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Rape and Consolatio

Rape and Consolatio January 26, 2015

In a 2013 article in Augustinian Studies, Melanie Webb argues that Augustine challenged a deeply entrenched Roman and North African “heritage of valorized suicides” in his  treatment of rape, shame, and suicide in the first book of City of God. That heritage included Christian writers, like Jerome who argued that when chastity is lost “all virtue crumbles” (37).

According to Webb, Augustine’s rejection of this tradition was far more basic than many recent interpreters have suggested. Contrary to some depictions of Augustine, she writes that “he is repulsed by the idea that Lucretia—or any woman—could have ‘enjoyed’ or ‘wanted’ rape” (40–41). In fact, “Augustine does not understand rape primarily as a sexual encounter, but as torture and bereavement,” something that “warrants consolation—a judgment, it seems, that Augustine is the first to make” (41).

To make her case, Webb pays close attention to the structure of Augustine’s argument. She notes how he juxtaposes the story of the excruciating torture of Regulus with the story of the rape of Lucretia, pointing to verbal echoes that suggest that Augustine considered the two events to be part of the same genus. To be raped is to be experience a kind of confinement, enslavement, and torture.

In Augustine’s analysis, Lucretia’s suicide following her rape arises from a mistaken notion of pudicitia, “chastity.” In Livy’s account, when Tarquin damages Lucretia’s chastity, her marriage and her standing in the world is destroyed. The wound of rape can be atoned only by the further wound of suicide, a sacrificial act that restores the dignity that she had lost. For Augustine, this is erroneous from the foundations, since “Lucretia’s chastity (pudicitia) is never at stake in the rape,” and she only thinks so because she mistakenly locates the “quality of pudicitia soundly in her body, and does not allow it to be a quality of her moral subjectivity” (42). Lucretia’s chastity had not in fact been damaged at all, and she did no wrong until she took her own life.

But the story is not only an indictment of Lucretia for self-murder, but an indictment of the values of Roman valor that pressured her to do so: “Augustine argues that it is motivated by shame (pudor), a social phenomenon such that all of Rome is implicated in her death. . . . [N]othing in Roman society made continued living desirable or trustworthy after her rape” (43).

Recent scholars have claimed that Augustine laid the foundations for contemporary views that women desire and enjoy being raped. According to Jennifer Thompson, “Augustine believes that rape is a crime, not because it employs violence or destroys the victim’s integrity, but rather because the victim may enjoy it and therefore stain the purity of her will” (40). Webb shows that this analysis confuses terms and concepts that Augustine keeps separate. He distinguishes between arousal (uoluptas) and enjoyment or desire (libido); the former refers to physical responses to stimuli, but the fact that a woman’s body responds to stimulating during a rape doesn’t mean she enjoyed it. A woman could no more enjoy being raped than Regulus could enjoy torture. Subtle psychologist that he is, Augustine recognizes that a woman’s arousal while being raped contributes to the shame she feels after. At the center of his discussion is the assurance that a rape victim does not need to be ashamed either of the fact of her violation or the arousal she might have experienced in the midst of it: “While shame is merited by the disobedience of libido to uoluntas, Augustine does not describe a woman’s arousal in rape with reference to the woman’s libido. . . . Because uoluptas and libido are not interchangeable terms, one may experience uoluptas even when aliena libido is perpetrated on one’s body” (51–2).

To the Christian women victimized by barbarian conquerors, Augustine offers consolation. Webb notes that consolatio is offered in cases of loss and bereavement, especially to women who have lost sons. By responding to rape with consolatio, Augustine changes the context and terms for evaluation of rape. It is not a violation of chastity, and thus no cause for shame. Augustine treats rape as social death and bereavement, and upends Roman and Roman Christian ways of responding to rape: “With stories of virtuous suicides in the air, if women did not do absolutely everything they could to prevent their own rapes, then they were under suspicion and, in effect, exiled from their communities. The exile was so total that, if any women did not commit suicide (or if they evaded being killed by their fathers or brothers) as an attestation of their innocence, they have been struck from the extant historical record” (55).

Augustine is the first to address rape victims with consolatio, and in so doing he turns consolation into social critique: “his consolation cannot simply be an exhortation to rape-survivors to re-orient themselves within a society that regards them with shaming suspicion. It must also be an admonition to civil leaders to re-orient society toward rape-survivors as dignified women without requiring ‘proof’ of innocence. Augustine initiates his project of social criticism through the genre of consolatio” (57).

Melanie Webb, “‘On Lucretia Who Slew Herself’: Rape and Consolation in Augustine’s De ciuitate dei,” Augustinian Studies 44:1 (2013)37-58. Thanks to Dennis Hou for alerting me to the article.


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