I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.
Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.
I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)
Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)
At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:
- On eating
- On drinking
- On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
- How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
- On Laughter
- On Filthy Speaking
- Directions for Those Who Live Together
- On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
- On Sleep
- On the procreation of children
- On clothes
- On shoes
- Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments
These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.
The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.
If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.
Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.
Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).
Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and Society, Journal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.
Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.