Augustine Versus Hypatia (Part II)

This is the continuation of the imaginary dialogue between Augustine and Hypatia begun in the last post.

Moderator: I fear that the discussion once again is descending into mutual recrimination. To get us back on track, let me get back to a point that was raised earlier. It seems to me that one real strength of orthodox Christianity is the doctrine of the incarnation, which unites spirit and flesh. Orthodoxy banished the extreme dualism of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, an unattractive idea that spawns superstition and repudiation of the physical world. Augustine, would you care to comment”

Augustine: Yes indeed. Christianity in general, and I in particular, have been charged with the introduction of the “Dark Ages,” a period of supposed ignorance and credulity in which blind faith replaced reason and science was despised and ignored. On the contrary, by regarding the physical world as the creation of a rational God, and not the repository of darkness and evil, we laid the conceptual foundations for modern science. Had dualism triumphed, with its deprecation of the physical, modern science could not have arisen. Unbelievers who pride themselves in their devotion to science have Christianity to thank for the science which they idolize.

Hypatia: Whatever the “official” position of Christianity, in practice, Christians have been the most rabid dualists. Extreme Christian asceticism flourished in the late Roman Empire of our day. These ascetics practiced atrocious self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh, enduring the greatest rigors of self-torture in the effort to overcome the flesh and rise to God. St. Anthony lived in the desert and would throw himself naked into a thorn bush when Satan would tempt him with lascivious visions of beautiful women. St. Simeon Stylites lived on top of a pillar for many years, enduring all weather conditions and imposing the most severe deprivations on himself. Far from being objects of revulsion, these crackpots were deeply revered—note the “saint” before their names!—and held up for admiration and emulation. Actions speak louder than words, and when you look at what Christians actually did, you see that repudiation of the earthly and the physical were points of pride for them and that they were the most assiduous haters of the flesh.

Augustine: The rigors of the ascetics were neither gratuitous nor unwarranted. When a society is as besotted with carnal pleasures as was the Empire of our day, strong medicine is needed. As I said in my Confessions, when I arrived in Carthage, I found a hissing cauldron of lust, and Carthage was hardly atypical. Sex, power, and money were the true gods of our world, as they are today, and the “decadence” of Rome was a reality, even after it became nominally Christian. Asceticism and monasticism were the natural and salutary responses to a world mad with sinful indulgence. Did some of the ascetics go too far? Surely, but their excesses were mirror images of the excesses of sin.

Hypatia: But the cure for excess is not excess in the opposite direction, but reason and moderation. When excess is answered with excess, they do not cancel each other out, but synergize against reason. Really, though, the ascetics were only the spear-tip of the thrust against the flesh. Far more significant and lasting in its harm was the animus of the church “fathers” against those beings who, for them, were the quintessential embodiments of the flesh and its temptations—women. As meticulously detailed by the brilliant scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann, in her searing indictment Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, the church “fathers”—and especially you, Augustine—taught hatred and fear of women, and, concomitantly, a morbid, indeed pathological, attitude towards sex.

Augustine: Nonsense. I merely held that sex should be for its natural purpose, which is procreation. Any use of sex that thwarts the procreative process is an unnatural perversion of its God-ordained purpose. Or do you deny that sex is for procreation? Is it not obvious that sex is for the maintenance of the human race?

Hypatia: As Mr. Darwin taught us, what any natural adaptation is “for” is that it functions so as to increase the reproductive fitness of the organism. Consider sex. Why is sex fun? The fact that it is fun seems to have been missed by you and the other “fathers.”

Augustine: Another smear.

Hypatia: Since reproduction requires sexual union it stands to reason that those organisms who find sex intensely pleasurable will seek to engage in it more often, and therefore enhance their chances of producing offspring. Further, a population of enthusiastic breeders, other things being equal, will very probably outbreed one of indifferent reproducers. Finding sex highly pleasurable is therefore an adaptive feature that was favored by natural selection, both at the individual and the group level. In that sense, sex, and specifically sexual pleasure, is “for” reproduction.

Augustine: And that is precisely why the experience of sexual pleasure for its own sake, and not with the intention of procreation, is an unnatural abuse and misuse of the divine gift of sex. It is like chewing food to get the savor of it and then spitting it out to avoid the nutrition.

