Sex and Judgment

So in the last post, I showed how the initial versions of Christian judgment were remarkably modest and fallibilist with regard to other people. This makes a certain amount of sense, since Augustine was attached to a fairly rationalist theology, and always gave both doctrinal and basically ethical reasons for his judgments. (For instance, with the Donatists.)

In On The Trinity, things become more complicated. Augustine begins by supplying a hierarchy that places the contemplative faculty above the will, and argues that the faculty “to judge of these corporeal things according to incorporeal and eternal reasons” such as ratio and shape, is “part of the higher reason.” Judgment, subsumed under contemplation, nonetheless provides the bridge by which contemplation accesses the corporeal. Augustine takes up this bridging through a sexual metaphor, identifying men and women with the faculties of contemplation and will, and noting that they “embrace” and become “one flesh” in the fashion of marriage and intercourse. Yet this sexing of the spirit’s relationship to the corporeal and the problem of action raises the problem of evil and temptation. Sex is supposed to be bad, right?

Augustine embraces this problem, and supplies a typology whereby all temptation can be read allegorically in the story of Eve’s temptation of Adam with the fruit of knowledge. While earlier in the text he appeared to assign the will the role of fulfilling contemplation’s commands, in order to mirror patriarchal dominance, this story forces him to rearticulate the relationship. So while it seems to his fellow Christians that contemplation and judgment are uniquely or archetypically masculine, he refuses to relegate men to passivity when their role in society shows that they should be assigned to an active principle.

This results in a then-progressive assignment of rational capacity to women. Augustine denies that contemplation and prayer are impossible for women, which will trouble the Catholic Church for centuries before it decides on the priest/nun distinction. In order to supply the requisite inadequacy in women, (for no progressive egalitarian can really stomach a loss of his own cherished superiority) Augustine charges them with a lack of moral turpitude. Females, he suggests, lack sufficient willfulness to resist temptation.

Yet what women might lack in will and power is offset by a corresponding lack of judgment and reasonableness in men. The will may command as a man would have commanded a woman, but the will can only command actions based on the options supplied by contemplation. In the household metaphor, the man stays comfortably ensconced within the home, while the woman goes out into the world and gathers provisions (sense data and perceptions). After her return, the feminine contemplation supplies a choice to the masculine will. However, this choice is something like a menu of options: “Potato chips or a salad?” Yet there remains the problem that some part of the mind must correctly discern that this is a decision that has a correct answer. The question is really: “Junk food or a healthy meal?” But is this capacity for discernment a feminine or a masculine trait? Who best understands the choice: “Sin or virtue?”

In responding to the claim that it is the senses that tempt the mind, and that therefore women are wholly corporeal and spiritually inadequate to salvation, Augustine invokes a trinity, assigning the senses the role of the serpent that tempted Eve. Here, the woman (reason) receives a tempting offer for an extra-marital affair (pleasure), and must decide to stay true to her husband (the will) or to revel in temptation (the senses). Every sin and every act of faith follows this model. In this formulation, again, the contemplative faculty is cast as Eve, in that the received sensory impressions that provide the serpent’s temptations are mediated by contemplation (in the form of judgment) before they proceed to tempt the will to act or remain chaste.

Augustine reaches the conclusion that there is and must be a “rational wedlock of contemplation and action,” which opposes the “hidden wedlock” (adultery) of sin. (OT, XII, 12) But how is the woman to decide between her secret lover and her lawful partner? Augustine calls the answer knowledge, “scientia,” which for Augustine is the practical side of wisdom, “sapientia.” If wisdom discerns the eternal law, than knowledge tells us what it means. Sapience gives us access to the rule, while science is the application of those rules to cases. This will come to be called judgment.

The result is a series of trinities, wherein the second term mediates between the first and third, and seems always to be feminine: perception-reason-will becomes reason-judgment-will. In the first case, the sexual binary makes woman the mediator: the judge who tempts the will. But in the second case, it is still the woman who chooses the lover over the husband or vice versa. Augustine gives up on the sexuation of the mind at this point, refusing to sex knowledge and wisdom, though he might easily have assigned men a superior cacacity for intellection of the divine here by supplying women with mere cleverness for worldly matters.

As the sexual metaphors breaks down, Augustine also points up the inevitable problem of subsuming judgment wholly under the mind’s other faculties. He had begun with identifying judgment with contemplation as such, but he runs into the problem of expansion: contemplation must contemplate itself at times. We must occasionally take our thoughts and think about them. Without a separate capacity, this seems likely to result in a sort of infinite undecidability. Judgment and contemplation cannot be simply utilized by the will, nor discerned by reason, but must actually act distinct from them, based both on experience and the courage of character or moral luck that allows a person to found her judgments of those experiences correctly.

