The gentle reader (whose anonymity I respect, and to whom I shall refer as Mr M—) whose comments on my blog post ‘It’s all connected’ inspired the current series on the ‘pelvic issues’, gave me some well-deserved and thoughtful pushback via private communication on my last entry in the series, poking at places I might have overlooked. This is a much needed service, since it helps me refocus on what’s real (as opposed to simply dealing with fictive or selective history – as I said, my historical method tends to be somewhat impressionistic).
Mr M—’s caveats and approbations of my previous post are as follows. He notes, firstly and rightly, that the Orthodox Church is in fact of many minds on this subject, as on many others; and that there have been multiple Christian perspectives on celibacy and marital relations from Saint Paul onward. On one end is a Stoic-influenced view, as in Saint Jerome’s writings, that sees sexuality as, at best, a weakness of intrinsically-sinful, fleshly fallen man, good only for the begetting of children, which the Church condescends to and indulges only out of grim necessity. On the other end is a broader, more Epicurean-inflected understanding that sees sensuality as a good, an expression of bodily communion between husband and wife – but one which, like eating meat or drinking wine, is to be indulged moderately and in the right season. Mr M— notes, not entirely unsympathetically, that my reading of the canons of the Council of Gangra falls with some extremity on the more Epicurean end of that spectrum without quite sliding off into outright heresy, since I find some agreement there with Saint Augustine. He then goes on to note that, in practice, most monastic disciplines tack to the former view; particularly those which view the monastic discipline to be higher and more perfect than the marital discipline.
As a brief aside, this actually goes back to the discussion I was having with Mr P— in the comments, on the role of Hellenism in Patristic thought vis-à-vis rabbinical Judaism; the two sides of that old argument between Apostles Peter and Paul. Fr Sergei Sveshnikov of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his book chapter on the topic, makes the case that these two ‘poles’ of the Orthodox spectrum of thought on the pelvic issues are both valid and attested, though he associates them not with Stoicism and Epicureanism, but instead with the Hellenistic (the Holy Fathers Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John of Damascus, Maximos the Confessor and John Chrysostom) and the rabbinical Jewish influences (Blessed Augustine of Hippo and Holy Father Cæsarius of Nazianzus – who held that ‘copulation is free from all sin and blame’!) on the Early Church. If Fr Sergei is right, though, it may be necessary for me to revisit to some extent my appraisal of the legacy of neo-Platonism on the Church’s understanding of the pelvic issues more generally.
He also notes, referring to the piece by Richard Webster which I linked in my previous essay, that the Calvinist project is one which does not get rid of, but rather continues, secularises and individualises this aforementioned monastic Stoicism, even as it attacks the outward mystical and communal trappings with which the historical monastic disciplines surrounded themselves. The result was that the sexual imagination of the Puritan was bent inward, and elevated the disembodied will to a state of unaccounted, total, sadistic tyranny over the body. In Webster’s own words,
Human reason was not to rule over the body firmly but justly, consulting at every step with ordinary human feelings and impulses and with the untutored and unprejudiced evidence of the senses. It was to rule cruelly and autocratically… So that the rational soul, which is God’s viceroy, might rule supreme, the carnal body – which was imagined as the repository not only of sexual impulses, but of all sensuousness and all emotions including love, pity, fear and affection – was disenfranchised; in the political processes of the individual body of the Puritan, which were also the intellectual processes, all those elements of the human identity which belong to the ordinary commonwealth of the human imagination had no part to play and were allowed to cast no vote.Mr M— sees in this a continuity with fourth-century Christian attitudes toward sex, and believes that I should make much more of a case, if I can, for establishing the discontinuity between the monastics and the ‘reformers’, both of whom in his accounting take a Stoic view of sex.
Responding to the second point first, before getting into the nitty-gritty of the former: I don’t think that Webster’s reading of Puritanism as an intellectual turn of individualising and secularising monastic asceticism really runs aground of my previous post – though it can indeed serve to clarify and sharpen it. The Puritans hated and attacked what I will call (with a deliberately ironic inflection) Actually-Existing Monasticism, and in the process of doing so found themselves objecting to the ‘superstition and Popery’ of celibate communal life. But more to the point, Webster lays his finger exactly on the strand of thought I want to draw out: namely, that the Puritan imagination places the disembodied human rationality in firm, tyrannical control over the lusts and appetites of the body, in ways which the Benedictines and the Eastern cœnobites would not dare to do – in ways which the Desert Fathers in the Apophthegmata Patrum, indeed, cautioned against. Self-will and the imposition of extremities on oneself in a spirit of pride: these were held by the Desert Fathers to be even more dangerous than lust! (Was there indeed a masochistic, sensually-inverted element in classical monasticism, though? Absolutely. Otherwise, Saints Basil and Benedict would not have written the monastic rules as they had, in a deliberate attempt to avoid such inversion of the will, creeping in at the edges of monastic renunciation!)
If there is a discontinuity that I wanted to point out, though, it is this. Both the Stoic and Epicurean (or Hellenising and Judaising) ‘ends’ of the classical Christian spectrum acknowledge and account for the weakness of individual reason in the face of the passions. Even the pronouncements of Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Maximos the Confessor, however strict, still make allowances for ‘ordinary’ lapses in rationality, in ways that the Puritans did not. Perhaps it would be better to say, then, that the monastics didn’t so much take a realist view of sex as they did a realist view of the human rational faculties. Views of the superiority of the celibate life over the married life notwithstanding, celibates are held to be every bit as fallible as laity in consummate marriages, and every bit as much in need of the sacrament of confession and the administration of penance. Another of the Holy Mysteries the Calvinists also saw fit to do away with, note.
In the next post in this series I will see fit to talk a little bit about the other side: a realist view of the way the ‘natural’ passions tend to take shape when left to their own devices – again, I expect to get a bit controversial here – and why the institution of marriage (understood as voluntary, heterosexual, monogamous and permanent) needs to be defended not as a ‘natural’ or a ‘rational’ phenomenon, but instead as an ascetic discipline in itself.