Reflections on Augustine's Spirituality

Donald X. Burt, OSA

Friendship and Society:
Introduction to Augustine's Practical Philosophy


Chapter 6


I.    Introduction
            a. The Problem
            b. The Inequality of Women
            c. Subordination of Wife to Husband
            d. Sexual Desire

II.    Concluding Thoughts


A. Introduction: The Problem

This chapter will examine some apparent contradictions in Augustine's teaching on marriage and the family. At the same time as he presents the ideal family as a union of friends, a society whose members are "one in heart," he seems to maintain that women are not equal to men, that in the family the wife must be subordinate to the husband, and that any truly "spiritual union of hearts" between man and woman is complicated, if not made impossible, by sexual desire. The problem can be expressed in the form of the following three objections:

1. Friendship implies equality and but in some of his writings Augustine seems to say that man and woman are not equal.

2. In his description of the family Augustine makes the wife subordinate to the authority of the husband and this seems to contradict the equal partnership that a union of friends implies.

3. The relationship between husband and wife usually includes a sexual element and this sometimes ungovernable physical drive renders impossible the pure spiritual union implied in the "oneness of heart" at the center of friendship.

Each of these objections is serious and must be considered in turn.


B. Objection 1: The Inequality of Women

There is no doubt that Augustine believed that women and men are made equally in the "image of God" and that this reflection of the Divine is found primarily in their rational soul.1 Thus, it can be said of the soul of woman as well as the soul of man that "God alone is better, the angel is its equal, and all of the rest of the universe is below it."2 In both woman and man the soul is the instrument whereby the body receives the form it takes, the order and proportion of its parts, and thereby becomes itself a true but less perfect reflection of God.3 It follows that in that most important part of human nature, the rational soul, there is no difference in dignity between woman and man.

It is true that most men are physically stronger than most women of equal age (though women seem to have better lasting power), but this is purely a superiority in body-power, not soul-power. Augustine eventually rejected the idea that the human being is the soul, but he never doubted that it is the most important part of the human composite. The soul is the formal element in the human composite and it is through the soul that the body receives its perfections. The first woman's body may have been drawn from the body of man but her identity as the person "Eve" came from her rational soul. She was made "Eve" first and foremost by the spirit created by God. She could not be the person "Eve" without her body, but the main element in her "Eve-ness" came from her spirit. It was there that the prism of her person radiated her unique reflection of the glory that is God.

In Augustine's view the physical inequality of man and woman becomes inconsequential when compared to the ways in which their spiritual equality expresses itself. Thus, he will insist that there is no difference between the soul of man and soul of woman in their ability to reflect the perfections of God.4 Male or female, all human beings can through baptism become equally children of God and receive the grace that gives life. The differences that man and woman have are truly accidental to the essence of their humanity and the glory of their destiny.5

The equality of man and woman in their nature is reflected in their equality in rights and duties when they enter into the contract of marriage. There is an absolute equality in conjugal rights. The obligation of fidelity to marriage vows is just as serious for a husband as for a wife. Adultery is as much an evil for the wandering husband as for the unfaithful wife. At least in marriage between baptized christians, marrying another is forbidden as long as the first spouse lives.6 Augustine does seem to have believed that there was inequality when it came to fulfilling the obligation of fidelity. Perhaps remembering his own checkered past, he thought women were better than men in controlling sexual passion. His sermons about adultery were almost exclusively directed to the male members of his audience, often pleading with the husbands to try to imitate the virtue of their wives. Thus, in a sermon preached to catechumens in Hippo shortly before Easter, Augustine tells the husbands in the congregation to render the same fidelity to their wives that they demand from them: "... give them an example not a lecture!" He goes on to observe somewhat sardonically that husbands brag about infidelity as a sign of that they are "real men," not seeing the paradox of claiming their strength as men by their animal weakness.7 Even granted the opinion of the day (an opinion which, as we shall see, Augustine shared to some degree) that men were more adept in speculative matters, women by and large had a greater mastery of the spirituality that led to sanctity. Which was a better gift? For Augustine the answer was clear: "being good" was always more important to him than knowing the nature of "being."

To summarize, Augustine believed that man and woman were absolutely equal in their human nature before God. This equality was symbolized in the formation of the first humans. Both the soul of Adam and the soul of Eve were created by God. There was no difference in the divine love that prompted the act nor in the created spirits that were its effect. The intimacy of the union between these first two humans was symbolized in the taking of the flesh of one from the other. Clearly, God's intention in taking Eve's body from the flesh of Adam was to integrate man and woman as friends, not to denigrate the woman. Man and woman were both were created in the image of God. Both were united in the same flesh. It was only after they contained something of God and something of each other in their individual beings that they were told to go forth and propagate the race. Whatever difference there may have been because of their sex, it was as irrelevant to their being friends as their being of different height, color, or weight. The friendship of their union depended on their being joined in heart, not in being identical twins.8


C. Objection 2: Subordination of Wife to Husband

We have earlier argued that some subordination of ruler to ruled is a necessary component in every society and that it does not necessarily stand in the way of friendship. Applying this to the family, it seems sensible to say that just as a friendly union of hearts is necessary to constitute the family, some subordination of ruled to ruler is necessary to make it work. Put simply, in the family there is need for "someone to be in charge." This is so because the family is different from a simple gathering of human beings. It is a society and as society it seeks to achieve goals as community. In a complex organization such as the family, common action towards a common good is unlikely to happen automatically. There will usually be some difference of opinion and at least sometimes such difference will only be able to be resolved by the exercise of authority.9

Granted that in the family, as in every other formal society, someone must be in charge; but who is this person to be? If man and woman are equal in dignity in the eyes of God, who should rule and who should be ruled? The family does not seem to be a voluntary society like a fraternity or sorority where the ruler is chosen by the members. But if the subordination is not de jure (by choice of the members), what is the basis for saying that it is de facto (coming from in nature)?

