St. Augustine - A Male Chauvinist?

Author: Fr. Edmund Hill, OP


Fr. Edmund Hill, OP

Talk given to the Robert Hugh Benson Graduate Society at Fisher House, Cambridge, on 22nd November 1994


It is important to be clear at the outset that this is a question which Augustine could never have asked about himself; nor could it have been asked about anyone, by anyone, in the society in which he lived. It is a question raised by the contemporary feminist revolution in what women are thinking about themselves, and consequently in the attitudes of society at large towards women. In this respect Augustine was simply a man of his time, that is to say, a Christian man of the late Roman Empire; he was born in 354 AD and died in 430. This was a time when the social subordination of women to men was taken for granted by everybody, by women as well as men. So he took it for granted too, like everyone else; and there is not much point in combing his works, either to prove this obvious point, or to make a futile effort to disprove it.

But why should we be bothered to ask this contemporary feminist question about St Augustine? Well, it is entirely right and proper that feminists should be interested in the status and roles of women in earlier periods of history, and that they should be critical of the standards and attitudes of earlier societies; just as it is entirely proper to investigate the history of an institution like slavery, and to criticize the assumptions and prejudices that supported it. And Augustine was far and away the most eminent man of his time, as a figure in Church history and the history of European thought. So it is natural that the feminist question should be asked about him in particular.

The importance of historical context

But turning to history in the interests of any contemporary concern or movement is a risky business—risky to truth. Those who do it in defence of this or that policy, or to promote this or that cause, may be far too inclined to say, if they lack much historical imagination and are unfamiliar with the rigorous requirements of professional historiography, "History proves...". In fact, history proves nothing; "history", as the subject of the sentence "History proves...", is far too imprecise a term to prove anything.

Now the way some feminists, delving into history to dig up, as it were, the roots of contemporary male chauvinism, have tended to compromise the truth, is by blaming Augustine, as far and away the most eminent of the Fathers of the Western or Latin Church, for the admittedly defective attitude of that Church towards women, in many respects, throughout the centuries. This, of course, not only distorts the truth; it is manifestly and absurdly unjust to a great man. It's rather like blaming Aristotle, say, or Cicero, for the institution of slavery in the ancient world, because they both took it for granted. By all means criticize their arguments supporting and defending the institution; but even this should be done in context—their historical context, not ours.

An incorrect account of Augustine's theological view of women

A useful book to read in this connection is "Women in the Early Church" by Elizabeth A. Clark in the series "Message of the Fathers of the Church", brought out by Michael Glazier (Wilmington, Del., 1983). Miss Clark is a professional historian, and her book serves to put Augustine in a wider context. It consists largely of quotations from the Fathers, many of course from the works of Augustine; and these quotations are inevitably selective—and there's the rub. She is out to show that the Fathers of the Church were in the habit of justifying the social subordination of women by their selective use of scripture texts. She writes in her introduction:

"The Fathers' interpretation of Genesis 1-3, for example, bespoke their views on women's subordination. Thus they consistently explicated the Genesis 2 account of woman's creation (in which Eve is created second, from Adam's rib), rather than Genesis 1, in which male and female are created at the same time, both 'in the image and likeness of God' (Gen 1:26)".

Then in the next paragraph she continues:

"Likewise for the New Testament: the Fathers usually focused on verses that provided a rationale for restricting, not freeing, women. Thus the fact that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul calls man the image of God, but does not so designate women (to the neglect of Genesis 1:26), was taken by the Fathers to mean that women lacked some essential quality males shared with the Godhead (WEA, 15-16)".

In Chapter 1 she goes on to quote Augustine's "Literal Commentary on Genesis", IX,5, justifying the subordination of women. The chief point he is making in the passage she quotes is that the only reason for making Adam's helper a woman, and not another man, was because she was to help specifically in the important business of procreation. The passage quoted concludes: "I (Augustine) cannot think of any reason for a woman's being made as the man's helper, if we dismiss this reason of procreation."

