Augustine – His Sexual Habit Has A Name

I was astonished to find that I already loved you, not a phantom surrogate for you. But I was not stable in the enjoyment of my God. I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away from you by my weight. With a groan I crashed into inferior things. The weight was my sexual habit.

Augustine. Saint Augustine Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 127. (vii.xvii.23)

This is the closest Augustine will come to actually writing the name of any women in his life. Augustine had sent away his first concubine, so his sexual habit must be his second concubine. His fiancee (who is perhaps nine years old at the time) is not mentioned by name either. As to the second concubine, he will not mention by name or even have any remorse when he discards her.

The Latin word for “caught up” is translated ravished by other translators and also means raped. This is another case of Augustine (who became celibate) using sexual terms to describe his situation. Even after celibacy, Augustine’s mind brimmed with sexual thoughts. It is almost as if his writings serve as an outlet for his sexual thoughts.

Augustine finally accomplishes the ascent (his inward meditation designed to see truth) and sees the immutable god in his mind. This occurs before his “conversion” of Chapter VIII in Confession but even as a Platonist he insists he sees the real God in his Platonic ascent. However the vision was only brief. Augustine attributes this to the fact that he was still holding on to his sexual habit.

A Neoplatonist ascended the ladder of life and was able to see or experience god by a process of meditation. The requirement of ascent was to become more like god. Of course, god did not practice sex. Women were an embarrassment to Augustine. He had failed to become an elite Manichean or an elite Neoplatonist because of his inability to control his sexual desires. This ashamed Augustine.

By practicing a pagan mysticism, Augustine imagines he see the real God but only briefly. This brief vision was not brief because he was exploring pagan gods, but because of his sexual habit. This sexual habit was supposed to be extinguished in the Platonic purification process. Augustine had not accomplished this.

The life of an ascetic life has a real world human cost. The ascetic who abandons his common law wife, his temporary concubine and his fiancée leaves a behind a trail of broken promises, heartbreak and unfulfilled obligations. Furthermore, Augustine is extremely self-centered. His pilgrimage to the Christian life is all about Augustine, his purification, his relationship with God.

Does God reward such a sinner with a vision of himself? Does the Bible represent an inward vision as the ultimate religious experience? Is the ultimate goal of Christianity silent introspection? The Judeo-Christian conception of love between a man and woman is more personal. The women whom a man takes for a wife is joined in oneness that in many ways demonstrates the oneness man has with God. A man becomes joined to his wife as one, so that consorting with prostitutes destroys this unity and makes a Christian guilty of becoming one with a prostitute.

Augustine supplanted the Christian ideals of love with his own personal theology of introspection, a theology adopted from the Neoplatonists. Plotinus will describe the Platonistic ideal on the way to union with god:

What desire there may be can never be for the vile; even the food and drink necessary for restoration will lie outside of the Soul’s attention, and not less the sexual appetite: FIRST ENNEAD II. 7,8

Augustine’s journey in Manicheaism and Neoplatonism demanded celibacy as the price of admission to the higher spiritual realms. Augustine could only obtain the rank of a catechumen, a hearer of their religions. Sexual activity hindered Augustine from becoming a higher initiate.

Augustine considered himself enslaved to sexual appetites. He never marries but lives with a concubine who bears him a son. While he is struggling with his purification process he will send his concubine away to Africa and never see her again. He is so embarrassed by his lack of self-control in sexual matters, he will never even mention her name in all his writings. As she leaves, in a tearful fit of rejection, she declares to Augustine that she will never have sex again. His response is typical of the self-centered egotism of his life:

“The woman with whom I habitually slept was torn away from my side because she was a hinderance to my marriage…She had returned to Africa vowing that she would never go with another man… But I was unhappy incapable of following a women’s example”

(Confesssions VI, xvi, 26) 109

Augustine expels the woman he you have loved, who bore his only son, and Augustine’s biggest concern is having the fortitude to follow her example in practicing celibacy. Augustine was a terribly evil human being. This woman, who had no trade to support herself is now forced to relocate and start a new life or her own. This is not modern America, but ancient Africa. Life for this woman was destined to be nasty, brutish, and short. Augustine never repents from discarding his concubine. Later, Augustine would indirectly mention her again in his treatise on marriage (de bono coniugali, V,v). He observes that any woman who lives with a man for sexual reasons only, and never marries him, will not be considered guilty of adultery once that man leaves her for a better marriage.

His second concubine fare no better. He simply never mentions her again after his conversion. The girl child to whom he is engaged is never mentioned by name. This is a stark contrast to Biblical morality. God intended the sexual act to be a special relationship between a man and a woman.

(1 Corinthians 6:16) Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”

So uniting with a prostitute is an insult to God and your wife. Although Augustine does not marry his concubines, he is certainly united with them in one flesh and owes some sort of faithfulness and love to them. Your wife or your concubine is not a sexual habit to be discarded. Discarding your wife or concubines is not a purification process that leads to the Christian God.

The conversion to Catholicism was adequate to complete Augustine’s purification process. He now felt justified in discarding his first concubine, his second concubine and his fiancée. This was yet another victory for Catholicism and is celebrated in Catholic traditions during the feasts of Saint Augustine. His conversion demonstrated the superiority of Catholicism over the competing religions.

In many ways, it is difficult to determine if Augustine’s conversion was a conversion toward Christianity or a conversion to celibacy. His famous exhortation read by a young person was take up and read or in Latin “tolle, lege.” The famous verse in question was from Romans 13. This is a reference to fornication and not the marriage bed.

Romans 13:13-14

13 Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. 14 But put on the Lord s Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

The Greek form of the word “lust” is a reference to beds (κοιταις). In metonymy (a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with the concept) the name refers to sex. The use of the word in the plural suggests fornication. The word used in the singular as a reference to sex in marriage. This plural use is a reference to fornication.

Hebrews 13:4:

Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled:

Augustine’s conversion experience is a call to do works. It is not a conversion of faith alone. The verse is an exhortation for Christians on how to live the Christian life, not a conversion policy of Christianity. Somehow, Augustine believes he must renounce secular ambition, money, and sex to become a Catholic.

Augustine leaves his secular position in Milan and retires to the home of a friend in Ostia. All his life Augustine is dependent on the generous support of rich patrons who finance his education, secure prestigious posts for his skills and support him in his religious retreats. Although Augustine imagines himself as living the life of poverty, he has never been in want. Even as bishop of Hippo, Augustine will enjoy his own spacious residence, servants and private secretaries. The final virtue, abstinence from sex, was the turning point of his conversion. This he accomplishes in Chapter VIII of his autobiography, Confessions. The highlight of his conversion is summed up in these words:

For so thou convertedst me unto thyself, as that I sought now no more after a wife, nor any other hopes in this world

Confessions Book VIII, XII

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One Response to Augustine – His Sexual Habit Has A Name

  1. Rachel says:

    Very interesting! Do you have more examples of Augustine writing about his concubines? I think about the OT verse about marrying the woman one slept with and the NT verse in I Corinthians about a man who is not acting becomingly to his “virgin” should marry her.
    Sounds like a man who didn’t care about right and wrong. Terrible example for Christians. Why do pastors like to read his writings? Do they ignore his sins?

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