Originally published on the Florida Student Philosophy Blog
Perhaps those who love Shakespeare love him because of his ability to so skillfully portray the many facets of the human condition. He does indeed most always “get it right.” Certainly, his description of lust causes a person like myself, who has completely succumbed to its temptations and lived long enough to reap its harvest, to grimly nod my head in agreement. I do so with sadness recalling the results of acts I now regret, just as others may do so in desperation from the habitual prison that they have built for themselves and are unable to escape. For the purposes of this paper, I will use Blackburn’s definition of lust in the first chapter of his book, which is: “The enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake.”
Blackburn begins to describe various other scenarios where people desire things inappropriately and makes the symantical case that the word “lust” should not be a catchall phrase for this. For example, we might describe a young woman as having a lust for life or an insatiable thirst for knowledge and we would think this commendable. But should we say that she had a lust for power or an insatiable thirst for liquor, quite the opposite would apply. When discussing the allegory of the charioteer, Blackburn claims not to know why the white horse was needed in that he agreed with the charioteer. The answer to my mind is that both horses are needed to get the charioteer where he wants to go. I view the two horses as that which drives the body to do anything, the one horse representing our altruistic nature; to be kind; to be patient; to be prudent, and the other our selfish nature; to be aggressive, to want immediate gratification, to be impulsive. I do not think that the ugliness of the black horse is meant to tell us that physical desires like hunger, and the sex drive are ugly or bad. I think Plato makes the comparison to say that certain traits lead us upward to the spiritual realm while others keep us firmly rooted on the earth.
Reading about the foibles of the Church and the misinterpretations of the Holy Scriptures by its doctors is painful, more so when recounted by a non-believer. I think to myself, “How could they have thought that, and be filled with the same Spirit as the rest of us?” But if I consider my own missteps in reasoning, it is really not very surprising at all. Blackburn keeps taking swipes at Christianity throughout the text, writing as if Roman Catholicism was the only ancient Christian tradition around, and its doctrines had been free during their time from challenge and criticism. After all, one of Luther’s first acts after breaking away from Rome was to marry a nun. Still, Blackburn makes a concise and convincing case that the Body of Christ has done perhaps as much damage as good at helping mankind to understand the purpose of sexual desire, and the wonder and joy that it provides within the proper boundaries of marriage. It is a comfort for Christians that he ends one chapter with the statement that “The biblical vice of Sodom and Gomorrah was probably the lack of hospitality to strangers, rather than any particular sexual practice” demonstrating that his efforts also seem to represent one more example of “the blind leading the blind.”
I don’t understand why Blackburn changes his definition of lust when he begins to talk about Hobbesian unity and I certainly do not agree with Hobbes definition. I like the concept he describes, but it is not lust. It seems to me that what he is describing might be more rightly called satiation, the process whereby two people cooperatively relieve their individual lusts. Blackburn’s comparison of this process to Hobbesian unity is also to be commended, but not because he is describing lust. I think he is more accurately describing is God’s definition of marriage as outlined in His revealed word, the Holy Bible. Hobbs describes a “yielding of authorization” (Leviathan 17.13) to the state that is much more than simple consent. In the same manner, marriage is more than simple contract; it is an unbreakable covenant whose term is life where two individuals yield their autonomy to a corporate entity, the family. In marital sex, the two are able to give free rein to their lust becoming one flesh, engaging in the circular pleasurable cooperation that Blackburn outlines.(Pg 88) Kant is almost right when he says that marriage is a contract for each to use the others genitals. In fact, biblical marriage is a life long covenant for each to have use of the other’s entire body, including the genitals.
Moving along at a brisk pace, Blackburn takes a few sentences to poke fun both at Sigmund Freud and Martha Nussbaum for their criticisms of sex and sexual partners while making the observation that in the throes of passion, lovers lose their identities and inhibitions along with their underwear, and are thus incapable of viewing the other as less then themselves. They regress he says, to an almost infantile or animalistic state, operating on pure instinct and blind trust. He deals neatly with the idea of fungiblity, “If I can’t be near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near”, arguing that for lust to reach its zenith, it must be focused on a specific subject at a particular time. It is does not matter that there are many possible choices, a choice must be made, and after that no other will do, until of course the next time. But in the same manner as Robert Solomon argues on page 208 of his book , “Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor,” once the choice has been made lovers create “sentiments particular to the love, which are therefore difficult, if not impossible, to replace” thereby making the fungible choice of a new lover unlikely, at least in the short run.
Blackburn’s concludes that lust is a good thing and that the ideal situation for its expression is a Hobbesian unity between two people who cooperate in bringing pleasure to one another. But it seems to me that this does not square with his original definition of “sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake.” Rather I think that this kind of unity can only exist where two people love and trust one another enough to provide such pleasures for their partner’s sake first and then their own. To do this a level of trust has to exist where each partner can feel comfortable that the other will not cause them unwanted pain, or betray their vulnerability, or forsake them, as least until they have both reached orgasm. More often, one or more of the partners wants to believe that the other will never forsake them so that they may continue to work on a continuing process of unity, until every conceivable pleasurable avenue has been explored and perfected. It is this type of unity that the world has come to know as marriage.