When many Christians recall the story of St. Augustine’s conversion, they mostly think about his struggles with lust. Well before his conversion from Manichean heresy for so many years, Augustine led a promiscuous lifestyle and kept a long-term concubine, with whom he had a child.
This brought no end of grief to his mother, St. Monica, who kept praying and hoping her son would turn away from such a life. Augustine himself admits lust was his biggest hurdle to becoming Christian — which, thanks to the preaching of St. Ambrose, he had already agreed with on an intellectual level.
Augustine also discusses other barriers to his conversation, however, which are less known but all the more prominent in the information age — namely, the “concupiscence of the eyes” and pride of life. While pride of life is a familiar temptation for people trained to aspire for status and followers, the “concupiscence of the eyes,” also called “lust of the eyes,” is the temptation to continually engage one’s eyes: “a certain vain and curious desire, veiled under the title of knowledge and learning.” This can come in the form of trivial and impetuous curiosity or addiction to entertainment.
One does not need to look far to see how society has succumbed to this latter temptation, through video game additions, binge-watching YouTube and TikTok videos, or scrolling endlessly through feeds on social media. The stimulus is constant and easily accessible.
Thus, with every job or activity, the television will be on, Twitter will be updating, or a video game might be in progress. Meanwhile, coworkers or family members hoping to talk will sit and wait in vain — and then find something to watch themselves. This temptation has also made Silicon Valley and Hollywood ridiculously wealthy and powerful.
Of course, many experts have shown the negative effects of this eye lust on one’s physical health or livelihood. Loafing on the couch with a portable screen can result in becoming overweight and weak. And that promising student who ditched Homer and Shakespeare in favor of “Cyberpunk 2077” and Snapchat will struggle with graduating and finding a job. These consequences are apparent, but the addict can always make a case for moderating his habits just enough to avoid the worst.
It’s the more subtle, but much more profound, effects that make even the attempt of moderation inadequate. As any addict will attest, one cannot simply scale back an addiction to periodic recreation. He must break the habit completely, or, if this habit is necessary for work or school, treat it solely as a utility. When people refuse to do this, the habit will gradually take its toll both on them and society as a whole, which goes far to explain today’s civilizational decline.
As Augustine narrates and the modern world echoes, the first victim to the lust of the eyes is one’s spiritual life. When God speaks at a whisper, as He does with the prophet Elijah, how can a person hear Him over the noise drowning out everything? When even hermits in Medieval Ireland had to seclude themselves on tiny uninhabited islands to overcome the noise of relative quietly farms, where exactly does the aspiring mystic go if the much louder noise of the contemporary world follows him everywhere he goes?
Even laymen with families who do the right thing — going to church on Sunday, praying regularly, fasting at the right times, and giving alms — can encounter a spiritual dryness brought on by screens. Besides being loud, social media and current entertainment destroy the patience and focus on which the spiritual life depends.
Boredom and frustration take over, leading to a lack of faith, hope, and charity. True, churches often try to find ways to appeal to such people today, although this usually means wrecking the liturgy and infusing horrible aesthetic tastes. Or people could clear their hearts and minds for God.
Those uninterested in cultivating the spiritual life should know that lust of the eyes also destroys the intellect. As Nicholas Carr described in a now-classic essay about the negative effects of how screen use affects the brain:
I’m not thinking the way I used to think. … Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore.
This is probably why some public intellectuals more often decorate with books than actually read them. Just as patience and focus help the soul, they are also critical for the mind.
Shallowness and sometimes outright hysteria from supposed luminaries comes out frequently on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. So many “scholars” will continue to cling to failed ideologies, debunked heresies, and promises of a new utopia, citing incoherent academic papers written in laughably unreadable prose.
More popular writers feature long stretches of implausible narratives punctuated by logical breakdowns that make an irrational mess that their readers pretend to understand. All of it breathes new life into the postmodern despair of reason and objectivity altogether.
Beyond the spiritual and intellectual life, the lust of the eyes dooms one’s personality and relationships — which, in turn, extends to the community. If the summit of experience becomes entertainment and instant gratification, even the most interesting friends and spouses will cease to please.
Relationships that once gave enjoyment and fulfillment quickly degenerate into mere functionality. The husband and wife each do their part, the kids stay plugged in on their screens, and no one comes over.
Such indifference and boredom extend into the workplace, schools, public squares, and local parishes. While many will cry for more involvement and participation, the truth is that screen addiction has rendered so many people passive. At most, the more vocal members of the community will sound off virtually while they join the rest of the world in outsourcing all their freedoms to faceless oligarchs.
As relationships and community dissolve, people inevitably become alienated from one another and themselves. Commentators can cite economic factors, changing values, climate change, or more powerful computers, but the real culprit behind this development is the same that brought down Augustine.
As a new year begins, and all major social media platforms aggressively purge conservative and Christian voices from the internet, now is the perfect opportunity to cut the cord completely. True, the first few weeks will be difficult. But recovery will happen over time.
Boredom and restlessness eventually die down. Once this happens, those fundamental dimensions of life return: relationships are revived; we remember the countless books available to us to read; the daily hysteria of the news and the doom it brings dissolves; and, most importantly, God becomes present again.
Addressing the concupiscence of the eyes may not guarantee complete holiness and excellence — after all, there are other sins and temptations — but, as it did for St. Augustine, it makes those qualities possible.