Saint Augustine and sex the poena reciproca and the role of love

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As soon as we turn from non-human to human sexual behavior, an enormously difficult complication presents itself. Unlike sexual behaviors in non-human animals, human sexual behaviors are, to a substantial degree, socially constructed. For an excellent analysis of the social construction of sexuality, the reader is referred to the brilliant classic by Gagnon and Simon (2002). Here, I will only briefly introduce the notion of human sexuality as a social rather than biological entity.

Many human behavior patterns, particularly those pertaining to the category of precopulatory behaviors, have not by themselves any specific meaning. They acquire a sexual connotation through social learning and they may be highly variable between one culture and another and they can also change their meaning within a culture over time. One pre-copulatory behavior common in Europe and some other places, mutual tactile stimulation of the rostral end of the digestive canal (an activity vulgarly known as kissing), has no sexual meaning at all in other cultures. Its capacity to enhance sexual arousal efficiently in most Europeans is a consequence of social learning. Likewise, where, with whom and when to execute copulatory behaviors are determined by social learning in the human. I will not pursue this discussion here, but we must have clear right from the outset that human sexual behavior is determined by social conventions far more than by biological factors. Any discussion of human sexual behaviors ignoring the role of social learning is doomed to failure. An immediate consequence of this statement is that we must add a social perspective to sexuality whenever discussing human sexual behaviors.

Biologists have probably had a rather limited influence on the way human societies regard sexual activities. Biology is rather young as a science and has only had a couple of generations to influence human thought. There are other, much more powerful influences that have determined most of our views on sexuality. In Europe and the Americas, Christianity has undoubtedly exerted an enormous influence. In other parts of the world and in pre-Columbian America, other religions have been and are tremendously influential. Despite the importance and the large number of people adhering to these other religions, they have had a most limited influence on the scientific study of sexuality. For a long time, science as we know it was mainly a European undertaking. More recently, some former European colonies have acquired scientific predominance. This does not change much, since they are extensions of European culture. However, as an act of courtesy it has become habitual to talk of Western rather than European culture. Independently of the name we put on it, most of the scientific study of sexuality has been performed in this Western culture.

Scientists are part of the societies in which they live. They share their societies' ideals, beliefs, prejudices and values. When entering the laboratory, they carry with them all these ideals, beliefs, prejudices and values. When they decide which problems to study and, particularly when interpreting their data, all these ideals, beliefs, prejudices and values will be present, exerting implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious influences. This is probably of little concern if the subject is quantum mechanics or non-Euclidean geometry, because Western society does not attach too many ideals, beliefs, prejudices and values to quantum mechanics or non-Euclidian geometry. It is a completely different thing with regard to sexuality.

Western society has very clear opinions on that matter and some of these opinions are profoundly rooted in a very long history. Most of them are probably so firmly rooted in history that they are no longer questioned. They have become what we may call facts of nature. These ideals, beliefs, prejudices and values have had an enormous impact on research pertaining to the domain of sexuality. In order to be able to estimate the magnitude of that impact it could be helpful to try to make them explicit. A short incursion into history might be necessary for this.

Sexuality has traditionally been a subject for all kinds of moral analyses. In Christianity, there seems even to have existed, and continues to exist, something close to an obsession with the morals of sex, perhaps also with sex itself. There is a good reason for this.

One of the church fathers, Saint Augustine (Augustinus Aurelius, bishop of Hippo, doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, AD 354-430) is regarded by many as the most influential of Christian thinkers. He wrote quite extensively on sexuality and he wrote quite explicitly. His luminous analyses have become the basis for the views on sexuality still ferociously defended by the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church as well as by the majority of Lutheran churches. The following summary of Augustine's views on sexuality is essentially based upon three excellent works: Brown (1983, 1988) and Schmitt (1983). To the specialist, it will certainly appear superficial and uninformed, but it should be acceptable for the purpose of showing how his analyses of human sexuality still are the bases for most contemporary opinions, both among men of faith and among scientists. Those especially interested in the subject may want to venture into the original writings, particularly volume 14 of the City of God, and Sermon 51, a Christmas sermon dedicated to the issue of sex.

Augustine knew that sex is a prerequisite for reproduction. He also knew that reproduction is necessary because the human is mortal. And he is mortal because Adam and Eve lost their eternal life and were thrown out of paradise because they had insurrected against God's will. This means that the necessity of the sexual act for the persistence of the human species is a direct consequence of the original sin, of a hiatus between the will of man and the will of God. As soon as Adam and Eve had made their own wills independent of the will of God, parts of them became resistant to their own conscious will. Their bodies were touched with a disturbing new sense of the alien, in the form of sexual sensations that escaped their control. Here we have the essence of the problems with sexuality according to the saint: it is outside the control of the will. For example, Augustine observed that orgasm was a surge of sensation over which the mind had no final control, either to summon it, or to cancel its quality once experienced. In the same way, erection may occur whether we want it or not and it may also refuse to occur when we want it. The uncontrollable physical responses to desire became the appropriate punishment for Adam's sin, a poena reciproca according to Augustine and many others.

The uncontrollable elements in sexual desire reveal the working in the human person of a concupiscentia carnis, of a permanent flaw in the soul that tilted it irrecoverably toward the flesh and away from God's will. Each time sexual desire

(a manifestation of concupiscentia carnis) is activated, so is the poena reciproca. Every manifestation of sexual desire is a reminder of the original sin and, as such, a divine punishment for the most fateful flaw of human nature. As a result of these considerations, sexuality would never be trivial in the West.

