On Fridays, we’re doing a series on Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In this book, he examines how “the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny.”
The next two chapters explore the seminal (pun intended) impact of St. Augustine on how we have read and understood this story ever since.
In the end, for Augustine, it’s all about sex. Just as it was in the beginning.
If Greenblatt’s analysis of Augustine’s life and its important turns is correct, an emphasis upon (obsession with?) things sexual was a common thread through it all.
He begins with an experience Augustine never forgot: the day in 370 AD when he and his father went to a bathhouse in Thagaste, and while there, his father noticed “the signs of active virility coming to life in me, and this was enough to make him relish the thought of having grandchildren.” Though his father was delighted that the young man was awakening to sexual maturity, his pious mother Monica was alarmed.
And thus began St. Augustine’s lifelong struggle with concupiscence, the lust of the flesh understood in primarily sexual terms. Also, so began a way of thinking that led to a deeply theological distrust of sexual desire and its designation as the primary evidence of original sin, passed on from our first parents.
When the young man went away to Carthage to pursue his education, he wrote that he found himself “in a midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” Within a couple of years, he had settled into a relationship with a woman with whom he lived for 13 years and had a child. This cohabitation was conventional at the time and did not deter his mother Monica from trying to get him married to a good Catholic girl somehow.
But Augustine was on a spiritual journey as well, eventually becoming an adherent of the Manichees, a dualistic, esoteric, and syncretistic religion that for a time satisfied his struggle with where evil in the world originated. However, his devout Catholic mother continued to pursue him, even at one point moving from North Africa to Milan to be with him when he took a teaching post. There, under the teaching of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, Augustine warmed to the allegorical teaching of the Hebrew Bible, a book the Manicheans had despised as the dark story of a God who created an evil world. Eventually, his lover and partner left him, and not long afterward he was converted when reading these words from Romans: “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites.”
Putting on Jesus, Augustine put off sex and made a vow of continence. His mother was ecstatic.
The autobiographical portion of Augustine’s Confessions ends with an account of the most intense spiritual experience of his life, one which he had together with his mother while they were conversing one day. As they were discussing “that no bodily pleasure, however great, could ever match or even remotely approach the happiness of the saints” (p. 95), they felt themselves caught up into heavenly realms, where they touched eternal Wisdom “for one fleeting moment.” A few days after this mystical experience, Monica died. She had been the love of his life upon this earth, and this final experience captures Augustine’s longing for what he saw as the blessings of pure love, spiritual love, love that can never be compared with base lust or erotic desire.
In the more than forty years that succeeded his moment of ecstasy — years of endless controversy and the wielding of power and feverish writing — Augustine, priest, leader of a community of monks, and bishop of the North African city of Hippo, spent an extraordinary amount of his time trying to understand the story of Adam and Eve. He thought about it when he sat, book in hand, on his bishop’s chair (his cathedra), when he addressed his clergy and congregation in solemn assembly, when he grappled with complex theological issues, and when he tirelessly dictated letter after letter to his network of friends and allies. He brooded on it through his bitter polemics against heretics. He continued to ponder its mysteries when he heard the terrible reports in 410 of the three-day sack of Rome by a Visigothic army led by Alaric. Over the decades, he had persuaded himself that it was not a story at all, at least not a story in the sense of a fable or myth. It was the literal truth, and, as such, it was the scientific key to the understanding of everything that happened. (p. 96f)
And the key was this: “The world as God made it was good, perfectly so, and it would have remained good, had it not been for the original, terrible act of human perversity. All the miseries that have followed — the endless succession of ghastly crimes, the horrors of tyranny and war, the seemingly natural disasters of earthquake, fire, and flood, and what Hamlet calls the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to — are just punishments meted out by a just God. Such is the meaning of being ‘in Adam.'” (p. 102)
And that brings us back to sex. For, how did every human being born after Adam come to share in this original sin?
The problem is that even the most legitimate form of sexual intercourse — between a husband and wife mutually bent on engendering a child — is also corrupt. The current of sinfulness that courses through it is precisely the mechanism that carries the stain of evil from one generation to the next and infects the dreams of those most determined to keep themselves pure and chaste. Human sinfulness is a sexually transmitted disease. (p. 108)
There’s more. After Adam and Eve, not only does humanity pass along sinfulness through sexual intercourse, but even the very act of intimacy itself has become corrupted. The act of sex (between a married couple intending to beget a child) is not sinful but even within the chaste, consecrated bounds of marriage it cannot be “performed without evil,” Augustine claimed. That “evil” is the overwhelming feeling of erotic desire. Originally, he thought, Adam and Eve somehow must have been created to “unite in the task of propagation as a deliberate act undisturbed by passion” (p. 118). Now, however, passion “disturbs” every act of intimacy. And the most clear evidence of the fact that we are “in Adam,” tainted by original sin, is that we cannot control when we are sexually aroused.
Augustine found further proof of this in the story of Adam and Eve.
In one of his first works, Augustine took an allegorical approach to the early chapters of Genesis. However, about a decade later, he began to work on a book about the literal truth of the story. Given the human condition as he had come to understand it, he concluded that it must be an “unvarnished representation of historical reality” (p. 111).
One of the texts he struggled with was Genesis 3:7, where it says that after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, “their eyes were opened.” Laboring to grasp this literally and refusing to accept any metaphorical reading, Augustine eventually concluded that it meant this: “They turned their eyes on their own genitals, and lusted after them with that stirring movement they had not previously known” (p. 114). Adam and Eve’s original sin led to the original proof that they had fallen — they saw that they had become sexually aroused apart from their own control. This was why they covered up — not simply because they were unclothed but because they felt the throes of passion involuntarily and exhibited the physical signs of that.
One of Augustine’s legacies — bolstered by his interpretation of Adam and Eve — is that Christians have had a intensified focus upon and conflicted relationship with sexuality ever since.