Now these statements show first of all that Augustine was aware that sin is something which happens in the spiritual realm, namely turning away from the Ground of Being to whom one belongs. It is not a naturalistic doctrine of sin. But more important than this, Augustine shows clearly the religious character of sin.
Sin for him is not a moral failure, it is not even disobedience – disobedience is a consequence but not the cause; the cause is: turning away from God, and from God as the highest good, as the love with which God loves Himself, through us. For this reason, since sin has this character – if you say “sins,” is easily dissolved into moral sins, but sin is first of all basically the power of turning away from God. For this very reason no moral remedy is possible. Only one remedy is possible: return to God. But this of course is possible only in the power of God, and this power is lost.
This is the state of man under the conditions of existence. The immediate consequence of man’s turning away from his highest good is the loss of this good. This loss is the essential punishment for man. Punishments in terms of educational or juristic terminology are secondary. For Augustine, the basic punishment is ontological. If God is everything positive, he power of being overcoming non-being, or the ultimate good – which is the same thing for him– then of course the only real punishment possible is the intrinsic punishment of losing this power of being, of non-participating any more in the ultimate good.
Augustine describes it thus: “The soul died when it was left alone, by God, as a body will die when it is left by the soul.” The soul, which, religiously speaking is dead, has consequently lost its control over the body. And in the moment in which this happened, the other side of sin becomes actual. The beginning is pride, or turning to oneself, or hybris, separation from God and turning to oneself. The consequence is concupiscence, the infinite endless desire. The word concupiscentia , concupiscence, desire, libido, (in the forms in which modern psychology uses it) has two meanings in Augustine: the universal meaning, the turning towards the movable goods, those goods which change and disappear; but it has also a narrower sense, namely in the natural, sexual desire, which is accompanied by shame. This ambiguity of the term concupiscence has been repeated by the ambiguity of Freud’s term libido. It is the same situation in Augustine. Both terms are meant universally, the desire to fulfill one’s own being with the abundance of reality. And because of the predominant power of the sexual desire among all other desires, it has received, in both Augustine and Freud, the meaning of sexual desire, and out of this ambiguity innumerable consequences followed. From this followed, for instance in Freud, his puritanism, his depreciation of sex, his bourgeois suppression; and on the: other hand, the revelation of this situation. But he never found a solution to the problem – either suppressing or getting rid of it. And since you cannot get rid of it, according to Freud, you have the desire to death, the death-instinct, as he calls it, which is the necessary answer to the endlessness of desire. In Protestantism, as in all Catholicism first, the ambiguity of the term concupiscence had the ascetic consequences in all its different forms up to the most extreme and disgusting forms. The Reformers tried to reestablish the dignity of the sexual, but did it only in a limited way. They never completely followed through their own principles against the Roman church. Therefore, as every theologian can tell you who knows a little about the history of moral behavior and the history of ethical theory in Protestantism, in this point Christianity is very much uncertain and has produced no satisfactory answer to this question implied in human existence. This has something to do with the ambiguity of Augustine’s concept of concupiscentia.