Hypatia: Ah, so chewing gum leads to hell.

Augustine: Ridicule seems to be your main weapon.

Hypatia: There is nothing wrong with ridiculing the ridiculous, and your doctrine of what sex is “for” is preposterous. You commit a fallacy of division, saying that what is good for a whole must be good for each of its individual parts, i.e., what is good for a species is good for the individual organisms that constitute that species. In particular, what is good for the preservation of the human species must be the same as the good for each individual man and woman. Reproduction is, of course, necessary for the preservation of the human species, but that does not mean that it is necessary or even always desirable for every individual man or woman. What an individual human being is “for” is the happiness and well-being of that individual. Full stop. Sex therefore serves its purpose for the individual when it promotes the happiness and well-being of that person. Full stop. If the Church says otherwise, then it opposes the happiness and well-being of humans.

Augustine: Your statement makes absolutely clear the blinkered view of unbelievers. I emphatically affirm human happiness, but I realize that genuine fulfillment cannot be found in the striving for worldly goods, but only by faithful obedience to the eternal law of God. Our final and ultimate felicity will be the union of the faithful with God in the hereafter. Pagans who can see no farther than the earthly life think that earthly goods are sufficient for happiness. This view leads to sin and perdition.

Hypatia: Eternal happiness or misery are concepts a bit too rich for my blood. As I see it, a doctrine is to be rejected if it leads to pain and misery in this life. Let’s see what your sex-phobia and misogyny did to ordinary men and, especially, women. Did you not say that a woman is useful to a man only for the begetting of children (Aquinas later added housecleaning too)? She was not given to Adam to help him till the soil because she is lacking in physical strength, and a man would have been better. Neither is she a good companion. Conversation with a male friend is better. Women, in your view, are of no significance for the life of the mind. As Ranke-Heinemann put it:

Thus Augustine was the brilliant inventor of what Germans call the three K’s (Kinder, Küche, Kirche—children, kitchen, church), an idea that still has life in it, in fact it continues to be the Catholic hierarchy’s primary theological position on women.

As for sexual pleasure, you regarded it as per se evil, but as necessary for procreation, and therefore that even married couples should experience sexual pleasure only when they are wholly motivated by the desire for procreation. As you put it with casuistic precision: “What cannot occur without lust should not, however, occur because of lust.” As Ranke Heinemann aptly comments, Catholic sexual morality—largely shaped by you—has “…warped the consciences of many men and women. It has burdened them with hairsplitting nonsense and striven to train them as moral acrobats instead of making them more humane and kinder to their fellow human beings” (back cover)

In other words, Augustine, you stigmatized sex and denigrated women. Innocent and natural pleasures, chief sources of delight in this vale of tears known as human life, are relegated by you to the status of, at best, necessary evils to be avoided whenever possible. It is hard to imagine a doctrine more anti-human, more opposed to joy, more stifling of exuberance, less conducive to a full, rich, and happy life. As for women, we struggle to this very day to overcome the sort of disparagement you typified. Even now, in the twenty-first century, when women have achieved the highest accomplishments in every field of human endeavor, and proven more than capable of meeting every challenge, even now we struggle against the stereotypes you so eloquently promulgated.

Augustine: Well, if I may be allowed to get a word in edgewise into your tirade, my views on sex were not the product, as you seem to imply, of the neurotic maunderings of a sour celibate. I know about sex from knowing myself. I was as much a libertine and sensualist as anyone. Lust raged constantly in my mind, and no one knows better than I how terrible it is to be a slave to lust. It was not I, but a Greek of the classical age who said that when his desires ebbed in old age he felt like one freed from an insane and tyrannical master. I emphatically reject that I am opposed to joy and pleasure. I merely maintain that spiritual joy is greater than any sensual joy and that the pleasure of the soul is vastly more satisfying than the pleasure of the body. There are higher things and lower things. The higher things of mind and spirit are what give us the truest, deepest, and most abiding satisfactions. Or do you reduce everything to the physical, so that humans are just animals and can aspire to nothing higher, nobler, and uplifting—pleasures that refine and purify rather than besmirch and degrade?

