Thursday, August 19, 2010

Alice von Hildebrand (1)

The Augustinian argument
One thing I need to be clear about right from the outset is that Alice von Hildebrand is arguing in good faith. It's always tempting to accuse someone who comes along with an argument that seems to tell us that we cannot do what we want to do of arguing in bad faith. This is not just because we get childish and churlish when we are being denied. It's also simply true that arguments like hers are often made by people who simply like running other people's lives.

That is not the case with Hildebrand. She is making an argument she holds deeply. An argument she loves and she obviously spent many years loving this argument as personified by her husband the late Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is not malicious, she is only wrong.

I also should say that I hold no brief for Christopher West. I've long thought, to put it crudely, that Christopher West should just shut up and I think Hildebrand puts her finger right on the problem when she identifies West as being wrapped up in a kind of religious enthusiasm. We might even say he is "raptured" up by it.

What Hildebrand is doing, and doing quite consciously and openly, and doing wrong in this essay is to maintain an Augustinian position on sexual ethics. The Augustinian position is one that she feels a deep attachment to. There is nothing wrong with that. We all do things like that. I feel a deep attachment to arguments of Aquinas, MacIntyre  and Wittgenstein that I use over and over again.

But the Augustinian argument on sexuality comes with a special problem. Augustine argued that Original Sin is transmitted through sex and he was wrong. This is not just something I say, it is a view that the Catholic Church has firmly and unequivocally condemned as false.

Hildebrand knows this. What she hopes is that much of the rest of what Augustine says about sexuality can be salvaged. She hopes that his claim about sexuality and Original Sin is more like a headlight than a steering wheel—because you can still drive a car with a missing headlight but you can't go anywhere at all with a missing steering wheel.

Not surprisingly, then, one of the first things she wants to establish is that there is some sort of special connection between Original Sin and sex. Not the specific connection that Augustine makes but a special connection.
Because the intimate sphere differs radically from other bodily instincts, it was bound to be deeply affected by Original Sin. Corruptio optimi , pessima. The ugly harvest of sins committed in this sphere is large.  We need not go into details, but no one can deny that it is a domain in which the Devil (the master of ceremonies) has had a field day since the onset of Original Sin, and still does.
For those of you wondering,  Corruptio optimi , pessima, is one of those lovely and indispensable Latin phrases meaning roughly "the corruption of the best is worst of all." It's a lovely phrase but we might wonder what it is doing here. In the context here the only thing the "best" that is corrupted here can mean is sex but that is precisely the move the church has condemned. The thing that is corrupted by Original Sin is me and that affects everything I do not just sex or even especially sex.

And you can see the sort of moves here that we all make when we don't really have an argument but want to go to the place an argument would take us if we did have one. She assumes the thing she wants to prove. She asserts sex is radically different when that is the thing she needs to convince us of.

Yes, the ugly harvest of sins committed in the sexual sphere is large. But so is the ugly harvest of sins committed in classrooms, kitchens, on the highways and on blogs. Yes, sexuality is a domain in which the devil has a field day. He certainly had a field day with me once upon a time. But the devil has a field day everywhere he goes on earth and he also faces defeats everywhere he goes and that includes the bedroom. Sex is something you can do without sinning it's not a game of Snakes and Ladders with hidden booby traps that were put there just to trip you up.

One of the consequences of the Augustinian view is to make sexuality into a minefield. It becomes a special area that we should never go into or only go into if absolutely necessary because there be monsters here. And from this comes the odd view that one could avoid sinning by never having sex. This is patent nonsense. Virginity is not chastity. I could never have sex even once and still live a monstrously unchaste life.

In closing, I'd like to note an odd strategy that Hildebrand and West share: Corruptio optima. They both have a tendency to elevate sexuality in order to tear it down. As if it were a sacrament and needs to be elevated just as the priest elevates the host. It isn't a sacrament. Marriage is the sacrament and while sex is a part of marriage it is only part.

And here we get the odd contradiction that runs through Augustine's thought to both Hildebrand and West. Sex is both elevated to make it a  sacred thing and yet is so totally invested with the presence of sin as to make it the Diabolus musica of life. It is good in the abstract but seemingly always a sin in reality.

The next post in this series is here.

