To summarise fairly the views of Augustine on sexuality in a few paragraphs is at best a difficult task, and at worst an impossible one. Even a cursory reading of his Confessions allows a reader to marvel at his frank references to the sexual challenges in his life.
These references are all the more marvellous when we consider the era in which he was writing. Then there is the deeper question of whether he is painting himself more harshly than he needs to. For a writer who went so far as to describe his adolescent self as a "bubbling cauldron of vice", Augustine provides little in the way of serious evidence that he was an utter libertine.
In the Confessions he revealed his adolescent sexual activity, and then his de facto relationship with an unnamed woman of Carthage, but then he showed complete fidelity to this concubine for many years. At that time his relationship would have been socially accepted, and even which the Christian church of his day would not have been absolutely condemned. Certainly, his sexual impulses were a great source of anxiety to him. This is seen in his Confessions by the negative imagery he uses for them.
He describes his sexual impulses by the images of disease, disorder, and corruption. Desire is mud (2.2, 3.1), a whirlpool (2.2), chains (2.2, 3.1) thorns (2.3), a bubbling cauldron (3.1), and an open sore that must be scratched (3.1). His negative views about sexual matters influences his equating of them with original sin. This identifies Augustine as a major source of the negative attitudes on this subject in Western society.
Rather than talking about sexuality as an act, he talked about it as an interior state, a triumph of the carnal will over the spiritual will. He proposed that all sexuality, all sensual pleasure involved the triumph of the carnal will. Since sin was located in the carnal will and not the act, Augustine developed a rigorous puritanical attitude towards sexuality that would fixate European culture until the present day.
Augustine encountered negativity towards sexual relations as a Manichean during his troubled adolescence. This happened as simultaneously he was unexpectedly propelled into parenthood outside of marriage within a de facto relationship and struggling philosophically with the problem of evil that reading the Hortensius of Cicero had inspired in him. For Manichees of the "hearers" category such as Augustine, sexual relations were tolerated, being regarded as almost inevitable because of a biological weakness in human nature. This negative attitude to sexuality marked Augustine for life. When Augustine was over seventy years of age Julian of Eclanum, his Pelagian opponent, accused Augustine that in this regard he still thought like a Manichean.
Among other matters, Augustine and Julian disagreed on the nature of human sexuality. Augustine identified the beginning of sexual desire with the beginning of human disobedience, the original sin of Adam and Eve that had tainted all of the human species. Julian, however, could not accept the idea of original sin. He insisted that sexual desire was simply another of the bodily senses, and that the justice of God would not inflict punishment on the entire human race for the disobedience of one person.
As strange as it may seem today, the general arguments of Augustine won out over those of Julian, although Julian was probably correct in some areas. Even when writing during the last decade of his lengthy life, Augustine still noted the persistence of sexual concupiscence. Possibly Augustine's own experience with resisting sexual desire as described in his Confessions forty years previously still coloured his understanding of human sexuality and of original sin. His view of human sexuality was ever linked to his sensitivity to sexual desire. The origins of European sexuality, both in its Puritanism and its most liberal character, go back to the belief of Augustine that human sexuality is located in the will. In the space available here, nothing better can be achieved than recommending the reader access the summary of the relevant thoughts of Augustine placed on the Internet by the noted scholar on Augustine, Professor James O'Donnell (USA) strongly made the point that for Augustine sexuality remained fundamentally good.
"To what extent Augustine may be made the parent of later attitudes towards what now seem unduly negative is open to doubt; he did hold that being a virgin was superior to entering marriage, but emphasised repeatedly that both states of life were inherently good; he held that the purpose of sexual intercourse was procreation and that even in marriage it was otherwise culpable, but he was careful to minimise the burden of that fault," O'Donnell wrote.
O'Donnell also stated, "His views on sexuality and the place of women in society have been tested and found wanting in recent years, but they, too, have roots in a lonely man terrified of his father - or of his God." Be that as it may, it is open to debate whether Augustine is directly responsible for the traditions of sexual morality that came down to all subsequent centuries or simply was effective in strengthening the prevailing viewpoints of the church of his day.
What is certain, however, is that Augustine has wrought significant influence in the shaping of Western ideas about sexuality, and that it is particularly his negative views about sexuality that have predominated. His views on sexuality are in conformity with his rigorous world view which is centred on God. What Augustine believed that God wanted for human sexuality was accorded much greater importance than what human beings sought from it.
In his updated classic in 2002, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography: A New Edition with an Epilogue, the prominent Augustinian scholar, Peter Brown adds to the subject. There he reminds modern interpreters, particularly on the matter of sexuality, that Augustine was the defender of marriage against the extreme asceticism of his contemporaries.
Peter Brown writes, "We must never read Augustine as if he were contemporary with ourselves." He was the contemporary of Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, and Christian tradition would have taken a quite different direction, I am sure, if Augustine did not stand between us and them. His is a voice of moderation." He further notes, "Augustine wished for a greater recognition of the physical, sexual components of human nature, and was prepared to defend their legitimate expression (if in a disciplined manner) in marriage." AN2332