First century sexuality

Posted on May 12, 2022

There seems to be a period in the Roman world where all forms of sexuality that were not meant for procreation were frowned upon. The middle Stoics, early Christians, the Epicureans (yes…), the Manichaeans views on sex can be summed up as “better to be avoided, if not do sparingly”. In early Christianity, there is ample evidence in the mainstream gospels (e.g. check Matthew and the sermon on the mount), supporting text (e.g. the very weird opening story of the Shepherd of Hermas) and in the surrounding fan fiction (e.g. of the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of Thecla, both which are widely and vividly anti-sex); the “correct” mode of operation is either celibacy or monogamy with the aim of procreation.

I just can’t piece together the narrative – why? What are the causes of such rampant anti-hedonism? I initially thought that this was a bizarre effort to improve the condition of women (i.e. stop random sexual violence), but St. Augustine’s argument that prostitution is acceptable as it allows for a subset of women to remain chaste (!!!) makes things utterly confusing.

We live in the historical echos of such thinking; the liberal tradition is more like a reaction towards inherited morals, rather than a positive take on how to live (e.g. as in in the thinking of early Stoics). As in everything else, the old paradigm has collapsed, nothing new is being born.