*The Diabolus musica is the only five note interval in music that is perfectly symmetrical (in all the others the central tone, or the third, is either closer to the root note or the top note) and yet it is not "perfect" because it is a dissonant tone and all the other possible five note intervals are harmonic. In the C scale, this is the interval between B and F. In solfege, the easiest example is from to to fa.


  1. You raise an interesting point Jules, and I wonder if we're missing the forest for the trees here. All of the Abrahamic religions have this ambivalent relationship with sexuality. Maybe Catholicism more so because of Augustine and what someone described as "scholasticism on steroids" in reference to Church teaching overall, but you can see it in Islam as well. In any case, besides ambivalence about sexuality, the other thing all three Abrahamic religions have in common is that they're Patriarchal, and I'm just wondering to what degree that accounts for this ambivalence about sexuality. The fly in the ointment of any patriarchal system is, of course, women. If anything could undo or sabotage a man it would be a woman, that's his achilles heal, we have it in the story of Adam and Eve. Maybe this ambivalence can be traced back to primitive man's fear of women because of the power they have over men through sex. We love it but it can also lead to our undoing. Maybe this complex, almost schizoid theology about sexuality can be traced back to those primitive origins.

  2. What is also interesting is that I've read and been told the both the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches fiercely reject Augustine (and I think Aquinas), and that might have been a factor in the Schism. My friend who is devout Greek Orthodox has told me that he can get married in the Church and divorced up to three times before he is required to seek a Church Anullment if he wishes to remarry for a fourth time in the Church.

  3. I think we have to give the Catholic church a certain amount of credit here. For starters, it did condemn Augustine's teaching and that is no small cheese. Augustine was a giant figure in the church and rejecting such a central tenet of his moral views was a major shift.

    Second, although the glorification of virginity may not be to our taste now, it was a way for a woman to defend the dignity of her person for centuries and centuries when no other institution was offering any alternatives. Marriage or the veil may not seem like much of a choice but it was a big step up from marriage or, well, nothing because you had no choice at all.

    The Catholic church has also been a very progressive force on marriage most of the time. The book to read on this is The Knight, the Lady and the Priest by George Duby.

    Finally, although the church certainly has its failing, there is something very different, and deeply offensive, about the way Islamic culture treats women.

    I know, I know, if I defend the church anymore they'll make me drop the Crypto in Crypto-Catholic but though never perfect and often deeply flawed, I believe the church has always been good.

  4. I'm learning here Jules, as I understand it the Church condemned Augustine's teaching as far as original sin goes, but it could have gone farther in condemning his entire teaching about sexuality. Augustine was apparently a very sexual man who felt a lot of guilt about it, probably due to his mother, and they weren't even Jewish! The Church--and the world in general--would be a better place if he had celebrated his sexuality--and the long-standing relationship he had with The One--instead of being made to feel shame and guilt about it. He seems tormented--"God make me chaste, but not yet" shows that. Unfortunately for him and all the rest of us, he resolved that ambivalence on the wrong side.

    I agree that of all the Abrahamic religions, Islam treats women the worst, and the lowly status of women is more codified in its theology than either Judaism or Christianity. But they're all based on the notion that women are "less than" men. Nothing could be more demonstrative of this than God choosing as a symbol of His covenant with Abraham the removal of his--and his descendents'--foreskin. Women are automatically excluded from this, but the notion of male superiority continued in Christianity even though Paul said it wasn't necessary for Gentile converts to Christianity to be circumcised. I agree that Christianity has done more to elevate the status of women than either Judaism or Islam, and maybe the origins of that can be traced to the abandonement of circumcisiom under the New Covenant. But Augustine clearly had a hard time with sexuality, and for him that meant women so his difficulty was projected onto women. He should have followed his own heart and been grateful for his strong libido rather than listen to his mother and the "great philosophers", they'll get you every time!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This is the same comment as the one deleted above. I just spotted an embarrassing mistake and this is the only way to fix it.

    I think we have to allow that Augustine is more than just a great philosopher. It is sometimes said of some great figure that he or she had an impact on western civilization. Without Augustine, western civilization as we know it would never have existed. As a professor of mine used to put it, no matter how smart we think we are, Augustine was smarter.

    As crazy as this may seem, I also wouldn't discount the possibility that while we have figured out some things about sexuality that Augustine did not know he might still be able to teach us a thing or two about sexuality.

  7. Jules, as Pat Buchanan and Mike Kinsley used to say on "Crossfire" on CNN, I'll give you the last word.