On the Veiling of Virgins: Continuing To Critique Tertullian

On the Veiling of Virgins: Continuing To Critique Tertullian July 10, 2017

Some Early Natural Law Arguments: Faculties, Functions and Organs (part II)

Here is the second part in a series of pieces by regular erudite commenter Ficino (the first part can be found here). This series will be looking at Natural Law Theory in its historical context. Over to Ficino:

  1. Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins (early 200s)

Even more than soldiers’ outfits, teenage girls’ clothing and hair gave Tertullian cause for complaint and disquiet. We shall see that Tertullian seems to be nervous about teenage girls themselves. The precepts that he pulls out of stages of girls’ physical development display the sort of attitudes that have kept misogyny going for centuries. Although Tertullian says that men too should be chaste, he portrays nature as telling twelve-year-old girls to take responsibility for men’s erotic responses to them and to feel ashamed of their own bodies. A good part of his appeal to nature is really an appeal to custom. The part that does argue explicitly from nature takes a somewhat fuzzy structure that I shall call a Dangerous Faculty Argument (DFA).

Around the time of the wreath controversy, Tertullian wrote a tract, On the Veiling of Virgins (De Virginibus Velandis), to attack a custom in some North African churches that wives wear veils in church but not unmarried women. Other churches were requiring all women to wear veils. Less observant virgins had grown angry at stricter ones for showing off their piety. Some unveiled virgins were tearing veils off stricter virgins (VV 3). Tertullian decides it’s time to set everybody straight. All females after puberty must wear veils!

Tertullian’s natural law argument takes its start from St. Paul’s appeal to nature. Nature, said the apostle, teaches that a woman’s long hair is an honor for her because it serves as a covering (VV 7.9, cf. I Cor 11:14-15). Paul had said this to support his ruling that women’s heads should be covered (11:5-6, 10). Paul’s logic is not very clear, since if a woman’s long hair is her glory and a covering, a veil seems to block the function of the hair. I have known conservative Christians who think that Paul is actually not stipulating veils for women but only long hair. In any case, Tertullian interprets Paul as wanting women to be veiled (velari, VV 7.1). Tertullian goes on to paraphrase Paul’s appeal to nature about men, that “the man has not by nature been given the rôle of displaying his hair, since it is not a disgrace for a man to be shaved or have his hair cut” (8.1). Paul actually had made a stronger claim: “does not nature teach you that if a man has long (or ‘coiffed’) hair, it is dishonor for him …?” (I Cor 11:14). He had not, however, said anything to allow men to shave their beards. By allowing shaving, Tertullian gives it away that he is confounding nature and custom, for men by nature grow beards. In fact, as we’ll see in Part III, the Stoic Musonius Rufus, as well as early Christian writers, say that shaving transgresses natural law.

As Geoffrey Dunn notes, Tertullian’s natural law argument really argues from custom.[1] Dunn’s judgment, though, also holds for Paul, for the nature claim is both false—a man’s haircut undoes natural growth—and ignores how widespread is long hair on men. Paul and Tertullian should have remembered the “long-haired Achaeans” of the Iliad, even if the two can be excused for not knowing of archaic Greek statues and vases and their young men with long, braided hair. I think of John Boswell’s dictum that moralistic appeals to nature amount to appeals to custom.

Tertullian takes up a lot of space arguing that after puberty, virgins are really women, so Paul’s rule about women veiled in church applies to virgins, not only to wives. Along the way, Tertullian opines about nature and girls’ development. Puberty is the time when a girl “begins to understand herself and enter into a sense of her own nature” (11.2), when a girl is able “to attract the concupiscence of men” at age twelve. Of “such dangerous a face” that angels, as well as men, would lust after them, virgins are a cause of male wrongdoing (7.4-8). [Remember Genesis 6:1-4, that “the sons of heaven” were entranced by beautiful women and mated with them, and we got the Nephilim?] Therefore they need to hide their sexual charms with a veil, and this is a law (11.4, cf. “because of the angels,” I Cor 11:10). Without a veil, chaste virgins will be “blushing at being recognized in public, quaking at being unveiled, as if they had been invited as it were to rape. But it is less that a chaste virgin suffer carnal violence [sc. be raped], since that comes from a function (officio) of nature; but for her very spirit to be violated by taking off her veil” is worse (3.7). “Another secret mother, Nature, and another hidden father, Time, have wedded their daughter to their own laws …  Already her voice is changed, her limbs fully formed, her shame everywhere clothing itself, the months paying their tributes …” (11.8).

It would be a separate study to discuss Tertullian’s mansplaining of young women. For now, I want to try to tease out his natural law reasoning. Our notions of function, faculty and organ can help. Tertullian sets two natural faculties into opposition within the teenage girl. On one hand, once she starts menstruating (11.5), by nature she exudes erotic force, dangerous, virtually irresistible—remember his phrase, “dangerous face.” On the other, she is to be ashamed of her own burgeoning sexuality and, if she has the right disposition, will want not to be seen: “All ages are imperiled in your person. Put on the armor of modesty” (16.4-5). He means, a veil.

Like many writers poorly grounded in theory, Tertullian cobbles together arguments in an ad hoc way. I don’t think his argument from nature is a pure natural law argument, because he does not reason from the objective structure of the act of veiling. Instead, he argues from consequences of a girl’s natural faculty: she is wrong not to wear a veil in church because her sexuality excites lust. It is not objectively wrong for her to be sexually attractive, for Tertullian allows that if she marries, she’ll expose her charms to her husband. My stab at organizing Tertullian’s thoughts will go back to our notions of function, faculty and organ.

We can say that a girl’s systems of erotic charm are an inborn faculty. Whatever other functions it serves, it serves reproduction by attracting a mate. On the other hand, the shame that Tertullian says she should feel about her own sexuality is an emotion that can aid virtue, for it helps motivate action. It has a cognitive component—she recognizes her body’s changes and the male gaze—but as an emotion it precedes rational choice. Virgins who refuse to wear veils are deficient in shame. They both excite men and feel excited themselves: “she feels a warmth creep over her amid assiduous embraces and kisses” (14.10).

Tertullian does not make the wrong-making feature of going bareheaded consist in the virgin’s perversion of her reproductive faculties. Even rape, we saw above, is for Tertullian a “function of nature”—I suppose because a penis goes into a vagina, so there might be a baby. What’s wrong about not wearing a veil is the girl’s refusal to use shame to restrain her attractive faculty until she can find a socially acceptable expression for it in marriage. Tertullian could have developed a more robust natural law argument had he held out child-rearing and family structure as natural goals, as the Stoics did. And he neither considers a growing girl’s training toward exercising political and intellectual virtues nor the ways in which erotic force can be directed by moral choice in a relationship of love.

Because I do not consider Tertullian’s argument for veils as a pure natural law argument, I hesitate to name it as such. Still, I’ll call it a Dangerous Faculty Argument. It seems to me confused, because natural law ethics assumes a natural faculty is a good for the creature that has it. The rub lies in how it is used to further or hinder the overall good of the organism as it interacts with other faculties. Someone who does little else but smell flowers will have a deficient life. Tertullian is so interested in his rhetoric of disquiet over girls’ sexuality that his presentation fails to recognize eros as a good. That failure is of a piece with Tertullian’s puritanism and his exaltation of life-long virginity as a superior state. I discuss the DFA, then, as an example of what I consider a fatally flawed natural law attempt.

[1] Geoffrey D. Dunn, “Rhetoric and Tertullian’s ‘De Virginibus Velandis’”, Vigiliae Christianae 59.1 (2005) 1-30, 18 n. 82.


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