Critical Essays Augustine's View of Sexuality

One of the most notable features of the Confessions, and one that has fascinated — or perhaps titillated — readers through the centuries is Augustine's honesty about his sexual career. Augustine makes clear that he was no angel: As a young man, he was sexually active, and later, he lived openly with a concubine who bore him a son. As Augustine describes himself, he was a slave to his sexual impulses. Reader response to this candor has varied over the centuries. Many critics have taken Augustine at his word that he was a libertine. However, most modern scholars have questioned just how well Augustine's view of himself would have squared with the views his contemporaries. In living with a concubine, he was not necessarily much different from other men of his time, and it is certainly possible that his descriptions of his sexual exploits are exaggerated. Augustine's sexual impulses were clearly a source of intense emotional pain for him, and this fact alone may account for the emphasis he places on his sexual sins.

Throughout the Confessions, the language Augustine uses to describe his sexual impulses is negative, reflecting images of disease, disorder, and corruption. Desire is mud (2.2, 3.1), a whirlpool (2.2), chains (2.2, 3.1) thorns (2.3), a seething cauldron (3.1), and an open sore that must be scratched (3.1). Desire for Augustine is almost a compulsion, an irrational impulse that he feels incapable of controlling without God's help, a bondage that he is too weak to escape. Desire becomes the last obstacle between Augustine and a complete commitment to God, because he is certain he cannot live a celibate life.

Augustine was not unique in his negative attitudes toward sexuality. During this period, extreme asceticism was a standard to be admired and emulated. The heroes of Augustine's Christian contemporaries were spiritual athletes like St. Antony, who gave up even the most innocent pleasures to live as a hermit in the desert. During Augustine's lifetime, there were numerous examples of old-line Roman aristocrats who, upon conversion, gave away their wealth to the poor and the Church, lived voluntarily in celibate marriages, and withdrew from Roman society to dedicate their entire lives to the contemplation of God. In the story that Ponticianus tells Augustine, not only the two young Roman officials but also their fiancées instantly decide to give up everything — including sex and marriage — to dedicate themselves fully to God. Against such a backdrop, Augustine's assertion that there may be a legitimate outlet for sexuality, in marriage and the procreation of children, sounds almost radically liberal.

Nonetheless, it is Augustine's negative views about sexuality that predominate. In her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, the religious scholar Elaine Pagels is critical of Augustine's equation of sex with original sin, identifying Augustine as a source of Western society's negative attitudes about sexuality. Whether Augustine is directly responsible for the traditions that came down to history or simply articulated the prevailing viewpoint is open to debate. However, Augustine clearly had a significant influence in shaping Western ideas about sexuality.

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