There is no doubt that Augustine believed that in the family, the "society of those living together where some commanded and others obeyed," wives should give way to the wishes of their husbands in matters affecting the family as long as such wishes did not violate a higher law. He also believed that this subordination was natural.10 Thus, for example, when he comes to explain Mary's deference for Joseph, Augustine will remark that "putting man before woman is in accordance with the order established in nature by God's law."11 Again, when asked why polygamy was allowed during the Old Testament, he points to the fact that there is a hidden law of nature whereby things that rule love singularity while things that are ruled allow for a plurality. Thus there is only one master for many servants but a servant cannot have more than one absolute master. The reference to marriage is obvious. In the beginning it was advantageous to increase the number of humans as quickly as possible and this justified a man taking many women as his wife but not a woman having many men as husbands. But added to this practical argument that polyandry would not speed up propagation that much, there was a deeper reason. A family can have only one "ruler" (the husband) but the "subjects" (wives and children) can be many.12

It is important to remember that in all his discussions of the relationship between man and woman in the family beginning with Adam and Eve, Augustine was not speaking about their human nature. He was addressing their accidental status as husband and wife. Family existed from the very beginning of the human race. Adam and Eve did not come into existence as strangers. From the first moment of her creation Eve was wife and Adam was her husband. Their basic relationship to each other as human beings remained but now it was clothed in the mantel of husband-wife. If they had remained simply a man and woman, the issue of subordination would not have arisen. As individuals they would stand before God in absolute equality. The only subordination would be their individual subordination as humans to God.

Thus, the question for Augustine was not "Why should the woman be subordinate to the man?" Rather it was, "Why in the family should the wife be subordinate to the husband?" One unpersuasive argument for favoring Adam over Eve (and thereafter husband over wife) was that the man was the first one who existed. This line of reasoning seems unsound because the principle "First come, first served," though it makes sense in determining who should get served first in a restaurant or even who should have access to scarce medical therapies, makes little sense in the choice of a ruler. A stronger argument might be made in Adam's favor from the fact that he was in some sense the "generator" Eve. Her body was drawn out of his. "The Generator should have preference over the one generated" makes some sense, but in this case it loses some of its force when one realizes that Adam's contribution to Eve was to her less important part, her body, and in even that humble endeavor Adam has little to do with the operation. He was asleep at the time. God was the surgeon who drew Eve's body from Adam and then (and most importantly) the one who (without any contribution from the sleeping man) breathed into her that soul that was to reflect his image in creation. In any case, even if these principles worked in determining that Adam was to rule that first family, they point to no "natural" basis for Eve's subordination. She was late, not deficient. An argument based on "who came first" or "who was made from whose flesh" would have been equally valid had the first human being been the woman and the second the man.13

Augustine offers an argument that does not depend on time or method of origin. It is based on the principle that it is proper for the greater to rule the lesser, for example for reason to rule the bodily appetites. However, he is far from suggesting that man should be identified with pure reason or that woman should be cataloged as an appetite that needs regulation. His explanation of the "natural" subordination of wife to husband is more complex. It rests on a distinction, an assumption, and a conviction.

The distinction he makes is between speculative and practical reason. Practical wisdom is the knowledge which allows us to do efficiently those things necessary in our daily life. Through it we are able to "get things done," to arrange our affairs in some logical and effective order. Speculative wisdom is the ability to see how things relate to each other, to see what the universe is like and how we fit into it. Both sorts of wisdom are necessary for the perfection of human life. We need not only to "figure things out" but also to "get through daily existence." We need both metaphysics and common sense.

The assumption of his argument is that speculative wisdom is the more important of the two. When a person exercises this sort of wisdom, they are expressing the highest level of human powers. To use a Platonic image, they are not simply regulating their lives in the cave of ordinary experience; they are reaching beyond to the realm of the pure Ideas, the world that is far superior to the everyday shadow-world of our experience. In stressing the priority of the speculative over the practical, Augustine was in accord with the common opinion of the intellectual elite of his day. He also saw a confirmation of this priority of contemplation over action in the New Testament story of Martha and Mary. When God came to visit the home of the two good women, it was Martha who scurried about doing the little domestic things necessary to make a guest comfortable. Mary was quite satisfied simply to sit before Jesus and look into the face of the man-God. Augustine believed that on a day by day basis neither sister had captured what the best human life on earth should be like. As he wrote in his City of God:

No person should be so committed to contemplation as to give no thought to the needs of a neighbor; nor should anyone be so absorbed in action and to do away with the contemplation of God.14

In this life the practical wisdom of Martha and the speculative wisdom of Mary are both important, but Mary's wisdom is more precious in that it is the wisdom that reaches even beyond death to that realm where there will be no practical matters to bother about.15