At this point, as I was reading her book, the male chauvinist thought occurred to me that Augustine probably had something to say in the same Commentary, earlier on, about Gen 1:26-28. So I looked it up, and very interesting it is, because it sets forth in a couple of paragraphs what he says at great length in his work "On the Trinity", XII, which contains a passage quoted by other feminist writers, Kari Borresen and Rosemary Radford Ruether, to prove that Augustine concluded (actually from 1 Cor 11:7), 'that the woman was not theomorphic; in other words, she could not image God' (RRR in New Blackfriars, 1985, p.326, "The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy". [See my response to her article in the same volume, p.503, and her reply to that, New Blackfriars, 1986, p.92. The editor would not allow me to answer that broadside, so I wrote privately to her, to point out how lacking in any objectivity was both her reading of Augustine and her reading of me. EH]

Augustine's Real theological view of women

So here, in brief, is Augustine's thesis:

i) All human beings, female just as much as male, are made according to the image of God in that component of humanity where there is no distinction of sex, namely the mind or spirit (mens, animus). We mustn't forget that Augustine like most of his contemporaries was a Platonist.

ii) Paul's remark in 1 Cor 11:7 about man being the image and glory of God, while woman is the glory of man, is a real difficulty for Augustine, precisely because it seems to contradict Gen 1:27, and Augustine is unwilling to do what Clark says 'the Fathers' in general usually do, namely take this verse of Paul at its face value to the neglect of Gen 1:27.

iii) The difficulty can be met by treating 'man' and 'woman' in this verse as having symbolic rather than literal value; the purely bodily distinction of sex in them—in Adam and Eve, because Paul, as Augustine realises, is in fact commenting on Gen 2:18-23, not on Gen 1:26-28—can be taken as symbolic of a distinction of functions in the human mind, mens, (which is common to all human beings, of either sex); and then observing that it is only in the higher mental function of contemplating eternal things (symbolized by Adam/man) that the image of God is to be fully realised, while the lower mental function, of the practical ordering of temporal things (symbolized by Eve/woman), bears a remoter likeness to God, in which the full image as such cannot be realized. Bear in mind, by the way, that for Augustine the image of God is not so much something human beings are in their minds or spirits, a mere datum, as something they are intended to become, or to actualise, a project. The image, he says, consists—it is an image of the Trinity—of the three mental acts of remembering, understanding and loving self, moving on to its supreme form, fully realisable only in the next life, of remembering, understanding and loving God.

Now that women's minds are as capable of the higher contemplative function as are men's, and therefore of realising, of actualising the divine, Trinitarian image in themselves, Augustine of course had no doubt at all. You only have to read what he says about the experience he shared with his mother as they looked out of a window together at Ostia shortly before her death, to be convinced of that ("Confessions", IX,l0). But here is what he says in his "Literal Commentary on Genesis", III,22:

"Some people have suggested that it was now (Gen 1:27) that the human mind was made, while the human body came later, when scripture says, 'And God fashioned man from the slime of the earth' (Gen 2:7); so that where it says 'he made' (1:26), it refers to the spirit, while 'he fashioned' (2:7) refers to the body. But they fail to take into account that male and female could only be made with respect to the body. While indeed it may be acutely argued [as by himself, in On the Trinity, XII; EH] that the human mind, in which the human being is made to God's image and which is a kind of rational life, has two functions: the contemplation of eternal truth and the management of temporal affairs; and that thus you get a kind of male and female, the one part directing, the other complying; it is still the case that the mind is only rightly called the image of God in that function by which it adheres in contemplation to the unchangeable truth. It is to symbolize or represent this point that the apostle Paul says that it is only the man who is the image and glory of God; 'but the woman', he says, 'is the glory of the man' (1 Cor 11:7).

"Thus while that which is to be observed in the one mind of the interior person is symbolized by two persons who are outwardly of different sex in the body; still the woman too, who is female in the body, she too is being renewed in the spirit of her mind, where there is neither male nor female, to the recognition of God according to the image of him who created her (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:23, Col 3:10, Gal 3:28). Women, after all, are not excluded from this grace of renewal and the refashioning of God's image, although their bodily sex symbolizes something else, which is why only the man is called the image and glory of God. In the same way too, in the original creation of the human race, because the woman too was human, she obviously had a mind and a rational one at that, in respect of which she too was made to the image of God."

To sum up: Augustine sees the distinction of sex as something secondary, comparatively unimportant. It is as human beings with rational minds, capable of contemplating eternal truth (i.e. God), that all of us, male and female alike, are made to the image of God. So I trust that feminist theologians will stop accusing Augustine of saying that women are not made in the image of God; and that Elizabeth Clark will absolve him, at least, from maintaining 'that women lack some essential quality males share with the Godhead'.

Why was Christ a man?

To pass on now from defending Augustine from the specific charges brought against him by some feminist writers, and to look at other interesting texts. In a number of sermons he argues that the equal share which women have with men in the divine gift of salvation is ratified, so to say, by Christ's decision to be born of a mother, instead of just becoming man by some other means, like Adam in the first place. By the term 'Christ', incidentally, he nearly always means the divine person, the Word, God the Son. Here is what he says in Sermon 51,3, an extremely long sermon on the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke:

"So then... our Lord Jesus Christ became a son of man by being born, of course, of a woman. But suppose he hadn't been born of the Virgin Mary, would he have been any the less a son of man? You may say [He is addressing the average male chauvinist in the street of his time; EH], 'He wanted to be a man; he would have been a man even though he hadn't been born of a woman; after all, the first man he made, he didn't make from a woman'. Let's see how to answer this one.

"You say, 'Why should he choose a woman in order to get born?' The answer you get is, 'Why should he avoid a woman in order to get born?'... But really, we have been through all this before; if he had avoided a woman's womb, it would rather have suggested that he could be defiled by it. But in fact, the more undefiled he was in his own proper being, the less reason he had to shrink from a bodily womb, as though he could be defiled by it. Instead, though, by being born of a woman, he would bring home to us a point of great significance.

"...What he is showing us here is that in neither of its sexes need humanity despair of itself. Human beings, of course, are divided by sex into males and females. So if, while appearing as a man—and I agree he had to be that [This is partly an expression of Augustine's taking male social dominance for granted. But what he is also implying is that if God had become incarnate as a woman born of a woman, that would rather have left the male sex high and dry; it is hard to imagine, surely, how even God could have contrived to be born of a man without the co-operation of a woman; EH]—he had not been born of a woman, women would have despaired of themselves, remembering their first sin, how it was through a woman that the first man was ensnared; and they would have thought that there was absolutely no hope for them in Christ. So he came as a man, to show his preference for the male sex, and he was born of a woman, to give comfort to the female sex...

"Man was ensnared through a woman administering poison; let man be restored through a woman administering salvation. Let woman compensate, by giving birth to the Christ, for the sin of the man ensnared through her. That too is why women were the first to tell the apostles about God rising from the dead. A woman brought the news of death to her man in paradise; and women too brought the news of salvation to men in the Church..."

In the social context of his time, whose influence certainly appears in this passage—Christ came as a man, to show his preference for the male sex—Augustine is in fact asserting the essential equality of women with men, both as sinners and as recipients and instruments of salvation; and this against the extreme male chauvinists of his day, who thought of women as carriers of defilement. In Sermon 72, 4, he puts forward much the same argument, and there makes it clear that it is the male rather than the female who is the carrier of defilement in sexual intercourse, which he always regarded, in common with most of his contemporaries, as the gratification of male rather than of female desire. He says there:

"But Christ didn't wish to have a human being as a father, to avoid coming to mankind by means of carnal concupiscence; he wished, however, to have a human being as a mother in order, by having a mother among men, to teach us a useful lesson by snubbing her for the sake of God's work".

The reference is to Mt 12:46-50, where Jesus is told that his mother and his brothers are outside, asking for him, and he says, 'Who is my mother and my brothers?' On this rather shocking note (I think the preacher was being deliberately shocking, with a deadpan twinkle in his eye, if such an expression is possible), I conclude the first part of this talk, dealing, you could say, with Augustine's theoretical ideas about women; to continue in the second with his actual relations with women, and his practical, pastoral treatment of them. But on this particular point it should be said, to avoid any misunderstanding, that the lesson he wants us to learn is how to be ready to snub our mothers, not as women, but as parents. So it includes our fathers as definitely snub-worthy, when they try to deter us from doing what we know to be God's will—like following a religious vocation!

Augustine and his mother, Monica

Augustine, of course, had treated his own mother like that (see above), but in the opposite sense; when he was bent on doing his own will, not God's. And he candidly confesses this waywardness in the "Confessions". What he felt about his mother when he wrote that work is made very clear by a long quotation with which Elizabeth Clark ends her "Women in the Early Church"—or rather a series of quotations from "Confessions" I 11, VI 1,13, IX 8-13 (WEA, pp. 246ff). These reveal not merely the love, but also the admiration, tinged with awe, with which Augustine remembered Monica. One of the things he admired in her, to be sure, was her serene acceptance of her duty of wifely submission to his rather rough father, Patricius (Patrick). But of his sense of her spiritual superiority to both himself and his father there can be no doubt at all.

Augustine and his mistress(es)!

