Why Did Augustine Really Hate Sex?

Written by Douglas Davis on . Posted in Books, Posts.

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

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

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

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.