Augustine's argument for priority of husband over wife that began with the distinction between speculative and practical wisdom and the assumption that the former is better than the latter is concluded with a culturally-influenced conviction that, while both sorts of wisdom can be found male and female, women are specially gifted in practical wisdom and men in speculative wisdom. If this were true (and I doubt that it is), it would follow that in the family the one who rules should be that one (the man) who is more gifted in speculative wisdom and the one who should be ruled was that one (the woman) more gifted in practical wisdom.16

No doubt Augustine's belief in a woman's special aptitude in practical wisdom was influenced by his own experience. Both his mother and his common-law wife seem to have been very practical women, the latter seeing to his household and his son while he (Augustine) wrestled with the problem of evil in the universe and how to make a good speech. However, it seems clear that he did not believe that any woman is totally devoid of speculative wisdom nor that every man has it.17 During his philosophical dialogues at Cassaciacum, he praises his mother's ability to understand deep questions while his male students were wandering aimlessly on the fringes of the debate.18 Later on, the letters he wrote through the course of his career as bishop show that he had many conversations with dedicated and intelligent women on questions of speculative wisdom. At the same time, his sometimes harsh language with male correspondents on similar abstruse matters show that he never believed that being a man was a protection from being a fool.

The principle that is at the root of his entire discussion of subordination in the family has nothing to do with being a man or being a woman. It is simply this: "An orderly society will always be one in which those with speculative wisdom rule those with practical wisdom."19 Expressed in this fashion the principle seems very sensible. In any society there will be chaos if the leaders are more concerned about "doing something" than "thinking." There is no use in building a bridge if you don't know where you are going. Thought must always take precedence over action if the action is to be worthwhile and not haphazard. Those who have mastered the speculative wisdom which allows them to see where the society should be going and how to get there, should be in charge of directing the society whatever the society may be. Whether in an actual case the person is a man or a woman seems irrelevant, especially to a person like Augustine whose life was eventually changed for the better by the grace of God and by a woman (Monica) who knew the truth about this world and the next.

The subordination of wife to husband in the family is quite different from the subordination of child to parent or of servant/slave to master. The subordination of child to parent is de facto, that is, rooted in nature. It results from two facts. The first is the fact that the child is generated by the parents and owes them and is owed by them continuing love and respect even through its adult years. The second fact is that through its early years the child is lacking that speculative and practical wisdom which would make it competent to regulate its own life. The subordination of servant or slave to its master is a de jure subordination. It is caused by human choice rather than natural inequality. In the case of an employed free man, there is a contract of service freely entered into by both parties. In the case of the slave, although neither this particular master nor the social structure of slavery itself has been chosen by this particular slave, the institution itself is the result of human decisions and not nature. Augustine, unlike Aristotle and others in the ancient world, did not believe that any human by nature is the slave of another. Slavery, the total domination of one human by another, is one of the many sad effects of humanity's fall from grace. It is the result of a perversion of will rather than a law of nature.20

The subordination of wife to husband as interpreted by Augustine can be seen as being in someway both de jure and de facto. It is de jure in the sense that in an ideal situation a husband and wife enter the contract freely. But within the marriage the subordination is de facto in that it is based on what Augustine considered to be a factual difference in wisdom, the husband more gifted in speculative, the wife more gifted in practical. However, unlike the subordination of the infant, under normal conditions (that is, apart from illness or the disability that sometimes comes with age) neither husband or wife is so deficient in either speculative or practical wisdom as to be unable to act as responsible, effective, human beings. The subordination does not rest on any particular natural defect in either party. They are just different and the subordination of one to the other is aimed at using most effectively the special gifts of each one for the benefit of the family.

Both husband and wife have their own special areas of expertise and Augustine makes it plain that above and beyond their equal obligation of fidelity to the other, each one serves the other by supporting their spouse's weakness.21 Both have their own special responsibilities. While the husband is called upon to be the paragon of virtue for all and the protector of the home from outside forces, the wife must see to the internal peace of the household and be the source of the moral education of the family. Schmitt summarizes their respective duties as follows:

The husband normally has preeminence in ordering the material and spiritual responsibilities of the home. His authority is not based on merit nor on virtue but on his vocation as a man, naturally predisposed to be a protector of the family. His power as representing "Christ the Head of the Mystical Body" is above all a service. The wife has priority in ordering the plans which will structure the life of the home so that it can become more warm and bountiful. She is called to give to her mate the respectful and loving docility that is reflected in the loving respect given to Christ by his Church."22

Augustine holds up his mother Monica as an example of such docility. Her friends were constantly amazed that she could keep peace in a household where the husband was far from perfect.23 Monica as wife made the best of a bad situation, but even in the best situation the wife has special call to make the good home environment even better. In the exercise of their different functions husband and wife serve the other and to that extent they constantly exchange status as superior and inferior. But in all of their "giving and taking" of direction they remain equal as humans before God and should continue to be bound together by a love that makes them truly "one in heart," forming a loving union that lasts even through the disability of old age.24

There is no reason why the subordination of wife to husband should be an obstacle to their having such a loving unity. In an environment of love authority is exercised as service, not domination. As Augustine describes it "When love is present commands are imposed gently and the burdens on those who must obey become light and almost negligible."25 In homes dominated by love, those who command are those charged to have regard for the interests of the others. In such families those who command actually are at the service of those whom they seem to order about. They rule not out of a passion for being in charge but out of duty to those they care for. They rule not because they are proud of being in charge but because they have compassion for those for whom they must provide.26 Thus, when God tells husbands that they are in charge of the family, he is not giving them a permission to dominate; he is giving them a command to serve. As Augustine depicts it:

O God, you subject women to their husbands in chaste and faithful obedience, not for the gratification of passion, but for the begetting of children and the establishment of domestic society. You set men over their wives, not to make playthings of the weaker sex, but in accordance with the laws of pure and honest love.27

The model for the relationship of husband and wife is the union between Christ and his church. Christ is obviously the greater partner. Indeed, the difference between the Divine Christ and the human "people of God" is infinitely greater than any difference between husband and wife could be. And yet despite their radical difference, there is still a loving union. Christ, the Head, is part of the Body and his rule over the Body is one of service. Thus, in his work On Continence (9.22-23) written in 395 against the Manicheans, Augustine uses the analogy of Christ and the church to prove the goodness of the body and the goodness of marriage. He quotes Paul (Ephesians, 5:25-29) urging husbands to love their wives as Christ loves his church. This is a love whereby the husband, imitating Christ's sacrifice for his church, would deliver himself up for his wife in order to sanctify her and to present her in all her glory, holy and without blemish.

Certainly such a love, although it flows out of a subordination of one loved one to another, is not a domination that would stand in the way of a union of hearts. The subordination envisioned by God in the creation of the family is one in which the man is subordinate to Christ and the woman is subordinate to the man. This means that the perfect order of woman's subordination to man is found only when Christ, the Wisdom of God, rules the man.28 Augustine continues the analogy in various places in which he uses the love of one's husband/wife as an example of how one should love Christ. One should love altruistically, loving not for the sake of some reward but simply because the loved one is lovable.29 Our love of Christ, as with the love of a beloved spouse, should carry with it the fear that the loved one will someday leave.30 In sum, husbands should love their wives as Christ in fact loves his church; wives should love their husbands as the church should love Christ. The intimate union of Christ and church is that of head to body and the same intimacy should be present in the love of husband for wife. The principle "No one hates his own body" is for Augustine not simply a biological argument. It stands for the way a husband should love his wife. Indeed, it points to a relationship of the highest spiritual order, the relationship between God and human race.31


D. Obstacle 3: Sexual Desire

The third objection maintains that the "oneness of heart," the spiritual union that is the basis for friendship, is complicated in marriage by the powerful physical attraction of sexual desire. Augustine believed that such sexual desire and indeed one's sexuality itself comes from the body. Souls have no particular sex but the persons formed by their union with body do. Thus, when we truly love another human being we must love them body and soul if we love the person that they are.

Augustine did not perceive this physical side of human love as reprehensible. In his later years he firmly rejected the Manichean notion that everything to do with the body was evil. He also discarded the Platonic view that the human soul had been "trapped" in the body as a punishment and that ultimate salvation and happiness would come only when the spirit was free of its material enclosure. His final and enduring belief was that the human being is the composite of body and soul. Thus, the separation of body and soul at death is the final disaster in this life and their reunion after resurrection is the beginning of glory in the next. Humans can be completely happy only when their body and soul are forever brought together again. Peace does not come from separation of spirit and body as enemies; it comes from their union as friends.32

A person's emotional life, those appetites rooted in and expressed through their nature as physical beings, are as much a part of their humanity as their intellectual life. Augustine dismissed as madness the Stoic idea that apathy is an ideal for any human being. The ideal is not no fervor, but controlled fervor. He went so far as to say that without the fire of emotions in one's life it is impossible to understand the divine passion for humans and the human passion to reach the divine. As he expressed it one day to his somewhat listless listeners:

Give me a person who is in love! They will know what I mean. But if I speak to a cold person, they will not know what I am talking about.33

Humanity's fallen state is not reflected in an emotional response to a pleasant or unpleasant experience, in becoming flushed with anger or pale from fear or hot with excitement. Reasonable emotional response is part of being human. Only when emotions become out of control do they point to humanity's weakened state.34

One must take into account Augustine's insistence on the good of the body and its functions when interpreting his warnings about the dangers of the "flesh" and "concupiscence". "Flesh" in itself can stand for something good or something bad. When Augustine uses it in its negative meaning, it stands for anything that causes a human to prefer their own desires over God's will. "Flesh" in its negative connotation is not a code-word for the human body. The human body as a creation of God is not an obstacle to divine will; it is its product. "Flesh" may sometimes stand for bodily desires gone mad but it often goes far beyond the material aspects of life. It can stand for ambition, power, praise, or any other earthly thing that becomes a god for an individual.