The other important woman in his life was his mistress or concubine. He did, it is true, have a sister, who as a widow was superior of a convent of nuns in Hippo Regius where he was bishop. But all that his biographer, Possidius, tells us about their relations is that Augustine would not allow even her, let alone any other woman, to enter the monastery where he himself lived. To return to the woman who was his mistress in his youth; he is sometimes blamed for what is presented as his heartless treatment of her in sending her back to Africa from Milan (where he was Professor of Rhetoric at what could be called the Imperial University), when an advantageous marriage was being planned for him, shortly before his conversion. But in fact the chief actor in the whole affair was his mother. Augustine himself talks about the woman 'being torn from my side, and my heart being crushed and wounded, so that it drew blood' (Confessions VI 15). He praises her for vowing to know no other man—they had been faithful to each other throughout their liaison, IV 2—while he himself showed no such self-control, but promptly took another concubine. His never mentioning the woman's name is also sometimes held against him. But this, surely, is to his credit; he was writing his own confessions, not hers, and it would have been a gross breach of her privacy to publish her name to his readers in Carthage. Whatever his critics may think, she had clearly been devoted to him, and he to her.

Augustine preaching to the men of Chusa

On the subject of marital infidelity and adultery, Augustine excoriates the men much more severely than the women—because of course they behaved much worse, as a rule, as they doubtless still do. Sermon 9 was preached on the ten commandments, considered as the ten strings of a harp (see Ps 144:9). It was preached at a place called Chusa, otherwise unknown to us. My guess is that it was a large village or small town in Augustine's diocese of Hippo Regius (present day Anaba, in French, Bone, in Eastern Algeria), where together with some of his clergy he was perhaps giving what we would nowadays call a parish mission. Here are some excerpts on this topic:

"You are told, 'You shall not commit adultery' (Ex 20:14); that is, do not go to any other woman except your wife. But what you do is demand this duty from your wife, while declining to pay this duty to your wife. And while you ought to lead your wife in virtue—chastity is a virtue, you know—you collapse under one assault of lust. You want your wife to conquer; you yourself lie there, conquered. And while you are the head of your wife, she goes ahead of you to God, she whose head you are. Do you want your household to hang head downwards? 'The husband is the head of the wife' (Eph 5:23); but where the wife leads a better life than the husband, the household hangs head downwards." (Sermon 9, 3)

"Complaints in this matter are a daily occurrence, even though the women themselves don't yet dare to complain about their husbands. A habit that has caught on everywhere like this is taken for a law, so that even wives, perhaps, are now convinced that husbands are allowed to do this, wives are not. They are used to hearing about wives being taken to court, found perhaps with house-boys. But a man taken to court because he was found with his maid, they have never heard of that happening—though it's a sin. It is not divine truth that makes the man seem more innocent in what is equally sinful, but human wrong-headedness.

"And supposing today someone has to put up with rather more sharpness from his wife and more open grumbling than usual, because she used to assume that it was all right for her husband, and now she has heard in church that it is not all right for her husband; so if he has to endure his wife grumbling more freely, and saying to him, 'What you are doing is not right. We both heard him saying so. We are both Christians. Give me the same as you require of me. I owe you fidelity, you owe me fidelity, we both owe Christ fidelity...' When he hears things like that which he is not used to, he gets angry, he becomes abusive. He may even say, 'How come this fellow ever came here, or my wife went to church that day?' I certainly think he will say this to himself, because he won't have the courage to say it aloud, not even in private in front of his wife. Because no doubt if he did say it aloud, she could answer him back, 'Why are you now abusing the man you were so recently clapping and cheering? [African congregations were strong on audience participation, then as they still are today. It's nice to think that the men of Roman Africa, at least in Chusa, could appreciate good, hard-hitting rhetoric, even when it was directed against them, and the laugh was on them; EH] After all, we are married. If you can't agree with your own tongue, how can you expect to live in agreement with me?'." (Sermon 9, 4)

"I have come to the fifth string, strumming the ten-stringed harp. Did you think I was going to leave out the fifth? [What we call the sixth commandment. His text changed the order of the fifth and sixth, forbidding adultery before murder; EH] No indeed, I'm going to pluck it constantly. It's on this note that I see practically the whole human race fallen flat on its face, after all. When I strum it, what do I say? Don't commit adultery behind your wives' backs, because you don't want your wives committing adultery behind your backs... You have no case at all when you try to excuse yourselves by saying, 'I don't go with someone else's wife, do I? I go with my own maid'. Do you want your wife to say to you, 'I don't go with someone else's husband, do I? I go with my own house-boy'? God forbid she should say that. It's better for her to grieve for you than to imitate you. She, after all, is a chaste and holy woman and really a Christian, who grieves for her fornicating husband, and grieves not out of jealousy but out of charity; the reason she does not want you to behave like that is not just that she herself doesn't behave like that, but that it does you no good. If the reason she doesn't is simply in order that you shouldn't, then if you do, she will. But if she owes to God, if she owes to Christ the faithfulness you demand of her, and gives it to you because he commands it, then even if her husband fornicates, she offers her chastity to God. For Christ speaks inwardly in her heart, and consoles his daughter with words like this: 'Are you distressed about your husband's wrongful behaviour, what he has done to you? Grieve, but don't imitate him and behave badly yourself, but let him imitate you in behaving well. In so far as he behaves badly, don't regard him as your head, but me". (Sermon 9, 11)

