both suffered violation, and the added indignity of their bodies and members responding with the illusion of consent -- either in the outward sign of secretion, or the internal experience of some unwanted, physical pleasure -- are blameless, in that there is no true consent, save the consent of the will. Having said that, though, Augustine is then forced to admit that, in spite of the blamelessness of the victim -- their lack of "fault" -- that, much as the boundaries of the body are violated in spite of the will, "shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit from which modesty has not departed -- shame lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure should be believed to have been committed also with some consent of the will."

Already then, from a brief chapter, we begin to see both a phenomenological distinction being drawn between what we have termed "shame" and "guilt". But, we also come to perceive a difficulty with which the author is forced to grapple. For, though the victims of rape are unambiguously free of any fault of virtue or holiness -- therefor free from any fault of the will or soul with regards to the rape itself -- much as the integrity of the body has been breached and its boundaries "violated", so too may the integrity of the soul be "invaded" by shame. Nor is there any doubt expressed as to the cause of shame; it is the fear of the appearance of the consenting of the will to the breaching of the body which causes the victims shame. Therefor, it is appearance, or the fear of appearance, which reveals itself as the mode by which "shame", as distinguished from "fault", "invades" the soul. One is thus faced with the uncomfortable conclusion that while "fault" or "non-fault" are states or attributes of the soul which proceed from the intentionality of the will -- that is to say, from the soul's own activities -- "shame", on the other hand, proceeds from appearance. Appearance, though, is, strictly speaking, neither a state nor an attribute of the soul, nor even the body, of a being, but rather the opinion or image ("belief") regarding that being, which is held by another, or else some plurality of others, or else believed to be held by others. Shame, one must conclude, proceeds from the outside of the victim, whereas fault proceeds from her interiority and thus remains within her will and consent. This results not only in a logical conundrum, but an apparent phenomenal tragedy -- that a "faultless" victim may indeed by subjected to not one, but to two violations of her integrity, quite against her will, which is itself blameless; first, the violation of the body by another body, second, the invasion of the soul by shame.

To this trouble, Augustine is at pains to offer an adequate remedy. If shame, as has been supposed, is, in its essence, a product of appearance, then it would seem that it ultimately escapes the control of the afflicted. This leads to the further question of whether it is logical, to say nothing of effective, to then counsel a victim of violation to "not feel ashamed", if shame itself is a phenomenon which "invades" the integrity of the soul. One is seemingly led to the conclusion that, metaphorically speaking, shame is indeed best diagnosed as an affliction, and guilt as a disorder, of the soul. To speak thusly, then, leads to the formulation of the problem in terms of prevention, in advance of diagnosis, and of treatment, in procession from diagnosis. And, while shame, understood as affliction, cannot (perhaps unlike disorder) be characterized as "preventable" in any unqualified sense (any more that influenza can be "prevented" in an unqualified sense), one might speak coherently of treatments, as opposed to non-treatments.

Indeed, it is to the issue of non-treatments of the affliction which Augustine most immediately addresses in chapters XVII, XIX, and XX of Book I, when he denies suicide to be an effective, let alone desirable, response to the invasion, amounting as it does to the slaying of an innocent (the guiltless victim of rape) to cure the crime ("sin") of another (the violator). Suicide, as a willful act, and thus carrying with it the weight of sin, is furthermore explained to be ineffective, in that it amounts to an attempt to treat an affliction of uncertain duration with what amounts to a permanent disorder -- dying in a state of sin. It is thus an invalid response to the shame of appearances.

That being said, one is left to ponder what might be Augustine's remedy to an affliction which defies prevention through any act of the will of the sufferer. Having exculpated the victim of guilt, what of shame? To this problem, the response seems threefold. Firstly, having differentiated the phenomenon of shame from that of "fault", the theologian differentiates the feeling of shame ("being ashamed") from the feeling of guilt. Secondly, y differentiating their phenomenal and efficient causes -- imagining (or imagination), belief, or appearances in the case of the one, the will of the sufferer in the case of the other -- he differentiates the experience of sinless affliction from the feeling of sinfulness. Thirdly, by continuously affirming the unbroken virtue, sanctity, and holiness of the victim, in spite of both "violation" and "invasion", he puts forth a hierarchies of both goods and ills, which assure the victim both of her continued possession of the higher goods of the soul, and of the lesser burden which is her affliction of shame in comparison to the weight of her goodness. The feeling of shame which stems from sexual violation, while not perfectly and immediately curable, and not preventable, is revealed to be subject to heavy mitigation, with the hope of its passing and the mending of its wounds with time.

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