An Augustinian Perspective: Food and Sex

I thought I would summarize and comment on a few interesting points made in a recent lecture by esteemed Augustine scholar Gilbert Meilander:

Before I begin, it seems prudent to preface my remarks with a rejection of the common dismissal of Augustine as “insufficiently life-affirming”- a repressed individual whose archaic views on sexuality ought to be dismissed without further inspection. Augustine’s views on sexuality is not that it is inherently problematic, and it is crucial to acknowledge that his distancing himself from the Manicheans indicates his disavowal of the rejection of the corrupt body in favor of the soul.  (Further arguments for this position are made clear in Books  11 and 14 of the City of God- Augustine’s views that God will return in a body, and that sins of the flesh can be committed even by those who lack bodies, at least, seem to indicate that we should be wary of reducing Augustine to this position.)

 

The focus of Meilander’s argument was an analogy made between food and sex. It will be first valuable to spell out the exact analogy. For Augustine, the natural order is that food serves the good of health. That is to say, eating is a necessity, albeit a sweet one. The good of an activity is distinguished from its attendant pleasure, and as such Augustine suggests it is wrong to seek the pleasure instead of the good. Analogously, Augustine views the good of sex (what he sees as solely procreation, a view that may be problematic) as separate from its pleasure. A disordering of one’s loves, then, occurs when the pleasure of sex (or of eating) is pursued for its own right. 

Meilander’s critique of Augustine is that he fails to see another good in eating, and also, in sex. He argues that in eating, there is another good- the good of enjoying meals in the company of others. Meilander argues that it is okay to eat out of hunger, or go to a meal just for company, and that each of these two purposes, satisfying hunger and pursuing community , need not  be served each time one has food. When applied to sex, Meilander notices a different good that Augustine misses: union between husband and wife. He analogizes that as there are two distinct goods of sex, each one need not be served in every sex act. 

 

While Meilander’s modification of these additional goods is convincing, there are some important distinctions that ought to be made. With regards to eating, pursuing community is not derivable from the very putting of food in one’s mouth. This ambiguity with regards to the word “eat” thereby leads to a disanalogy. While one may go to a meal just for company, one may not achieve the good of company by the simple fact of ingesting food. As such, when addressing the domain of sex, we see a difference: both sexually intimate union and procreation can occur through sex and only through sex (bracketing conversations that may arise as related to in vitro fertilization, which do not appear on Augustine’s radar, and as such ought to be put aside for the current conversation).  This difference appears to change the status of the position Meilander has in mind. The two purposes (community and nourishment) are separable with regards to eating, while the two purposes (union and procreati

on) are not separable with regards to sex. 

Sex: Meaningless or Meaningful?

When any discussion of sexual ethics arises, many people will inevitably argue that there is no inherent meaning or “purpose” to sex: it is just an act like any other and is controlled by bundles of physical drives and chemical processes. Since, on this objective and scientific account, there is no meaning to nature, the body, or sex, then anything in the domain of the sexual is perfectly reasonable and moral – provided, of course, that there is consent and free-choice.

This argument from the objective meaninglessness of the world (and hence of the body) is often employed as a conversation-stopper, discrediting any appeal to an inherent meaning or purpose to sex as invoking quasi-religious metaphysical categories that have no basis in fact. But even if this meaningless and reductive view of nature is correct, does it follow that we cannot or should not reason about sex in a meaningful way? I argue that it does not.

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