[Paleopsych] Christianity Today: The "Virtue" of Lust?

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The "Virtue" of Lust?
May/June 2005, Vol. 11, No. 3, Page 18

     So says philosopher Simon Blackburn.
     by W. Jay Wood

Lust by Simon Blackburn
Oxford Univ. Press, 2004, 144 pp., $17.95

     Middle-aged male philosophers aren't, perhaps, the first persons one
     consults about sexual pleasures and pursuits, but they have certainly
     written a lot about the morality thereof. Cambridge philosopher Simon
     Blackburn's book Lust, a volume in Oxford University Press' series on
     the Seven Deadly Sins, is a self-consciously contrarian contribution
     to that venerable genre.

     Blackburn is a prolific writer of both popular and professional
     philosophy, an outstanding essayist, and an insightful reviewer of
     books, whose sparkling prose customarily displays philosophical skill
     and evident wit. Lust doesn't lack in stylistic grace and wit, but its
     ground note is a smirking satisfaction with its own provocations, and
     its treatment of opposing views falls well below Blackburn's usual

     At least the reader is forewarned. Blackburn announces at the outset
     that he has no intention of writing a book about the sin of lust, an
     intention he admirably fulfills--which may be all to the good, since
     he appears to lack any developed notion of sin and, even if he has
     one, he doesn't think lust qualifies as a sin. He knows quite well, of
     course, what reputation religious tradition, common sense, and
     ordinary language have assigned to his subject: "Lust is furtive,
     ashamed, and embarrassed"; "Lust pursues its own gratification,
     headlong, impatient of any control, immune to reason"; "Lust looks
     sideways, inventing deceits and stratagems and seductions, sizing up
     opportunities"; "Lust subverts propriety" and is "like living shackled
     to a lunatic." Given this indictment, Blackburn says, it is his task
     "to speak up for lust," as a kind of attorney for the defense:

       So the task I set myself is to clean off some of the mud, to rescue
       [lust] from the echoing denunciations of old men of the deserts, to
       deliver it from the pallid and envious confessors of Rome and the
       disgust of the Renaissance, to destroy the stock and pillories of
       the Puritans, to separate it from the other things that we know
       drag it down. ... and so lift it from the category of sin to that
       of a virtue.

     What exactly does Blackburn mean by lust, and why does he think it
     qualifies as a virtue? His formal account describes lust as "the
     active and excited desire for sexual activity." In fact, however, his
     discussion encompasses far more than this, ranging widely over the
     entire spectrum of matters pertaining to human sexuality, including
     ancient theories about the division of the sexes, courtship customs,
     birth control and, a little closer to the topic, sexual attraction,
     romantic ardor, sexual desire, sexual excitement and arousal, sexual
     pleasures, sexual acts, eros, and more. Indeed, the book is mistitled;
     it might more appropriately have been called something like
     "Philosophical Meditations on Sex" or "Simon Blackburn's Guide to Good
     Sex." The irony, of course, is that Blackburn thinks he is rescuing
     these pleasures from the Christians, when in fact most Christians
     don't see anything wrong with anything in the above list, when pursued
     appropriately. Christians don't think it was an accident that God
     created us male and female, with nerve-laden genitalia, and made most
     pleasurable our obedience to his command to "go forth and multiply."

     While Blackburn claims that his book "is not a history of lust or even
     ideas about lust," the book's 15 chapters (which include photographs
     and color plates of erotic art) nevertheless unfold in roughly
     historical order, treating an array of views on various aspects of
     sexuality offered by Pre-Socratic Greeks, Plato, the Cynics, the
     Stoics, the Manichees, Augustine, various medieval views culminating
     in Aquinas, then on to Shakespeare, Hobbes, and Kant, before moving on
     to moderns such as Freud, Sartre, and Nussbaum. Blackburn is right to
     resist the label of history for his work, for a genuine history of
     lust would not be so unrepresentative in the passages it selects for
     comment nor so blatant in what it ignores. Blackburn's anti-religious
     treatment of the topic makes no mention of the Song of Solomon's
     erotic poetry, the sanctity of the marriage bed (Hebrews 13), or the
     biblical commands for husbands and wives not to deprive one another of
     sexual intimacy (1 Cor. 7). Had he made the least effort to read some
     of the Puritans he is so eager to denounce, he would have discovered
     that they were no prudes. Quite the contrary: with St. Paul's
     admonition in mind, they regarded a spouse's neglect of his partner's
     sexual needs as grounds for excommunication! References to
     contemporary Christian writing about sex are also signally absent.

