Augustine’s Sexuality: Bisexual, Homosexual or Heterosexual?
by Sergio E. Arevalo, Jr.
(I was checking my files, and I saw this discussion paper I presented to a Philosophy class at International Theological Seminary
in California in February 2005. I posted this here for further discussion on this issue.)
One of the important questions in the studies of Augustine is his sexuality. Why? Simply because he is a faith father of Christianity, and he should “set an example” of sexuality. Was he a heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual?
Augustine as Homosexual
Augustine wrote that he had a male friend whom he loved so much. The translation is “exceedingly dear to me.” He and his male friend were in the same age, they shared same interests. When he died (later was alive) he was devastated! He confessed that “black grief closed over my heart and whenever I looked I saw only death.” The following words may be proven that Augustine has “questionable love” toward his male friend:
- Augustine’s prayer: “You took him (God) from this life after barely a year’s friendship, a friendship sweeter to me than any sweetness I had known in all my life.”
- “I wept very bitterly and found repose in the bitterness. Miserable as I was, I held even this miserable life dearer than my friend; for although I might wish to change it, I would have been even less willing to lose it than I was to lose him. I do not even know if I would have been willing to lose it form him, after the manner of Orestes and Pylades, who wanted to die for one another or, failing that, to die together, because for either to live without the other would have been worse than death…”
- “Look upon my heart, O my God, look deep within it. See, o my hope, who cleanse me from the uncleanness of such affections, who draw my eyes to yourself and pull my feet free from the snare.”
According to Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts,
In his youth, Augustine may have shared the easy bisexuality common in the ancient Mediterranean, as is suggested in Confessions 3.1. Again, as was common in his culture, his same-sex friendships appear to have played a more important role in his emotional and personal life than his relationships with women, except his mother. He denied the heterosexual companionate marriage, arguing that, if marriage were intended for companionship, men would marry other men.
Augustine’s lamentation for the death of an unnamed friend (Confessions 4:4-6) is among the most moving examples of this sort of writing to be found in antiquity. Although it is debatable to what extent, if any, these passionate friendships were homoerotic they express a sensibility that today is probably to be found, at least in Western industrial societies, only among gay men.
According to Boswell,
It is not surprising that Augustine, having grown up in and retired to rural North Africa, where homosexuality was probably clandestine and publicly denigrated, should have considered it bizarre and alien. It is striking that the major treatment of homosexual relations per se in his writings occurs in his description of his first sojourn in a great city, where he abandoned himself to urban pleasures with an enthusiasm he was later to regret bitterly.
In the first edition of the book, King and his co-author wrote that Augustine “had a lover and a son at an early age, but he continued to have numerous sexual affairs into his early thirties, including some with male friends.”
Boswell would have written that Augustine had erotic contact with his male friend, if he thought it had occurred. The point Boswell makes in this note is that during his life Augustine was emotionally close to at least two people: his mistress, with whom he had a long sexual relationship, and a male friend. But a cautious Boswell does not state here, even though Augustine was close to this male friend, that their relationship included sexual activity.
Augustine as Heterosexual
Other readers argue that he is a heterosexual because he got a lot of mistresses, but he also confessed that he is “no lover of marriage but the slave of lust.” In his early 20’s he said he was involved with a girl and was sexually faithful to her. In that relationship he got a lesson in life. He said,
This experience taught me at first hand what a difference there is between a marriage contracted for the purpose of founding a family, and a relationship of love charged with carnal desire in which children may be born even against the parents’ wishes—though once they are born one cannot help loving them.
Wenyu Xie, theology professor of “Life and Teachings of St. Augustine” at International Theological Seminary (California, USA), argues that one should read Augustine in the Platonic point of view. Love for Augustine was feelings toward perfection and that love moves to perfection. One loves an object and it is considered as perfect. So when Augustine says he loved his male friend it may mean that Augustine was just exercising his love perfectly. He also concluded that it was sin since loving perfectly to any object in this world is sin. Xie concluded that Augustine’s love to his male friend as indicated in Book four is just a spiritual thing and not physical thing.
