"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Cultural and religious asceticism was at the heart of Bertrand Russell’s frustration with sex and marriage mores while he wrote Marriage and Morals in the late 1920s in the United Kingdom. In pre-Christian times, cultural asceticism gave rise to patriarchal controls over female behavior — what amounted to an onslaught of taboos to ensure that women only gave birth to their husband’s children.
Later, the dominant force of the Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe spread the idea of sex as inherently sinful. For both sects, sex is to be avoided in all forms outside of marriage. St. Paul, one of the earliest Catholic commentators on sexual morality, believed that the second coming was imminent; according to Russell, he favored putting an end to sexual activity in the lead-up to Jesus’ return, but still he condoned marriages for those who … simply couldn’t help themselves. As a doomsday thinker, sex to produce children was hardly a concern — the world would be obliterated before any more souls came to Earth. Thus, Russell writes:
“The vigorous men of later periods have had to do their best to live up to an outlook on life belonging to diseased, weary, and disillusioned men who had lost all sense of biological values and of the continuity of human life.”
Ascetic views about sex persisted far beyond St. Paul’s failed Armageddon plans. Even at the height of the era of knights, troubadours and maidens in castle towers, sex seems (to a warm-blooded modern woman) to be the blue-balled elephant in the room. Since lyrical romance in the Middle Ages could only revolve around an inaccessible beloved, these “women of the highest respectability” were effectively imprisoned and kept “pure” by convention and religious practice:
“So thoroughly had the church performed its task of making men feel sex impure, that it had become impossible to feel any poetic sentiment towards a lady unless she was regarded as unattainable.”
And yet, the Protestant church of Russell’s time was even more strict. Besides no sex outside of marriage, couples understood that any sex act within a marriage would be attempted for the explicit purpose of conceiving a child. No other reason was acceptable, and the sinner could not seek absolution of sin through confession (the modern church is much more keen on forgiveness than its predecessors). To make it more likely that men and (especially) women would go along with this, the culture and education of the time promoted the idea that sex is painful, unsafe, humiliating and altogether disagreeable.
By contrast, Russell writes:
“There is a deep-seated fear, in most people, of the cold and the possible cruelty of the herd; there is a longing for affection … Passionate mutual love while it lasts puts an end to this feeling; it breaks down the hard walls of the ego, producing a new being composed of two in one. Nature did not construct human beings to stand alone, since they cannot fulfill their biological purpose except with the help of another; and civilized people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love. The instinct is not completely satisfied unless a man’s whole being, mental quite as much as physical, enters into the relation. Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed out on the best thing that life has to give; unconsciously, if not consciously, they feel this, and the resulting disappointment inclines them towards envy, oppression and cruelty.” (emphasis added)
A friend of mine (visit Jacob’s blog here) points out that in this passage Russell “stops short of saying that love produces (social) community. He is pointing toward the community of two, but what this quote actually entails is the possibility of sociability … If one is ready to open up to another human being, isn’t one more likely to approach other human beings with similar openness?”
Moreover, the subtle addition of “while it lasts” in this account of passionate love addresses an issue still present in today’s ideas about erotic love: its tenuousness. Passionate love should not be confused with romantic love in this regard. Passionate love can and will most likely wane. Romance can withstand time. Russell even goes so far as to say that a stable marriage with children should be resilient enough to withstand adultery (if it should occur and not hinder any child’s healthy development). Since Russell idealizes the type of romantic love that “instinctively” embraces the partner’s ego as strongly as one’s own, adulterous inclinations do not arise from dissatisfaction and a habitual roving desire but most likely from pure happenstance and fleeting, titillating opportunity. Sex with someone other than your partner should not feel threatening in the kind of relationship that’s predicated on mutual freedom and reason:
“If marriage is to achieve its possibilities, husbands and wives must learn to understand that whatever the law may say, in their private lives they must be free.”
Later he adds:
“The good life cannot be lived without self-control, but it is better to control a restrictive and hostile emotion such as jealousy, rather than a generous and expansive emotion such as love. Conventional morality has erred, not in demanding self-control, but in demanding it in the wrong place.”
Not all of Russell’s ideas are so liberal, however, which is to be expected from this small tome copyrighted in 1929. Referencing Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novels, he writes that ascetic perversions might live again in an age of promiscuity — when sex is no longer seen as precious, then passionate love may cease to enrich the human experience.
Russell is also prone to the occasional wildly racist comment (“[If fathers were rendered useless by an overzealous paternal state] … it would eliminate the most fierce and savage passion to which civilized men are liable, namely the fury which is felt in defending wives and children from attacks by coloured populations.”; “It seems on the whole fair to regard Negroes as on the average inferior to white men, although for work in the tropics they are indispensable…”), and he seems to excuse sex-deprived males from ill-conduct in a manner reminiscent of the “rape culture” of today (“… if [a man] is genuinely persuaded that all intercourse outside of marriage is wicked, he is likely, if he does seek such intercourse, to feel that he might as well be hanged for sheep as for a lamb, and therefore to throw off all moral restraints.”). In a particularly uncomfortable chapter about eugenics, he advocates the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded” men and women — praising certain American states for successfully carrying out the practice at the time — while asserting that the children of “desirable” parents should be given free university educations.
