Course Notes on Sexual Ethics for Edexcel students – Augustine on lust

The seven deadly sins are vices that are condemned in Christian teaching, although they do not appear explicitly in the Bible. According to the standard list, they are pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth and lust.

Obviously when it comes to sexual ethics, lust tends to get proscribed because it can lead to other sins getting committed e.g. adultery. A suspicion of indulging in sexual pleasure purely for its own sake can also inform some of the more puritanical attitudes that are taken towards human sexuality e.g. Kant takes the line that it inevitably involves treating someone as a ‘means to an end’ rather than ‘an end in themselves’. In other words, even within marriage we end up treating our partner as a sex object. Hence, sexuality is a dangerous force that should be contained within a marital relationship which he saw rather coldly as a contract for the ‘reciprocal use of [the] sexual organs.’

But there is an amusing side to this. In City of God, St Augustine was concerned to demonstrate to his more incredulous readers that it was possible for Adam and Eve to procreate without lust. And he tries to do this by invoking an analogy:

“We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity. Such people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together. Others without moving the head can bring the whole scalp-all the part covered with hair-down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will. Some can swallow an incredible number of various articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm, can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition….A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region. I know from my own experience of a man who used to sweat whenever he chose; and it is a well-known fact that some people can weep at will and shed floods of tears.”

In other words, there must have been 5th Century equivalents of these two characters (NOTE: the first clip is quite difficult to watch and may be best avoided by A level students and teachers of a more sensitive disposition).