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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 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"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.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 (InterVarsity).

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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