Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Obscenities - The Instructor on Filthy Speaking

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series. You may also want to read the introduction to Book 2 of The Instructor as it give advice on how to understand Clement and his writings.
"And much more must we keep pure from shameful deeds: on the one hand, from exhibiting and exposing parts of the body which we ought not; and on the other, from beholding what is forbidden. For the modest son could not bear to look on the shameful exposure of the righteous man; and modesty covered what intoxication exposed—the spectacle of the transgression of ignorance. No less ought we to keep pure from calumnious reports, to which the ears of those who have believed in Christ ought to be inaccessible." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 6)
Not only must we be pure in our speech but also modest in our behavior and appearance. For if we should avoid hearing and viewing such obscenities, then we must certainly avoid them in our own speech and behavior as well. However, if we certainly would consider such exposure of our own bodies to be "indecent" then why would we choose to view such obscenities by others either in the books we read or the movies we watch? If we would not commit such behavior ourselves then why should we look at others when they do? What we forbid for ourselves we should also forbid our eyes from seeing and our ears from hearing.
"It is on this account, as appears to me, that the Instructor does not permit us to give utterance to aught unseemly, fortifying us at an early stage against licentiousness. For He is admirable always at cutting out the roots of sins, such as, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' by 'Thou shalt not lust.' For adultery is the fruit of lust, which is the evil root. And so likewise also in this instance the Instructor censures licence in names, and thus cuts off the licentious intercourse of excess. For licence in names produces the desire of being indecorous in conduct; and the observance of modesty in names is a training in resistance to lasciviousness." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 6)
Our choice of words and the use of indecency in our use of speech can incite us and lead us to sin. Just like lust is a precursor to adultery, so indecency and obscenities can become a precursor to lust and, in the end, to sin. The role of the instructor is not only to convince us of sin and to forbid us of its partaking, but also to help us avoid it altogether by teaching us to stop it earlier and earlier in its progress within us. We can still overcome adultery even at the moment of the act, but better is it to avoid it by overcoming lust that led us to the act, and even better to quench the filthy speech that incited the lust within us in the first place. Victory over sin is achieved by continuously moving the finish line further and further back in our struggle against it; from act to lust to speech to thought.
"We have shown in a more exhaustive treatise, that neither in the names nor in the members to which appellations not in common use are applied, is there the designation of what is really obscene. For neither are knee and leg, and such other members, nor are the names applied to them, and the activity put forth by them, obscene. And even the pudenda are to be regarded as objects suggestive of modesty, not shame. It is their unlawful activity that is shameful, and deserving ignominy, and reproach, and punishment. For the only thing that is in reality shameful is wickedness, and what is done through it." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 6)
Clement warns us about something we don't often think about and that is the names and expressions we use to describe things and events. For example, there is nothing innately obscene about the body nor the common names we use to describe it. Neither the foot nor its name "foot"is obscene. Even the human pudenda (external sexual organs) are neither obscene nor are their names obscene. However, it is their use and their designations, in the case of words, that makes them obscene. When we speak of the body in normal modest terms, no indecency is found, but when we speak of it using degrading and indecent terms, describing foul and sinful intentions with it, then our speech had become obscene and incitful of lust. Let not only our behavior and dress be modest, but let our speech be modest as well.

David Robison

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