Sex & the Civilized
Civilizing Sex: On Chastity and the Common Good
reviewed by Angus J. L. Menuge
For some, the topic of chastity is rather like Ptolemaic astronomy: a fascinating relic of the unenlightened past. Hedonistic license is so mainstream that we find it even in the magazines publicly displayed at grocery stores. The mantra of sex education, “They’ll do it anyway,” is promoted as realism and compassion, rather than as cynical defeatism and irresponsible indifference to the mental, physical, and social carnage that results.
Patrick Riley, a philosopher and journalist, does not aim at erudite irrelevance. He provides a philosophical argument, backed by historical analysis, to show that chastity, the confinement of genital activity to marriage, is necessary for the survival of any civilized society. Riley is aware that his thesis clashes with the widely held view that sexual morality is a matter of private preference, and so (unlike justice) is irrelevant to the public good. Such a perspective illustrates Gertrude Himmelfarb’s thesis that society has been “demoralized” by the substitution of private values for public virtues. Virtues, as classically understood, are precisely those traits that support the common good, and whose absence undermines it. Very naturally then, Riley’s philosophical defense of chastity depends on showing that it is a virtue in just this sense.
The main philosophical arguments of the book are based on Thomistic natural law. In the introduction, Riley analyzes the common good. This includes “all those elements necessary for the survival of any society” (p. 22). Against those who think that private living arrangements have no bearing on the common good, Riley argues that “the common good of the larger society can flourish only if the common good of the family is cherished, protected, nourished” (pp. 30–31). This is because the family is itself a school for virtue, a place where people must learn to make sacrifices, to support and depend on one another for the sake of both personal and shared goals. Now if it is true that the common good of society depends on the common good of the family, then it follows that any virtue that upholds the family also supports society.
The foundation of the traditional family is an enduring one-flesh marriage. Riley argues at some length that the common good of marriage, and hence of the family, is children. If Riley is correct, it follows that those traits directed to the best interests of children are indispensable to the common good of society. And now to the crux of the matter. Unchastity, dishonest genital behavior, clearly undermines marriage, and therefore disrupts the order of the family and compromises its ability to serve as a school for virtue: “In weakening the family society, unchastity deprives the larger society . . . of its full share of the goods the family supplies, chiefly citizens educated in virtue” (p. 41). Thus, chastity itself is a virtue, a trait supporting the public common good.
Riley’s substantial introduction (51 pages of meticulous prose) provides strong a priori support for his central claim. Yet as a student of Scripture and classical antiquities, he is not satisfied with this. The remainder of the book offers two sections to bolster his thesis with the lessons of the past. In the first section, Riley offers an ingenious historical argument against the claim that chastity is a purely private matter. Riley’s novel contention is that the Decalogue—including the prohibition of a form of unchastity (adultery)—was a purely civil law for the ancient Jews. He argues that this covenant created the nation of Israel from the heterogeneous tribes of the exodus and that it aimed at national survival. It was not merely a formulation of private conviction, but also the foundation of social order. God’s promise was that keeping the covenant meant continued life for the nation of Israel. Riley shows how Jewish resistance (however imperfect) to the sexual abandon and child sacrifice of the surrounding pagans helped the nation (if not the state) of Israel to survive. He further argues that, as the central instrument of social preservation, the Decalogue is the charter of Western civilization as a whole.
In the second section of the book, Riley offers three historical case studies of the value of chastity for the life of society. The first centers on the Maccabean revolt against Greek culture. The point of that revolt, Riley contends, was not a bigoted rejection of Greek wisdom. Rather, the Jews saw the spiritual adultery of polytheism and physical adultery of promiscuity as threats to the covenant that guaranteed national survival. What is most original in Riley’s argument is his claim that the Jews viewed Greek homosexuality as a particularly severe violation of their covenant with Yahweh. Indeed, he argues that the Jews resisted assimilation partly because “the Greek polytheists and their Hellenizing allies tried to woo the Jewish upper class away from Jahwism through homosexuality” (p. 140). Riley is alert to the parallel of modern times, organized homosexual activists attempting to subvert marriage as an institution aimed at procreation.
A second study focuses on the Roman Empire and its growing awareness of the civic importance of chastity. Augustus especially saw how sexual immorality led to a cheapening of life through abortion, child exposure on garbage heaps, and prostitution. Indeed, “sexual license, in breeding new classes for its exploitation, perpetuated itself through its victims” (p. 173). Furthermore, slavery promoted unchastity by breaking family bonds among the slaves and providing fodder for the lust of unscrupulous owners. Reforms in slavery and finally its abolition greatly reduced these abuses. (Riley might have drawn parallels with the current epidemic of sexual slavery in Asia and elsewhere.) There is a deeper link between chastity and freedom. “By perfecting human sexuality, chastity . . . enhances our freedom, because it makes us master of our sexual instincts rather than their . . . slave” (p. 185).
At the opposite extreme, the last study focuses on the Middle Ages and the church’s resistance to the heresy of dualism. The Gnostic claims that good and evil were coequal and that matter was inherently bad led to the outright rejection of sexuality in the teachings of Catharism and Albigensianism. Obviously, distaste for reproduction does not promote the survival of society. And denied a proper outlet, the sexual drive did not (usually) disappear, but was directed away from procreation, further undermining the family. There is no doubt that these heresies posed a lethal threat to society, though some may dispute Riley’s claim that the Church was fully justified in its violent suppression of them.
The case studies provide context for our contemporary scene. At our worst, we combine the Gnostic hatred of children with the libertine love of sex, so that abortion, infanticide, and institutionalized child neglect and abuse grow side by side with divorce, social fragmentation, and venereal disease. Yet within communities of faith there are also growing movements for abstinence and for committed marriage.
Only a lack of imagination or cultivated self-deception could blind one to the relevance of Riley’s work. Scholarly, well written, and with a refreshing independence from politically correct fads, Riley’s book was bound to offend some. John Pridmore (Church Times, February 16, 2001) complains of the “studied avoidance of inclusive language.” He seems to think that it is the words themselves, rather than the reader’s “victimology,” which force that interpretation. Pridmore also finds Riley’s work lacking in the liberal virtue of compassion: “There is nothing in this book about the emotional and often physical injury done behind the closed doors of the kind of homes of which the author evidently approves.” Of course, Riley never argues that such violence is a good thing. From Riley’s natural law position, it is clear that any injury to the marriage undermines the common good. In finding other abuses, Pridmore fails to show that unchastity is not also injurious to marriage.
The idea of an inoffensive book that challenges current sexual orthodoxy is absurd. Riley adopts some controversial positions, but these deserve to be debated by serious scholars, not used as a pretext to dismiss his work. Some will likely dispute Riley’s claims about the role of homosexuality. Nothing could be fairer. But one fears instead an ad hominem approach that labels the author homophobic and strangles a worthwhile debate at birth. Fortunately, the inevitable brickbats will not prevent Riley’s important book from becoming available in the United States: A paperback edition is due out in May 2002.
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“Sex & the Civilized” first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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