In the above discussion, no doubt that the younger unchristian Augustine was a womanizer thus a heterosexual. But the controversial one is that his sexual relations with male friends.
Could he be a bisexual? Since he had female mistresses and he had “sweet or tenderly” relations with males as the contention of Boswell? This issue is indeed difficult to answer. Believing that Augustine was a heterosexual is not difficult to swallow, but imagining that he was a homosexual or bisexual seems hard to digest.
Boswell, et al did not prove that Augustine had sexual, physical relations or activities with males. One can only deduce his being “bisexual” or “gay” in his Confessions, which seems Augustine did hide reality in philosophical words. If Xie is right in his arguments, why Augustine did not use those wonderful words to his mother? Or why he did not feel the same way to his mother? Well in fact his mother had led him to this world and to Christian faith.
I am still open for more researches and findings concerning this issue and I am not closing my mind in my present findings. But one lesson I got from reading the life of Augustine. God has showered his grace to him and he was led to salvation and consequently he confessed all his sins. In searching for truth and goodness, Augustine did not find them in his own effort, but God revealed to him and he was liberated from his sins, including his sins of immorality such as womanizing (or homosexuality?).
 Saint Augustine, The Confessions Trans. by Maria Boulding (New York: City Press, 1997), p.61.
 Ibid., p.62.
 Phoeis preserves from early times the memory of the union between Orestes and Pylades, who taking a god as witness of the passion between them, sailed through life together as though in one boat. Both together put to death Klytemnestra, as though both were sons of Agamemnon; and Aegisthus was slain by both. Pylades suffered more than his friend by the punishment, which pursued Orestes. He stood by him when condemned, nor did they limit their tender friendship by the bounds of Greece, but sailed to the furthest boundaries of the Scythians-the one sick, the other ministering to him. When they had come into the Tauric land straightway they were met by the matricidal fury; and while the barbarians were standing round in a circle Orestes fell down and lay on the ground, seized by his usual mania, while Pylades ‘wiped away the foam, tended his body, and covered him with his well-woven cloak’ acting not only like a lover but like a father.
When it was determined that one should remain to be put to death, and the other should go to Mycenae to convey a letter, each wished to remain for the sake of the other, thinking that if he saved the life of his friend he saved his own life. Orestes refused to take the letter, saying that Pylades was more worthy to carry it, acting more like the lover than the beloved. “For,” he said, “the slaying of this man would be a great grief to me, as I am the cause of these misfortunes.” And he added, “Give the tablet to him for (turning to Pylades) I will send thee to Argos, in order that it may be well with thee; as for me, let any one kill me who desires it”.
Such love is always like that; for when from boyhood a serious love has grown up and it becomes adult at the age of reason, the long-loved object returns reciprocal affection, and it is hard to determine which is the lover of which, for-as from a mirror-the affection of the lover is reflected from the beloved. Lucian, The History of Orestes and Pylades
from Amores (Second Century A.D.) Translated by W. J. Baylis. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/lucian-orest.html
 Confessions, loc cit., 63.
 Ibid., p.64.
 Homoeroticism refers to same-sex erotic expression that is more subtle and less explicit than overt depictions of homosexual situations and behavior. Homoerotic content in art and literature can be either consciously or unconsciously intended by the artist or author.
 Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 151.
 Bruce M. King and Cameron J. Camp, Human Sexuality: A Louisiana Perspective (New Orleans, La.: Pontchartrain Press, 1986), p. 10.
 Alan G. Soble, Journal of the History of Sexuality 11:4 (October, 2002), pp. 545-69.
 Confessions, loc cit., pp.59, 113
 Ibid., p. 59.
 Wenyu Xie, Class Lecture, International Theological Seminary, 2 February 2005.