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.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on August 5, 2019.)
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