Did Augustine Invent Sex?

Well, an article in the June 19 issue of The New Yorker says he did.

I highly recommend the article as very interesting reading about Saint Augustine’s early life and how his thinking on the topic of sexuality evolved and became the foundation of the Christian position on sex.  In a nutshell, the author relates Augustine’s first adolescent experience with an involuntary erection to his later thinking on the topic of Original Sin.  Because we are unable to control our lust, we are fundamentally flawed and in need of salvation.

I have a few quibbles with the piece.  First, the description of Augustine’s education fails to mention a key figure: his patron Romanianus (renamed Urbanus in The Saint’s Mistress because some of my early readers found the name Romanianus confusing).

Second, their son’s budding adolescent sexuality was far from the only point of contention between Augustine’s parents, Monica and Patricius.

Third, the author states that Augustine “didn’t even bother to mention” the name of his mistress in the Confessions, implying that she was of little importance to him.  In fact, Augustine describes in the Confessions how very deeply he loved the mistress that I named Leona in The Saint’s Mistress.  He describes his anguish in being torn from her.  They were lovers for 14 years, and she was the mother of his only child.  I think it is indisputable that he loved her.  I interpret his reticence to name her as a way of protecting her privacy.

Fourth, as I portray in my book, Augustine contemplated chastity long before his conversion to Christianity.  In the period of the late Roman empire,  several cults arose that required chastity in their adherents, probably in reaction to the self-indulgence and debauchery of the era.  The Manichean elect, for example, were to be chaste.

Overall, though, I really liked this article.  It described Augustine’s thought process on the topic of sexuality in a way that was clear, correct and entertaining.  I liked how the author delved into the future saint’s past to help explain his keen interest in the topic.  Saint Augustine certainly knew lust and failed again and again at self-mastery, just as we all do.  He was brilliant.  And now he is holy.  But, he was deeply, fully passionately human during his life – a saint any of us can identify with.

 

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