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Fortinbras Armstrong

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Gender: Male
Hometown: Suburban Chicago
Home country: UK
Current location: Suburban Chicago
Member since: Thu Apr 12, 2012, 09:54 AM
Number of posts: 2,368

About Me

Retired computer security expert/programmer. Married for 40 years, three sons, two dogs. Interested in history, music, religion -- mostly Catholic -- and cooking. MA in History of Religion (Harvard) and MS in Computer Science (U of Wisconsin).

Journal Archives

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.
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Thu May 9, 2013, 08:38 AM (11 replies)
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