On a more lighthearted note, Russell also seems to have a big (hilarious) problem with the practice of engaging in sexually exciting activities “without ultimate satisfaction”:
“And even where complete relations do not occur [during sexy American parties during Prohibition], there is so much ‘petting’ and ‘necking’ that the absence of complete intercourse can only be viewed as a perversion … Bootlegged sex is in fact as inferior to what it might be as bootlegged alcohol.”
Finally, the famed British philosopher also believes that “in a rational ethic, marriage would not count as such in the absence of children,” and childless couples should enjoy themselves in so-called “trial marriages” that can be dissolved at will and without legal consequence. Given the increasing visibility of childless marriages and the fight for marriage equality for LGBT couples and families worldwide, the argument that only children can legitimize a marriage is not so salient today.
What might still be relevant is Russell’s worry that prudish people make bad decisions when choosing their marriage partners and, more pointedly, they perverted and missed out on intrinsically worthwhile life experiences by abstaining from sex on principle. On a societal level, Victorian values made bad and even destructive marriages too difficult to dissolve (Russell lauds Sweden for allowing divorce based on mutual consent rather than spousal cruelty or adultery). Furthermore, he states that stamping out curiosity about sex (and other taboo subjects) in children potentially squashes their inquisitive instinct, setting them up for a life of intellectual passivity and conformity. And yet, in the age of the Internet, when information is freely and widely available to everyone, parents especially feel the pinch of the opposite problem: too much (mis)information perverting the views and expectations about sex for young people.
In Marriage and Morals, Russell talks about sex information as it pertains to contraception, venereal disease and other clinical subjects. Although he mentions prostitution as a resilient industry made necessary in a culture that vilifies the enjoyment of sex in marriage, erotica and pornography go under the radar. The scope and accessibility of sex-related information, including entertainment in a more liberal-minded culture, were likely beyond fathoming at the time Russell was writing.
This begs the question: In more liberal societies with readily available information about sex safety and access to birth control, have we borne the fruit of healthier marriages and more satisfying sex lives? More generally, do we have a greater sense of freedom and self-determination in our deeply personal affairs?
Of course, there are still plenty of communities that continue to subscribe to a more ascetic view of sex inside and outside of marriage, and there continue to be “abstinence only” sex education programs in conservative school districts across the U.S. The rise of liberal attitudes in the West, however, allows for a kind of natural experiment on marriage and morals.
A cursory look at some data available online may surprise you (here and here), but society at large has yet to come to a firm conclusion on the matter. Have you?
Okay, so this is a long comment. Hope you don’t mind.
Since I am working on cultural practices in CHina that have been banned as “superstitions”, such as fortune-telling, deity worship, spirit-writing etc., this made me think of asceticism in the context of culture-purging Communist regimes. I think this offers a whole lot of intruiging possibilites for comparison.
Political ideologues oftentimes are similar zealots to religious fundamentalists, and the utopian projects of politics are used in similar ways to suppress expressions of what is rendered as “backward”, “harmful”, “savage”, or “infidel” cultural practice, as is your verdict for asceticism in religious traditions. In the case of the Taliban it was the presence of women in open, public space, in the case of Communist China it is traditional practices such as fortune-telling or sacrificial offerings.
Indeed, there is another interesting perspective for comparison, namely how the concept of superstition is only viable in connection with a conception of (“proper”) “science”. Science in this relationship serves as the morally and rationally right form of practice, whereas superstition embodies everything that is thought of as contradicting scientific practices, and thus negative, irrational, immoral. To the point, it is mostly described as “proto-science”, an inferior, outdated step on the evolutionary ladder toward scientific enlightenment. But in its persistence, superstition is made out to be the enemy of progression toward a scientific future. Quite often, these arbitrary – for the lines separating individual practices are never as clear as suggested by theory – binary distinctions are used in a way that maintains, legitimizes, or disguises claims to resources and power. This is their ideologizing aspect.
The comparative perspective I mentioned above is achieved by looking at which binaries were employed toward similar political ends in different periods. This is an “archaeological” exercise, as understood with Foucault, an endeavor to pursue the “genealogy” of taken-for-granted concepts that support a social order at a certain time. In many cases, they inform the forms of “violence” incited to maintain the existing power structure. This is how I find Foucault’ian concepts extremely useful for my own thinking.
Coming back to the topic of your article, we may in fact think of asceticism (as used in your post) as a form of psychological violence enforced to purify culture – which is an expression of the power structures and social modes of interaction – in order to conform with the ideology of the ruling elites.
And while this may give us a sense of how ascetic visions were used to impact social structures historically on a grand scale, what does it tell us about the motivations of the individual ascetic?