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Sex and Sin

In response to:

The Politics of Paradise from the May 12, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

There is much to praise in Elaine Pagels’ very interesting essay “The Politics of Paradise” [NYR, May 12, 1988]. Professor Pagels’ analysis of Augustine on sexual desire and original sin and the contrast she draws with the work of Chrysostom surely deepen our understanding of Augustine’s views on sin and self-government. But other of Augustine’s remarks on the effects of original sin and the more commonly drawn contrast of his social thought with Cicero’s, bring out features of Augustine’s political theory that ought not be ignored. Raising these issues suggests ways in which Professor Pagels’ remarks might helpfully be supplemented.

While Augustine may have thought that “spontaneous sexual desire is…the clearest evidence of the effects of original sin” and while it may be that reflection on “the intense inner conflicts of his passionate nature and the struggle to control his sexual impulses” led him to his pessimistic conclusions about the human capacity for self-government, that Augustine drew conclusions about “human government…as the indispensable defense against the forces of sin” from his observations about sin, sexuality and self-government is by no means obvious. Augustine’s denunciations of Roman depravity and his analysis of Roman decline, both in The City of God, might jointly support the connections Professor Pagels draws among sin, sexuality and politics, but the relevant passages must be carefully analysed if they are to license Professor Pagels’ conclusions about Augustine’s views of the necessity and character of civil politics. I do not mean to fault Professor Pagels on this point, for I presume that the requisite exegesis and argument are supplied in the forthcoming book from which her essay is drawn. I raise the issue here only to point out that Augustine discusses other equally pervasive effects of original sin on human psychology, effects which more obviously have implications for political theory than do various forms of sexual incontinence.

Vanity, pride, pettiness and a desire to impose one’s will on others are among the effects of original sin which Augustine discusses at some length and he says explicitly that Adam and Eve held God’s original command in contempt because they were “puffed up with pride” (“elatus superbia“). They are also vices which Augustine sees everywhere. Vanity and pride infect relationships among friends; the desire to subject others to one’s own will drove Roman imperial policy and can even be detected, Augustine writes in his Confessions, in infants fighting for the breast or clamoring for the attention of their elders. Professor Pagels rightly says that, in Augustine’s view, human beings are afflicted with original sin from the moment of conception. While I know of no passages in which Augustine analyses the verses, Genesis 25, 22–3 might well have suggested to him that human beings display the aggressive vices even in the womb. Augustine’s observations about the desire for power over others and about the self-regarding vices of pettiness and vanity—vices which impede true self-revelation and human efforts to know one another—play a prominent role in his well-known rejection of Cicero’s political views, and so bulk large in Augustine’s defense of his own conception of the purposes and character of political authority.

Cicero’s advocacy of political participation, particularly in the “Somnium Scipionis,” suggests that in his view participation in the exercise of political power promotes the realization of the highest human good insofar as the exercise of power for the benefit of those ruled develops and permits the exercise of the virtues of justice and wisdom. Augustine is sharply critical of the value of political participation and highly skeptical of the moral goods realizable through even the best-intentioned exercise of political power. Augustine’s rejection of the civic humanism of Cicero is founded on his beliefs about the effects of original sin on human character, but the vices which most concern him in this connection are not the vices of sexuality, but those by which human beings desire to bend others to their will and to conceal themselves from one another.

The inscrutability of the human heart after the Fall makes it almost impossible, according to Augustine, to be sure of the harm one does another or the moral benefit others derive from one’s action. Indeed Augustine despairs, in the nineteenth book of The City of God, of ascertaining even the sentiments of one’s friends or of being certain of their loyalty. Because of this opacity those in political office cannot be sure that they are exercising their power for the benefit of those subject to them. Even the best-intentioned exercise of power may harm the innocent and serve only to exacerbate an already bad situation. It is in this connection that Augustine describes the exercise of power as a regrettable necessity and this is among the reasons that Augustine despairs of significantly progressing in the virtues by holding political office.

Cicero’s definition of a commonwealth as a society united by common acceptance of standards of justice suggests that, in his view, those living under legal and political institutions might develop and exercise the virtue of justice by living as the maintenance of those institutions requires. Augustine, in famous passages in The City of God, criticizes Cicero’s definition of political society and, by implication, casts doubt on the possibility that citizens might experience some moral benefit from their cooperating to sustain the political institutions under which they live. A truly just society, Augustine writes, requires common commitment and submission to God. Augustine thinks that political society, because it embraces citizens of diverse moral characters, cannot be characterized by this common commitment to God. All persons, but particularly the ungodly, are too prideful and obdurate consistently to submit themselves to God, and too desirous of power over others consistently to love them with the selflessness that Christian charity demands. The institutions of political society do not require for their maintenance and stability that citizens be just and charitable. All that is required is that they desire peace sufficiently. In Augustine’s view unlike Cicero’s life in political society does not demand or elicit virtuous activity.

None of the foregoing is meant to contradict Professor Pagels’ argument. It is surely important to Augustine’s political thought that he believed even committed Christians lack the self-control which Chrysostom thought freed them from the need to be subject to political authority. But it is equally important to Augustine’s politics that he broke with Plato, Aristotle and Roman civic humanism by denying that the experience of life in even a wellstructured political society conduces to the moral improvement of the citizenry. This break is best elucidated by analysing Augustine’s critique of Cicero on the benefits of political participation and on the qualities of character which the maintenance of political institutions demands of those who live under them. Appreciation of Augustine’s critique of Cicero, and therefore appreciation of the full range of Augustine’s political theory, requires attention to many of the effects Augustine ascribes to original sin. Sexual incontinence of various sorts is surely important, as Professor Pagels so ably argues, but so too are treachery, deceit, vanity and the lust for power.

Perhaps Professor Pagels’ decision to focus on Augustine’s treatment of the vices associated with human sexuality is founded on her belief that for Augustine “the story of Adam and Eve offered a basic model for the ordering of human society” and on her recognition that the sexual vices are so damaging to the relationship between man and woman. It is surely correct that for Augustine and other of the Church Fathers the relationship between Adam and Eve is “a basic model” for human society, but if a single model is sought, it is more accurate to say that, for Augustine, the family rather than the couple provides the basic model of social life. The family is characterized by power relationships, not only between husband and wife, but also between father and children and between master and servants, relationships in which the sexual politics on which Professor Pagels focuses plays a less prominent role. That Augustine’s view of his episcopacy and of his leadership of a monastic community are paternal in aspiration testifies to his use of other family relationships than that of husband and wife as social ideals. These are power relationships which can be disrupted by a number of vices not obviously sexual in character.

Examination of Augustine’s politics—both civil and ecclesiastical—requires that one look at why he believes that, after the Fall, human beings are incapable of exercising power as he believes they should. This in turn, requires that one look, not only at the sexual vices which flaw relationships between man and woman, but also at other vices and sins that Augustine mentions in his explanation of the decision to eat the forbidden fruit, other vices which prevent one from exercising power properly. Important among these are pride, vanity and the desire to dominate others.

Paul J. Weithman
Department of Philosophy
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachussetts

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