Religious Patriarchy: St. Augustine’s take on proper marital roles and domestic violence

In book IX of The Confessions (trans. Boulding 1998, p. 185), written between 397 and 401 AD, Christian theologian Saint Augustine discusses the way in which his mother, Monica, who influenced his conversion to Christianity, exemplified God mandated feminine servitude to her husband. He relays that Monica endured her husband’s “marital infidelities” without quarrelling, continually showing him “mercy.”

Despite her husband’s hot temper Monica “learned to offer him no resistance, by deed or even by word, when he was angry.” Monica develops and implements nurturance, mercy, and passive compliance to accomplish basic objectives such as physical and emotional security. When her husband was angry, for instance, we are told that Monica “would wait for a favorable moment, when she saw that his mood had changed and he was calm again, and then explain her action, in case he had given way to wrath without due consideration.” Augustine explicitly promotes what he sees as Monica’s virtuous, godly exemplification of ideal womanhood.

Yet Augustine’s discussion not only explains and lauds the patriarchal ideal of emphasized femininity but also the patriarchal ideal of masculinity. The assumption is that it is natural for men to act out of unthinking anger. Augustine does not, throughout his work, critique such behavior. In fact, Augustine cites his mother as having criticized other women who complained of the way in which their husbands had violently assaulted them. Augustine is candid:

“There were plenty of women married to husbands of gentler temper whose faces were badly disfigured by traces of blows, who while gossiping together would complain about their husbands’ behavior.”

Yet Monica  assails them for failing to recognize that their marriage contracts were “legal documents which made slaves of them.” Thus those women who wished to be spared the natural and lawful savagery of their husbands “ought to keep their subservient status in mind and not defy their masters.” Indeed, Augustine tells us that these women, knowing Monica’s husband to be more hot-tempered than their own, sought out her advice on how best to supplicate their spouses and thus escape brutalization.

It’s difficult to realize from a contemporary standpoint, but Augustine and Monica makes explicit what has long been understood throughout patriarchal society: marriage is an institution of slavery. As slaves—God mandated inferiors purposed to serve men—the only recourse women have for abuse is to alter their behavior, to cultivate quiet, inoffensive passivity. It is also important to consider that while Monica’s advice certainly perpetuates masculine domination and feminine passivity, her own behavior must also be understood as a strategy for survival. Monica’s development and promotion of the passive feminine ideal was probably a reaction to everyday violence and domination. In this way we see how patriarchy reproduces itself even in women who then propagate its ideals.

Religion, I should add, is not solely responsible for upholding the dominant institution of patriarchy and its attending gender roles. As I’ll show in a post next week, key “rational” philosophers have done their part in bolstering patriarchal domination of women.


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