In wild excess the vulgar breast takes fire,
Till, buried in debauch, the bliss expire.
Oliver Goldsmith, The Traveler (1764)
The verb debauch means to seduce into a betrayal of duty, so when we speak of drunken revelry and libidinous license as debauchery, we should understand our words in the light of betrayal. A drunken revel is debauchery because, or when, or perhaps insofar as, the men and women who are drunk and reveling ought to be doing something else. Libidinous license is debauchery because, or when, or perhaps insofar as, libidinous license causes neglect of duty.
The acts of seduction and yielding to seduction are not, of course, identical to the acts that follow upon having been seduced. For instance, the machinations with which a man debauches a woman are not the same as the altered manners of that woman after she has been debauched. The machinations with which a drunkard debauches a youth are likewise not the same as the manners of that youth after he is himself a drunkard. This difference is important, but is obscured by our use of the word debauchery to describe both the fall and the state of being fallen.
To speak of the act of falling and the fallen state takes us to the biblical representation of debauchery, seduction, and the loss of innocence. We see that Satan debauched Eve by (1) telling her that God was lying when he said that death is the penalty for sin, and (2) telling her that God lied because sin is in fact the path to an enlightenment that will overthrow God. Satan thereby debauched Eve while also teaching her the art of debauchery. We may suppose that this is why Eve’s seduction of Adam is not described in detail. She had served her apprenticeship under the master of seduction, and therefore plucked Adam’s innocence just as easily as she had plucked that apple from the tree.
You may have noticed that the phrase “loss of innocence” can mean two things. It can mean to sin and become guilty, and it can also mean to grow “wise.” And in this second meaning of growing “wise,” it is to discover that the wisdom into which one grows by “loss of innocence” is a sad wisdom. The apple that appeared to Eve “good for food” and “a delight to the eye” was a bitter fruit because it was a stolen apple.
Satan debauched Eve and taught her the art of debauchery, but he also delivered Eve and all her vast progeny into the state of debauchery that we call man’s fallen estate. As I said a moment ago, the acts of seduction and yielding to seduction are not identical to the acts that follow upon having been seduced. They are not identical, but neither are they altogether different, since debauchery (seduction) infects the debauchee with something like a virus, and all his subsequent debauchery (wantonness) is just the sad and bitter progression of that terminal disease.
Ancient wisdom held that a wanton woman was debauched in an act of fornication, and that the debauchery of all her subsequent fornications is the consequence and reenactment of her primal sin. Every drunkard was debauched by drinking, and the debauchery of all his subsequent drunkenness is the consequence and reenactment of his primal sin.
The virus enters the body and replicates until the body is destroyed.
* * * * *
Leo Tolstoy believed that a life of debauchery begins in an act of debauchery, and more especially in an act of betrayal. In his confessional book My Religion (1884) it is clear that stolen apples brought Tolstoy the sad wisdom that his debauching of women had condemned those women to a life of debauchery.
“I know now that a man who forsakes a woman, or a woman who forsakes a man, when the two have once been united, is guilty of the divorce which Jesus forbade, because men and women abandoned by their first companions are the original cause of all the debauchery in the world.”
When we forsake our first companion, our first companion forsakes himself. When we are forsaken by our first companion, we forsake ourself. And thus we share the virus of betrayal and infidelity that passes like a pox to all the children of Eve. This is the consequence, and our reenactment, of that primal betrayal. As Tolstoy goes on to say,
“The man or woman who separates from a companion to seek another, forces the forsaken one to resort to debauchery, and thus introduces into the world an evil that returns upon those who cause it.”
Eve’s infidelity did not, of course, force God “to resort to debauchery,” since God will not betray, and is, perhaps above all else, the great promise-keeper. But Eve’s infidelity certainly did introduce into the world an evil that returns upon those who cause it, which is to say upon the treacherous, treasonous, traitorous race of faithless debauchees that we call the human race. God was man’s first companion, and when man forsook his first companion, it was man and not God who fell into endless debauchery.
This was the consequence and the endless reenactment of that primal betrayal.
* * * * *
William Kingdon Clifford was a nineteenth-century English mathematician, and he is nowadays most often remembered for his epistemological dictum, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Clifford began life as a Christian but surrendered his faith in the face of what he thought was insufficient evidence. This did not lead Clifford to a life of conventional debauchery. Indeed he denied that religious faith was the necessary foundation of moral belief. But it did lead him into the sad wisdom of one who has not only forsaken the garden of God’s companionship, but who has also forsaken the belief that there ever was such a garden.
From the essay Clifford wrote defending his faithless ethics:
“We have seen the spring sun shine out of an empty heaven to light up a soulless earth; we have felt with utter loneliness that the Great Companion is dead.”*
*) William Kingdon Clifford, “The Influence Upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief,” The Nineteenth Century, vol. 1 (March-July 1877).