The word "concupiscence" (like "flesh") is a neutral word that can have a bad or good implication. It itself it means nothing more than "desire" and may be used to stand for good desires as well as bad. This is brought out in a letter written by Augustine in 421 to Atticus, the bishop of Constantinople. There he is careful to distinguish both the good and bad meanings of concupiscence as it relates to marriage. He writes:

Because of their (the Pelagians) error they do not distinguish the concupiscence associated with marriage (the concupiscence of conjugal purity, the concupiscence for the legitimate engendering of children, the concupiscence of the social body by which each sex is tied to the other) from the concupiscence of the flesh which hankers after the illicit as well as the licit indifferently.35

In all of these cases "concupiscence" represents the desires of a spirit in a body and in at least two of them (the desire for procreation and the desire for union of the spouses) it involves a sexual desire which clearly is not disreputable. The conclusion can only be that sexual desire is no more shameful than the desire for food and drink. Both are physical tendencies placed in human beings for reasons determined by God.36 In their perverted, uncontrolled forms, they are evil but this is not because they are physical but because they are aspects of a much worse spiritual perversion: the perversion of pride whereby the individual acts solely for her/his own pleasure, considering himself/herself as the most important "self" in existence. It is obvious that the use of the sexual act in this depraved way is an obstacle to friendship. The other cannot be my friend if I see them only as an source of pleasure. But not every sexual relationship needs to be of this sort. It is possible to have sexual intimacy with another without destroying the union of hearts that is the essence of friendship. It is possible to have sexual intercourse in which the delight of the spirit comes from one's love reaching out to the beloved spouse and the hoped for child.

Although Augustine had doubts about whether such a holy union of body and mind between spouses is ever achieved in our present "cracked" condition, he did believe that it would have been achieved in Eden if humans had not sinned. The sexuality of the first man and woman was as much a part of there innocent nature as was their rationality. They were not pure spirits. They were body and soul humans and were drawn together as humans, body and soul. Augustine was convinced that even in their innocent days they would have propagated the race by intimate physical acts of love.37 The only difference between then and now would have been in the way in which it was done. In Eden those first humans would have enjoyed coition in the same way as they would have enjoyed eating and drinking: temperately. They would have been moved by love for the other rather than desire for self-satisfaction. In all senses it would have been an "ordered" act, passionate but not "out of control", dominated by the "spirited" love that chooses the good of the human lover before one's own, and the good God above all.38

This is not to suggest that the love of the first man and woman would not have had its complications. The first sin was caused by an already disordered love. It was not a misuse of the sexual drive; it was an act of disobedience driven by pride, the wish and pretension to be just like God. Augustine suggests that Adam's overpowering friendship for Eve played a part in his cooperation in the act of disobedience. His love prompted him to climb the "tree of life" so that he might join his beloved in tasting the forbidden fruit. Certainly Adam, like Eve, was driven by a desire to "know all" and become a ruler of the universe, but he also was reluctant to let his loved one "go out on a limb" by herself. As Augustine ruefully observes, it may have been the first time (but certainly not the last) that a human chose a human love over the Lover that is Divine.39

In our present fallen condition, it is difficult for us to act out of highest motives, motives that are highly spiritual. We are not at peace with ourselves but this is not because of our sexuality. The war we experience is more of war in our spirit than in our body. Our problem in being one in heart with another is not because we have a sexual drive. It arises from the tendency of our wounded will to satisfy this drive in inappropriate ways, to make it a higher priority in life than it deserves to be. The task just now for us is not to exterminate sexuality but to find ways by which our perverse choices can be controlled.

For Augustine there were only two ways for this to be done. Either one must choose a life of total abstinence (continence) or choose a life of controlled exercise within the society of family. He thought the continent life was the best solution for him and in principle was a higher way of life, but only because it comes closer to the life we shall have in heaven. Both the chaste married life and the life of celibacy are good but neither eliminates the difficulty in controlling earthly passion. Neither age nor an ascetic life in the desert nor a satisfying family life can guarantee freedom from temptation. Still, it does not follow that the dangers that surround our sexuality make it an evil any more than the perils of living make life an evil.40

Augustine's conclusion is that sexuality like every other human drive is good in itself and does not necessarily constitute an obstacle to the "friendship" that is the foundation of the family. Indeed, it can contribute warmth and energy to the oneness of heart that friendship demands. To the very end of his life Augustine fervently defended marriage and conjugal desire against those who argued that both were somewhat disreputable. It seemed incomprehensible to him that any believing christian could call evil the human desire that leads to the propagation of the race. As he wrote to Bishop Atticus:

What Catholic so defends the right faith against them (the Pelagians) that he condemns marriage which the Maker and Creator of the world blessed? What Catholic would call the carnal desire present in marriage the work of the devil, since by means of it the human race would have been propagated even if no one had sinned, in order that the blessing be fulfilled: "Increase and multiply"(Genesis, 1:28). By the sin of that man in whom all have sinned, this blessing has not lost the effect of its goodness in that clear, marvelous and praiseworthy fecundity of nature which is there for all to see. What Catholic does not proclaim the works of God in every creature of soul and flesh and in contemplating them does not burst forth in a hymn to the Creator who was active, not only before the sin, but who even now does all things well.41

What Augustine is saying is simply this: far from being a curse, the continuing ability of a loving man and woman to join in spirit and body to produce (if God wills it) another member of the human race is a sign that God has not given up on humanity even after their sin.

