Friday, April 19, 2013

Augustine's Confessions: Vice, sin or weakness?

For to love and to be loved was more sweet to me if I could enjoy the body of the person who loved me.
Thus I defiled the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and darkened its sparkling waters with clouds of lust, And yet, filthy and nasty as I was, with my excessive vanity I pretended to be elegant and well-bred. And I fell head-long into love, whose prisoner I desired to be.
The troublesome word in that excerpt from near the beginning of Book 3 is "friendship". We have no idea what Augustine is talking about here but whatever it is, it seems sexual in nature. For writers in antiquity, "friendship" usually meant something between two men. It might also refer to two women but women's friendship was not taken as seriously. Men and women, however, were not taken to be friends very often. If Augustine meant to write about a relationship between himself and woman, he would have written differently.

No, I am not saying Augustine was gay or that he had a same-sex love affair a la Charles Ryder.

The thing to notice here is that any kind of sin that comes up in Augustine tends to get described in sexual terms. "Lust", "flesh", "concupiscence", and lots of other such terms could end up meaning gossip or gambling as easily as sex. Actually, that is understating the case for Augustine has used the language of sexual desire a lot so far in the book, he has not used it even once in reference to any actual sex act. We don't get any mention of an actual sex relationship until Book 4, Chapter 2, which contains a passing mention of his living with a woman he is not married to and that is described in mostly positive terms.

Two chapters after that we get a reference to a friendship that Augustine claims he "perverted" but that perversion was astrology and not sex.

A big part of the problem is us. We have eroticized sin to such an incredible degree that the language of sin and seduction have become synonymous.

But another big part of the problem is the culture of antiquity that didn't have much place for love in marriage. Saint Paul's statement that it is better to marry than to burn with passion strikes us as an overly pragmatic, if not outright exploitative, attitude towards marriage. It says, get married and you'll have a sanctioned outlet for your sex drive. And yet Saint Paul was a screaming romantic compared to most in antiquity who saw marriage as a contractual arrangement driven by a concern over community and property interests. It never would have occurred to Augustine to see marriage as a special kind of loving relationship because it tended not to be. There must have been some marriages that were but it simply wasn't the expectation.

That means that love as we mean the word to describe a special kind of bond between people who are in a sexual relationship, had no place in his culture. To talk about sex as a special bonding force between husbands and wives would have made no sense to them.

I don't think a writer like Augustine could think of sex as anything but a vice or, at best, as a weakness.You could have sanctioned sex in marriage but sex was never going to be a positive thing for him.

We might distinguish between sin, vice and weakness as follows:
  • A sin is to break a rule in a blameworthy way. It could be a conscious choice to break a rule or it could be a failure to try hard enough or any one of a myriad of possibilities but it would be blameworthy; it would be something you could be convicted of.
  • A vice is a kind of character trait that will lead you to do bad or fail to do good but not necessarily to break rules. I might be the worst sort of coward but never face any situation where it makes any difference. (The vast majority of men alive today will never find out whether or not they are cowards.) But the flaw is blameworthy in that I should be making efforts to train myself not to be a coward.
    A weakness is a trait that I couldn't eliminate even if I wanted to.
Augustine describes sexual desire sometimes as if it were vice and sometimes as if it were a weakness.

In any case, he always seems to describe sin of any sort, even sins that have little or nothing to do with sex such as astrology—using language we would use to describe somebody who pursues illicit sexual pleasure.

A note to anyone kind enough to follow my blogging of Augustine: I have decided not to blog the book in any systematic way. I'm doing this mostly because I don't want to block my enjoyment of the book, and I am enjoying it immensely. That said, I also don't know the book nearly well enough to write about it in any thorough-going way. This series of posts  is just a bit of hits here and there based on things that strike me.

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