Augustine on Sin and Sex

The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokos press.

Augustine of Hippo infamously declared that sex was sinful even within loving marriages. It can be tempting for we anachronistic Illuminati to wag our fingers and scold his memory for being such a “prude,” but, as John Cavadini pointed out, Mosai031“To fault Augustine in this context for not realizing that ‘sexual pleasure’ can enrich a couple’s relationship, or to assess Augustine’s views against our own more ‘positive’ view, may be, with all due respect, to beg the question.” In other words, before we dismiss Augustine, we should ask ourselves in what way he might have been right. Who is to say that sex – even within the confines of marriage – is always, or even mostly, a good thing? Perhaps Augustine was wrong. Or perhaps we like sex and prefer not to think too much about its spiritual consequences. Cavadini continues, “For Augustine, the question would not be whether sexual pleasure can enrich a couple’s relationship, but whether there is any sexual pleasure possible without a taint of violence or complacency (’self-pleasing’) in it.”[1] The fact that Augustine thought there was sin in sex means that he thought of sex fundamentally in spiritual terms. He charted a middle way between the naïve Pelagianism of Julian of Eclanum, who saw conjugal sex as something innocent and harmless, and rigorist ascetics who would have every Christian don the black. These perspectives (the Pelagian and ascetic) only seem disparate, but they both share an anthropology which sees sex as something belonging merely to the flesh. For Augustine, sexual intercourse was a spiritual event with spiritual implications. In sex, Christian charity, sinful lust, the weakened will, and our divided loves meet in a moment of intense bodily pleasure. This makes sex, in a word, complicated. 

Augustine did not think sex was inherently sinful. For Augustine, God create Adam and Eve male and female, and thus God intended our different sexual organs to serve a divine purpose.[2] It is only lust that makes sex sinful. In our fallen state, our sexual desires, and thus our bodies, are never fully under our control. Eden was different:

[T]he sexual organs would have been moved by the same command of the will as the other members are. Then, not needing to be aroused by the excitement of passion, the man would have poured his seed into his wife’s womb in tranquillity of mind and without any corruption of her body’s integrity. For, though this cannot be proved by experience, there is no reason for us not to believe that, when those parts of the body were not driven by turbulent heat but brought into use by the power of the will when the need arose, the male seed could have been introduced into the womb with no loss of the wife’s integrity, just as the flow of menstrual blood can now come forth from the womb of a virgin without any such loss of integrity; for the seed could enter in the same way as the menstrual flow now leaves. Just as the woman’s womb might have been opened for birth simply by the influence of the maturity of the foetus, and without any moans of pain, so the two sexes might have been conjoined for the purpose of impregnation and conception by a natural use of will, and not by lustful appetite.[4]

Adam_et_Eve_-_Gustave_CourtoisIt is important to note that the absence of lust does not necessarily mean the absence of desire or pleasure. Lust is disordered desire. It is desire we struggle to control. Augustine’s language may sound clinical, but this does not necessarily mean that pre-lapsarian sex would have been a kind of chore. Rather, Augustine’s language is for our benefit. He writes, “The things of which I am here speaking are now thought shameful; and so, though I am endeavouring, as far as I can, to describe how such things might have been before they became shameful, our discussion  must rather be checked by he restraining voice of modesty than carried forward by my eloquence, such as it is.”[5] Augustine moderates his language because we can be so immoderate. Pride disorders our desires. We can only find true happiness in loving God for God’s own sake, but after the Fall, our “default setting” is to love others, including God, for our own sake.[6] This misdirected desire weakens the will; it is why we are subject to the passions, overwhelmed by lust, and experience pleasure, ultimately, as an act of violence against the other.[7]

The sin of sex is not pleasure but pride. Pleasure tends to justify the soul’s false believe in its inherent goodness.[8] This lie of pleasure is really what Augustine means by concupiscence (i.e. sinful desire).[9] Concupiscence lurks in all pleasures, such as eating.[10] It is possible to make a conscious choice to moderate the pleasure of food. Sex is more potent.[11] One may do mathematical calculations and enjoy a glass of fine wine at the same time (but probably just one). It should go without saying that the same is not true of sexual climax. As Augustine indicated above, orgasm makes every lover a selfish lover. Sexual pleasure overwhelms all our cognitive faculties. No matter how much we may delight in the companionship of our beloved, when sexual climax comes, we are all just nerve endings.

The absence of pride negates the problem of pleasure. Sin is like a cycle of addiction. Lust reinforces pride, and pleasure reinforces lust. Pleasure is just the vehicle pride uses to perpetuate its delusions of grandeur. For this reason, Peter Brown has noted that, for Adam and Eve, “[Augustine] saw no reason why conception should not depend upon a moment of intense pleasure…”[12] I would go one step further than Brown and suggest that it is probable that Adam and Eve would have taken pleasure in sex. Augustine did not think that the Fall brought about any fundamental change in our biology.[13] What is pleasurable now would have been pleasurable in Eden. The only difference is how we react to that pleasure. Thus, sex is not a sin so much as the pleasures of sex arouse the sinful tendencies that are always present within us.

