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Concupiscentia carnis

It would be only natural to assume that Augustine, inventor of the still current conception of original sin, thought that sexual activity was evil, but he did not. The problem for Augustine wasn't in the sex, or even in the pleasure of sex. It was in the desire for sex. Desire troubled him. Sexual desire was simply the strongest and the most difficult to control.

Augustine began his spiritual life as a Manichaean. The followers of Mani (a title of respect, it seems) held that spirit was good and that matter was evil; the creation of the world was the act of a demiurge, or bad guy. After his protracted journey to Christianity, Augustine wrote authoritatively against Manichaeism, but it was probable that there was no point in his life at which Augustine could be said to believe in the fundamental goodness of creation.  The furthest that he could go was to allow the blessing of divine grace upon creation. If Eve hadn't handed Adam the apple, Augustine would have done so, just to get the inevitable fall over and done with. Augustine didn't need Scripture to tell him that man was fallen. This was self-evident to him.

In the Confessions, Augustine neatly describes evil as a falling away from God [III. vii (12)]. This explains his famous and permissive-sounding maxim, "Love God and do as you like." It is not permissive. Loving God is not like loving your spouse. It is not a matter of beneficent thoughts. It is nothing less than arranging your conduct - your thoughts, words and deeds - in concord with God. Complete concord is unattainable by fallen man (this would be you), and a good life is spent in ceaselessly struggling to approximate perfection ever more closely.

For Augustine, this means turning away from "the flesh," a term introduced by Paul. Peter Brown, in The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia, 1988) - the wellspring of my thoughts on this subject and the inspiration of the concept of "The Augustinian Settlement" - analyses the incompatibility of "the flesh" with "loving God":

The uncontrollable elements in sexual desire revealed the working in the human person of a concupiscentia carnis, of a permanent flaw in the soul that tilted it irrecovably toward the flesh. Unlike the hasty Jerome, and even unlike Ambrose, Augustine was exceptionally careful to point out, in frequent, patient expositions of the Letters of Paul, that the flesh was not simply the body: it was all that led the self to prefer its own will to that of God.

The problem, therefore, isn't sex. It's the "uncontrollable elements in sexual desire." Of course, the unlikelihood of sexual activity unheralded by sexual desire pretty much rules out sexual activity, at least from the scope of loving God. The only thing that saves sex is the desire to implement God's command to Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and multiply." Sex was all right for Adam and Eve - or it would have been if they had not sinned, and so created a split between will and sexual desire:

As soon as they had made their own wills independent of the will of God, parts of Adam and Eve became resistant to their own conscious will. Their bodies were touched with a disturbing new sense of the alien, in the form of sexual sensations that escaped their control. The body could no longer be embraced entirely by the will.

Note that the love of God is much more than doing whatever it is that you think God wants you to do. It means turning away from your own human, fallen nature - "the flesh." It means willing to love God and resisting all distracting desires. Note, too, that by positing the gap between will and desire as a flaw, Augustine reintroduced, on orthodox terms, the Manichaean distinction between good and evil, spirit and matter.

There can be no denying the acuteness of Augustine's insight into the painful ambiguities of sexuality. Whether everyone is as troubled by them - by the feelings themselves or by the fact that they exist - as Augustine was is open to question. But Augustine's views suited the ecclesiastical elite, particularly as Augustine ranged himself against the Pelagian heresy, about which we need not concern ourselves here, except to say that Pelagians took a very different view - one that it would certainly be a mistake to call "permissive" - of sexuality.

The question for modern Christians is the extent of their subscription to these very specific Augustinian notions. The question is not "Is sexuality good/bad?" In light of Augustine's conceptions of God and evil, that question is hopelessly trivial. The governing question is this: in what does the love of God consist? To put it better, perhaps: how consistent with my belief in Christ is Augustine's definition of loving God?


Just how much of dear old Augie's previous spiritual and philosophical history was carried into Christianity by him? Even though he was the leader of the assault on the Manichaean heresy he was himself a former adherent to Manichaeism as well as other systems of thought and spirituality. From the not so august source Encarta we find

The Manichaeans divided themselves into two classes according to their degree of spiritual perfection. Those who were called the elect practiced strict celibacy and vegetarianism, abstained from wine, did no labor, and preached. They were assured of ascent to the realm of Light after death. The auditors, much more numerous, were those of lower spiritual attainment. They were permitted marriage (although procreation was discouraged), observed weekly fasts, and served the elect. They hoped to be reborn as the elect (see Transmigration). Eventually all fragments of divine Light would be redeemed, the world would be destroyed, and Light and Darkness would be eternally separated.
that an enduring renouncement of things sexual might have been thought perfection by Augie's old Manichean friends. Not having had the benefit of a solid education in these areas I have always been left to wonder and speculate about what would seem the obvious and perhaps not too wholesome influences of Constantine and Augustine on the course of Christianity. Augustine, as you say, seems to have called in the cops and Constantine seems to have hijacked it for his own political purposes. Augustine comes almost serendipitously on the heels of Constantine. But, then what do I know? Not much in this area. Would that I had done more in the arts and letters and less in the sciences in my youth and likely it would have made my older years, now, less tumultous, eh? There's perhaps still time to read up, but not much.

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