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A Callus on the Soul Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 06 July 2011

A young man in fourth-century Rome, not yet a Christian but of extraordinary sensitivity, was teased by his friends for refusing to attend the gladiatorial games. He gave in, but determined to cover his eyes during the fighting. Suddenly he heard a great cry rise up. Perhaps it was the moment when the fallen fighter would appeal for mercy to the spectators, and, if they were in a foul mood, they would shout, “Jugula, jugula!” – “Give it to him in the throat!” Whatever it was, Alypius looked. And was fascinated – and caught. He took others to the games. People crave company in their vices.

Alypius was the friend and protégé of another young man, Augustine, who was caught in the grip of a different sin, lust. His Confessions, which tell of Alypius, spare us most of the ugly details (not all: he kept an assignation in a church). He finally determined to fence his lust within marriage, not because he desired married love, but because he believed he could not do without the pleasure. He dismissed his long-time mistress, the mother of his beloved son Adeodatus, got engaged to a girl not yet of age (she was ten), and picked up another mistress to tide him over.  Alypius began to wonder whether he was missing out. After all, if a man as brilliant as Augustine set so much store by sexual pleasure, it must be something glorious indeed.

I believe that each of these sins sheds light upon the other. Now, of course, we are too enlightened to take pleasure in human slaughter as a game, and too benighted to feel disgust at regarding the marital act as mutual rubbing and scratching. But there is a lust for blood, and cruelty in lust. Both sins involve an apparent susceptibility to something genuinely bold and fascinating: a man's desperate attempt to fight the terror of death, or the naked human body in all its vulnerability and potency.

What really happens, though, is that the prurient sin raises a callus on the soul. It would not do for the sophisticated Romans merely to set one man with a sword against another. That ceased to be interesting, because the lives at stake ceased to be interesting.  Instead they had to invent new and clever twists on the cruelty: for instance, setting a nude “Neptune” with net and trident against a man armed with plate, shield, and sword. 

In the same way, mere fornication has ceased to be interesting. It must be spiced now, with ever more inventive and perverse pornography, unnatural peculiarities, or acrobatic performances – the observers as harsh and unforgiving as spectators in a blood sport tend to be.


        Augustine and Alypius by Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1465)

     The poets knew this. Catullus wrote that he hated the adulterous woman he loved: odi et amo. Shakespeare wrote that “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” He gives us not a single portrayal of a fornicator that is pleasant or admirable. Typical is Lucio in Measure for Measure, who fathers a child on a whore and then ignores both. Why not, when sex is appetite? “One full meal,” says Lucio, “will set me to’t.”

In Scripture, we read that after Amnon raped his sister Tamar, he turned away from her in disgust. “Such love is hate,” says the poet Spenser. His figure of Lust, in the parade of the seven deadly sins at the House of Pride, cruelly deceives women and tosses them aside. His very body is a sign of that deception: beneath his handsome exterior he is riddled with the disease “that rots the marrow, and consumes the brain.”

Why have we forgotten this? My brother-in-law overheard a conversation in a drug store. “Why are you buying those?” Reply: “The (vulgarity) I’m (obscenity) won’t take the pill.” 

We play the card “We’re in Love,” but we know it’s not true. We are caught in an irrational passion. We are lonely, bored, wanting excitement – someone who will take care of that particular need – a sexual butler or chambermaid. We are more or less pleased by the person’s general attitude, and without any question of love, which always gestures towards eternity, we settle into an agreement, like a mutually profitable business deal. 

The trouble is that the act itself, to be “successful,” must at least mimic genuine passion, and is oriented towards the eternal, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is the act that brings new life into being. The Romans would have turned away in boredom if one gladiator had faced another and said, “This life is a lie. Here, kill me now.”  So, too, fornicators could not keep up the pretense if one said to the other, “I know that what I’m doing is not love.”

We hate the people we deceive. It is one of the perversities of our fallen nature. If a life of fornication necessarily involves deception, we should see the hate creeping in, numbing the soul. When he saw his first arena killing, Alypius was doubtless overcome with the horror and pity of a lost human life. But the evil, once pursued, brings contempt; a man bleeding his life out onto the sand brings a shrug, and a glance at the card to see what’s next. 

The same goes for fornication. It does not make men and women more careful of one another’s welfare. It raises a callus on the soul. It makes them contemptuous of one another.  Even in their acts of lust there is hectic willfulness, frank savagery, or, worse, blankness. “When I was twenty-six, I met my wife,” I said to a twenty-six year old fellow the other day. He smiled sadly, picked up his video game, and said: “I guess I’ve already had three wives.”

I don’t like writing about evils, but somebody has to be honest about them. Next time: purity.

 
Anthony Esolen, a is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

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Comments (13)Add Comment
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written by Jacob R, July 06, 2011
It's funny that whenever your generation speaks of my generation youre obliged to describe us as pathetic...even though you, our sex crazed parents, are responsible for the horror yet have been blaming us since we were ten years old, as if we forced you all to become the dirty selfish hypocrite fornicators you are!