     The longest chapter in the book, tendentiously titled "The Christian
     Panic," discusses Augustine's struggles with his own powerful sexual
     drives and habits, the tensions created by his Neo-Platonist and
     gnostic intellectual background, and the Christian faith he embraced
     as an adult. Some of Augustine's views may strike us today as strained
     or severe, but when they are viewed in historical context they offer
     moderating elements. After the debauched excesses of the Roman
     Empire--modern sexual libertines have nothing on Caligula and
     Nero--the ancient world witnessed an opposite swing of the pendulum.
     As Blackburn correctly notes, the Stoics were skeptical of sexual
     pleasure, and the Manichees, with whom Augustine associated for nine
     years, along with some gnostic Christian cults, preached total
     abstinence from sex. Tertullian and Augustine's Christian mentor,
     Ambrose, sometimes sounded as though they'd prefer the extinction of
     the human race to its propagation through intercourse.

     Augustine strikes a moderating position amidst these extremes, his
     Christian faith and fidelity to Scripture proving a corrective to the
     philosophical and sectarian extremes of his day. Augustine couldn't
     deny Scripture's teaching that creation is good, including God's
     provision for propagation through sexual intercourse. Moreover, our
     Lord having assumed a physical body, and his having been raised from
     the dead and preserved from corruption, were proof that the physical
     world is not evil. Jesus' blessing of the wedding at Cana, and
     Scripture's other teachings about the honor of the marriage bed and
     conjugal obligations between spouses, combined to correct some of the
     excesses of his day. While Augustine acknowledged the good of
     marriage, he certainly denied that it was the highest good, and he
     remained suspicious of sexual pleasure. He counseled married couples
     capable of it to abandon sexual intimacy and instead to pursue
     spiritual communion with each other and with God.

     Christianity and natural reason have long taught that our appetites
     for food, drink, sleep, sex, and the other natural pleasure associated
     with the body can be out of whack, ill-tuned, excessive, or deficient.
     The unprecedented abundance of food, leisure, drink, and sexual
     stimulation that contemporary Americans enjoy has neither increased
     our fulfillment nor decreased the number and degree of dysfunctions
     associated with these goods, as any talk show or bestseller list will
     attest. Moreover, Christianity has never regarded lust, or the other
     sins of appetite, as the worst of sins--though they may be among the
     most common, arising as they often do in the "heat of the moment" and
     without the full consent of the will (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,
     II-II, Q. 154, art. 3). Lust can't compare in seriousness with envy,
     anger, and the many species of pride, culminating in the satanic
     desire to supplant God. Rather, Christianity has always taught that
     our appetite for sexual pleasure, just like those for food, drink, and
     sleep, needs to be tutored, trained with bit and bridle, sensitive to
     the slightest touch of command, lest it rampage out of control,
     dragging us helter-skelter after it.

     Blackburn thinks that the highest state of sexual desire and activity
     occurs amidst what he calls "Hobbesian unity," after Thomas Hobbes,
     the philosopher famous for describing life in the state of nature as
     "poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes wrote of sexual
     intimacy, which Blackburn elaborates on as a state in which sexual
     partners are in a communion of body and mind, reciprocally sensitive
     to each other, "responding and adjusting to each other delicately for
     the entire performance," much like musicians who more or less
     unconsciously adjust to each other's playing. Blackburn seems not to
     grasp that the attentive reciprocity lovers achieve in Hobbesian unity
     not only does not qualify as lust, it is a most happy aspect of
     conjugal bliss, as those "repressed" Puritans pointed out using the
     same musical metaphors long before Blackburn. One Puritan writer wrote
     that married couples "may joyfully give due benevolence one to the
     other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted do make a most
     pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort"^[53]1 But if
     Hobbesian unity is not identical to lust, neither is it necessarily
     virtuous, since it might be achieved in sexual encounters with minors,
     siblings, another person's spouse, sadomasochistic and homosexual
     activity, and other sexual relationships Christians consider immoral.

