Books: From sex to sanctity

Peter Stanford finds the great killjoy guilty as charged

Saint Augustine

by Gary Wills

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 12.99,153pp

THERE IS something profoundly irritating about those ex-smokers who, having kicked the habit, become evangelical in the presence of an ashtray. , I have always suspected, would have been a 40- a-day man, but born as he was in AD354 this addictive personality had to find other outlets. His weakness, as he detailed in his candid Confessions, was sex. And, once weaned, he became the most profound sexual pessimist that Christianity has ever known.

From an early age in his native North Africa, Augustine was, by his own admission, horny. He tells how his father took him to the public baths and rejoiced in his huge erection as a sign he would be a grandfather. That came to pass when Augustine was just 17. He never married the child's mother, later working through other mistresses as well as "polluting... the stream of fellowship... with the dregs of lust" - a passage which Rebecca West took to mean he was bisexual.

Then, in his early thirties, Augustine saw the light, was baptised and turned over a new celibate leaf. It was clearly a struggle for him to forswear the pleasures of the flesh in his career as a priest, bishop and polemicist. He seems to have invented the maxim that those who have least sex talk about it most. The ideal, even for married couples, should be affection without sex. This bleak encapsulation became the root of Catholicism's profound and continuing sexual pessimism.

Many contemporary Catholics reject efforts by the ecclesiastical authorities to wrap their duvets in barbed wire, and have delighted in exposing Augustine's hypocrisy. The fifth-century libertine turned puritan has become a symbol for all that is perceived as wrong about the church.

It is a heavy burden to put on one man and is particularly unfair, argues Garry Wills, because Augustine was basically a good egg. He loved his mother, gave witty sermons and refused in practice to condemn those who neglected his maxims. Wills's revisionist study is clearly designed to stir up controversy. He starts by suggesting that the translation of the Latin Confessiones into English as Confessions is a gamma-minus mistake. Wills prefers "The Testimony", conveying the rich theological associations of the Latin word.

He then tries to steer his evaluation into other areas than sex. The saint's contribution to fashioning a theology of church-state relations, which subsequently enabled Rome's rise to political power in medieval Europe, has been underplayed, as has his gift for exploring the mystery of God and the danger of heresies that deem this world wholly evil and the next world wholly good.

Yet Wills has to come back to sex. Yes, he admits, Augustine did find even conjugal love repellent, but only because he was so focused on divine love. And yes, his past was chequered, but at least he stuck to one woman at a time. These mitigating circumstances demonstrate that Augustine was more complex than the habitual Aunt Sally held up for ridicule by liberal Catholics. Yet, iconoclastic as Wills strains to be, the most he achieved was to make me feel sorry that Augustine got himself so tangled up over sex. On the question of his appalling legacy to my generation of Catholics, I am afraid that he remains guilty as charged.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick