|The perils of desire. (Apollo & Daphne, Bernini)|
Reply to Father Alban McCoy
I very much appreciate the consideration that Father McCoy has given to my little essay, and the courtesy of his commentary on it. In important respects, I hope to show, we are quite close. And I am relieved and pleased how well he recognizes that the lurid press slant on my book bears little relationship to its actual content.
As Father McCoy notices, after some discussion I end up defining lust in terms of the 'enthusiastic desire, the desire that floods the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake'. I deliberately put notions like 'excess' or 'illicit' to one side: if these are there from the beginning then of course lust is damned by its very name. But that would also mean that you could not, for instance, lust after your wife, or be lusted after by her, which would seem to me a pity (Father McCoy suggests that he would find the word inappropriate in such a context, but I do not think usage will support him).
The issues here might seem to be merely verbal, but I do not think that they are (in fact, I doubt if anything is ever 'merely' verbal; the adverb should be banned). Of course I do accept that other definitions are possible. But a good definition helps to pin down the subject and to clear our way to thinking about it without distraction. One advantage I hoped for mine is that it forces us to look at the nature of these pleasures of sexual activity. Now some might see these as very negative, and I agree, and indeed insist, that sometimes they are. Human beings are all to prone to pleasures of vanity, of conquering and domination and violence, and so on. Human beings can have seriously inappropriate thoughts about their partners. For instance, someone might hold that simply by consenting to such activity a woman degrades herself, and therefore deserves treating as degraded. But I wanted to be firm that the dark side does not have to fill the entire landscape.
At one point Father McCoy asks how, if we abandon the very category of lust, thought of as lassoing all and only the bad things, we can name all the things that I acknowledge as undesirable? I hope our language rises to the occasion: people can be insensitive and boorish; they objectify their partners and deny their humanity; they deceive themselves and others; they invade and dominate and even rape and kill. Perhaps there are more subtle ways of going wrong for which it is hard to find a name, but that is so in every department of life, and we have to turn not to single words but to novels and narratives to become sensistive to them.
Where we have this plurality of possible pleasures, there are indeed risks of misunderstanding. For comparison, if someone takes the pleasure of commerce (said with a sneer, as it were) to include only the pleasures of doing other people down then he can rightly preach against them, and if another person says, hang on, they include pleasures of (say) forwarding cooperative enterprises together, he could be charged that this is merely a verbal trick, changing the meaning of the word. It's a charge he can also retort upon the other person, of course. But those mutual accusations wouldn't expose the real heart of the matter, which remains the moral difference between doing people down and forwarding cooperative enterprises. In like manner, I want to say that only misunderstanding will ensue if we define lust so that its desires and aims are illicit, or equally if we define it so that its desires and aims are harmless. We have to confront the variations. I think if I can claim anything for my little essay, it is to invite people to think more carefully about exactly which pleasures they are interested in opposing or promoting. The word 'lust' will not do this for us by itself.
Once we come to the heart of the matter, I was interested in highlighting, as other philosophers have done, the mutuality involved in taking pleasure in another's pleasure, on an escalating ladder: an enterprise of what I christened 'Hobbesian unity', after a wonderful description of it (surprisingly, perhaps) by that philosopher. A good thing about this is that it implies close attention to the other person, just as making music or conversation does. These are not activities in which we 'use' other people for our own 'selfish' pleasure, and I wanted to say that such language can be quite inappropriate to sexual desire and activity as well, although, again, unhappily it is sometimes in place.
Another good thing about emphasizing Hobbes, and here I think I am in agreement with Father McCoy, is that the description actually points us at what is depressing and failing about 'mindless' promiscuity, and what is dangerous and unhealthy about certain kinds of fantasy. Indeed, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, emphasizing the interpersonal relationship involved in human sexual desire, uses it as a springboard for a thoroughgoing condemnation of such aberrations. But here too I find myself slightly more moderate. I argued that we have to be careful, since the pleasures of sexual imagination can themselves be quite innocent. Unfortunately I am inclined to believe that a repressive and guilt-ridden culture might make it less, rather than more, likely that they are , as sexuality becomes linked not just with modesty and privacy, but with shame, and especially with the attitude that sexual expression is in itself an animal or bestial degradation. Once those attitudes take hold (I cite Freud) then the way is wider open to some of the dreadful and indeed criminal manifestations both of sexuality and of hatred of it.
Here again I agree with Father McCoy, and indeed with the entire religious tradition, that what is at stake is something very important. Although I admit to being a liberal, I offer no cheery dismissal of the way concerns about sexuality infuse our moral and religious traditions, or those of other cultures. I incline to think that in important ways those traditions got some of the textures of sexual life wrong, but I never suggest that they were wrong to worry about them. I would like to thank Father McCoy for the quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas suggesting that he was not quite as down on pleasure as I had suggested, following other sources. As he notes, I did tend to go more to the Stoics and early fathers, and especially St. Augustine for the really hair-raising condemnations. I use Aquinas mainly to introduce the idea that because sex is 'for' reproduction, all sexual activity not devoted to that end is to be forbidden, which obviously casts a shadow over lust even on my definition. Here I sheltered behind Michael Frayn, although perhaps it would be disrespectful to repeat his irreverent demolition of the idea in this journal (The Tablet)
As a philosopher, I have to believe that either we control our ideas, or they control us. So it is a good thing for us to revisit our moral traditions, and to try to think them through once more. At one extreme we can do that in a spirit of pure piety, or subservience to a greater wisdom in the past, and at the other extreme we can do it as revolutionaries, determined to shake off the chains of tradition. I tried for an Aristotelian mean, and I am pleased that the enterprise interests even an audience that would place that mean nearer to one extreme or the other than I would.