     Much as he relishes lust, Blackburn himself acknowledges that sexual
     activity can go awry, and in chapter 11, "Disasters," he chronicles
     some of the ways he thinks that happens. Here, he borrows heavily, but
     not without some reservations, from Martha Nussbaum's paper
     "Objectification," in which she lists a variety of harmful forms of
     sexual involvement, including treating the other merely as a tool,
     regarding the other as lacking self-determination, as lacking agency,
     as something that can be bought or sold, or swapped for an object of
     similar type, or as someone whose feelings needn't be taken into
     account.^[54]2 Nussbaum's list is obviously meant to exclude rape,
     prostitution, pornography, and unequal power relations between
     partners as legitimate forms of sexual involvement. While Blackburn
     acknowledges problems with producing pornography, he is not much
     troubled by its consumption; if the fantasies that it stimulates "may
     not be of sex at its best, ... there is little reason to deny that
     they can be." He is also less condemning of prostitution than
     Nussbaum, regarding it as sometimes "sad and touching rather than
     wicked and sinful."

     Throughout the book Blackburn praises the loss of self that occurs in
     the climax of sexual ecstasy--a "frenzy" which, as he says, "drives
     out thought," "takes over other cognitive functionings," and in which
     the lovers, though "lost to the world," nevertheless experience one of
     the highest "pleasures of exercising lust." Curiously, and I think
     inconsistently, Blackburn's high regard for the loss of reason and the
     self works against the very Hobbesian unity he extols as the epitome
     of "good lust." Contrary to his claim that the lovers are "responding
     and adjusting to each other delicately for the entire performance"
     (emphasis mine), Hobbesian unity is at that "marvelous moment"
     abruptly broken, the lovers now no longer mindful of each other but
     utterly captive to their own bodily pleasure. Reverting to his musical
     metaphor, Blackburn says, "the player is sufficiently lost in the
     music to become oblivious even to the other players." At precisely the
     moment their coordinated efforts should coalesce to climax, the lovers
     break off their duet to go solo.

     Just here Blackburn must face the criticisms of Aquinas, whose chief
     objection to sexual intercourse was precisely its customary loss of
     reason and self. It wasn't sexual pleasure per se Aquinas was against,
     as Blackburn suggests. Indeed, Thomas writes in the Supplement to the
     Summa Theologiae that just as it is not sinful to take food for
     pleasure, neither is it a "mortal sin" for a husband to seek sexual
     congress with his wife for pleasure (Supplement Q 49, art. 6).
     According to Thomas, we do not escape venial sin, however, precisely
     because reason is momentarily abandoned: "we become flesh and nothing
     more" (Q 49, art. 6). Interestingly, Thomas thought this wouldn't have
     happened before the Fall, where body and mind working in perfect
     harmony would have made sexual pleasure even greater than it currently
     is (St II-II Q 153, art. 2). Hobbesian unity, if you will, would not
     have been broken, but the lovers would have been united both in body
     and mind, giving and receiving with all their faculties to wonderful
     climax. Once again, in delicious irony, Christians have anticipated
     and upstaged their secular counterparts in treating of sexual topics.

     One won't learn much about the vice of lust by reading Blackburn's
     book. One would do better to consult any of the past masters of moral
     character--John Cassian, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Dante, Richard
     Baxter--or contemporary authors such as Joseph Pieper, Peter Kreeft,
     and Robert C. Roberts. All these authors agree that the vice of lust,
     as opposed to an isolated episode thereof, is an abiding disposition
     to disordered sexual appetites and behavior, typically structured by
     the thought "I can be whole or happy only if I indulge and satisfy my
     sexual appetites and preferences as they suit me." It is marked by
     emotions such as shame, boredom, longing, aggression, and loneliness,
     and finds expression in physical abuse of oneself and others,
     manipulation and deceit of others for sexual gratification, predatory
     and domineering behaviors, and other actions that oppose genuine love
     of the other.

     To paraphrase Aristotle's remarks about generosity, sexual
     gratification must be pursued with the right person, for the right
     reason, at the right time, and in the right way, and to the right
     degree. In-house disagreements remain among Christians regarding the
     appropriateness of sex that is not open to conception, between
     divorced persons, or even between members of the same sex, among other
     controversies. Christians also need to think carefully to determine
     when healthy sexual desires and amorous inclinations veer off into
     unhealthiness and sin. Unfortunately, they'll get little or no help
     toward thinking Christianly about these tough and timely issues by
     reading Blackburn's Lust.

     W. Jay Wood is professor of philosophy at Wheaton College. He is the
     author of Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous

     1. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were
     (Zondervan, 1986), p. 44.

     2. Martha Nussbaum, "Objectification," Philosophy and Public Affairs,
     Vol. 24 (1995), pp. 249-91.

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