Two brief observations on this, and many similar sermons. First, in accordance with the social structures of his time, entirely male dominated, Augustine always addressed himself to the men of the congregation, and indeed to the upper class, wealthier men, because it was also a class structured society. But secondly, they were clearly not the only people present; he lashes them with his tongue (in a way they seem rather to have enjoyed, even if a trifle ruefully), in the presence of their wives, mothers and daughters; in the presence, too, of their servants and slaves. I hardly think that the women, and the slaves, of Chusa left the church thinking that the bishop was on the side of their domineering husbands and oppressive masters.

Augustine preaching to the women of Carthage

On another occasion we do find him rather crossing swords with the ladies. A commonplace of sermons throughout the Christian centuries has been the scathing condemnation of feminine vanity and the use of cosmetics. But I have only come across one brief suggestion of this in Augustine's sermons. On this particular occasion he was clearly rather peeved with some women in the church who had either walked out in the course of the sermon (it was extremely long, and they may have felt they just had to get back home to see about the dinner), or who were being markedly inattentive. It is Sermon 32, which is also, oddly enough, on Ps 144, and which was preached in the great African metropolis of Carthage, near modern Tunis. He has reached, after forty minutes or so, v.11, which reads in his text, 'Their right hand is a right hand of iniquity':

"Listen now to how they spoke vanity, and how they have a right hand of iniquity. [This is the point at which the women start walking out, or making some kind of commotion; EH]. Let's listen, all of us. It's for your own good. Let's listen, and don't say you haven't heard what was said to the servant, 'You should have deposited, and I would have collected' [See Lk 19:23]. And I said yesterday that I am the servant who deposits; there's someone else (Christ) to do the collecting. Our sisters, unwilling to listen, are unwilling to meet the collector, it seems...

"Listen now (v.12): 'Whose sons are like vines that have taken root; their daughters adorned according to the likeness of the temple'. Perhaps this is why our sisters didn't want to listen... 'Their daughters adorned according to the likeness of the temple'. Let's pass over this quickly. We have to consider the modesty of the ladies. They can acknowledge what they have simply by having it; merely mentioning it makes me blush. 'Their daughters adorned according to the likeness of the temple'."

So there seems to have been a little feud running between the visiting bishop and some highly decorative, and presumably well-to-do ladies of Carthage. It is, of course, only the bishop's words that have come down to us. We know nothing about what the ladies had to say about it. But it's possible that in one way or another they gave as good as they got.


To conclude then: Augustine, as a man of his age, exhibits uncriticized assumptions about the social inferiority and subordination of women that are not acceptable today, and can indeed be seen to be at variance with the basic insights of the gospel. They were not, however, so seen either by him or by his contemporaries, including (as far as we can tell) the women. But as a humane man and a Christian, Augustine treated women with honour and respect, had many women friends and admirers—a whole long treatise on prayer is addressed to a Roman lady called Proba—and publicly confessed and repented of his failures in this regard as a young man. It is, to be sure, an anachronism to say so; but I will say it all the same: Augustine's attitude towards women was that of a courteous gentleman, of a "parfit, gentle knight".

Edmund Hill, O.P.
Buckingham Rd
Cambridge CB3 0DD

Fr Edmund Hill is a member of the English Province of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which he joined in 1948. Ordained in 1954, he was sent in 1966 to South Africa to teach in theological institutions there. While on a sabbatical in England in 1973, he was declared a prohibited immigrant in the Republic of South Africa. So in 1974 he went to Lesotho, the small mountain kingdom in the middle of South Africa, and joined the staff of St Augustine's Seminary there, teaching dogmatic theology and occasional courses in scripture. Apart from another sabbatical year in 1991, which he spent teaching the same sort of courses at Holy Spirit Seminary, near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, he continued teaching in Lesotho until July 1994, when he retired back to England.

For the last ten years or so he has also been engaged in translating works of St Augustine for the Augustinian Heritage Institute of Villanova in Pennsylvania, in whose house magazine, "The Tagastan", this talk originally appeared a few years ago as two articles. So far they have published his translation of "On the Trinity" and eight volumes of his translation of Augustine's Sermons. These are all obtainable from the New City Press, New York, and in the United Kingdom from Gracewing, Fowler Wright Books, 2 Southern Avenue, Leominster HR6 0QF.