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In praise of “Lust”


It is probably accurate to say that I’ve been confused by more philosophy published in books than most people you know. Which is one reason I do not subject myself to that kind of writing very often these days. I’ll make the occasional exception when a philosopher with a nimble mind tackles a subject in which I have some interest: When Colin McGinn dove into The Matrix and Eduardo Velásquez took on Fight Club. And when Simon Blackburn grappled with Lust.

Blackburn is one of those thinkers who not only does world-class philosophy – he is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College – but can usually explain his subject to a non-academic audience. A couple of years ago he gave a lecture on lust at the New York Public Library that later became a slender volume in a series on the seven deadly sins, published by Oxford University Press.

Lust: The Seven

Deadly Sins

Lust is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Blackburn insists that lust is misunderstood and improperly maligned, and he spans hundreds of years of philosophy and history to show how that came to be.

Lust is not only not a vice but, following David Hume’s argument that a virtue was any quality of mind “useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others,” has a pretty strong claim to be considered a virtue. And not only is it useful: it is essential. After all, would we even be here without lust?

Lust is nothing more than the desire for the pleasures of sexual activity with someone. It can be present without love, of course, just as love can be there without lust.

Within the bounds of marriage and in the service of procreation, even the Catholic Church would not dispute that definition. But that is about where the agreement ends, as Blackburn imagines it, and he takes on the Vatican, the restraints of the Puritans, the Church of England, and the religion-influenced birth control and sex education policies of the Bush administration.

Much of the bad reputation attached to lust is the result of having “excess” fused to its definition. If one concedes that morally objectionable excess is intrinsically part of lust, then there is no chance that it can be a virtue. But why concede that, Blackburn asks? After all, we don’t condemn thirst because it sometimes leads to excessive drinking and alcoholism.

“Money” sometimes suffers a similar erroneous conflation – this is my point, not Blackburn’s – as when we hear that money is the root of all evil. In fact, money, like lust, is basically neutral and necessary; as the Bible says it is the love of money – not money itself – that is the problem.

But if we consciously or unconsciously link lust with excess, Blackburn argues, then “we ought to be able to contrast it with some idea of a just and proportionate sexuality; one that has an appropriate intensity, short of obsession but more than indifference, and directed at an appropriate object.” Which of course we do all the time. “Indeed, in one respect nature manages it for us, since eventually we calm down and go to sleep. So it would seem wrong to say that lust is in and of itself excessive…. And judging from our actual choices rather than our moralizing, we like lust well enough.”

Surprisingly, one the main figures on which Blackburn builds his thesis is Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher better known for a darker view of human experience (as in his belief that giving individuals power under democracy would make life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”). Unlike the mechanistic sexology of Kinsey and others, lust properly understood by way of Hobbes is not about “the movements, but the thought behind them….”

Hobbes wrote that lust is “a sensual pleasure” and “a delight of the mind” consisting of “two appetites together, to please, and to be pleased; and the delight men take in delighting, is not sensual, but a pleasure or joy of the mind….” Blackburn calls this mutuality – not only pleasing another but taking delight in pleasing another and oneself – a “Hobbesian unity.” And this unity or mutuality “can be what philosophers call ‘variably realized.’ That is, as with a conversation, there is no one way of doing it.”

Who would have guessed one could learn more about Hobbes and Hume and how to write and think about philosophy from a slender book about lust, albeit one with color pictures (by Titian, Bronzino, and others)? “By understanding it for it is, we can reclaim lust for humanity,” Blackburn concludes, “and we can learn that lust best flourishes when it is unencumbered by bad philosophy and ideology, by falsities, by controls, by distortions, by corruptions and perversions and suspicions, which prevent its freedom of flow.”

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