From On the Apparel of Women. While studying law in Rome as a young man, Tertullian found himself impressed by the fortitude of Christians persecuted under the laws of the emperor Septimius Severus. He returned to his native Carthage and converted to the new religion, becoming the first Christian theologian to publish books in Latin. Throughout his approximately thirty surviving works, Tertullian emphasizes martyrdom as the ultimate aim of Christian life. “I fear,” he writes toward the end of this treatise, that “the neck beset with pearl and emerald nooses will give no room to the broadsword.”
Handmaids of the living God, my fellow servants and sisters, the right which I enjoy with you emboldens me to address to you a discourse not, of course, of affection but paving the way for affection in the cause of your salvation.
That salvation—and not of women only but likewise of men—consists in the exhibition principally of modesty. How many a one, in short, is there who does not earnestly desire even to look pleasing to strangers? Who does not on that very account take care to have herself painted out, and denies that she has ever been an object of carnal appetite? And yet granting that even this is a practice familiar to gentile modesty—namely, not actually to commit the sin but still to be willing to do so; or even not to be willing, yet still not quite to refuse—what wonder? For all things that are not God’s are perverse.
You must know that in the eye of perfect, that is, Christian, modesty, carnal desire of oneself on the part of others is not only not to be desired but even execrated by you. Firstly, because the study of making personal grace (which we know to be naturally the inviter of lust) a means of pleasing does not spring from a sound conscience. Why therefore excite toward yourself that evil passion? Why invite that to which you profess yourself a stranger? Secondly, because we ought not to open a way to temptations. We ought indeed to walk so holily, and with so entire substantiality of faith, as to be confident and secure in regard of our own conscience, desiring that that gift may abide in us to the end, yet not presuming that it will. For he who presumes feels less apprehension; he who feels less apprehension takes less precaution; he who takes less precaution runs more risk. Fear is the foundation of salvation; presumption is an impediment to fear. More useful, then, is it to apprehend that we may possibly fail than to presume that we cannot; for apprehending will lead us to fear, fearing to caution, and caution to salvation. On the other hand, if we presume, there will be neither fear nor caution to save us.
But why are we a source of danger to our neighbor? Why do we import lust into our neighbor? Which lust, if God, in “amplifying the law,” does not dissociate in the way of penalty from the actual commission of fornication, I know not whether God allows impunity to him who has been the cause of perdition to some other. For that other, as soon as he has felt lust after your beauty, and has mentally already committed the deed that his lust pointed to, perishes; and you have been made the sword that destroys him, so that, albeit you be free from the actual crime, you are not free from the odium attaching to it. Are we to paint ourselves out that our neighbors may perish? Where, then, is the command, “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself?” “Care not merely about your own things, but about your neighbor’s?” No enunciation of the Holy Spirit ought to be confined to the subject immediately in hand merely, and not applied and carried out with a view to every occasion to which its application is useful. Since, therefore, both our own interest and that of others is implicated in the studious pursuit of most perilous outward comeliness, it is time for you to know that not merely must the pageantry of fictitious and elaborate beauty be rejected by you but that of even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence as equally dangerous to the glances of the beholder’s eyes.