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Augustine, Women, and Men Willing to be Wrong
Objectivity is fundamental to research. Sometimes I’m able to hold a question with open hands, but sometimes I get excited and really attached to the outcome. Sadly I spent about 4 hours this week researching a thesis which I wasn’t able to prove.
My question was, did Saint Augustine change his views on women over time? T.J. von Bavel said as much in an article titled “Augustine’s Views on Women.”1 This was about a small, specific aspect of Augustine’s understanding of women, which made me curious if there were bigger shifts over time across his works. Augustine himself testified to this possibility:
For, perhaps, one who reads my works in the order in which they were written will find out how I progressed while writing.2
So I collated 36 quotes from 23 separate works spanning from 387 to 430, wondering what I might observe reading them in chronological order. Now, this isn’t deep scholarly research; more of a flyover to get the lay of the land. My impression is, the landscape looks pretty much the same over those 33 years. This isn’t to say such potential shifts in understanding don’t exist, but they weren’t apparent on first glance. I was a bit let down, because Augustine is known for his willingness to change his mind.
The main evidence of this humility is his late work Retractions in 426/427, just 3 years before his death at age 75. As Augustine wrote in 427/428,
But I was engaged upon a task that was quite necessary, for I was reviewing my writings. And if there was anything in them that I found offensive or that might offend others, I at times corrected them and at other times defended them, explaining how they should or could be read.3
So I wonder, if Augustine had lived in the 20th/21st centuries, would he have been willing to change his stance on, say, the creational subordination of women? For example, in 387/389 he wrote,
You [The Catholic Church] subject women to their husbands in chaste and faithful obedience, not for the gratification of passion, but for the begetting of children and the establishment of domestic society. You set men over their wives, not to make playthings of the weaker sex, but in accordance with the laws of pure and honest love.4
And in 419/421 he wrote,
“Nor can it be doubted, that it is more consonant with the order of nature that men should bear rule over women, than women over men.”5
These quotes suggest that Augustine believed female submission is rooted in creation rather than the fall. However, in 429/430 in his Incomplete Work Against Julian he wrote,
“Why do I need to discuss with you the question whether the domination of the man is to be considered as a punishment for the woman or whether it belongs to the order of nature? In creating the human being God did not mention this order, but He did so in punishing the human being. According to you, God would have spoken these words . . . as a command, and not as a judgment."6
Perhaps there is a shift here. As I am merely an amateur Augustine reader, I’ll leave any more definitive answer to scholars. Regardless, the constant in Augustine is his belief that man rules woman, woman submits to man. Would he have been willing to modify his views had he lived in a less patriarchal era? In an age when more women are speaking up and testifying to the offensiveness of patriarchy, would he have given them a favorable hearing?
Taking him at his word, I think it’s possible. As he said,
“if there was anything in [my writings] that I found offensive or that might offend others, I at times corrected them and at other times defended them, explaining how they should or could be read.”
Despite his general patriarchal stance on women7, perhaps Augustine might serve as a good example for men today, especially pastors and elders, who are staunchly unwilling to reconsider their views. Not that one has to actually change one’s mind. But something is wrong when we are unwilling to be wrong.
Quote from Saint Augustine8
Hence, it remains for me to judge myself before the sole Teacher whose judgment of my offenses I desire to avoid. I think that many teachers arise when there are different and mutually opposed opinions. But when all utter the same words and speak the truth, they do not depart from the teaching of the one true Teacher. They give offense, however, not when they repeat His words at length, but when they add their own; for, in this way, they fall from loquacity into falsehood.
Do you think it’s wrong to ask questions about matters that many in your tradition assume to be settled and unquestionable?
Van Bavel, T.J. “Augustine's View on Women.” Augustiniana, vol. 39, no. 1/2, 1989, pp. 5–53. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44992476.
Retractions, Prologue (3).
Letter 224.2 in Letters Vol. 4 (Augustine Heritage Institute, 2005), p. 85.
On the Catholic and the Manichaean Ways of Life 1.30.63.
On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.10.
Van Bavel, “Augustine’s View on Women”, p. 14.
It would take another article to explore what would be taken today as evidence of, or at least enabling, of misogyny. But for the curious reader, here’s one example:
“There is a natural order among human beings: wives have to serve their husbands, and children their parents. Justice reigns there also, and that justice consists herein that the weaker intellect serves the stronger intellect. The person who prevails intellectually should have a greater dominance. This is a question of justice in all forms of dominance and servitude.” (Questions on the Heptateuch 1.153).
It should also be noted in passing that Augustine’s views on women are complex. There is also a strong strain of equality running through his work, especially when it came to sexual continence and marital fidelity. Or take this example from his Exposition on the Psalms. Viewing women as a temptress because of Eve is a trope in patristic literature, but here Augustine also likens a seductive man to a devil:
“When the wife seduces her husband to an evil action, she is for him an Eve. When the husband seduces his wife to an evil action, he is for her a devil. Either she is for him an Eve, or he is for her a snake.” (Expositions on the Psalms 93.20).
Retractions, Preface (2).