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Thu May 9, 2013, 08:38 AM

Augustine of Hippo and sex

In another thread in this group, some statements were made about Augustine of Hippo's views on sex. I promised a thread on it, but first I had to reread De Bono Conjugali and parts of the Confessions.

As a young man, Augustine had managed a neat piece of doublethink, he was simultaneously a Manichee and a hedonist. For those one or two of you unfamiliar with Manichaeism, it was a gnostic, dualistic religion, which means that secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) was required for salvation; and that there was a struggle between the good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.

Manecheism started with the Problem of Evil, by saying that the good power (God) was opposed by the evil power (Satan). Humanity is the battleground for these powers, under the influence of both light and dark. Neither the Earth nor the flesh are intrinsically evil, but rather consist of both light and dark. Evil is a flawed creation God took no role in forming, the result of Satan striking out against God. There is a decent introduction to Manecheism on Wikipedia. Most Manichees believed that creating new life was acting on behalf of Satan, so they practiced what the Catholic Church would nowadays call "Natural Family Planning", AKA the Rhythm Method.

After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine became hostile to the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. He saw excessive pleasure seeking as a distraction in what should be one's true purpose, the search for union with God.

He was flat-out wrong when he wrote that the original sin of Adam and Eve had introduced a fundamental disorder into human sexual desire. Augustine believed that Adam and Eve's choice to disobey God had led to disobedience within their own bodies. Sexual desire, because it operates independently of the human mind and will, became for Augustine a symptom of the sinful human attempt to assert autonomy against God. The result of the original sin, Augustine argued, was that human beings lost control even over themselves. When one Pelagian attacked him on this point, Augustine became almost obsessed with demonstrating the supposed linkage between sex and sin. (Note, I am not going to go into the Pelagians, since their beliefs do not really enter into this discussion. I may bring them up later in this thread.)

The starting point of any discussion of Augustine's views on sex and marriage must be his personal experience, at least in so far as that experience is presented to us and interpreted by Augustine himself in the Confessions. There he observed that his youthful sex drive led him to confuse the search for love and friendship with the satisfaction of his sexual desires: "The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love's serenity and lust's darkness." What is not often noted is that Augustine blames his parents for not arranging an early marriage for him. "That would have transformed to good purpose the fleeting experience of beauty in these lowest things, and fixed limits to indulgence in their charms. Then the stormy waves of my youth would have finally broken on the shore of marriage" (2.2.3). Marriage would have provided a disciplined way of life in which sexual desire could be directed towards producing and raising children -- something which Augustine praised. In book 6, he noted that at the time he failed to appreciate the value of marriage. When speaking to a friend,

Neither of us acknowledged that the beauty of having a wife lies in the obligation to respect the discipline of marriage and to bring up children. To a large extent what held me captive and tormented me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire.


Augustine says that if his desires had been directed towards procreation within a legitimate marriage, then something good would have come of them. The problem, as Augustine saw it, was that the "concupiscence of the flesh" had led him to seek sexual satisfaction just for its own sake: apart from love, apart from permanent commitment, and, above all, apart from procreation. He saw marriage as a legitimate way to manage the difficulties presented by unrestrained desires.

At the heart of Augustine's treatise De Bono Conjugali -- "On the Good of Marriage" -- was his teaching that there are three distinct "goods" in marriage: the procreation of children, the fidelity of the couple, and the sacramental bond. It was not at all unusual in the ancient world to see procreation as the primary purpose of marriage. It was a typical view in Augustine's day that the household should serve as the foundation of the city, while the city served as the foundation of the empire. Augustine drew on this tradition in the opening paragraph of De Bono Conjugali, where he presented marriage as fundamental to human community:

Every human being is part of the human race, and human nature is a social reality and possesses a great and natural good, the power of friendship. For this reason God wished to create all human beings from one, so that they would be held together in their social relationships not only by the similarity of race, but also by the bond of kinship. Therefore, the first natural bond of human society is the union of husband and wife.


Augustine's starting point is significant, for he grounds the marital relationship, and sexual reproduction in particular, in the social nature of the human race. From the beginning, God intended human community to be knit together by the closest possible bond, that of blood relationship. Therefore, God determined that sexual reproduction should be the natural means of producing individuals who were, quite literally, born for friendship in community. This, Augustine says, was the significance of God's taking of Eve from Adam's side. It signified the union of two people who walk side by side, with their eyes fixed ahead of them, focused on the same goal.

By starting his discussion of marriage with this emphasis on the social character of humanity and the social value of friendship, Augustine linked sexual intercourse and procreation to God's original intention at the beginning of creation. This might not sound surprising to us today, but many of Augustine's contemporaries tended to see sexuality as an inessential adjunct to human nature, something made necessary only because of the first sin. Many early Christians believed that sex was introduced only after the fall had led to death and made the reproduction of humanity necessary. Augustine did not agree. Rather, he saw sexual union and the procreation as natural and God-given. In Augustine said in his De Genisi ad Litteram (this title does not translate well; literally it's "On Genesis to the Letter", and a common translation is "The Literal Meaning of Genesis"), the "original blessing" which God bestowed on the first human beings, to "increase and multiply," is a blessing that has never been revoked, despite the sin and punishment of the human race.

Another implication of Augustine's emphasis on the social character of humanity is that while sex and procreation are good, they are not ends in themselves; they exist, rather, as the means to make friendship possible, which he describes as a good to be sought for its own sake. Sex is a "good necessary for the sake of something else," as he puts it. In other words, friendship and community are the primary goods, and sexual activity is a means to these ends. No matter how much Augustine insisted (especially in his later writings) that original sin damaged human nature, he maintained that sexual union itself and procreation were the good creations of a good Creator.

He wrote in De Bono Conjugali:

Marriages also have the benefit that sensual or youthful incontinence, even though it is wrong, is redirected to the honorable purpose of having children, and so out of the evil of lust sexual union in marriage achieves something good. Furthermore, parental feeling brings about a moderation in sexual desire, since it is held back and in a certain way burns more modestly. For a kind of dignity attaches to the ardor of the pleasure, when in the act whereby man and woman come together with each other, they have the thought of being father and mother.


Here Augustine states a theme often overlooked by those who see him as entirely hostile to sexual activity. He clearly regards sexual intercourse between married persons, when engaged in for the sake of procreation, as something good. The good consists not only in the production of children, but also in a change that occurs within desire itself. The evil of unrestrained sexual desire can be directed towards a good purpose when the intent is procreation.

Augustine suggests that procreation is necessary for the health of the human race, just as food is necessary for the health of the individual. "Neither activity is devoid of pleasure for the senses, and when this is regulated and put to its natural use under the restraint of moderation, it cannot be lust." In his review of his writings at the end of his career, the Retractions, Augustine provided an explanation: "I said this because the good and right use of 'lust' is not 'lust.' For just as it is evil to use good things in the wrong way, so it is good to use evil things in the right way." Although Augustine asserted that there was something "evil" about unrestrained sexual desire, he maintained that in respect to intercourse within marriage, the evil of lust ceased to be evil when it was directed to its proper purpose, procreation.

But procreation was not the only good of marriage that Augustine treated. There is a second good, which Augustine called fides -- "fidelity" or "faithfulness". Fidelity had several meanings for Augustine. It includes the rudimentary faithfulness that all married people owe each other, the duty to abstain from adultery. Fidelity is also the positive duty of married persons to engage in sex in order to help each other avoid adultery. Augustine spoke not of sex for the purpose of procreation, but of sex purely to satisfy desire. Such fidelity, Augustine wrote, is "a great good of the soul, even when manifested in the small and insignificant matters of the body." He does say, however, that such use of sex is venially sinful.

Augustine's point was that fidelity is a good quality of human relationships even in a context in which evil is present. In the case of a man and a woman, this fidelity establishes a union that can legitimately be considered a marriage, even if there is no intention to have children. Here Augustine took a stand virtually unique among early Christian writers. He acknowledged the value of a relationship that had come into being purely out of a desire for sexual pleasure, and not for procreation. He even called it a "marriage." What made such a marriage good, Augustine indicated, was the good of fidelity. "For the reason why such couples were married," he wrote, "was so that concupiscence itself might be directed towards a legitimate bond and not flow in a disordered or haphazard way. Concupiscence in itself has the unrestrained weakness of the flesh, but from marriage it receives the permanent bond of fidelity; in itself it leads to unrestrained intercourse, but from marriage it has the restraint of chaste procreation."

In this remarkable passage Augustine suggests that the good of fidelity can be present even if the couple's primary aim is not to produce children, but simply to enjoy sexual pleasure. Fidelity is "a sort of mutual servitude," in which spouses agree to support each other in their weakness. Augustine distinguished between the spouse who seeks to have intercourse primarily out of sexual desire and the spouse who agrees to have intercourse primarily out of the duty of fidelity. The one who acts out of lust (that is, out of greed or selfishness) is guilty of what he calls a "forgivable fault." But the one who engages in sex to support his or her partner is acting out of love and compassion, therefore, no sin is involved.

