Sex in the Garden

Contrary to popular opinion, Saint Augustine does not denigrate sex. 

"Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" (c 1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder [WikiArt.org]

Augustine’s views on sex have generally fallen on hard times. They are (supposedly) too rigid, too full of guilt, too pro-natal, too dismissive of pleasure, and generally understood to be the source of most of our modern sexual hang-ups. But Augustine was a man who knew sex. He engaged in lots of it for over a decade before renouncing it. One gets hints that he and his lover (one woman for ten years) were no strangers to sexual exploration. He spoke with friends about sex, waxed poetic about its delights, defended its unique pleasures, and, after his conversion, was given the grace of continence, defended married love, examined his own internal desires, had sexual dreams, and wrote about sexual violence.

Perhaps most interesting, though, he imagined what unfallen sex would be like in the Garden of Eden.

In the City of God, Augustine offers this description of Edenic sex:

The sexual members would have been moved at the will’s command, as the other members are; and, without the enticing goad of sexual heat, the husband would have powered his seed into his wife’s womb with tranquility of mind and with no corruption of her bodily integrity.

To most people, this vision of sex seems, at worst, absurd, and, at best, unerotic and dull. But I wonder if, in the end, what Augustine imagines here is a more sane, more erotic, more beautiful, and much more deeply humane vision of human sexuality than what we are used to.

After the Fall, our sexual desires are rather unruly. Endlessly voracious, our desires often push us to act contrary to our wills. Augustine makes much of the fact that while many of our body parts respond effortlessly to our command, our sexual organs require a stimulant to function at all. They need to be excited, Augustine says, by lust. And lust is a fickle friend, sometimes intruding when we do not want it to and sometimes, to the chagrin of eager lovers, not cooperating with our burning desire. Moreover, this lust so often turns into a lust for dominating, libido dominandi, a term Augustine uses to describe the perverse desire of nations to conquer their neighbors but which equally applies to individuals in the bedroom.

For Augustine, these unruly sexual desires are a punishment (or natural consequence) of sin: not submitting our souls to God means that our bodies no longer submit to us.  This punishment is fitting, Augustine says, because lust gives the lie to our proud claims of independence. We need lust, or some external stimulus, to excite us, since we cannot control our sexual organs ourselves. Lust is a constant reminder that we are not self-sufficient, but needy and dependent. And though we proudly seek to dominate others, we become slaves to our own lust for domination.

But in the Garden, it would not have been this way. There would have been no dominating others, but “faithful and unalloyed fellowship.” There would have been no lust, but “undisturbed love for God and each other. And from this love came great gladness.” And there would have been no unwanted sexual thoughts or dreams and no inability to “perform” (as we say), but “the sexual members could have served people for the task of generating children in complete obedience to the will’s command.”

Many readers of Augustine are willing to go along with Augustine in his discussions of friendship and love, but having our sexual members under our rational control seems a bridge too far. Today, we cannot imagine sex without passion, without something or someone stirring us up. Yet, in the Garden, Augustine says, we would have been able to control our sexual members with the same ease we move our hands and feet. Though we have no experience of this, Augustine asks us to suspend our disbelief by reminding us of the remarkable things some people can do with their bodies even now: some can wiggle one ear at a time, others swallow objects and call them up from their stomach in order, and yet others can produce music from their backsides without any smell (his examples).

Even if we grant the possibility, sex “with tranquility of mind” sounds rather dull, like an Oxford don concluding after tea that the time for intercourse has arrived and politely reminding his wife of the hour. Where is the excitement, the thrill, the pleasure?

But what is it that gives us excitement, thrills, and pleasure now? Augustine describes how sexual pleasure usually works. “Lust not only takes over the whole body externally but also seizes the person inwardly. When it moves the whole man by combining and intermingling the emotion of the mind with the craving of the flesh, there follows a pleasure greater than any other bodily pleasure; and at the moment this pleasure reaches its climax, almost all mental alertness and cognitive vigilance, so to speak, are obliterated.”

There is something about us that likes to be swept away by passion, to give ourselves over to it. Passion overtakes us, controls us, drives us, incites our imaginations, gives us great anticipation, until the moment of “ecstasy” when we lose ourselves. This combination creates intense pleasure, but at the cost of making us less than fully human.

