Gonads and Strife

Gonads and Strife again.

Both2andbeyond mused about St. Augustine. I like him a lot too. Somehow, it didn’t surprise me to find him in a paper that I stumbled on in circuitous surfing route from consumptive to daily operations to The Self as Narrator by J. David Velleman. Backing out from there onto his home page, I found a rather interesting paper called The Genesis of Shame, which uses Augustine’s questioning of the genesis of lust to propose that shame, in the correct context, is a good thing:

In short, Adam and Eve were right to avail themselves of fig leaves. Although the term “fig leaf” is now a term of derision, I think that fig leaves are nothing to be ashamed of. They manifest our sense of privacy, which is an expression of our personhood.

Ah ha! Gonads are the cause of strife.

What I really enjoy about these strange surfing expeditions is that they often make me reach for books off my shelf, to contextualize the incidents used as examples by others. Reading Augustine is always such a pleasure. Velleman summarizes his argument well in the article, in short:

Augustine says that the genitals became pudenda when they produced the “shameless novelty” of moving against their owners’ will–in other words, when Adam lost the ability to control his erections, and Eve her secretions. The idea of their ever having possessed these abilities may seem odd, but it has a certain logic from Augustine’s point-of-view. Augustine thinks that Adam and Eve did not experience lust before the Fall.

I enjoyed Augustine’s take on controlling the strife brought on by these gonads even more:

Yet there is less shame when the soul is resisted by its own vicious parts than when its will and order are resisted by the body which is distinct from and inferior to it, and dependent on it for life itself.

But so long as the will retains under its authority the other members, without which the members excited by lust to resist the will cannot accomplish what they seek, chastity is preserved, and the delight of sin forgone. And certainly, had not culpable disobedience been visit with penal disobedience, the marriage of heaven would have been ignorant of this struggle and rebellion, this quarrel between will and lust, that the will may be satisfied and lust restrained but those members, like all the rest, should have obeyed the will.

. . . And whereas now, as we essay to investigate this subject more exactly, modesty hinders us and compels us to ask pardon of chaste ears, there would have been no cause to do so, but we could have discoursed freely and without fear of seeming obscene, upon all those points which occur to one who meditates on the subject.

Augustine, City of God Book XIV

This all seems so familiar. The little head has a mind of its own, dangerously overriding the will of the soul — gonads and strife, if you will. It’s the shame of admitting that we do not have authority over all of our body parts which creates the strife, and makes discussing it difficult. Augustine goes on to propose that if it wasn’t for this independent lustful will, there would be no such thing as dirty words. However, it is very hard for me to agree with Velleman about any positive nature to shame. Ultimately though, it comes around to the argument that human society is based almost entirely in prohibition, of controlling the animal will, and defining the “proper” method of letting your gonads out to play. Vicious parts? They seem relatively harmless to me.

Penal disobedience. You’ve got to love the polysemous nature of the phrase.