Why Did Augustine Really Hate Sex?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Behold the "vital fire" [male erection] which does not obey the soul's decision, but, for the most part, rises up against the soul's desire in disorderly and ugly movements.... ?St. Augustine, "Contra Julianum," c. 429 AD We must conclude that a husband is meant to rule over his wife as the spirit rules the flesh. ?St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, c. 405 AD I, the son of Zeus... Dionysius, whom once Semele, Kadmos' daughter, bore... having taken a mortal form instead of a god's... I have first excited Thebes to my cry, fitting a fawn-skin to my body and taking a thyrsos in my hand, a weapon of ivy. ?Prologue to Euripides' The Bacchae, c. 406 BC.  

    Saint Augustine by Garry Wills Penguin, 145 pages, $19.95 Almost 1600 years ago, the silver-tongued bishop of a small city in Northern Africa began to write and rail against one simple and (for him) indefensible act: Spontaneous Erection or S.E., impure and simple. Now known as St. Augustine, this intellectual powerhouse decided that S.E. is an offense against God. How dare the "disobedient member," inflamed by a licentious wife, rise up against Divine Power? Doesn't either offender remember what happened to Adam? To Eve?

    Perhaps no single act of critical misreading in history blitzed the lives of more people than Augustine's interpretation of Genesis, with the possible exceptions of Goebbels parroting Mein Kampf and Stalin distorting Das Kapital for legions of black- and red-shirted thugs. To this day you and I, whether Judeo-Christians or innocents living in a society they molded, feel the sting of Augustine's verbal whip. For sure he has handed over more patients and gold to our shrinks than anyone else. If women want to know why you dare not "speak your desires," read The City of God. If males want to know why we were ashamed of our hard-ons in high school, read Augustine's Confessions. And if anybody wonders why the world regards once-radical Christianity as a reactionary and repressive faith, read the saint's heated debate with his fellow bishops, summed up in The City of God Against the Pagans.

    But stay away from Genesis itself. If you read it in a sane mode, you may join millions of contrarians, as well as the revisionist historians who are studying early, pre-Augustinian Christianity, by concluding that the Adam and Eve saga is not obsessed with balling in the woods, and certainly not with defiant dicks, as Augustine concluded. Genesis is clearly a fiction enfolded in metaphor. We're clearly expected to seek meaning there as we seek it everywhere in the Bible?beneath (or above) the literal plot line. This is how the first Christians and their left-wing Gnostic brothers used Genesis and the Bible before Augustine dropped in from hell to pronounce every single word in that tiny tale that suits him as literal truth.

    In Augustine's eyes, the message of the story is not that Adam and Eve disobeyed God's prohibition against eating the fruit of "knowledge"?a complex, profound matter. No. They defiled their creator, and us, because Adam (allegedly) got a hard-on. And Eve, in fine, is a tramp. Let us cast all our stones at her, Augustine says, in effect. Order her to obey her husband and stay far away from the higher councils...of his church.

    Ludicrous, isn't it, that an entire religion, at first committed to a merciful new God, not his Old Testament granddad?to saving and feeding the poor, defying the Emperor in Rome, rolling back the moneylenders, defending whores and outcasts?should decide that lust and love is its central enemy? That women, whom Jesus Christ deliberately sought out and defended, are Sin, collectively, incarnate? Yet this is precisely Augustine's argument, making it easy today for his ally John Paul II to shove it down the throats of the faithful in one Augustinian anti-abortion, antisexuality, antimasturbation encyclical after another. As they mount in rage, the encyclicals have steadily alienated even some devout Roman intellectuals. One of them, in a rich, yeasty review of John Paul's writings in The New York Review of Books back in 1994, wondered whether the pope is obsessed with sex and chastity because of his Polish past. Worse, maybe his refusal to grant women full equality in his church is driven by his extremist idolatry of the Virgin (with whom no earthly female can compare). Why won't the pope shut up about sex, the writer wondered, and focus on larger issues? "When I am asked whether I am a church-going Catholic and answer yes," he wrote, "no one inquires whether I really believe in such strange things as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection. I am asked about ovaries and trimesters. The great mysteries of faith have become... the 'doctrines' on contraception and abortion."

    That writer was Garry Wills: darling of the fading neoconservative intellectual elite, winner of a Pulitzer and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a venomous, often brilliant political analyst. A few years after casting doubt on his pope's obsession with sex, the same Wills now publishes this fawning "life" of St. Augustine that blindly endorses virtually every comma and period ever written by the Monster of Hippo. Most amazing of all, Wills contends Augustine was wrapped inside the mind of God when he wrote.

    Why? Imagine what mincemeat Wills might make of a George W. speech in which he claimed to be wrapped inside the mind of G. Washington, if not his father, George the President. Savor the spectacle of Wills lashing into Al Gore for misreading the Founding Fathers on Church and State. Yet here Garry reverts to choirboy status, parsing his catechisms. Not only does he equate Augustine with God; he rattles off a series of cotton-candy generalizations that echo his Master:

    Yes, Augustine is at one with the mind of God.

    God's word is whatever Augustine says it is.

    If a penis rises spontaneously, it does so against the will of is owner.

    If a penis does not rise when bidden, it has a mind of its own.

    Eve is evil because she wanted to bed Adam.

    God, who controls all things, who shaped Adam to impregnate Eve, and Eve to attract Adam, was shocked when the pairing worked. Furious, God ejected the original couple, clothed, from Paradise, demanded that Eve submit to Adam, and condemned their progeny forever...to commit sex, spawn kids, and die.

    Men and women can only defy death?and avoid sex?by throwing themselves on the mercy of the Church.

