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There's a long Western tradition of separating the nice, clean, noble parts of ourselves (soul, intellect, will)  from the nasty bestial animal body we've been saddled with, which we can then blame for all we fear and hate in ourselves.  That way of thinking is dualism

Dualistic thinking is composed of two parts:

  • Spiritual/Physical Dichotomy:  This is the notion that that the "supernatural" world of spirit is separate and distinct from the "natural" physical world. 
  • Spiritual/Physical Conflict:  This is the notion that the values of the spirit world are opposed to those of the physical world, particularly the human body and our animal heritage, and that you have to choose between them in your life. 

Thomas Moore, writing from the point of view of both a Christian and a psychotherapist, has this to say about dualistic thinking, in his lovely book, The Soul of Sex:

"We can address the issue of sex and spirituality from two directions: we can look for sexual ways to be spiritual and for spiritual ways to be sexual.  The first step, and the minimum, is to avoid dividing body and spirit, and the best way to accomplish that goal is not to even think in these dualistic terms.  Not only sex, but everything we do, every object, every event, no matter how secular it may appear, has spiritual significance.  If we live by this non-dualistic philosophy, then sex will naturally remain tied to spirituality, but if we divide body and spirit in any part of life, we may expect problems with sex."  (page 154)

The Idea that Body and Spirit are Separate

Most people interested in spirituality subscribe to some form of the concept that the spiritual world is distinct and separate from physical reality.  One reason this ancient idea is so popular is because it's commonly linked with the idea that each of us has a soul that "lives on" after our body has died, thus protecting our identity from annihilation and permitting reincarnation or some kind of other life after death.  There's certainly nothing wrong with this way of looking at the world, but it's worth emphasizing that it's by no means the only possible one. 

You can also to see spirit as immanent in the physical, as an aspect of one single, undivided world, inextricably intertwined with the physical.  A common expression of this point of view is that "everything in the end is energy of one form or another." 

Another approach, useful to people who doubt that spirit exists outside of our minds, is the Jungian view that we connect our deep emotions and unconscious thought processes to the outside world using spiritual "archetypes."  This doesn't diminish the importance of spirituality, it just changes the way you think about it. 

Because these ideas are all very personal, it isn't useful to get upset over them or be offended by other people's views.  In the end, we're all talking about the same thing here, and there really isn't one right answer (in spite of all those conflicting claims).  The best you can do is work out what seems most right to you at the moment, and be open to new feelings and perceptions as you experience them, because we do change over the course of our lives. 

The Idea that the Body is Bad

The destructive concept in dualism is that the physical world obscures, opposes or weighs down the spiritual, and in particular that our bodily needs oppose our spiritual ones.  Accepting this point of view explicitly foments war between different parts of your psyche, making it very hard to maintain your integrity as a person (see our integrity page).

The idea of body-soul conflict has a rich history in Western culture, with roots both in Platonic philosophy and in the Manichaean beliefs that infected early Christianity. It's still deeply ingrained in mainstream Western attitudes today. 

Plato and Greek Dualism

In the Republic, Plato has Cephalus, a venerable old man, tell Socrates what a relief it is to have one's libido decline with age:

"...I remember someone asking Sophocles, the poet, whether he was still capable of enjoying a woman.  "Don't talk in that way," he answered; "I am only too glad to be free of all that; it is like escaping from bondage to a raging madman."  I thought that a good answer at the time, and I still think so; for certainly a great peace comes when age sets us free from passions of that sort.  When they weaken and relax their hold, most certainly it means, as Sophocles said, a release from servitude to many forms of madness."
(The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis M. Cornford, Oxford 1941)

This is a familiar theme — sexual feelings have a horrid ability to occur whether you want them or not.  If you think they're sinful (as so many people have been taught to believe), this is particularly disturbing, but even if you accept that there's nothing wrong with them, it's disconcerting to have emotions of such intensity that they can easily overrule your mental resolve. 