On the title “Liberal”

I can never decide whether to call myself a ‘liberal.’ A lot of the time, you’re only presented with two options, and I think in those situations it’s okay to glom on to some basic party affiliation: Democrat/Republican, leftist/rightie, progressive/conservative, etc. But when you’re writing about yourself, you’ve got the power to present yourself in your own terms, so there seems to be no reason to settle for easy dichotomies. In those situations, I’m still not entirely sure how to refer to myself.

As for liberalism, my objection generally is that it’s a misnomer. I suspect that most people who read this are aware of the difference between the liberalism of Locke and Mill, and the current usage of the term. In a nutshell, liberalism simply indicates a regime guided by constitutional restrictions on state intrusion into the private sphere and a respect for property. (Property is both a bundle of rights and the archtypical right: all rights are ‘properties’ of individuals, and all rights generally reflect the exclusion, use, transfer, or possession of something, like one’s speech or one’s body.)

Beyond the homophone problem, I often disagree with the version of rights and property that sustains pretty much the entire political spectrum in this country. So far as I’ve been able to discern, I have too thick a sense of the Good to be a strict libertarian. I suspect that there are many matters in which communally organized governance should involve itself, whether that be civic and moral education, or environmental and labor regulation. I oppose home schooling and the strange usage of the ‘takings’ clause that many Republican jurists favor in order to combat community oversight.

Yet it seems like the strategy of identifying ‘liberal’ with ‘libertine’ has been wholly successful: the thin liberty by which one requires the government to leave one to enjoy one’s privacy gets too easily conflated with the licentiousness we are supposedly engaging in that privacy. So whenever I hear a fellow-traveler accused of ‘liberalism’ in that particular snearing tone that suggests that she has inappropriate relations with her pets, I want to stand in solidarity with liberals. After all, bourgeois property-rights were very progressive when the King effectively owned everything and loaned it out to his subjects until the whimsy struck him to take it back. I’m glad Locke spent the time to deflate the supposed divinity of the sovereign, too. (And watch out during this NSA wiretapping scandal for the Supreme Court to remind us that the executive’s power is unified and came directly from the English monarchy! Never mind that we, like, had a revolution.)

Anyway, back to being a ‘liberal.’ Sometimes I prefer the term ‘progressive,’ because the implication is that I’m hoping things will get better. But this is a little like calling oneself an optimist; it’s not a political position, it’s a mood. Certainly I suspect that many conservatives are driven by a cynical convinction that things will keep getting worse unti the world ends, so the best course of action is to stem the tide of modernity. That’s why they try to conserve traditional values, and hew to settled hierarchies and business models that have worked ages and ages, or at least for several fiscal quarters in a row. But I’m actually a bit suspicious of progress, too. I suspect that we’ve lost a lot, especially compared to the Greek polis, or even the heady days of the American Revolution.

On the other hand, I’ve got these perhaps irrational pockets of hopefulness. I’m optimistic that some developments might improve our situation. I hope that we Americans will someday learn that it is always wrong to torture people, for instance, the same way I hope that my friend’s baby will learn to walk and talk and control her own bowels, like a big girl! But I’m skeptical enough of progress that I think it would be a bit disingenuous to call myself a progressive (since I once thought that our country had already learned to control its own bowels… I mean, its intelligence community.)

The term that has the most promise, from my perspective, is ‘egalitarian.’ I wish a lot more people referred to themselves this way, especially politicians. In the US, egalitarian populism often meets with the charge of ‘class warfare,’ as if making corporations and rich people pay taxes was the same as throwing Molotov cocktails and disseminating seditious literature. But frankly, I like class warfare, (and seditious literature, actually) or at least I think it’s uniquely important to what politics really is, rather than what it’s come to look like. For one thing, the Democratic big three, race, gender, and sexuality, strike me as categories worthy of attention insofar as they have import for class. If non-whites weren’t predominantly poor, or women too often relegated to a strange secondary class of housework, I wouldn’t be as interested in feminism and post-colonial studies. A lot of people complain that there is a collusion between class issues and cultural production, such that we repress and avoid canonizing the work of non-whites and women, and I’m willing to go along with that too, if only because it means that there might be some good seditious literature to be had.

The funny thing about homosexuality, of course, is that it’s not really a class or cultural issue. As Sedgwick puts it, “Not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust, but their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust.” Rich people seem to be gay about as frequently as anybody else (though there are more poor gays because there are more poor people.) Still, given the role that marriage plays in accumulating capital, it does seem that disallowing marriage has had some impact on the microeconomic situation of homosexuals. But I’m just saying that so I don’t have to admit that I object to restricting marriage for basically liberal reasons. The other way to put this position is that legalizing gay marriage is a matter of equality of opportunity (even if it’s simply the opportunity to be overfed, bored, and vaguely dissatisfied.)

So, call me an egalitarian. I won’t duck the other labels when I don’t have to, but at least now we’re clear.