Thus, when the time came to speak to his people about their married life, Augustine never dreamed of denying them the pleasures of conjugal love. Indeed he told them that it was not only not christian but even inhuman to deny love to a spouse:

I do not say that you are not to love your spouse; I only say that you should love Christ more. Love in your spouse the Christ that is in them and hate in them only the obstacles to Christ's presence that you find there.42

To love one's spouse means to love them as a human being, body and soul; it means to love this person through a friendly union of hearts and with an affection that is rightfully expressed sometimes in a physical way. Indeed, the continuing possibility of such total love is one of the divinely sanctioned delights left to us even after the mistake of Eden.43


E. Concluding Thought

Augustine was convinced that the friendly relations in the family were very important for the larger society. The unity of heart found in a good marriage reaches out first to embrace other members of the family and ultimately even to all members of the human race. As Augustine told his listeners one day:

So that a human being might not be alone a system of friendship was created. Friendship begins with one's spouse and children, and from there moves on to stranger. But considering the fact that we all have the same father (Adam) and the same mother (Eve) who will be a stranger? Every human being is neighbor to every other human being. Ask nature: is this man unknown? He's still human. Is this woman an enemy? She's still human. Is this man a foe? He is still a human being. Is this woman a friend? Let her remain a friend. Is this man an enemy? Let him become a friend.44

Peace in oneself is the necessary foundation for peace in the family and, if all in the family have that inner peace, the ideal family is possible. In such a family children are subject freely to their parents and the parents in turn guide them with piety. Brothers and sisters are bound together by a spiritual bond far stronger than blood. All those related by marriage or by kinship are joined together in love. In such a family servants are attached to their masters more by joyful desire to fulfill their duties than by the necessity of their condition. Masters in turn are patient with their servants out of respect for the Divine Master of all and they impose their will more by persuasion than force.45

A political society composed of such exceptional families will truly be at peace. Whether it can also be a society of true friends remains to be seen.



1. A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 3.22.34; The Trinity, 12.7.12. See Richard J. McGowan, "Augustine's Spiritual Equality: The Allegory of Man and Woman with Regard to Imago Dei, Revue des Études Augustiniennes, 33 (1987), pp. 259-60.

2. The Quantity of the Soul, 34.

3. The Immortality of the Soul, 15.24.

4. A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 3.22.34. See McGowan, op. cit., p. 260.

5. See Émile Schmitt, Le Mariage Chrétien dans L'Oeuvre de Saint Augustin (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983), p. 288. On this page he lists numerous places where Augustine describes the various ways in which man and woman are equal. Thus, for example: they are equally images of God: Against Faustus the Manichean, 24.2.2; The Christian Combat, 11.12; The Trinity, 7.10; they are equally children of God: Commentary on Psalm 26, 2.23; Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 1.15.40; Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians, 27-28; they are equally able to receive the grace of God: The Good of Marriage, 12.14; Sermon 51, 13.21. Another indication that Augustine believed that man and woman are essentially equal can be found in his description of their condition after the resurrection. Then, although every person will retain her/his sexual identity, there will be no subordination. (The City of God, 22.17; 22.18; 15.17; Commentary on Psalm 118, 2). Commenting on this Borresen writes: "Where sexual difference no longer has any purpose (since the need for procreation has ceased) and survives only on the basis of the integrity and perfection of the spiritual body, the hierarchical relationship between man and woman disappears." Kari Elisabeth Borresen, Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, translated by Charles Talbot (Washington DC: University Press of America, 1981), p. 87.

6. Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 1.16.43. See Schmitt, op. cit., p. 272.

7. Sermon 132, 2. See Sermon 9, 3.

8. One must take into account Augustine's emphasis on the spiritual aspect of being human and his own troubles in controlling his sexual desires when interpreting such early statements that a good Christian must love the human being in his wife, but hate the "wife" in her (Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 1.15.41). In any case, as Canning notes, Augustine came to reject such reasoning in his Retractions (1.9.3; 1.10.2). See R. Canning, "Augustine on the Identity of the Neighbor," Augustiniana, vol. 36 (1986), pp. 169-170.

9. Augustine observes that even the most disorderly of persons, the robber, wants peace at home and recognizes that the "price of peace in the family is to have someone in charge." The City of God, 19.12.1.

10. Some texts that express the "natural" (rather than freely chosen) subordination of wife to husband include the following: Questions on the Heptateuch, 1.153; A Commentary on Genesis against the Manicheans, 2.11.15; Marriage and Concupiscence 1.9.10.

11. Sermon 51, 30.

12. The Good of Marriage, 17.20; Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.9.10.

13. A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 9.5.9.

14. The City of God, 19.19.

15. Luke, 10.42. See Sermon 103, 1-6.

16. Augustine supports his conclusion through analogies with the superiority of thought over action, reason over body, flesh over spirit, which (according to Schmitt, op. cit., p. 289) indicate the continuing influence of Platonism on Augustine's thought. See Confessions, 13.32.47; Questions on the Heptateuch, 1.153; Incomplete Work against Julian, 6.23).

17. See Gerald Bonner, "Augustine's Attitude to Women and Amicitia," Homo Spiritalis: Festgabe für Luc Verheijen O.S.A., ed. Cornelius Mayer (Würzburg: Augustinus-Verlag, 1987), pp. 263-65.

18. On Order, 1.11.31; The Happy Life, 2.10. After noting an apparent ambivalence towards women (a later flight from women following his earlier quest for women), Roten observes that neither aspect is as radical as some make it out to be. Despite his passionate nature, he was more faithful to his common-law wife of 15 years than most men of his time (his father, Patricius, included) would have been. Moreover, his later relationships with women were friendly if cautious (not trusting his still passionate nature) with no intellectual patronizing of them. He corresponded on spiritual and intellectual matters with friends like Albina, Proba, Juliana, and Fabiola. He believed that his mother acquired a thoughtful state of mind that was equivalent to the best of philosophy. See Johann G. Roten, SM, "Mary and Woman in Augustine," University of Dayton Review, vol. 22, # 3 (Summer, 1994), p. 33-34.

