Was Augustine Sexist?

A majority of readers would automatically assume the answer is unquestionably ‘yes’.  Why?  Because Augustine had a concubine.  Case closed.  How having a live-in girlfriend is sexist, I am not really sure.  I think people confuse “concubine” with “prostitute”, but that could not be further from the truth.   What is more, when his marriage was arranged by his mother Monica, his concubine was sent packing back to N.Africa.  Under Roman law however, concubines could not be married legally so the marriage arrangement as well as the consequences make sense, especially in regard to an individual who was hoping to move up the societal ranks (Clark 5).  I’m not going to attempt to defend Augustine’s taking of a concubine in the first place.  That would be absurd, but I also know that it’s difficult and unfair to judge someone in the 4th century for what appeared as a common practice by 21st century standards, where clearly it is not.

However, it is clear that in Augustine’s time women were subordinate to men.  Women were considered the weaker sex, socially inferior to men and owing them obedience.  Seeing that the biblical texts were also similarly culturally conditioned, Augustine assumed popular opinion (Clark 126).  Mary Clark in her book “Augustine of Hippo” goes on to cite an article by T.J. Van Bavel who has noted the culturally progressive nature of Augustine’s views on women.  His observations are as follows:

First, Augustine affirmed the intellectual equality of men and women.

“Because of her reasonable and intelligent mind she would have equality of nature” (C XIII.32.47).  Further, it is the rational mind which exhibits our nature as those who have been created with the Imago Dei (EnP 96.12; 48:2; CF XXIV.2).  Therefore, Augustine is declaring women to be images of God, which differed from some of his predecessors (Clark 126).  In affirming this, there was a understanding that this had been denied.  He says, “It does not escape me that some eminent defenders of the Catholic faith before me…asserted that the man was the mind, but that woman was the bodily sense (Clark 126-127).

Second, Augustine regularly attributed female characteristics to God.  

The Psalmist made God father; he made God also mother. god is father because he created, because he calls, because he commands, because he governs.  God is mother because God cherishes, because God nourishes, because God suckles, because God embraces‘ (EnP 26.18 as quoted in Clark 127).

Clark goes on to say,“Unlike Aristotle who regarded the female as an imperfectly developed male, and unlike those ecclesiastics who thought that, in the resurrection of the body, women will be changed into men, Augustine taught that woman was fully planned by God to be a female human being.” (Clark 127).

Third, the moral superiority of women to men was openly championed by Augustine. 

“He was struck by the strength of faith in great women martyrs of the first centuries and also by the virtue of ordinary Christian women who could serve as models and teachers for men.  ‘Many husbands are surpassed by their wives; wives remain chaste, and men do not even want to be chaste’ (S 9; 280).  Augustine dismissed the ‘double standard’ and urged ‘Christian women not to show patience with their adulterous husbands and not to remain indifferent to such a situation’ (S 292).  One of the first to take up the cause of discrimination against women, Augustine spoke out against the Roman law which punished women for adultery while the men went free (S 153; 392).  (Clark 127).

Fourth, Augustine emphasized interpersonal love in married life and interpreted the relationship through the lens of friendship.  

“Before Augustine, this was seldom or never done.  Marriage becomes personal, not merely the result of social nature and biological attraction.  Although he did not entirely eliminate the social subordination of women which continued in marriage as obedience, Augustine made more of a breakthrough in the Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage than any other theologian in the patristic era”  (Clark 127).

In light of the advances that Augustine made in his time in regard to a better theological understanding of men and women, coupled with his love and admiration of his mother Monica, I think it become much more difficult to simply dismiss Augustine as a sexist.  Should Augustine be judged by the “womanizing” ways of his youth?  Or by the weight and scope of his overall life and teaching?

__________________

Mary T. Clark, ‘Augustine of Hippo’ 1994

T.J. Van Bavel, ‘Augustine’s view on women’, Augustianian 39 (1989), pp. 5-53

Abbreviations (as used by Clark):
EnP – Enarrationes in Psalmos
C – Confessions
S – Sermones
CF – Contra Faustum

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