Hypatia: How bizarre to think that pleasures of the mind require us to despise those of the body! I have known both kinds and unashamedly revel in them. Surely, those are to be pitied who can experience only sensual pleasure and know nothing of the joys of intellectual discovery or of beauty or of the sacred depths we may encounter in art and nature. Even more stunted however, are those who, oppressed by a neurotic and obsessive sense of sin and shame, foul the wellsprings of joy, and try to stifle their own sexual feelings. Having denied themselves sexual pleasure, they then devote themselves to denying it of others. These are the true sexual perverts, the ones obsessed with controlling the details of others’ sex lives. Those who cannot enjoy the satisfactions of mind, beauty, and spirit are to be pitied. Those pious hypocrites who cloak themselves in a devotion to “higher” things are actually devotees of the basest pleasure of all, namely the pernicious pleasures of self-righteousness and the manipulation of others by the inculcation of guilt and self-loathing. These are not to be pitied, but despised.

Augustine: You are shameless and offensive, and I see no purpose in continuing this conversation.

Moderator: In an effort to salvage some wisdom from what, despite my efforts, has become a personal exchange, may I ask each of you to sum up your position, and, let me emphatically implore you not make personal remarks. Augustine, will you go first?

Augustine: Certainly. If you recall, my intention from the beginning was to focus on ideas. The Lord disclosed even to pagans that there is a higher, more beautiful, and richer reality than the material. Yet, for them, that reality was out of reach, though they strove for it by undergoing years of rigorous intellectual training. The Lord, in His great wisdom and unbounded mercy, has seen that humans yearn for goodness and beauty, but are prisoners of sin that poisons their minds and will, and makes their striving vain. Thus, knowing that we cannot come to Him, He came to us, making himself a human being, born of woman, to redeem us from our sins and lead those who believe to Him. Why do not all bow to Him and accept his grace? Because the flesh is not weak, but strong, strong, and only rigorous discipline can contain it. When lust is unrestrained it rages in the mind, as I know only too well; indeed, it is a conflagration that burns through every scruple and principle and even destroys rationality. Surely no fact of human life is plainer than the devastation that lust has wrought—the powerful it has brought low, and the lowly it has ground into the dust. Unbelieving libertines do not set people free by destroying sexual restraint, but condemn them to the bondage of shame, disease, poverty, and despair. Only Christ can quiet the raging in our minds and limbs and give us the tranquility of self-discipline and turn our minds to higher things.

Moderator: Hypatia?

Hypatia: Sorry. I was bemused for a moment, sincerely dumbfounded by the idea that life presents us with so simple a dichotomy: Either monkish restraint or unbounded libertinism. No other options. I am afraid, Augustine, that you never really gave up your Manichean dualism…

Moderator: Please! No personal comments! Please stick to philosophy!

Hypatia: But sometimes the personal is the philosophical! Augustine invokes a religious philosophy that, he thinks, authorizes him to tell other people what is their most personal and intimate business. The institution he helped found, the Roman Catholic Church continues to this day the tradition of celibate old men telling women what they must do with their bodies. When your “philosophy” intrudes into my womb, then it inevitably becomes a personal issue. I have only one basic moral principle: human happiness. As I said earlier, what each of us is for is our own fulfillment and well-being. Women have known all along, without being instructed by men, that sex is double-edged. We are the ones who bear the consequences of the sexual exploitation and irresponsibility of men. Women are the ones who have had to suffer the double standard that punishes women’s sexual impropriety severely while male impropriety is shrugged off. I am afraid that religion has been the primary enforcer of that double standard, and so, in so many places in the world, it continues to this very day. Indeed, it is hard even to imagine what the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—would look like if truly purged of sexism and patriarchy. I am not sure they would even be recognizable.

Augustine’s religion is just as binding to the mind as to the body. Do not let creeds do your thinking for you. The human mind, if freed from dogma, is a marvelous instrument that can reach from the smallest atom to the vastness of intergalactic space. Free your mind and your body from gloomy and repressive superstitions. Women: Love yourselves, and find the truth with your own minds in defiance of centuries of denigration by the likes of Augustine. No force in the world is more powerful than your own free minds.

Moderator. Okay. Well, thanks to both of you for participating in this, er, vigorous exchange.

Augustine: It was an honor, if not exactly a pleasure.

Hypatia: For me it was an honor and a pleasure!