19. It is in light of Augustine's equating the man with speculative wisdom and the woman with practical wisdom and his conviction that speculative wisdom is at a higher level than practical wisdom, that one must understand the following somewhat controversial statements. "What is worse than a house where the woman has absolute authority over the man? But upright is the house where the man commands and the woman obeys. Upright, therefore, is humanity itself when the spirit commands and the flesh serves." (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.14.3). "By just law it (virile reason) should place a limit upon its helper (the appetite which controls the body) just as man ought to rule woman and ought not to allow her to rule him. When this happens, the home is perverted and unhappy. (A Commentary on Genesis against the Manicheans, 2.11.15). Teske comments: Augustine's view of the role of women is far from what would satisfy most contemporaries, not to mention contemporary feminists. On this point, as on others, one should realize that his ideas were molded by his society and culture as well as by passages in Scripture which seem to subordinate women to men. Moreover, his Platonic view of human beings led him to identify the real person with the soul or mind. Hence, differences of bodily sex are theoretically extrinsic to the real person and men and women are equal as souls. Roland J. Teske, S.J. (trans.), Saint Augustine: On Genesis (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991), p. 112.

20. See Gervase Corcoran, O.S.A., Saint Augustine on Slavery (Rome: Patristic Institute "Augustinianum," 1985), p. 68.

21. The Good of Marriage, 6.6. See Schmitt, op. cit., p. 270.

22. Schmitt, op. cit., p. 295. See On Continence, 9.23. An example of how the husband and wife should work together in the family is reflected in Augustine's instructions to husbands with regard to the disposition of property. He tells them that though they may have the legal power to sell or give away family goods, they should consider their wives as valuable confidants and consult with them before making such decisions. See Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 2.2.7; Sermon 262, 8.

23. See Confessions, 9.9.19.

24. Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 1.18.54.

25. Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians, 9.1.

26. The City of God, 19.14. As Markus notes this ideal of loving subordination is not always found in societies that exist in humanity's fallen state. However it was the type of subordination towards which unscathed humanity was driven by its Creator. In the original family it was natural for wife to be subject to husband. It was not natural for husband to dominate the wife. R. A. Markus, "Two Conceptions of Political Authority: Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XIX. 14-15, And Some Thirteenth-Century Interpretations," Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 16, n. 1 (April, 1965), pp. 74-5. Corcoran explains the subordination in Eden as follows: "What then is the nature of the subordination of the wife to her husband, or the children to their parents? In De Genesi ad Litteram (11.37.50) Augustine states clearly that before the Fall a man ruled his wife and she served him. At the same time, he is careful to point out that this relationship was very different from that introduced by sin to the institution of the family. Before the Fall, the relationship of service and domination was prompted by love and did not arise from an obligation imposed by status. In other words, there was no question of constraint or of duties and obligations arising out of status. From this it appears that the relationship of subordination and domination before the Fall was a relationship of giving and accepting service. There is no hint of constraint, or even of duties and obligations." Gervase Corcoran, O.S.A., op. cit., p. 62.

27. On the Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.30.64. See Borresen, op. cit., p. 34.

28. A Commentary on Genesis against the Manicheans, 2.11.15; 2.12.16.

29. Commentary on Psalm 55, 17.

30. Commentary on Psalm 127, 8.

31. In his commentary on St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians (5:25-29), Augustine notes that there are three forms of unity mentioned in Paul's text: Christ and church, husband and wife, spirit and flesh. "In each of these the former cares for the latter and the latter waits on the former. All of them are good as long as the superiors act in an excellent fashion and the others act properly as subjects, thus preserving the beauty of order." (On Continence, 9.23). Augustine goes on to note that whereas husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loves the church and wives are told to love their husbands as the church loves Christ, in Paul's use of the earthly example of spirit and body the husbands are indeed told to love their wives as they would their own bodies, but wives are not given the example of the body's relationship to spirit as a model for their subordination. The reason is that in this life there is frequently an antagonism between body and spirit, the body reaching out to spirit for self-satisfaction. In the relationship between Christ and the church there is a true subordination but it is a caring subordination. The relationship between spirit and flesh in this life is quite different. Sometimes the flesh tries to take over; sometimes spirit aims at putting flesh in its place rather than loving it in its proper place.

32. Sermon 155, 14. See The City of God, 22.30.1; Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, 1.91. Brown remarks that the fact that humans were physical beings was the reason that "death always remained for Augustine the most bitter sign of human frailty. It was an unnatural occurrence. Its frightening wrench revealed the strength of the "binding force" associated with the `sweet marriage bond of body and soul.'"(Letter 140, 6.16). Peter Brown, The Body and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 405. For a general discussion of Augustine's attitude towards death, see Donald X. Burt, "Augustine On The Authentic Approach To Death," Augustinianum, vol. 28, # 3 (1988), pp. 527-63.

33. Commentary on the Letter of John to the Parthians, 26.4. For a more extensive discussion of Augustine's views on the emotional and sexual life of humans see Donald X. Burt, Augustine's World: And Introduction to his Speculative Philosophy (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996), pp. 65-72.

