Thursday, September 13, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 (pages 33-43): “Phallic Worship, Asceticism and Sin”

Fertility of crops, herds, and women have long been of foremost importance, so in these realms “[r]eligion and magic were invoked to make sure of the desired result [p. 33].” In ancient Egypt and elsewhere, sex and religion focused on the female genitalia, but “in most ancient civilizations, the sexual element in religion took the form of phallic worship [p. 34].” Russell here and later in the chapter relies upon and quotes “Sex in Civilization,” by Robert Briffault. The quote on pages 34 and 35 notes the sexual license and phallic symbolism accompanying agricultural festivals, recognizing a link between the fertility of the fields and of women. Russell next provides an aside on sun versus moon worshiping, and he speculates that the ultimate victory of sun worship, where it took place, “was due to the patent fact that the sun has more influence than the moon over the crops [p. 36].”

Vestiges of phallic worship survived through the Middle Ages, even within Christianity – there were ithyphallic saints, as Russell notes (page 36) in a quote from Briffault. Protestantism eliminated these vestiges, however.

“Sacred prostitution is another institution which was very widespread in antiquity [p. 37],” and it probably arose from enlisting religion into promoting the fertility of women or crops.

But religions have anti-sexual elements, too, which won out wherever Christianity or Buddhism took hold. Asceticism and stoicism more than held their own with Epicureanism. It seems that “in certain circumstances men are led spontaneously to a horror of sex, and this when it arises is quite as much a natural impulse as the more usual attraction towards sex [pp. 38-39].”

Russell attributes anti-sexual attitudes to jealousy and sexual fatigue. When jealously is present, sex appears “disgusting, and the appetite which leads to it seems loathsome [p. 39].” [Somehow these passages made me think of modern Islamic fundamentalists – RBR] Instinctually, a man would prefer that all women love him and only him, so that love given to other men is morally condemned. Russell claims that the ideal wife in Shakespeare is a woman who doesn’t enjoy sex, but partakes in it with her husband from a sense of duty. The betrayed or impotent husband will be disgusted by sex.

Sexual fatigue is unknown in the animal kingdom and probably rare among the uncivilized. The lack of novelty makes it unlikely to occur in a monogamous marriage, too. The need for courtship slows things down enough to render sexual fatigue rare, too. But courtship is not necessary if women are not free to say no, and this is the case with married women and prostitutes, who “alike make their living by means of their sexual charms…[p. 41]” [Russell seems to contradict himself within a few lines here, when he says that monogamous marriages do not promote sexual fatigue, but shortly thereafter says that wives, like prostitutes, are not free to say no to sex. He seems to want to say (I am speculating based on the context) that sexual fatigue would be unlikely in a pure form of monogamy, but that economic pressures lead to a sort of corrupt monogamy where wives cannot say no. Nevertheless, I am not convinced by my own interpretation, as it is rare for Russell’s writing to lack clarity.] Unrestricted access to sex can lead men to engage to excess, at which point fatigue, disgust, and asceticism breed.

When jealousy and fatigue are both present, as in licentious societies, the anti-sex viewpoint will grow strong (p. 41). Further, priests and priestesses may be regarded as “married” to some divine, making them unfit for sex with mortals, and cementing a view that celibacy and holiness are paired.

Other factors probably encourage the anti-sex viewpoint. Some ages seem happy, and some depressed – it is hard to know why. When people are weary, the ascetic ideal takes hold, and it was in a weary age when the Christian ethic was formulated.

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