Journal Summary: Sweet Necessities: Food, Sex, and Saint Augustine
Gilbert Meilaender is a Professor of Theology at Valparasio University. His biography states that his research generally falls under the category of religious ethics, and that he has a special interest in bioethics. Meilaender wrote an essay for the Journal of Religious Ethics in 2001 by the title of “Sweet Necessities: Food, Sex, and Saint Augustine” which I will summarize at this time.
In Meilaender’s self provided abstract he references the purpose of his essay is to discuss Augustine’s understanding of rightly ordered sexuality and the separation of goods from pleasures. Augustine’s belief was that during sex, pleasure of the act should not be separated from its good, which in this case is procreation. Meilaender mentions that Augustine argues this same way about eating food. The pleasure of eating should not be separated from its good, which is nourishment. Meilaender states, “Inadequacies in [Augustine’s] understandings of the purpose of food and eating may be instructive when we think about inadequacies in his understanding of sex” (Meilaender 3). By showing there is more than pleasure in eating, he can show that there is more than pleasure in sex.
First, the separation of pleasure and good for food is analyzed by looking at Augustine’s own words. He articulates a “food as medicine” theory of rightly ordered eating. This he does to make sense of his own experience with the pleasure of eating food. By making the equation that food should be like medicine, that it should be taken only as its necessary, the Bishop of Hippo is able to put parameters on the moments of transition that move him from satisfaction of sufficiency to taking pleasure. This is not to say that Augustine is against pleasure in the act, but rather the division of the pleasure and the good. He is quoted as saying, “This necessity is sweet to me”, which is to say that avoiding pleasure completely would never work (5). There was, in his view, nothing wrong in the enjoyment of an act. What was wrong was “trying to get the pleasure when one has no interest in or need of the good to which the activity tends…” (5).
Meilaender wrote that Augustine proposed eating was for either nourishment or pleasure, but never for anything else. Meilaender showed that eating has another purpose other than staying alive, and that the other purpose is what separates us from animals. Meilaender said:
The biological good of eating is, indeed, that it nourishes our life, and there is no doubt that eating gives a pleasure that may be separated from that good and sought for its own sake… even in ways that could ultimately undermine the good of health. But as a human activity, eating also realizes another more complicated good– the human community that a shared meal can constitute… It nourishes our bodily life, and it incarnates conversation and community. A life that lacked either or both goods of eating would not be a flourishing human life (7).
The aspect of community and conversation can also be added to the notion of sex. The desire of sex may be put to service for the good of procreation, and pleasure can be enjoyed through that experience. What Augustine did not understand was that sex has more use than just to procreate. Sexual desire also embodies, nurtures, and enriches the good of carnal conversation and community between man and wife. This complete sharing of life is one of the goods of marriage. Overall, this means that sex outside of procreative purpose can still be considered a good as it fulfills a sense of community for those sharing the pleasure together. Meilaender was able to maintain the basic philosophy of the Bishop of Hippo while enlarging it for the betterment of society.
Meilaender, Gilbert. “Sweet necessities: food, sex, and saint augustine.” Journal of religious ethics 29.1 (2001): 3-18. Print. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017871>.