34. The City of God, 14.9.

35. Letter 6*, 5, Robert Eno (trans.) Saint Augustine: Letters, Volume 6, vol. 81 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), p. 55. For helpful comments on the meaning of "flesh," "concupiscence," and "love" in Augustine see Peter Brown, op. cit., p. 418; Robert Innes, "Integrating the Self through the Desire of God," Augustinian Studies, vol. 28, # 1 (1997), p. 76; Oliver O'Donovan, The Problem of Self-Love in Augustine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980); Terry L. Miethe, "Augustine and Concupiscence," Augustinian Bibliography: 1970-80 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), pp. 195-218. Gerald Bonner notes (p. 309) that Augustine generally uses concupiscentia (in the sense of concupiscentia carnis) as referring to a sexual desire which "by inducing the highest of all physical pleasures virtually overwhelms the whole intellect." (See The City of God, 14.16). He goes on to point out that Augustine believed that this effect of sin was matched by the lust for power which infects the human psyche. In his emphasis on these two powerful desires he thus anticipates the work of Freud (libido carnis) and Adler (libido dominandi). Gerald Bonner, "Libido and concupiscentia in Saint Augustine," Studia Patristica, vol. 6, # 4, pp. 312-314. For an extensive discussion of libido dominandi and concupiscentia carnis see Francois-Joseph Thonnard, "La notion de concupiscence en philosophie augustinienne," Recherches Augustiniennes, vol 3 (1965), pp. 59-105.

36. Sermon 51, 23-24.

37. The City of God, 14.24; 14.10. See A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 11.42,59. David Hunter points out that in his early years Augustine interpreted the relationship of Adam and Eve as being pure spiritual. In 401, in his work The Good of Marriage, he admits at least the possibility that Adam and Eve eventually would have had intercourse had they remained in Eden. When he wrote his Literal Commentary on Genesis in 410, he shows no doubt about the full physical relationship of Adam and Eve even if they had not sinned. His final position is clearly stated in his debate with Julian towards the end of his life. There he writes: "I have never censured the union of the two sexes if it is lawfully within the boundaries of marriage. There could be no generation of human beings without such union even if no sin preceded it." (Against Julian the Heretic, 3.7.15). See David G. Hunter, "A New Look at Augustine's Teaching on Sex, Marriage and Celibacy," Augustinian Studies, vol. 25 (1994), pp. 166-68.

38. Letter 6*, 38.

39. The City of God, 14.26. On the influence of "friendly persuasion" in Adam's sin see A Literal Commentary on Genesis, 11.42.59. On carnal relations in Eden see On the Grace of Christ and Original Sin, 2.35.40; On Marriage and Concupiscence, 2.7.17. Helpful commentaries on these points can be found in Brown, op. cit., pp. 400-408 and in Schmitt, op. cit., pp. 99 ff.

40. Against Julian, 3.11.22. See Brown, op. cit., p. 419. Borresen remarks: "The goodness proper to marriage exists in its purity only in the state of innocence, an ideal which has never been fulfilled. The condition of the human race after the Fall and during the time it waits for its complete renewal, involves a sexuality that is deeply disfigured. ... The mutual vow of continence is, therefore, the summit of love between a married couple because there everything is directed towards sacramental fidelity. Married love is intimately connected with the order of salvation. It surpasses the blessing of fertility belong to the order of creation and escapes the dominion of sin." Borresen, op. cit., pp. 118-19. See Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, 1.15.42; The Good of Marriage, 3.3; Letter 127, 9. Augustine writes: "The resurrection of the dead has been compared to the stars of the sky (1 Corinthians, 15:41-42). There will be one splendor there for virginity, another for married chastity, another for holy widowhood. They will be variously bright but they will all be there. Their brightness is unequal but they have the sky in common." (Sermon 132, 3). "As for us, following the faith and the sound doctrine of the holy scriptures, we refuse to say that marriage is a sin. Nevertheless, no matter how good it is, we put it on a lower level than the chastity of virgins and even the chastity of widows." (Holy Virginity, 21.21). In another place Augustine notes that the three states are reflected in the good women of the Christmas Story. All of them were holy but in different ways: Elizabeth representing the virtues of marriage; Anna, those of widowhood; Mary, those of virginity. Clearly Mary is the holiest of the three. See Sermon 196, 2.

41. Letter 6*, 3, Eno translation, op. cit, pp. 54-55.

42. Sermon 349, 7; 1-2.

43. Clark speculates on why Augustine did not develop this idea of companionate marriage. Her conclusion is that "It is embedded in his thought but is overshadowed by his emphasis upon the reproductive functions of marriage. His ambivalent conception of the essence of marriage, can be traced primarily to the necessities of theological controversy, for it was in the midst of controversies that he formulated his marital ethic." She also points to the view of women current at the time as being influential. Elisabeth Clark, "Adam's Only Companion: Augustine and the Early Christian Debate on Marriage," Recherches Augustiniennes, vol. 21 (1986), pp. 139-41.

44. Sermon 299D, 1.

45. Johann Roten remarks "If there exists authority of husbands over their wives, and for him it does exist, it is not given that husbands may act as tyrants, but that they may live together in sincere love. Johann Roten, op. cit., p. 36. See The Morals of the Catholic Church and the Morals of the Manicheans, 1.30.63.

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