A Callus on the Soul

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 is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.