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W. Jay Wood


The Virtue of Lust?

So says philosopher Simon Blackburn.

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 standard.

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 ...

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