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Reflections of Valentine’s Day

Reflections of Valentine’s Day

Al Gini

Gini in a Bottle


In Western Christian thought, the body has always been an obstacle to human growth and salvation. The body was seen as the “lesser thing,” this “corporeal prison” that impedes and confuses the life of the mind and the perfection of the soul. St. Francis of Assisi referred to his body as “his brother ass,” the encasement that housed his spirit and soul. From the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise, the body has been perceived as part of humankind’s painful penalty for disobeying the word of God. The body is but flesh. It produces wastes. It is unclean. The body is demanding. It must be fed. It must be maintained. The body is but mortal. It is susceptible to corruption, disease, and death.

Western philosophy, from the time of the Greeks, was also uncomfortable with our “corporeal nature” and preferred the psyche (mind) over the sōma (body). For Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, the acts of reasoning and contemplation were the highest activities of human condition. The pleasures of the body, sensuality, and eros distracted us, drained us of energy, and, hence, were to be seen as enemies of reason. They believed that reason could free us from the imprisonment of the body and the limits of our emotions, feelings, and desires.

The demonization of the body perhaps found its most ardent support in the works of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. For Augustine, the good soul find itself imprisoned trapped in the bad body, and that the pleasures of the body were the chief source of all our problems. We must, he argued triumph over our animal natures and free ourselves from sexual desire. The only possible excuse of sex, said Augustine, is procreation, which should be indulged in without lust or pleasure. Aquinas, like Augustine, argued that sex is permitted only for procreation. Aquinas routinely associated intercourse with such terms as-filth, stain, foulness, vileness, and distaste. He believed that any sexual activity or desire that does not have reproduction as its aim is unclear, ungodly, and immoral.

The essential point I’m trying to make in this chapter is that, quiet ironically, sex is yet another way to avoid ethical considerations and reinforce the “fortress of self.” Although we may experience some hesitance and schizophrenia in its regard, the almost total eroticization of our commercial culture makes sexuality, in all of its possible forms, a convenient, easy, and immediate method of remaining ensconced in the emotional maze of our own narcissism. Sex allows us to lose ourselves in the moment. It allows us to forget, to cope, to overcome, to endure. It allows us a diversion. It allows us to escape. When sex is used in this manner it becomes, at best, a private challenge, a game, and athletic event, a biological function, a release, an endorphin high. It is a self-centered act, which is insensitive to the desires and pleasures of any possible partner. Sex of this kind denies the subjectivity and autonomy of another, using the person as a mere instrument for one’s own gratification. Sex of this kind alienates us from ourselves and others. Sex of this kind desires desire and/or seeks to simply sate an appetite. Sex of this kind may not necessarily be about the domination and conquest of another but it is about selfishness using others, and escapism.

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The Seven Deadly Sins

Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, Anger, Envy, Pride, Lust

The Seven Heavenly Virtues

Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, Charity

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The Dignity of Lust

Simon Blackburn writes in his elegant and interesting recent book, Lust, that sex need not and should not solely be about self. Blackburn argues that traditionally we have lumped sex and lust together and have given them both a bad name which they do not deserve. For Blackburn, lust can be a virtue and not a vice. Lust, when properly understood and performed, is, in the words of David Hume, “useful or agreeable to the person himself and to others.”

Lust is about desire that is felt. It is palpable. It floods the body, the mind, the heart. Lust is not cerebral or simply imagined. Lust is desire that arouses the senses and the body. Lust is, says Blackburn, enthusiastic desire for sexual activity for its own sake. Lust is not necessarily about the expression of eternal romantic love. Lust is not always an attempt to impregnate. Lust is about the pursuit of sexual ecstasy for itself alone. But, but, but, say Blackburn, the full pleasure of sexual activity requires the presence of another, a partner, a fellow traveler. There must always be an object of lust: a “partner,” an “other” who is not treated as other, but rather as someone you “desire to please” as much as you “desire to be pleased.”

Citing Thomas Hobbes, Blackburn argues that lust is about two drives or two appetites together: To please « To be pleased. “I desire you, and I desire your desire for me…. A pleases B, B is pleased at what A is doing and A is pleased at B’s pleasure.” And, so on, and so on, and so on. As Hobbes put this point, “The appetite which men call Lust … is sensual pleasure, but not only that; there is in it also a delight of the mind: for it consisteth 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 mind, consisting in the imagination of the power they have so much to please.”

For Blackburn, true lust must be more that one-sided. Lust is about communion, harmony, completion. “The subject is not centrally pleased at himself,” say Blackburn, “but at the excitement of the other…. There are no cross-purposes, hidden agendas, mistakes, or deceptions. Lust here is like making music together, a joint symphony of pleasure and response. There is a pure mutuality.”

Blackburn believes that we should not be “enemies of lust.” “Lust,” he contends is not merely useful, but essential. “We would none of us be here without it.” Moreover, he suggests that lust, if properly pursued and applied, is an ethical act because it requires us to step outside the fortress of self and take into consideration the feelings, needs, and desires of others. (In a post-AIDS world, this would include issues of safe sex as well as satisfying sex with one’s partner.) It behooves us, says Blackburn, “to speak up for lust,” “to restore lust to humanity,” to lift lust “from the category of a sin to that of a virtue.”

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The most difficult task of romantic life:

Getting Like, Love, and Lust all in one relationship.

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