For my write-up today on The Cambridge History of Christianity: Constantine to c. 600, I'll interact loosely with a question that I have: How did ascetic movements, such as Stoicism and Christianity, approach the issue of marriage? After all, they regarded the human sex drive as a passion to be tamed (or more than tamed), right? But how could one be married and have children without the human sex drive?
In this post, I won't
say everything that can be said about this issue. Far from it. Rather,
I'll focus on a few items in David G. Hunter's chapter, "Sexuality,
marriage and the family". That will not do justice to the diversity of
ancient Christianity (which Hunter himself presents), and I'll still
have questions. But it's a start to answering my question about
asceticism and marriage.
1. On page 586, Hunter states that most
Stoics "regarded marriage and family as essential to the maintenance of
civic life". In a footnote on that page, Hunter says that "Both
philosophical and medical writers supported the ideal of sexual
moderation for men as well as for women." So I have learned that the
Stoics were favorable towards marriage. But how does that jive with
their ascetic opposition to the passions?
You'd think that the
Stoics supported moderation or keeping the passions under control, but
what I have heard about Stoicism has been quite different: that the
Stoics were for destroying the passions rather than merely taming them.
I base this on recollections I have (which could be faulty) of what a
professor of mine said about Stoicism. First, my professor contrasted
IV Maccabees with Stoicism, saying that IV Maccabees was for taming the
flesh, whereas Stoicism was for getting rid of the passions. Second, in
a class on Philo, my professor said that Philo, like the Stoics,
believed in pursuing virtue alone, rather than virtue and other things
(i.e., influence, wealth, etc.). If the Stoics had such a strict
ascetic mindset, how did they reconcile that with their support for
2. On page 589, Hunter talks about how Augustine and
Pope Gregory looked down on sex that was not for the purpose of
procreation. Augustine considered that to be a venial sin that required
daily expiation (since it's a daily sin) through almsgiving or reciting
the Lord's prayer. Pope Gregory said that frequent prayers were needed
"to wipe away the corruption they cause by mixing pleasure into the
beautiful form of intercourse" (Gregory's words in Regula pastoralis
My question is this: Is it all right to have pleasure
when having marital sex for the purpose of procreation, in the eyes of
such people as Augustine and Pope Gregory?
3. Hunter goes into
Augustine's evolving views on marriage on pages 596-598. At first,
Augustine (like Origen) appeared to believed that sex and procreation
were a product of the Fall, presumably a compensation for human
mortality (perhaps because the human race needed some way to continue
once sin brought death into the world, for Adam and Eve would no longer
live forever). Augustine interpreted the "be fruitful and multiply"
command in Genesis 1:28, not in reference to human procreation, but
rather to "the ability of the human mind to generate a multitude of
thoughts to express a single concept or to give an obscure text a
plurality of meanings" (Hunter's words describing Confessions 12.24.37).
Augustine changed his tune and concluded that "sexual reproduction was
God's original intention for humanity from the very beginning of
creation (De Gen. ad litt. 9.9.14-15), rather than a product of
the Fall. At the same time, Augustine did think that the Fall brought
"'concupiscence of the flesh', a disorder of the human heart that was
manifested most patently in the disordered desires of the human body (De Gen. ad litt.
11.31.41)." But Augustine did not believe that concupiscence negated
"the essential goodness of marriage" (Hunter on page 598).
are the implications of this? Did Augustine believe that concupiscence
was a necessary evil for the purpose of procreation? Did he think that
procreation and sex occurred without concupiscence before the Fall? Or
did he maintain that the problem after the Fall was disorder----not the
sex drive itself, but the sex drive getting out of control and
dominating human beings?
(UPDATE: On page 113 of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, John Boswell
states that Augustine "specifically repudiated procreation as the sole
justification for matrimony, insisting that couples who refrained from
carnal relations and produced no children were nonetheless properly
married." Boswell cites De Bono conjugali 3.3.)
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