Ascetic Mindsets and Marriage: Stoicism and Augustine

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 marriage?

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 3.27.28).

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).

But 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).

So what 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.)

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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