You reap what you so and YOU are the generation who gave away all American glory for a quickie in the parking lot (I promise you it didn't start in 1996)!
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written by Manfred, July 06, 2011
Dr. Esolen: I was waiting for your essay on disordered heterosexuality to segue into aberrosexuality. On public radio they featured "wedding planners" rushing down from MA to take advantage of the lush and lucrative LGBT weddings with their great cost and "over the top" excesses which they anticipate occurring in N.Y.. I guess you did not feel that living in Sodom and Gommorah today was as noteworthy as living in ancient Rome. I am of the age when the priest, whether in the confessional or on retreat,warned that sins of lust began with "impure thoughts" and they could never be entertained. Many of our generation were male/female virgins when we married young and had large families. But of course, that was when the influence of the Church was at its apogee.
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written by Manfred, July 06, 2011
The correct spelling,of course, is "Gomorrah".
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written by Elder Statesman, July 06, 2011
Well, Prof. Esolen may answer Jacob R.'s cri de coeur if he wishes. but I have to say I find it pathetic that Jacob would charge Prof. Esolen with describing anybody as "pathetic," since that word never appears in the column. I think his comment tells us rather a lot about the commenter and nothing about the column.
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written by Trish, July 06, 2011
Elder Statesman,

Perhaps Jacob's comment is an overreaction to the article at hand, but I, as a 30-year-old, had a milder version of the same thought when reading the penultimate paragraph of the article. The whole 26-year-old playing a video game thing is basically the way I feel a lot of people in the generation ahead of me feel about my entire generation. All we do is play video games and sleep around (i.e., have three wives), right?

Yes, sadly, the majority of folks my age and younger do sleep around, play video games rather than do something more productive with their time, and severely lack maturity. But, as someone who has managed to preserve her virginity (gasp!) at the ripe old age of thirty, I can say that, though I know I am often the odd one out, I do get tired of the often-implied assumption (i.e. not from this article, but other sources) that my generation is wholly lost, as well as the just-about-as-often-implied assumption that it's entirely my generation's fault. There really are some of us who have managed to keep our pants on and even work towards growth in virtue despite what's been handed to us by many (not all) from the generation ahead of us.

While there certainly is much culpability amongst the sleeping-around members of my generation, one has to ask: Who taught them the behavior they've learned? It certainly didn't come from out of the blue. When 50% or more of our parents' marriages have failed, often on account of our parents' infidelity, can you wholly blame this generation? And, I ask, which generation legalized abortion and popularized contraception?

All I'm saying is that there's often a lot of finger-pointing at out generation without any acceptance of any guilt by the generation preceding us, and yet both generations have a share of guilt in the matter. So while Jacob's comment might be an unwarranted reaction to the article, seeing as he doesn't seem to acknowledge that our generation is at all at fault, I can see where he's coming from.
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written by Billy Bean, July 06, 2011
I am sympathetic to Jacob R's impassioned denunciation of the debauchery of the Woodstock generation and the guilt we bear before God in contributing to the corruption of our children and grandchildren. However, in reexamining Dr. Esolen's article, I did not find him denying the complicity of his generation in these matters. He did not exploit, or even cite, the generation factor in his observations. On the contrary, he repeatedly uses the inclusive pronoun "we." I know that his indictments resonate with me, but I think it would be a misuse of Dr. Esolen's work to assume that he is picking on me or my generation in particular. I think his concerns are much bigger.
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written by Billy Bean, July 06, 2011
Oh, yes -- I see it now; the last two sentences in the penultimate paragraph. He references his own age and that of the video-gamer. Okay, I guess that could be construed as a swipe against Gen X or something, but it just doesn't seem to be the gist of Esolen's point. But if I were a Gen X-er, I might be more sensitive about it.
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written by Patrick, July 06, 2011
I think the video game comment is ill-considered. Yes, there are bad video games out there, and there are also good ones. Just like any other form of media. People have blamed new forms of media for lack of morals throughout history: theater, paintings, music, dancing, novels, movies, and comic books have all been held up as symbols of moral corruption. I don't think video games in general are any better or worse, in general, than these other forms of expression.
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written by Thomas C. coleman, Jr., July 06, 2011
I am 62, and when I graduated from a Catholic High School in 1967, most of my calssmates were virgins and received the Sacraments regularly. Woodstock was two years later, and many of my contemporaries had in the intervening two years come under the influence of members of our parents generation who tried and often succeeded to undermine the our trust in our parents, our government, our chruch and, indeed, the whole of Christain civilization. It is pointless to lay the blame for these phenomena on any generation, since a generations has no collective consciouness or collectvie free will. Let us forget the blame game and remind each other of the truths Dr. Esolen was so kind to remind of so eloquently.
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written by Martinkus, July 06, 2011
It would be very helpful to know exactly which sexual doctrines taught by the Magisterium are infallible.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 07, 2011
Sins seldom come singly

"Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good." Ez. 16.49, 50
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written by Susan Peterson, July 08, 2011
Martinkus,
Isn't it enough to know that they are true?
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written by Mark, July 10, 2011
Quite right, Susan. The Church need not define everything as infallible or not. The Ordinary Magisterium teaches that which *may* be fallible to *limited* extent, but which is still protected by the charism of salvific truth and, therefore, cannot lead anyone away from the path of salvation.

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