A Sweet (and Stinky) Song…

by Travis Pickell

"Excuse me... Oh my, I am so embarrassed!" - St. Augustine

This week in my Augustine class we are focusing on Augustine’s mature view on the relationship between the human will, human desires, and the body (in particular his views on sex and marriage). In short, Augustine’s account of the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise goes something like this: Adam and Eve were in the garden and they had everything they needed. They were completely obedient to God, and as a result their souls were rightly ordered (loving the most lovable things) and their bodies were rightly ordered (in subjection to their souls). What this presumably means is that they had complete control of their desires, and they also had complete control of their bodies.

Then something bad happened. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple, broke the command of God. Not only did they break the command, but their act “was a despising of the authority of God” [Civ. Dei. XIV, 15]. They wanted independence from God, they wanted to re-order their loves and desires and act accordingly. Therefore, as a punishment, God said, “Go for it! But don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand.”

As a result, humankind “who by keeping the commandments should have been spiritual even in his flesh, became fleshly even in his spirit; and as in his pride he had sought to be his own satisfaction, God in His justice abandoned him to himself, not to live in the absolute independence he affected, but instead of the liberty he desired, to live dissatisfied with himself in a hard and miserable bondage to him to who by sinning he had yielded himself” (i.e. Satan) [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15.]

The result of sin was a disordering and a dis-integraging of the human–or in Augustine’s words “what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself… our flesh, which was subjected to us, now torments us by insubordination” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15].

So what does all this have to do with sex and marriage? Whereas before the fall, according to Augustine, men and women would be moved to marital bliss (if you know what I mean) simply by as an act of the will (similar to moving your hand to turn on a light), now they have lost control of that faculty. “Even those who delight in this pleasure are not moved to it at their own will… but sometimes this lust importunes them in spite of themselves, and sometimes fails them when they desire to feel it, so that though  lust rages in the mind, it stirs not in the body” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 16.] (it happens to the best of ’em). This is the basis for Adam and Eve’s “shame” in Genesis 3. It was not simply nakedness or sexuality that was shameful, those things were created good by God and are to be appreciated. Augustine knew this. Therefore, for him, instead, they were “ashamed of the disobedience of their own flesh, which witnessed to their disobedience while it punished it” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 17.].

As a result of striving for control, we have lost control. The great irony is that in our pursuit of freedom, we have sold ourselves into slavery–we no longer have control of our bodies, our loves, our even our own desires. And yet, Augustine sees an analogy to how things ought to have been in the way…

“…that some men are differently constituted from others, and have some rare and remarkable faculty of doing with their body what other men can by no effort do, and, indeed scarcely believe when they hear of others doing. There are persons who can move their ears, either one at a time, or both together. There are some who, without moving the head, can bring the hair down upon the forehead, and move the whole scalp backwards and forwards at pleasure. Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing…” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 24.].

Apparently, these are the types of things that we can imagine Adam and Eve being able to do in the garden before they lost control of their bodies, and they became dis-ordered beings. So much for Augustine’s mature view on the soul, desires, and body!