Plato recognized the importance of personal integrity, of keeping all the different parts of yourself in alignment, but his writing clearly shows how challenging and even distasteful he and other Athenian intellectuals found dealing with their emotions.  Phaedrus is a dialogue that ostensibly addresses the question whether a boy is better off choosing as a mentor an older man who is in love with him or one who merely likes him.  In it, Socrates describes the soul as a charioteer drawn by two horses, one representing the intellect — noble, beautiful and obedient — and the other representing the emotions:

"...a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark colour, with grey eyes and bloodshot eyes, the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur."
(The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Oxford 1892; Phaedrus 253)

Earlier in the same dialogue, however, Socrates acknowledges that the "madness" forced on the intellect by strong emotion is sometimes "a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men"  (Phaedrus 244). 

Intellectuals and philosophers may no longer face the same emotional challenges that the rigid sex roles of ancient Athens posed, but for many people trying to deal with sexuality today, the body and "base emotions" are still things to be dreaded and despised. 

Manichaean Dualism in Christianity

One of the most profound influences on early Christianity came from the so-called Manichaean heresy.  Its founder, Mani, was born to an Elkasite Christian family in Persia early in the third century, around 215.  As Muhammad did later, Mani claimed to be the Paraclete, the last true prophet, and he founded a religion intended to combine Christianity with Zoroastrianism.  At about the age of 60 he fell out of favor with the Persian emperor and was imprisoned or killed. 

For the Manichaeans, Satan was equal and opposite to God.  Light was literally good, and darkness was literally evil.  Almost everything in the world was tainted with Satan's evil, and the only way a person could be sure of being on the good side was to practice the most rigorous regimen of avoidance.  Many foods, including all meats, were unclean.  Most things were dirty, and any sexual activity was diabolic.  Above all, a Manichaean was forbidden to kill any living being.  Even breaking the twigs of plants or plucking their fruit was frowned upon. 

Mani traveled widely before he died, and gained adherents as far east as India and western China, but it was in Persia and Mesopotamia that he started a major religious movement.  Later, the movement spread westward, and 50 years after his death Manichaeism became wildly popular throughout the Roman Empire.  Its asceticism fitted well with the Mithraism of the Roman soldiers, and its dramatic rejection of the world appealed to some of the Gnostics, particularly the Marcionites. 

Saint Augustine was Mani's most famous adherent, and much of what we know about the Manichaeans comes from Augustine's Confessions after he converted to Christianity. Augustine then formulated the Christian defense against Manichaean doctrines.  By the sixth century, Manichaeans had been eliminated as a religious movement. 

This would be of passing historical interest if Manichaean ideas hadn't thoroughly infected Christianity.  They've been surfacing regularly in heretical movements ever since, and can be encountered on Christian television to this day.  The Cathars in 10th-century France, for example, and the Bogumils in 13th-century Bulgaria explicitly identified with Manichaean beliefs.  Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), the Flemish bishop of Ypres, adapted from Augustine's writing not only an extreme position on free will, but also a strict Manichaean dualism.  The Jansenist heresy became a widespread movement that was quite influential in parts of 17th-century France and Italy before it gradually died out.  Its most enduring legacy has been among Irish Catholics, where an extreme fear and antipathy to the world of the "flesh" continues to manifest itself even today.

In protestant circles, all the traditional fire and brimstone fulminations that characterize moralizing sermons have a strong Manichaean undertone too. 

Divisive Dualism is Destructive

The kind of dualistic thinking that pits you against yourself arises out of fear, and because it results in a loss of integrity, it almost always ends up exacerbating that fear rather than assuaging it. 

Everyone is afraid of sex — everyone — because sex is so important and makes us so vulnerable. 

If you associate that fear with sex itself, if you reject your sexual emotions as dangerous, you'll find yourself living in an impossible bind.  You'll try to repress your animal nature beyond what you can tolerate.  Then, you'll find yourself engaged in a losing internal war, and all the things you're trying to repress will start coming out side-ways.  Because they're outside your control, your fears will be confirmed and the whole nasty cycle will feed back on itself. 

A much more constructive approach is to accept and acknowledge your fears, respect your own dreams and desires, and try to establish internal alliance and friendships between the different parts of yourself rather than internal war.  This is much of the aim of psychotherapy, and is often difficult and frightening work in itself, but it's well worth the trouble if you choose to do it.

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