Thursday, October 20, 2011

Was Saint Augustine Bi-Sexual?

I've continued reading The Confessions, by Saint Augustine, and part of the way through the first few "books" I began to wonder whether Augustine's references to lust and sin and giving in to low vices included a homosexual, or bi-sexual, element to them. He talks about an incident at a public bath that made his father recognize that he is coming of age sexually, but there is no mention of a girl or woman, or even much in the way of remonstrances about his sexual activities from his Christian mother other than a warning to not commit adultery. His social life seems to revolve around his boyhood friendships and the idea that being with this social group has induced him to sin in ways which he wouldn't have sinned individually.

From the beginning Augustine writes:
2.2.2 And what pleasure did I know except loving and being loved? But my love did not keep within the bounds marked out by the shining border of friendship, the affection of one mind for another. (pp 31)
He describes moving to Carthage and its effect on him :
3.1.1 I came to Carthage and a frying pan of sinful loves was spitting all about me.  I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love; such was my inner need that I hated myself for not being more in need. 
...Loving and being loved was sweeter to me if I could also enjoy my lover's body. So it was that I defiled the well of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and clouded its clear light with the infernal fog of lust; crude and boorish as I was, my vanity was so excessive that I longed to be smart and sophisticated. I rushed headlong into love, seeking to be swallowed up in it. O God ever merciful to me(Ps. 59.19 [Ps. 58.18]), what gall you in your goodness smeared over my sophisticated pleasures; for I was loved in return, and came secretly to know the chains of carnal enjoyment.(pp 45)
So far, Augustine has only used the word friendship in relation to his male peers.  There is no indication that he had female friends, in which case is he defiling his male friendships with lust and sexual longing? Other than his mother, Augustine hasn't described any relationship with a woman in detail, or with the loving language he uses for his male peers.

Further on, he describes the death of a close, male friend in devastating terms, describing how inconsolable he was, how he had lost half of his soul and loved him as an immortal. The language he uses is very flowery and emotional and romantic.
I was astonished that other mortals lived, since he, whom I had loved as if he were immortal, was dead, and even more astonished that though he was dead, I, his other self, lived. He spoke rightly who said that his friend was "half his soul". I felt that my soul and my friend's were one soul in two bodies, and life filled me with horror as I had no wish to live on, a mere half of myself.  Perhaps, too, I dreaded death for this same reason, fearing that he whom I had loved so much would die utterly. (pp 71-72, Book 4.6.11)
And later on, when analyzing the response to the loss of friendship and camaraderie when someone dies, he writes:
These and other such tokens, which proceed from the hearts of those who love each other and express themselves in the face, the speech, the eyes, and a thousand gestures of good will, are, so to speak, the kindling of the fire which melds minds together, making one out of many. 
4.9.14 This is what we cherish in our friends, to the extent that a man's conscience feels guilty, if he does not love one who loves him in return, or love in return one who loves him, seeking nothing from his lover's body except these tokens of good will.(pp.73)
The use of the word lover in the midst of a treatise on close friendship jumps out at me. It seems very odd that so far in my reading of Augustine he's written less then a paragraph about his 15 year relationship with a woman, in terms of his sinful life, and yet carries on about the close friendships he has had for pages. He does mention lusting after women at one point, but even that is a cursory statement, buried in a list of the general misguidedness he felt ruled his life at that point in time.

It could be that I am simply misreading Augustine. Women weren't seen as emotional and intellectual equals in Roman times.  Maybe the closeness with which Augustine described his friendships is simply typical for his culture.  On the other hand, homosexuality and pederasty weren't unknown in Roman culture.

When I first started to wonder if other people had explored this part of Augustine, I came across the Wikipedia page here, which had a quote from Plutarch about homosexuality, specifically being the passive partner:
"we regard men who take pleasure in passive submission as practicing the lowest kind of vice."
This set off a bell in my head, because when Augustine first begins elaborating on his sinfulness in The Confessions, he mentions the low forms of vice in which he engaged.
More than once in my youth I burnt to satisfy myself with the lowest things; with reckless daring I ran wild, overgrown and overshadowed by my various loves.  And all the time I pleased myself and sought to be pleasing in the sight of men, my beauty wasted away and I was foul(Dan. 10.8) in your sight
Plutarch, a biographer of many prominent Greeks and Romans, had written about Cicero, the person whose work Augustine credits for the beginning of his spiritual turnaround.



Augustine was fully immersed in rhetoric, literature and philosophy and would have been exposed to a great many ideas and people which were all connected through the "canon" of his studies.  The similarity in language may not mean anything.  On the other hand, because Augustine places such an emphasis on Cicero, it isn't a stretch to imagine that Augustine would have read Plutarch's biography and other works and been influenced by what he had to say.

It's hard to judge with Augustine.  He is frequently overly dramatic when describing any type of sin and knowing whether he really means it when he says he participated in the "lowest things", or if he is exaggerating for effect is difficult to sort out.


JSA said...

It wouldn't have occurred to Augustine to identify as a "bisexual", as people didn't define themselves by sexual orientation in those days. It is only in modern times that we've started pretending that people can be categorized into fixed buckets based on "sexual orientation" (whatever that means). Men have always been willing to shag anything that looks shaggable. If you had asked Augustine what his sexual orientation was, I suspect he would have answered, "Yes, I was sexually oriented".

C.S. Lewis wrote an entire chapter about the rampant pederasty he witnessed in the English boarding school system. And pederasty is still alive and well in the region of the world Augustine hailed from. Note that none of the Afghan warlords consider themselves gay or even "bisexual".

So I don't think Augustine would have even thought it relevant to describe the "orientation" of the exploits. If the behavior was as common in his time as it was in C.S. Lewis's day (and we have no reason to assume otherwise), then it would have been assumed to be common knowledge of the reader. And he (correctly, IMO) focuses not on the mechanics of which body parts are involved, but instead on the actual sin nature of the acts. Presumably it would be sinful for a man to take a slavishly subservient role toward a woman as toward another man, so it wasn't really the gender of his lover that mattered.

terri said...


Agreed. Modern categories don't fit neatly with Roman sexual ethics or orientations.

I use the term "bi-sexual" because it succinctly encapsulates the idea of what I'm talking about, but it is a modern term and not something that Augustine would have used as an identifier.

I've tried to research more about this out of curiosity and I think that I am going to do another post about what I found with regard to Augustine and whether other people have contended that he had same-sex sexual relationships.

Dr. Corrado said...


I think your intuitive interpretation of Augustine's varied sexual activity hits the mark well. Sexuality in his day was more than likely expressed with bi-gendered variety.

I just watched a brilliant LIVESTREAM lenten presentation by a Father Fish at Saint Monica's Parish in Santa Monica, California. I will attempt to cut and paste a link here. I think you will find your intuitions confirmed.

Dr. Corrado said...