So, for Augustine, would sex in the Garden be pleasurable? Certainly. It might have been even more pleasurable, though not pleasurable in the way described above and pleasure would never be the focal point or the unifying principle of the experience. And here, again, we must stretch our imaginations. Perhaps sex in the Garden would be something more akin to expert dancers or musicians playing a duet. Maybe it would have been an expression of what psychologists call “flow” for artists or “being in the zone” for athletes, an “optimal experience” where the body is completely responsive to the soul and where the performers feel completely at one with themselves, each other, and the world.

In the Garden, each person would experience a harmony of body and soul, the body obedient to the beautiful command of the soul. There would also be harmony between the two bodies as they engaged in a creative act of love. There would be playfulness, because playfulness is a sign of freedom. There would be a gentleness we cannot even fathom for, as Augustine says in the opening quote, it would occur “with no corruption of the woman’s bodily integrity.”

Augustine does not denigrate sex. Rather, like Zen koan master, Augustine tries to break open our imaginations and help us envision not only what sex would have been like in the Garden, but what it might aspire to be for the redeemed even now: an expression of human flourishing.


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About Dr. Jared Ortiz 9 Articles
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College and author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016) and editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019). He is also founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute.

9 Comments

  1. Jared Ortiz rightly corrects the poor image of Augustine. What he says of sex in the Garden is true. “Yet others can produce music from their backsides without any smell (his examples)”. I had to laugh and was reminded of a Provencal saying that breaking wind is the poor man’s piano. That aside there is a truth to that pejorative view in that Original Sin was thought the conjugal act, a veritable heresy though held by the overly pious. Dr Ortiz sets the record straight.

  2. Maybe this could be clarified “Augustine makes much of the fact that… our sexual organs require a stimulant to function at all. They need to be excited, Augustine says, by lust”.

    So after the fall the sexual organs and appetites are inherently depraved? And thus can only be excited/stimulated “by lust” – never chaste eros??

    Was not aware that this was Saint Augustine witness…??

    The blessings of a Holy Transfiguration!

    • Perhaps if you can cite the quote from Augustine the question could be better responded to. I do know that St Thomas Aquinas initially considered sexual attraction insofar as the temptation as lustful and sinful-mistakenly basing his view on St Augustine when the source was actually writings attributed to Peter Lombard. When Aquinas realized his error he revised his definition of Lust as a willful decision, “a rational desire which belongs to some illicit venereal pleasure” rather than attraction (ST 2a2ae 153, 1).

      • I know in some cultures man can experience love and the natural fulfillment of having sex without touching their partners. The lives, experiences and minds work together with great control and respect for the object of their love holding them free of defilement. God centers their focus and standards if both people are in agreement and in union with each other.

    • Padregf raises a licit question I overlooked. “Our sexual organs require a stimulant to function at all. They need to be excited, Augustine says, by lust” (Ortiz). The moral contradiction in this premise is that a husband must illicitly Lust for his wife in order to have licit conjugal relations. Your sources Dr Ortiz may be what I referred to as a mistaken reference attributed to Augustine [texts that were 700 years prior to Aquinas]. At any rate Aquinas corrected that. Catholic moral theology has traditionally taught that Lust requires consent, attraction and even stimulation can be the result of nature. A Temptation, which often includes some degree of stimulation can be the subject of acquiring merit, even great merit when refused. So I take issue with you not primarily in regards to what Augustine may or may not have wrote but rather to the premise that sexual stimulation requires Lust. Insofar as what kind of pleasure Aquinas taught prior to the Fall the intellect was unencumbered, not’clouded’ so to speak and perspicacity enhanced. He adds that would have increased the pleasure of the conjugal act as you acknowledge. Despite that it might have been as you say “An expression of what psychologists call ‘flow’ for artists or ‘being in the zone’ for athletes where the body is completely responsive to the soul,” which seems reasonable this doesn’t explain the necessary stimulation sans Lust. Unless your actually roundabout acknowledging that Sex in the Garden would have combined natural stimulus prompted not by Lust rather by sincere Love.

  3. Sex in Marriage is a sacramental act of love, the self-giving of woman and man to each other for the other as other. Grace flows from this act of love. The thoughts which go through the mind at this time are joyful, gratifying and pleasurably delightful. It’s the old adage, “All this and heaven too.” Lust, per Aquinas, “wherever there occurs a special kind of deformity whereby the venereal act is rendered unbecoming, there is a determinate species of lust. This may occur in two ways: First, through being contrary to right reason, and this is common to all lustful vices; secondly, because, in addition, it is contrary to the natural order of the venereal act as becoming to the human race: and this is called “the unnatural vice.” I think Aquinas has it right, sex unordered is lustful; marital sex ordered for love is graceful.

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