The Surprising Wisdom of John Chrysostom

While investigating John Chrysostom for quotes about the role of women, I came across many accusations of misogyny in his writing. It’s been hard to track down the source of many of the quotes, but I was surprised to find the context of one. Amongst other gems I’m having difficult times finding, one was, “The beauty of woman is the greatest snare.” Look at Chrysostom – blaming women for the sins of men! Women get blamed for our very existence!

505px-Johnchrysostom

Of course, those quick to dismiss the Christian faith as anti-women have pulled this quote out of context. From his Homily 15 on the Priesthood:

The beauty of woman is the greatest snare. Or rather, not the beauty of woman, but unchastened gazing! For we should not accuse the objects, but ourselves, and our own carelessness. Nor should we say, Let there be no women, but Let there be no adulteries. We should not say, Let there be no beauty, but Let there be no fornication. We should not say, Let there be no belly, but let there be no gluttony; for the belly makes not the gluttony, but our negligence. We should not say, that it is because of eating and drinking that all these evils exist; for it is not because of this, but because of our carelessness and insatiableness.

While at first seeming to blame women (perhaps utilizing a rhetorical device to snare his patriarchal listeners), he immediately chastises this view. Against the misogynists, he argues “we should not accuse the objects, but ourselves,” firmly planting responsibility on the part of men to treat women well instead of as sexual objects.

Not all of Chrysostom’s quotes are nearly so helpful. It is not my intent to defend all the Church Fathers against claims of misogyny, which some of them no doubt possessed. I believe that it was primarily their cultural context which influenced their dismissive views of women and not the teachings of Christ, who let Mary learn at his feet, who was anointed by a woman, and who revealed his resurrected body to women first. Not to mention the emphasis of Paul that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and his regular example of lifting up female deacons and apostles.

It doesn’t help that critics are so quick to take others out of context. Again, an example from Chrysostom. A website named Rejection of Pascals Wager paints him as a crude hater of women, summarizing:

To help believers overcome the temptation of women, Chrysostom devised the following description: “The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre.”

Again, a fuller context. This is a letter to Theodore, who has recently fallen away from the faith. In the middle of a lengthy exhortation, we come to this:

I know that you are now admiring the grace of Hermione, and you judge that there is nothing in the world to be compared to her comeliness;

He’s not saying this in the vacuum of thinking about women or beauty in general, but rather to a specific man who is lovestruck by a particular woman, not simply for her attributes but for her beauty. He then proceeds to note how much more important for us to pursue God, to seek for beautiful souls:

but if you choose, O friend, you shall yourself exceed her in comeliness and gracefulness, as much as golden statues surpass those which are made of clay. For if beauty, when it occurs in the body, so fascinates and excites the minds of most men, when the soul is refulgent with it what can match beauty and grace of this kind?

It’s in this context, arguing that we pursue inner beauty which surpasses earthly beauty, that he says:

For the groundwork of this corporeal beauty is nothing else but phlegm, and blood, and humor, and bile, and the fluid of masticated food. For by these things both eyes and cheeks, and all the other features, are supplied with moisture; and if they do not receive that moisture, daily skin becoming unduly withered, and the eyes sunken, the whole grace of the countenance immediately vanishes; so that if you consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes, and that straight nose, and the mouth and the cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a whited sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.

Would I have put it quite so strongly? Probably not. But do I think he’s right that someday all earthly beauty will pass away? Yes. Just look at every beautiful actress when she turns 75. He then goes a bit more extreme:

Moreover when you see a rag with any of these things on it, such as phlegm, or spittle you cannot bear to touch it with even the tips of your fingers, nay you cannot even endure looking at it; and yet are you in a flutter of excitement about the storehouses and depositories of these things?

This sort of anti-body rhetoric smacks of the Platonism that I think the bodily resurrection of Jesus challenges. But his point again is to question the value of worshipping (of being in a “flutter of excitement”) bodily beauty when there is another form of superior beauty to be pursued:

But your beauty was not of this kind, but excelled it as heaven is superior to earth; or rather it was much better and more brilliant than this. For no one has anywhere seen a soul by itself, stripped of the body; but yet even so I will endeavour to present to you the beauty of this soul from another source. I mean from the case of the greater powers. Hear at least how the beauty of these struck the man greatly beloved; for wishing to set forth their beauty and being unable to find a body of the same character, he had recourse to metallic substances, and he was not satisfied even with these, but took the brilliancy of lightning for his illustration. Daniel 10:6 Now if those powers, even when they did not disclose their essential nature pure and bare, but only in a very dim and shadowy way, nevertheless shone so brightly, what must naturally be their appearance, when set free from every veil? Now we ought to form some such image of the beauty of the soulFor they shall be, we read equal unto the angels.Luke 20:36 Now in the case of bodies the lighter and finer kinds, and those which have retreated to the path which tend towards the incorporeal, are very much better and more wonderful than the others. The sky at least is more beautiful than the earth, and fire than water, and the stars than precious stones; and we admire the rainbow far more than violets and roses, and all other flowers which are upon the earth. 

All in all, Chrysostom fares surprisingly well when put in context. I’m still searching for the source of The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager’s other quote: “It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?”

But until I find it, I have to say – Chrysostom has been full of some surprising wisdom thus far. Far from being a misogynist, he actually keeps pushing for an outwardly-focused society to look toward inner, higher beauty.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s