749px-Lothar_von_Seebach,_Adam_et_Eve_(vers_1910)Self-love makes married sex sinful. No matter how much we love our spouse, during sex we love ourselves more. Even if that self-love is present only for a moment. It is still there! But Augustine put this sin in the same category as cursing and laughing too much.[14] That is why he thought married sex could be easily redeemed by being ordered toward a higher end. Concupiscence is negated “when in that wherein husband and wife cleave to one another, they have in mind that they be father and mother.”[15] This rule applied only to Christian couples. Sex among pagans was always sinful because they just brought little fallen Adams into the world (barring some kind of divine intervention), whereas a Christian couple had the potential to produce little Christs. Every child born into the church could add to the number of the elect, thus hastening the kingdom.[16] Married sex may have been sinful, but it was also an eschatological act (not unlike the eucharist itself). Married sex could be an act of faith – a kind of worship.

Sex can be holy when it is an act of “caritas.”[17] Caritas refers to a kind of selfless love that was the gift of divine grace. Like many bishops at the time, Augustine upheld continence as the ultimate goal of a married couple, especially as age naturally cooled their youthful heat, but he also insisted that married continence must be a mutual decision. Resisting the advances of one’s spouse was not a righteous act. Thus Augustine berated Ecdicia, a woman who donned black and announced to her husband that she was now a widow, saying that her refusal to fulfill her marital responsibilities made her equally responsible for any adultery her husband might commit.[18] Such a declaration might offend our modern sensibilities, but Augustine presumes that no person is responsible only for her own sins. We rise and fall together; this is especially true in marriage.

In sum, the problem Augustine had with sex was not sex but pride. Pride gave rise to lust, which sullied sexual pleasure. We can see this fundamental concern in his advice to virgins. In On Virginity, Augustine spends relatively little time praising virginity. Mostly he warns dedicated virgins not to place too much confidence in their physical continence. Though they had more time to devote to the life of the spirit, they also had a higher standing in the church, which could titillate pride just as easily as married sex.[19]

 


[1]    John C. Cavadini, “Feeling Right: Augustine on the Passions and Sexual Desire.” Augustinian Studies. 36:1 (2005), 195-210.

[2] City of God, XIV.9-14, 17-26.

[3] Enchiridon, IX.29

[4]    City of God, XIV.26. For more information about the biological assumptions at work in this passage, see Peter Brown’s Body and Society, Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press), 1988.

[5]    City of God, XIV.26. Emphasis mine.

[6]    I refer, of course, to Augustine’s restless heart. See Confessions, I.i.1. On self-love, see The Trinity, VIII.v.12ff.

[7]    See On the Grace of Christ, VIII.9

[8]    See Cavadini, “Feeling Right,” 203-04.

[9]    See City of God, XIV.16.

[10]   Confessions, X.xxxi.44. For Augustine on the danger of habit see Confessions, VIII.ix.21.

[11]   City of God, XIV.16.

[12]   Peter Brown, The Body and Society, 417. While I am initially persuaded by Brown’s point, especially given Augustine’s allowance for what seems like purely gratuitous eating in the heavenly city (City of God, XIII.22), I must add a caution that this bit of argumentum ad ignorantum is by no means conclusive.

[13] The Literal Meaning of Genesis, VI.35-36.

[14]   See Mathijs Lamberigts, “A Critical Evaluation of Critiques of Augustine’s View of Sexuality.” In Augustine and his Critics, Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner, eds Robert Dodaro and George Lawless (New York: Routledge, 2000), 180ff.

[15]   On Marriage, 3.

[16]   On Marriage, 8.

[17]   Augustine, Marriage, 5, 13.

[18] Augustine, Letter 262.

[19] The gift of martyrdom further complicates the picture, for God may select a married woman to be martyred (such as Perpetua) and pass over a virgin. On Holy Virginity, 1-2, 22, 46-48.

2 thoughts on “Augustine on Sin and Sex”

  1. VERY interesting post David, and one that clarify many misconceptions I have held about Augustine, but also upholds another. I think what surprises my modern, post-sexual revolution eyes, is the EXTREME level of holiness he wants from his readers. He is saying that at the moment of orgasm we are so overwhelmed that only selfish desires (IE seeking our own pleasure) remain. He is demanded a level of holiness that is tough to reconcile with in our fallen age. In our society, the average married man does well if he can simply avoid porn, or staring at hot girls in the gym. Insisting that we are sinning at the moment of orgasm simply seems unfair! I guess this is why we confess sins committed without knowledge or intention. Still, my modern sensibility rejects the concept of sex with mairage for procreation only. I would call that a dead and lifeless marriage in 99.99% of cases, in which one or more spouse is miserable and an affair is likely. I suppose the example of St. John of Kronstadt who practiced continence and died a virgin is one example, and the fact that 99.99999% of married couples don't consider this an option explains why there are so few married saints. All those married couple are sinning all the time, how is sainthood an option. Can you answer as to how widely held this teaching is among other church fathers? I know it became a much-abused teaching in the catholic church. Thanks for this post.

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