    If you swallow any or all of these absurdities in 1999, you are a special case. Even in the fourth and fifth centuries Augustine's fantasies provoked spirited resistance. Wills barely acknowledges this counter-Augustinian movement, which is the centerpiece of Elaine Pagels' widely respected book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Pagels and many other scholars have also flooded the intellectual market in the past decade with a wealth of discoveries about the politics and sociology of the early Christians, who turn out to be a rangy, daring and highly diversified band of rebels, alternately infuriating both the Romans and the orthodox Judaic elders. "In the late fourth century and the fifth century...," Pagels writes, "Augustine's theory of human depravity?and, correspondingly, the political means to control it?replaced the previous ideology of human freedom."

    Wills does not even mention the discovery and translation of the "forbidden" Gnostic gospels, found in Egypt in 1945. Though Christians, the Gnostics drew very different conclusions not only from the "accepted" biblical texts but from many writings cast out by the mainstream church leaders. Some Gnostics saw Eve as the hero, along with the Serpent, of the Genesis story, not its villain. Many more disagreed totally with Augustine's denigration of women. Indeed, the Gnostics saw God as a crossdresser in effect, at once male and female. From Pagels' 1979 Random House edition of The Gnostic Gospels: "I am androgynous. [I am both Mother and] Father, since [I copulate] with myself...[and with those who love] me... I am the Womb [that gives shape] to the All... I am...the glory of the Mother."

    For our strangely uninformed biographer, however, the embattled Augustine alone is Christianity, surrounded by pagans and pederasts. Wills even tries to debunk what he calls "the legend" of his hero's notoriously profligate youth. He does so simply on the ground of declaration, without reference either to biographical fact or to Augustine's own Confessions, which are riddled with references to his rapacious behavior: "In the 16th year of the age of my flesh...the madness of raging lust exercised its supreme dominion over me." Later, "I drew my shackles along with me, terrified to have them knocked off." Given this mystifying remorse mixed with rage, it is no wonder that Augustine ended as an enemy of free will. Whereas the early Christians saw the destiny of man/woman as open-ended, Augustine saw the genders as sick, helpless, depraved.

    And his theory locked in perfectly with the church's sudden rise in stature in the fourth century from the margins to the center of power. As one Roman emperor after another converted to the ranks of an increasingly popular?because originally benevolent?faith, the Christian gospel inevitably changed in content and style. Now the heads of the church were forced to manage a huge, warring and fractious empire. Order, not freedom, became its necessity. Let the church then teach its faithful to submit, to control their depraved impulses (political or sexual).

    Augustine's "reading" of Genesis was officially adopted by the Council of Orange in 529, one century after his death. To some extent, his deeply authoritarian theory has been exploded over the centuries by education, democracy and egalitarianism. Even the Roman Church now finds it necessary to adapt to social and economic conditions that promote self-reliance and self-definition, not submission. Sex is perhaps the last frontier. Why? The answer is enfolded at once in the politics of lust and of free will.

    To take the first: It is at least possible, if not probable, that Augustine was obsessed with erection because he couldn't get it up, at least not as often as he wished. Over and over he pointed out that "the married man" loses control when it won't stand up on command, as well as when it will. Time for a little common sense: Who really cares or thinks deep thoughts when his member is stiff? The gray cells are immobile at that moment. The same is true of a woman in arousal. We're only plunged into self-doubt and introspection?deeply scarred or touched?when we fail or run dry.

    My conclusion, then, is that Augustine turned into a raving puritan because he didn't have either Viagra or a seductive woman near at hand.

    Perhaps free will and sex are a Mobius strip, one side turning constantly into the other. The early Christian records of Christ's words and actions?what is called the "Synoptic Gospels" (meaning written by those who knew him, or a disciple)?do not preach Augustinian doctrine or loathing for the flesh. Yes, Jesus is profoundly opposed to adultery; he is also profoundly opposed to those who want to punish sinners (cf. the Mary Magdalene defense). He leaves the decision, the action, up to the user, if you will. And of course he is an enemy of coercive power and the state, which executes him in the end.

    Given the plot of the Greatest Story Ever Told, what other story, equally brilliant, equally historic, does it recall? In The Bacchae, we also find the son of a god, Dionysius, spawned by a lowly woman in whom Zeus decides to implant his seed. Like Christ, Dionysius takes human form?and consorts with the lowliest citizens of Thebes as well as the mighty. He is hugely popular with women, who are enthralled by his beauty as well as his decidedly sensual theories of the good life, which argue for release, not restraint. To this day, "bacchanalian" means wining, dining, loving.

    Also like Christ, Dionysius incurs the wrath of the state. In place of Pontius Pilate, he must contend with an Augustinian puritan in the form of Pentheus, the King. Pentheus rails against the usurper, fearing that he will corrupt his kingdom, if not destroy law and order. Dionysius and Pentheus represent two opposite claims on life?one that seeks to empower and delight each citizen of Thebes, and one that seeks only unification and control. In this Alternative Greatest Story, however, Pilate-Pentheus is destroyed. Dionysius, a left-wing, anarchist version of Christ, wins the day.

    No one can say whether Euripides' plot influenced those who claimed to remember what happened in Jerusalem, but the similarities are intriguing. So is the main difference. The classical legacy?which drove both the Enlightenment and democracy?welcomed sex into the middle of life. The Christian legacy, as later revised and extended by Garry Wills' beloved patriarch, tried to drive it out. In one sense, of course, that legacy not only self-destructed, it may have bequeathed us the delights of eroticism?the art, poetry and music of repression. But the legacy still hounds our laws, our schools and the stump speeches of our candidates for president.

    E-mail Douglas Davis at dd@sfd.com.