In addition to the good of procreation and the good of fidelity, Augustine spoke of a third good in marriage, the "sacrament." Augustine was one of the first Christian writers to use the language of "sacrament" in regard to marriage, although his usage of the term is different from the later Catholic idea of the seven sacraments. For Augustine, "sacrament" was related to the Greek word mysterion, or "mystery," which was translated as sacramentum in early Latin versions of the bible. A sacrament was a "mystery" in the sense of a sacred symbol, and the term was frequently applied to liturgical rites, as well as to the symbolic or allegorical interpretation of scripture. In Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul quotes the words of Genesis 2:24 ("A man will leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh") and then said that the marital union was a "mystery" (or "sacrament") which referred to Christ and the church.

Perhaps the most important feature of Augustine's notion of the "sacrament" in marriage is that it is a way to think about a transcendent significance in human relationships. For Augustine, Christian marriages were meant to be indissoluble because they symbolized a unity that transcended their own fragile humanity, a unity that is realized fully only in the kingdom of God. Augustine's notion of the sacrament in marriage, therefore, acknowledged that of all human relationships marriage was the one that was capable of bearing a unique meaning in salvation history. Put simply, the "sacrament" in marriage meant that marriage was an eschatological sign, a sign of the ultimate unity of God and humanity, as embodied in the union of Christ and the Church.

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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Original post)

Fri May 10, 2013, 11:13 AM

1. The only redeeming feature of marriage and sexual relations was its production of children.

To attempt to portray Augustine as a protector of marriage is contradicted by again and again in his heretical concepts. In answer to the question that could not a married woman be loving, yet chaste, Augustine answered:

Paint her virtue as you will and heap up good qualities, nevertheless I have decided that there is nothing I must more carefully avoid then the marriage bed. I find there is nothing which more certainly cast a man's mind out of its citadel than female blandishments and bodily contacts which are essential to marriage. So if it is part of the duty of the Sage, which I have not yet learned, to have children anyone who has intercourse with women for this purpose only seems to me worthy of admiration rather than achieving imitation. The danger of attempting it is greater than the happiness of achieving it. Accordingly in the interest of righteousness and the liberty of my soul, I have made it my rule not to desire or seek to marry a wife, I am completely free from desires of this kind and recall them with horror and disdain. (Soliloquies 10,17)

He attracted Bishop Julian of Eclanum who had taken a dim view of Augustine's distortions of human sexuality and his slander of sexual relations in marriage. Julian maintained there was no virtue in the repression of normal sexual relations as claimed by Augustine. In answer Augustine wrote:

Really, really; is that your experience? So you would not have married couples restrain the evil- I refer, of course to your favorite good? So you would have them jump into bed whenever they like, whenever they feel tickled by desire? Far be it from them to postpone this itch till bedtime: let's have your "legitimate union of bodies whenever your "natural good" is excited. If this is the sort of married life you led, don't drag up you experience in debate. (Against Julian 3, 14)

Please note that he wrote that sexual intercourse was EVIL.

In his great opus "The City of God" his obsession with evilness of sexual relations runs uninterrupted for eleven chapters in the fourteenth book. I have to also note that these chapters was omitted in several books published by Catholic publishers. Augustine considered orgasms as inherently sinful and a detriment to wisdom. He charged: "This is so true that it creates a problem for every lover of wisdom and holy joys who is both committed to a married life and also conscious of the apostolic ideal, that everyone should 'learn how to possess his vessel in holiness and honor,no in the passion and lust like the Gentiles who don not know God" He asserted that the true Christian " would prefer, if this were possible, to beget his children without suffering this passion." (The City of God, 14,16)

The only redeeming feature of sexual relations was its production of children. This is clearly summarized in his writing: "Wherever sexual passion is at work, it feels ashamed of itself...The reason can only be that what, by nature, has a purpose that everyone praises (that is the generation of children) involves, by penalty, a passion that makes everyone ashamed." (The City of God, 14, 18) He fantasized that it would have been more desirable that it could occur without orgasm which he regarded as a punishment as a consequence of Adam's sin.