There are two conditions that must be satisfied before a human being can engage in sexual activity without offending God: that the aim is procreation and that the participants are united in love between themselves and in love of God. Only through a limitless love of the next (the partner) and of God could the concupiscentia carnis and the associated poena reciproca become compatible with the Christian faith and any hope of a post-mortem eternal life. Needless to say, once a small number of children had been begotten, any decent human should be continent. In fact, Augustine considered the perfect Christian marriage a marriage of continence, for a simple reason. The justification for procreation was to increase the number of inhabitants in the city of God, but that number was sufficient already at the time of Augustine, so he preferred to insist on moderation of procreation under all circumstances and on continence as the ideal. It may be interesting to note that Augustine did not have the slightest interest in the preservation of the species. To him, procreation had a religious, not biological, aim. Nevertheless, if, by some default of character, sexual activity had to be displayed, it should be with procreation in mind. If not, it was a sin. Augustine, knowing the force of the flesh and of lust, the famous concupiscentia carnis, realized that people sometimes would succumb to their sexual urges and have sex for pleasure. If it occurred in a loving couple, he was generous enough to consider it as a venial sin.

What we can observe here is that the sexual act should be performed with the purpose of reproduction if it should be performed at all. Although the arguments employed by Augustine are principles of faith rather than of biology, the conclusion is the same as the one reached in Darwinian biological thinking. The question that immediately surfaces is whether the Darwinian notion of sex for, and only for, reproduction is a necessary corollary of evolutionary theory or whether it is a consequence of the fact that most biologists have grown up with the religious idea that sex is for reproduction. Most of those biologists were probably not aware of the fact that Saint Augustine's reasoning provides complete justification for that opinion. Perhaps they felt that evolutionary theory offered a justification for something they had been taught but which they did not understand why they had been taught. There is probably not any final answer to this question, but the possibility that evolutionary theory was and is used to justify an otherwise unfounded, social and/or religious convention, should not be overlooked. What is clear, though, is that there is no necessity to impose an association between sex and reproduction in order to explain how evolution has succeeded in assuring that most individuals will engage in sexual activities. This issue will be discussed at length in Chapter 2.

Another important point within Augustine's reasoning that persists in contemporary society is that sexual activity is only acceptable when the participants are in love with each other. This religious ideal seems to be firmly anchored in Western societies, but few of those confessing their adherence to it are aware of its origin and the reasons that led Saint Augustine to propose it. Although numerous survey studies reveal that many Europeans and Americans attach a great importance to being in love with the sexual partner (see e.g. Aron and Aron, 1991; Hendrick and Hendrick, 2002), very few, if any, of these surveys have ever asked their subjects why it is important or how it has become important. Again, we have all been taught that it is, but only some rare inquisitorial minds take the trouble to ask why. When they do, explanations like natural, the way it must be and the like appear. They are probably as well founded as the notion that sex is for reproduction, but none of them appears particularly compelling. In this context it might be illuminating to observe that the importance of love as justification for sexual activities is much more evident in Western cultures than in, for example, India or Japan (Jankowiak and Fischer, 1992; Levine et al., 1995; Medora et al., 2002). It is not impossible that the Augustinian notions on sexuality have been more successful in penetrating the minds of Europeans than those of Indians or Japanese.

Love will not be a major theme in this book. It will, in fact, not be a theme at all. The concept of love suits extremely well in literature and in the other fine arts, and some not as fine like the movie industry, but it is uncertain whether love has any place as a scientific entity or object of study. I would support the notion presented in an extraordinary little paper, almost never cited, by Beall and Sternberg (1995). They consider love to be a social construction and the definition as well as the emotional experience associated with it are, consequently, contextually determined. They change between cultures and between times within a culture. Thus, the idea that love is something intrinsic to human nature is entirely false. Notwithstanding, there are some scientists who have succeeded in localizing love to the medial insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, the putamen and the caudate nucleus with the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedures (Bartels and Zeki, 2000). Reassuring to learn that love has such a wide distribution. Another fMRI study of this phenomenon of such a paramount importance for human health found that love is localized to the right ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus (Aron et al., 2005). This is a far more limited distribution than the first study mentioned here, but at least one structure coincides between studies, the caudate nucleus. The obvious conclusion, which the authors had overlooked, must be that love is an extrapyramidal event. It would perhaps be too optimistic to expect some of these scientists to solve another fundamental problem in neuroscience: the localization of the superego, the entity determining the permissible expressions of love. Only time will show if they will be successful. A reasonable guess would be that the pineal turns out to be the site. It is, after all, the spot where body and soul interact according to Descartes. Independently of the results of that future study, the notion of love does not seem particularly useful in a scientific analysis of sexuality and will therefore be respectfully ignored.

After the preceding parenthesis we can now return to the real subject of this section. I proceed immediately to the conclusion, which is quite simple. Some of the Christian views on sexuality coincide with, or are the origin of, the biological notion of sex as a behavior in the service of reproduction. Some others of the

Christian analyses of sexuality have not had any immediate impact on scientific hypotheses concerning sex, but they have determined or influenced society's norms concerning sexuality.

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