August 28 is the feast of one of Christianity’s greatest philosophers, St. Augustine of Hippo. However, these days he’s getting a bit of bad rap, particularly when it comes to women. Granted, he did believe and write that women were subordinate and therefore should be obedient to men. But he was a product of his time and culture. No one thought women were equal to men.
Augustine and his Christian contemporaries read the Bible, including the Book of Genesis, literally and as an historical document. They did not know of evolution. They did not understand human biology as we of the 21st century do. As far as Augustine and every other Christian knew, the first woman was formed from the first man’s rib (Gen.2:21-23). Because she was formed from the male, she and all the women who followed her must be subordinate.
But let’s be fair here. The man died in 430 AD, 1,583 years ago. To pick and choose quotations from Augustine’s huge body of work, pull them out of their historical context, including the scientific knowledge and scriptural interpretation of the time, and then use them to support or debunk a viewpoint of today is not fair. It’s also not good scholarship.
So what did Augustine really think of women? For help in answering this question, I turned to my good friend, Father Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., director of the Augustinian Institute at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He has provided this excerpt from an article about Augustine and women by the late Tarcisius Van Bavel, O.S.A. (1923-2007), a highly respected modern scholar of Augustine. Van Bavel was the director of the Augustinian Historical Institute in Heverlee, Belgium, and was professor of Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven, also in Belgium.
I hope that you will take a few minutes to read this piece. You might find a surprise or two in the last paragraph. And be sure to check out Villanova’s Augustinian Institute for more about the fascinating bishop of Hippo.
“From the study of Augustine’s texts, it appears undoubtedly that the man occupies the central place in social life. The woman is always compared to and measured by the man. We must admit that Augustine’s view is androcentric. Woman is the weaker sex, subordinate to the man and owing him obedience. In the question of subordination of women, Augustine is not only influenced by the social ideas of his time, but also — and perhaps more — by the Bible. He read the paradise story in a historical way: the first human beings lived in a perfect paradisial situation; only later they degraded because of sin. Augustine starts from an idealized picture of the first human couple, whereas we modern people expect human perfection to come only in the future. What he read as a story about the beginning, we read as a story about the end. Modern science tells us that human beings began on a very primitive level, and that they developed only slowly in a long process of evolution. For Augustine it was more or less the opposite. This implies considerable differences in view and evaluation. Augustine had to base himself on the science of his day, and could not know or realize how much the biblical narratives were socially and culturally conditioned, in general and in particular regarding the relationship between male and female. For this reason it was difficult for him to consider libido as something belonging originally to human nature. However, he was not completely mistaken in his observation of libido. Many psychologists, especially of the psychoanalytic school, would agree with him in seeing sexual libido as an ambiguous force. To consider libido simply as a good would be naive; it is also a source of evil. On this point Augustine was more realistic than Julian of Eclanum.
We should not be blind for the positive aspects of Augustine’s view. More than once he breaks through traditional Christian opinions, opening new perspectives and instigating further evolution. It is a pity that some of his ideas have had no greater influence on posterity. Some of these positive elements of his thought are taken over from his predecessors; others are corrections of the opinions of his predecessors. The idea of the moral superiority of women is borrowed from the best of Christian tradition. In the question of woman as the image of God, he corrects the opinion of several theologians who wrote before him. Woman is created in the image of God; she is the image of God by nature; and not only through Christ’s grace conferred in baptism. The same must be said regarding the presence of the female body and sex in the resurrected state of the human being. This had been denied by influential authors before him. An important point is further his protest against the discrimination of women by civil law. In doing so he assailed social injustice in his own day. He criticized vehemently and intrepidly this kind of discrimination. Augustine’s own and most important contribution to a change within the relationship between husband and wife is, according to me, his emphasis on love in married life, and even more his interpretation of the conjugal relationship as friendship. In the Christian tradition before him this was seldom or never done.”
Augustine’s View on Women, Augustiniana 39 (1989) 5-53.