Any attempt to whitewash Augustine's condemnation of sexual relations is contradicted by his actual writings. His affect on Christian's sexual mentality can not be mitigated. Ben Zion Bosker summarized the destructive influence of Augustine's teaching:

The Christian doctrine of original sin introduced into culture a morbid outlook toward all natural life. It introduced guilt feeling toward sex. If fostered a quietism and resignation concerning the real evil in man and society. It blunted the passion of the Hebrew prophets, who continually challenged their people toward moral activism, to abandon the lowly aspirations and pursuits, to strive to be better and to do better. (Judaism and the Christian Predicament, p. 335)






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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Original post)

Sat May 11, 2013, 08:32 AM

2. Here you have two radically different interpretations

Both supported by quotations from Augustine. Which do you accept? I'd say it's a case of you pays your money and you takes your choice.

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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Reply #2)

Sun May 12, 2013, 09:43 AM

4. I don't find a radical interpretation. Augustine's words speak for themselves.

The entirety of his philosophy begins and ends with his unique interpretation of the so-called Fall of Mankind. As he stated sexual intercourse, because of pleasurable orgasm is the means by which original sin is transmitted. This is the basis from which he arrives at the ancillary grand pronouncements that the only a few are selected for redemption, the rest condemned to eternal damnation. Infants are deemed to have inherited this guilt, in contradiction to the Hebrew Testament and Jewish theologians, and condemned to eternal damnation in the fires of hell. His morbid interactions were not without opponents who strenuously objected to his distortions. In his grand opus, The City of God, he fantasied how without any pleasure the couples would transmit the semen for the generation and children without the disgraceful experience of an pleasurable orgasm. He regarded the only redeeming feature of sexual relations as the children that are produced and as a result of his identification of sexual intercourse as being defiled, sexual relations after pregnancy were con sided to be tainted with sin of lust. I will agree he, along with Jerome and Ambrose had a significant affect on later Christian's sexual mentality and it took centuries before it was challenged.

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Response to olegramps (Reply #4)

Fri May 17, 2013, 05:18 PM

6. I did not say it was a radical interpretation

I said it was "radically different" from my interpretation. I was using "radical" in the sense of "fundamental".

However, I believe that your interpretation is wrong. It certainly cannot be supported by what he wrote in De Bono Conjugali -- which translates to "On the Good of Marriage". Did you notice the word "good"? Someone as basically honest as Augustine would not call something "good" if he thought it was evil. He was certainly aware of Isaiah 5:20, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil" and would not do such a thing.

He thought that procreation was the main "good" of marriage, but it was not the only good. He said that cultivation of the couple's relationship was a good, as it was a way of dealing with sexual desire, and so to avoid adultery.

Yes, he did say that sexual desire was evil in and of itself -- in De Genisi ad Litteram he comes close to saying that it would have been better if God had come up with some other way of perpetuating the human race (he does not actually say this, I believe from a reluctance to second guess God). However, let me repeat something from my original post:

Augustine suggests that procreation is necessary for the health of the human race, just as food is necessary for the health of the individual. "Neither activity is devoid of pleasure for the senses, and when this is regulated and put to its natural use under the restraint of moderation, it cannot be lust." In his review of his writings at the end of his career, the Retractions, Augustine provided an explanation: "I said this because the good and right use of 'lust' is not 'lust.' For just as it is evil to use good things in the wrong way, so it is good to use evil things in the right way." Although Augustine asserted that there was something "evil" about unrestrained sexual desire, he maintained that in respect to intercourse within marriage, the evil of lust ceased to be evil when it was directed to its proper purpose, procreation.


In other words, to say that Augustine saw sex only as something evil is to misread him.

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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Reply #6)

Mon May 20, 2013, 01:20 PM

7. Firstly in the City of God he wrote that he would have desired procreation to be without pleasure.

He only excuses the use of the procreative faculties in its production of children. In his writings against Julian a married bishop who, in agreement with the Jewish theologians, maintained that sexual relations were to be enjoyed without the excused of procreation. Augustine wrote that the Manicheans were knowledgeable about the fertility cycle and only engaged in sex during the unfertile period in order to avoid pregnancy. He condemned this as sinful lust. When Pius XII approved of the use of rhythm birth control many conservative theologians were in disagreement. Augustine was nothing more than a hackneyed disciple of Plato. In his attack against Julian he wrote:
"Should one seek the pleasures of the body, which, as Plato said truly and earnestly, are the enticements and baits of evil? What injury to health, what deformity of character and body, what wretched loss, what dishonor is not evoked and elicited by pleasure? Where its action is the most intense, it is the most inimical to philosophy...WHAT FINE MINE WOULD NOT PREFER THAT NATURE HAD GIVEN US NO PLEASURES AT ALL."(Against Julian, 4,14,72) The assimilation of Platonic philosophy was so extensive that "Some of our fellow Christians are astonished to learn that Plato had such ideas about God and to realize how close they are to the truths of our faith. Some even had been led to suppose that he was influenced by the Prophet Jeremias during his travels in Egypt or, at least, that he access to the scriptural prophecies, and this opinion I followed in some of my writings."

