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Fortinbras Armstrong

(4,473 posts)
5. Augustine, in his De Bono Conjugali (On the Good of Marriage)
Sat Sep 22, 2012, 09:29 AM
Sep 2012

praises couples who no longer have intercourse when the wife hits menopause. He says that those couples who continue to have sex do commit sin, but not serious sin.

Sex was Augustine’s hobbyhorse. Before his conversion, he had several illicit sexual relationships. At the same time, he was a Manichean, who like the Gnostics saw the flesh as evil; and he never quite got over this mindset. After his conversion, he renounced sex and would not be alone in a room with a woman, not even his sister. He said that sexual relations, except for the express purpose of begetting children, were sinful; that begetting children should offer the minimum of pleasure (“a man in his wife’s arms should concentrate only on the child and look forward to heaven where he can embrace her like a statue”) (Sermon 162); that the ideal marriage would be between two virgins intending to remain so; and that elderly people should be praised because they no longer indulge in sexual relations. “Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of man downwards as the caresses of a woman and that physical intercourse which is part of marriage.” (Soliloquies 18.1)

Augustine knew from his own experience that pleasure was a distraction from what should be the central task of life: the search for God. He forsook worldly pleasures to concentrate on God. However, as is not uncommon in those who undergo a true conversion, he went somewhat overboard. He agonizes over his enjoyment of eating (“a dangerous pleasantness joins itself to the process”), while realizing that he has to eat to live (“I should take food in the way I take medicine”) (Confessions 10.31). I am reminded of H. L. Mencken’s comment that “a puritan is one who is afraid that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself.”

In discussing “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (9.7), he says that a lonely man would be better off with a male friend with whom he could talk rather than saddling himself with a wife. As far as he was concerned, women were fit only for bearing children. He comes close to saying that God should have come up with a better way of continuing humanity and not bothered creating women at all.

I admire Augustine as a writer, as a theologian, and as a Christian. His Confessions should be required reading for all who want to know what it means to come to true faith in Christ. However, I cannot accept his pernicious views on women and sex, especially as it has influenced Christianity for the worse.

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