Of Prudes and Libertines Print
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 22 June 2011

During the Second World War, Peter Marshall, a brash young preacher at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the toniest Protestant church in the nation’s capital, decided to let a newly married serviceman and his wife use a room on the church grounds for their wedding night. That brought some chagrin to a few of the elderly women in the congregation. It wasn’t proper, they said. Then Reverend Marshall had to deliver them a scorching sermon on the blessedness of married love.

I am thinking of that now because, whenever anyone says, “Those self-styled musicians on that cable channel should not be grabbing one another that way,” or, “Hotel chains should not be offering in-room pornography to boost their profits,” or, “Ten-year-old children should not be bullied into learning about sodomy,” the charge is simply, “You're a prude!”  I imagine that one of Nero's minions might have said more or less the same thing, should some lady of the senatorial class have bowed out of a public orgy.

What is meant, then, by “prude?” The easy answer is, “Someone who disapproves of something sexual that the people around him practice.” But that won’t do. The implied judgment is that the disapproval is evidence of a disordered personality. Prudishness, rightly understood, is a vice. Suppose a young man named Joseph, growing up in Nazi Germany, did all he could to avoid the company of enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth. We would not then call him a snob. We would understand that there are objectively strong reasons for the avoidance. A man living among swindlers may earn their contempt if he pays his bills, but he should not earn ours.

The grumbling old ladies at the Presbyterian church were prudes because they could not look kindly upon something genuinely good, even blessed, because it had to do with sex. That prudishness of theirs may even have crossed the line and become Pharisaism. Most prudishness, though, is on the order of a pardonable deficiency in humor or good nature. Our bodies are not only beautiful. They are silly. There are times when we should honor their holiness, and there are times when we should be comfortable with the lumpy or skinny things they are.


        The Temptation (William Strang, 1899)

It’s good for a boy not to feel ashamed if two or three of his friends are jumping naked into the swimming hole. We enjoy the occasional merry joke at the expense of the body, and we’d feel that someone who did not appreciate the misdirected kiss in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” was missing out on one of the innocent spices of our social life.

The opposite of the prude, then, is not the cynical libertine. Indeed, there is a kind of convergence between those two. Neither one is given to mirth, and neither one appreciates what is holy. The first turns aside from things that are harmless, insisting that they are filthy, while the second turns to things that are filthy, insisting that they harmless. Neither one is capable of responding with amiable wisdom to the beauty of human sexuality, or with the natural hesitation of boys and girls before one another, or with the orientation towards the future that is implied in every instance of the marital act, whether the man and woman intend it or not.

Of the two, which is the worse? Another way to ask the question is, “Which of the two, the prude or the libertine, corrupts the more noble virtue, and to what degree does he corrupt it?” Then, it depends. Whenever spiritual pride is mingled into our vices – and there are libertines just as proud of their vice as some prudes are proud of theirs – then we are immediately in the realm of the diabolical. But short of that, I think we have to conclude that it is far worse to be the libertine. The prude errs in prudence – that is where the word comes from – while the libertine denies that there are any rules of prudence, or charity, or chastity, to be observed in sexual matters at all, so long as the sinners consent. 

We’re not talking here about people who fall prey to a temptation they recognize, but about people who have come to deny that there is anything to be tempted about in the first place. The difference is between someone who lies with a bad conscience, and someone who lies with no conscience; not the compromised, but the depraved. Change the object from sex to money, or political authority, or education, or military discipline. What kind of society could possibly be built upon the lawlessness of the libertine?

It is one of the crowning achievements of the evil counselors in our time to make prudes look good.

 
Anthony Esolen, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, 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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