Please note that the attempt to reconcile pagan philosophy with the Hebrew theology was attempted by Philo, a Hellenize Jew. His extensive writing were rejected by the Jewish theologians as slander of the Creator. Julian charged that Augustine was a heretic and wrote, "God made bodies, distinguished the sexes, made genitalia, bestowed affection through which bodies would be joined, gave power to the semen, and operates in the secret nature of the semen. God made nothing evil."

The only good that Augustine saw in marriage was the production of children that excused the lust of sexual intercourse. He only attest to the extent to which dualistic pagan philosophy had been assimilated. One of the most respected Catholic theologians, Professor John Noonan of Notre Dame, clearly summerized the effect of Augustine's influence: "After the conflict of Pelagius and Augustine, sexual intercourse was clearly in a suspect position, stained by concupisence, forced to justify itself by procreative purpose." (Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists, p. 138)

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Response to olegramps (Reply #7)

Wed May 22, 2013, 08:18 AM

8. You are actually in general agreement with me

I said that Augustine saw pleasure as A Bad Thing. Specifically, he saw it as a distraction in the search for unification with God. He had seen this in his own experience.

You say "The only good that Augustine saw in marriage was the production of children that excused the lust of sexual intercourse." This is not true. Certainly, he saw procreation as the chief good of marriage, but it was not the only good: Avoidance of adultery and building the relationship between the couple were also goods of marriage.

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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Original post)

Sun May 12, 2013, 12:39 AM

3. Augustine seems to have been a very tormented man.

And it was hardly admirable or mature for him to blame his parents. God created a good world. I seriously doubt that responsible sexual activity carries the least taint of sin. Mankind has always tended to, excuse the phrase, screw things up royally.

It's sort of like wine, which is very delicious and healthful in right proportions to life but can easily be misused. I get a big kick out of fundies railing against any use of wine, when Jesus certainly indulged and there had to be great significance attached to the first recorded miracle. Recently I read The Wesley Book of Days, wherein a physician attributed a person's early demise to the fact that for the last 7 years of his life, he'd taken to drinking water.

I don't know what that church says about it now - many denominations veered away from their founder's original decrees - but when I have a glass of wine, I like to toast Jesus. But then I'm one those oddballs who still love the tradition of setting an empty place at the dinner table for the 'unseen guest'. I'm also fiercely attached to the notion of opening a window in the room when a person dies, too, to let the soul fly happily away even if it is symbolic. Mostly. Maybe it has something to do with the Irish in me.

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Response to IrishAyes (Reply #3)

Sun May 12, 2013, 10:12 AM

5. Unfortunately, the acceptance of his teachings tormented millions through the ages.

Last edited Sun May 12, 2013, 05:44 PM - Edit history (1)

If anyone wishes to know the extent of his influence they only have to read "Malleus Maleficarum (Witches Hammer) which was written by two Dominican monks, Henry Kramer and James Sprenger that led to the persecution of thousands for witchcraft. Without going into this monstrosity, let it suffice to only note the profound affect that Augustine works were quoted to justify this massive persecution. I will provide only one quote from this work which contains multiple quotations from Augustine and Jerome's works to justify the nonsense of witchcraft:

Although far more women are witches than men, as was shown First Part of the work, yet men are more often be twitched than women. And the reason for this lies in the fact that God allows the devil more power over the venereal act, by which Original Sin is handed down, than over human actions...For , as we have said, God allows more power over that act than over other human actions, because of sits natural nastiness, and because by it the first sin was handed down to posterity... But if it is asked of what sort are those sins, it can be said, according to St. Jerome, that even in a state of matrimony it is possible to commit the sin of incontinence in various ways. See the text: He who loves his wife to excess is an adulterer. And they who love in this way are more liable to be bewitched after the manner we have said. (Malleus Maleficarum, II q. 1, ch. 7.)

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Response to olegramps (Reply #5)

Wed May 22, 2013, 08:22 AM

9. Jerome was something of a nut case when it came to sex

For example, he said that the correct word for "vagina" was actually cloacia -- sewer. I suspect that a series of sessions with a good Freudian psychoanalyst would have done him a world of good. He also said that the only good that came from sex was that it produced virgins.

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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Original post)


Response to Name removed (Reply #10)

Sun Jan 26, 2014, 02:27 PM

11. Welcome to DU

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