Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(2) May 2018
A Few Words About Augustine on Sex and Marriage
Professor John Rist
It has often been observed that of all Western thinkers Augustine has probably been more abused than any others by those who have hardly read a word of what he has written.
Perhaps that needs to be slightly modified: people often also abuse Augustine in complete ignorance of the world in which he lived and wrote, and with little understanding of how culture-bound are their own judgments and prejudices. And such blindness still affects Catholics, some of whom even join more radical secularists in claiming that Augustine has inflicted substantial damage on Western culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in comment on his thoughts about marriage and sexuality. Hence before looking at some of those views we need to understand rather more about how most of the inhabitants of the late Roman Empire regarded sexual behaviour and the nature and purposes of marriage.
First, then, the sexual distinction between males and females. The dominant view (even among most Christians, a substantial number of whom – but not Augustine - believed that women are not created in God’s image) was that women are inferior versions of men: not only inferior in their physical strength and emotional stability, but even in the role they play in the generation of new human beings. For it was widely assumed that women were nurses both before and after birth. When the child is in the womb, the mother’s role is to nourish the seed implanted in her by the male: the seed, that is, being itself regarded as an embryonic human being. That is why the ancients found it easy to confuse contraception and abortion: both seemed to involve killing the undeveloped seed. The acceptability of doing that, of course, depended on social, and especially on religious beliefs.
Given such ideas about the basic inferiority of women and female weaknesses of varying kinds, it is hardly surprising that sexual relations were widely regarded as the imposition of the will of the stronger (and better) male on that of the hopefully submissive female: in other words, as Augustine would put it, sexual intercourse was normally mere lust masking a kind of power-play, an example of what he called (more widely) libido dominandi: the lust to dominate. The passive party in sexual acts was thought to be humiliated by her (or in the case of passive homosexuals his) subjection or submission. Such humiliation could also therefore be imposed as a punishment; thus a master might tell his slaves to have a bit of fun by raping a captured burglar. Hence sexual relations were widely regarded as a macho right of the male which should only be restrained by the fear that impregnating someone else’s woman would cause problems not only about who would be the rightful heir to the property of the woman’s rightful lord, the husband, but about the dangers that could arise if that husband tried to vindicate his offended honour. Even the very Christian Monnica, warning her son Augustine about youthful sexual transgressions, only urged him to avoid relations with married women. None of this is to suggest that more ‘romantic’ and respectful love affairs, even marriages, did not exist in the late Roman Empire, but they should not be thought of as any kind of norm.
In Augustine’s time, as he himself points out, the law of marriage indicated that the wife was to become the handmaid of the husband for the sake of bearing legitimate children. And children were not only required as heirs; in many ancient communities to have children ‘for the city’ meant generating males who could fight for it, and thus contribute, literally, to its continuing existence. For if you lose an ancient war, you can expect (and often witness) your men being killed, your women being raped (normally gang-raped) and together with their children, sold into slavery.
If you lost an ancient war, you could expect (and often witness) your men being killed, your women being raped (normally gang-raped) and together with their children, sold into slavery.
We can now look at Augustine’s own view of sex and marriage against a rather more informed background. Famously, Augustine taught that there are three goods of marriage: ‘faith’: by which he meant that the marriage should be monogamous (but certainly not serially monogamous in the lifetime of an estranged spouse); ‘offspring’: by which he indicated that he accepted that the main purpose of marriage as an institution is the begetting of legitimate children; ‘sacramentum’: a term hard to explain even to modern Catholics, not least since the doctrine of the seven sacraments had not yet been developed. Augustine considers that to accept a sacramentum, an oath demanding the shouldering of specific responsibilities – in this respect parallel to the military oath which in the Roman army was administered in a religious context – is to perform an activity which directs those involved – in the case of marriage the couple – towards obedience to the will of God.
However submissive a wife should be to her husband, she should not tolerate his having sexual relations with other women, not only not with whores but not even with slaves – even if they are his own property.
Augustine was insistent that the implications of these principles – especially the principle of monogamous loyalty - should be very strictly observed. However submissive a wife should be to her husband, she should not tolerate his having sexual relations with other women, not only not with whores but not even with slaves – even if they are his own property. This rule, Augustine pointed out time and again to his sceptical and, as he knew, disobedient, even hostile congregation, is absolute: monogamy means one man, one woman.
What seems absent from this account is the lack of emphasis on the possibly unitive function of sexual activity: not that Augustine is silent about such a function for marriage itself, for he thinks that marriage should be a form of social friendship (amicitia socialis), but in the case of the sexual act itself. Since, as I have indicated, Augustine’s world took the sexual act to be humiliating to the ‘passive’ partner (even deliberately so) apart from its service to procreation, it is hardly surprising that, following many pagan as well as Christians thinkers, he believed that it should only occur if procreation is the aim (though he also recognized that that is a forlorn hope and that the sin committed is minor!). Otherwise, it would be, in terms of his society, merely a lustful search for pleasure, and Augustine also agreed with most of the philosophical and religious thinkers of his day that actions – or at least actions related to important goals in a man’s life - should not be performed merely for pleasure, though the enjoyment of pleasure in the performance of virtuous actions is itself a good.
What all this tells us is that Augustine’s attitude to the sexual act itself was still culture-bound; it was almost inconceivable in light of the psychological knowledge of the time that sexual activity, even within marriage, could in and of itself be beneficial (apart, of course, from providing pleasure) to its agents. We know, but Augustine did not, that this is an error. He did know, however, and we frequently forget, that sexual lust is common, hard to control and frequently leads to other (and in his view greater) ills in society. Adultery, fornication, homosexuality and other deviant practises, in his view, not only damage the character of those who engage in them but have disastrous effects on the society in which they are performed. If Augustine was ignorant of the benefits that can accrue from sexual activity in marriage even apart from procreation, he was certainly not unaware of the fact that treating sex as mere fun or as something to consume (as is common enough in our own society) is an offense against God, against his will for the human good and against the good of humans themselves. And he also knew that the sexual manipulation of one partner (including one marriage partner) by the other could never be ruled out in any realistic evaluation of human sexual activity; after all, sexual activity is not an original-sin-free zone.
My conclusion: we should be grateful for what Augustine thought and taught about sex and marriage, while simultaneously recognizing that in important respects his construction remains unfinished. But in trying to complete it, it would be very unwise to deny – let alone to ignore - the magnificent start he made on what is still a far from completed project.
John Michael Rist, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a British scholar of ancient philosophy, classics, and early Christian philosophy and theology, known mainly for his contributions to the history of metaphysics and ethics. He is Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Toronto, part-time Visiting Professor at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome. The illustration is from his book Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.