“The Invention Of Sex,” by Stephen Greenblatt. The New Yorker, 6/19/2017.
Sex was invented by St. Augustine, at least as a moral issue. We all know the story. He lived a wild life—sampled all of life’s pleasures (I needed a dictionary to understand what all he did)—until he got religion in about 370 A.D. (which would have been at age 16) and changed Christianity ever since.
Even as a child, he was recognized as unusually intelligent, and his parents made sacrifices to properly educate him. He was born in the city of Thagaste, in what is now Algeria, but was sent to a nearby town for his early education. He eventually became a Christian and rose to become a bishop in the Catholic Church.
Early in life, despite his reputation as a rake, he settled down with one mistress and remained faithful to her (he claimed) for 14 years. He does not even tell us her name, but such liaisons outside of marriage were accepted at the time, even considered respectable. Marriage was only a legal device to define inheritance. Love was not part of the equation.
After his early education, he returned to live with his now-widowed mother, Monica, an over-bearing, pious Christian woman with sexual problems, a real piece of work, and to study law. As Augustine was growing up, his mother took pains to insure he recognized God as his true father, not her husband, his biological father. Augustine records the death of his biological father when he was 17, but in unemotional terms.
His mother at first was reluctant to accept Augustine’s return, not because of his mistress and son, but because he had picked up the views of the Persian heresy of Manichaeism, a form of Gnosticism that held there were two forces in the world, one good and one evil, forever at war with each other. (Sound familiar? That view was incorporated into Christianity. It is not Biblical.) After a short time of living at home under his domineering mother, Augustine sneaked off to Rome with his own family, without her.
(Manichaeism was a major religion in the time of Augustine. Augustine was a follower of Manichaeism before he converted to Christianity. Since Mohamed was not yet born, Islam did not yet exist in Algeria or elsewhere.)
He acknowledged his mother’s suffering from his leaving, but attributed it to the vestiges of the sins of Eve still in her. Later his mother tracked him down in Milan and moved in with him, his mistress and son. She then forced the mistress to return to Africa (was she black?) so he would be eligible to marry a good Catholic girl. She seemed to think she was the best candidate for her son’s wife.
At the loss of his mistress, Augustine writes,”My heart which had fused with hers, was mutilated by the wound, and I limped along trailing blood.” Pretty words, but he still had enough blood to soon take on another mistress.
As you would expect, the toxic mix of wife, mistress, and mother forced him to rethink the nature of sexuality. He wanted to understand the peculiar intensity of sexual arousal that led to intercourse, which he realized was necessary for reproduction. His revelation came to himself and his mother together, when he was 32 and his mother 55. He describes the episode in his book, Confessions, as a simultaneous climax rising to a moment of ecstasy, that he said was the most intense in his life, and then it was over. A few days later, his mother fell ill and died. (Whoa! I am only reporting what he wrote. No questions from me.)
He rationalized sexuality by considering the curious story of Adam and Eve in the Garden as a metaphor for arousal in sex. Arousal, whether by voluntary subjection or involuntarily as in a dream, is evil, yet is necessary for reproduction. The desire to have children is not evil, but the process is. We cannot escape it. All of us were conceived in a state of arousal, even those who now live in celibacy. This is the original sin that we are stuck with. It stems from the old Manichaeism beliefs of simultaneous good and evil. Submission to sexual arousal is what got Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden, not the apple, not the Tree of Knowledge, not the snake, except as metaphors. Only Jesus was free from the lust of original sin because of the virgin birth.
This explains why the virgin birth is so important in Catholicism. Without the virgin birth, even Jesus would be stained by original sin. If he was stained by original sin, how could he absolve the rest of us from it?
Paul, much earlier, also believed in original sin, but did not know what it was. He attributed it to some mysterious contaminant that got passed on through the generations.
Adam and Eve still have sex in Paradise, Augustine reasoned, but do so by conscious control of their bodies, stiffening this, relaxing that, with no more passion or arousal than brushing their teeth. (That’s Paradise?)
Augustine discusses this in The Literal Meaning of Genesis that took him 15 years to write. Lesser known than his City of God and Confessions, it has been the cornerstone of Christian belief ever since.