Philosophy and Sex: Not a Happy Couple

A one-volume history of Western civilization would surely have to have a chapter devoted to sex, marriage, and related activities and customs, and no less surely would make the claim that over this whole, most important aspect of human flourishing lies the clammy fog of the Christian religion. Although Judaism, from which Christianity came, has always made sex and the family absolutely central, to be promoted and cherished, as one might expect of the religion of an oft-threatened people, Christianity itself is decidedly negative. Jesus and his great apostle Paul were celibate; they (Jesus especially) were decidedly not family men, and they had little good to say about sexuality. Even looking appreciatively at a pretty girl is apparently sinful, and the most conventional and respectable activity is a sign of weakness: "better to marry than to burn."

I suspect that as always the truth is more complex than this, but here my intent is to suggest that, although Christianity as such is clearly implicated, the undoubted negativity towards sexuality in the West owes as much, if not more, to the great figures in my own field: philosophy. There is, I think, a simple reason for this. Philosophy is by its very nature dedicated to reason. Leave the emotions to poets and dramaticists and composers of opera. Philosophy tries to understand the world, and ourselves, by appeal to raw sensation and to thought and the methods of inference. It may not always succeed, cynics and sceptics say that it never succeeds, but this is the name of the game. And sex, for all that it is essential, is not a very rational thing, and so there is bound to be a clash, either as philosophy gets into denial or as it tries to harness sexuality to its own very different ends.

Plato, that great Greek thinker four centuries before Christ, shows this all very clearly. His psychology (as we would call it today) has the human psyche (usually translated as "soul" but referring to the whole psychological makeup and not just to the part which survives death) divided into three parts. There is the rational part, that part which rules; there is the spirited part, that part which drives us on and gives us courage; and there is the appetitive part, the belly of the beast as it were. Plato stresses that all three parts are necessary for proper functioning; he certainly does not claim that eating and sex as such are bad things, but as an upper-class Greek he preached and practiced restrain. Above all, the truly good person, the truly just person, has all three parts of the soul in harmony, doing their proper thing, and has and recognizes that the rational part is in control. For this reason, Plato like his mentor Socrates, was deeply distrustful of romantic love: they referred to it (quite literally) as a madness, and the very act of sex was viewed as highly dangerous. At the moment of climax, reason is hardly in charge. It is well known that Plato was probably more homosexually inclined than otherwise, but do not think that he gave licence for the San Francisco gay baths scene. Indeed, not only did he counsel abstinence but it was he who introduced the notorious argument that since the birds and the animals do not do it this way, neither should we.

Plato's influence comes down to us through the greatest of the Church fathers, Saint Augustine. This was a tailor-made philosophy for a man who was absolutely racked with sexual guilt, powerful emotions (as his Confessions well attest) and yet with that wretched mother (Saint Monica) badgering the poor man until he gave it all up, jilted the girl, and spent the rest of his life trying to drive out carnal thoughts by pouring out volume after volume of attacking rhetoric against all manner of heretics. The other of the great Greek philosophers, Aristotle, was likewise taken up by the Christian thinkers, most fully and successfully almost a thousand years after Augustine by the no less great Saint Thomas Aquinas. To be fair to the Stagirite (as Aristotle is sometimes called thanks to his birth in Stagira in northern Greece), he had a wife and kids and when she died took up a happy common-law relationship, but Aquinas knew an opportunity when he saw one. He drew a distinction between eternal law, God's way of thinking about what is right and proper, and natural law, which is eternal law translated into material terms for us humans. Seizing on Aristotle's analysis of causation, which sees things not only as having material factors behind their appearance and being but also as having purposes or functions ("final causes"), Aquinas argued that natural law must pay full attention to the functional reason why things exist. In particular, when it comes to sexuality, we must ask why sexual organs exist in the sense not so much as to what makes them appear but rather as to why they appear at all. And the answer Aquinas found was centred on reproduction pure and simple. Natural law is satisfied when the sexual organs are used in this function for which they were intended. The penis goes in the vagina -- that is what an erection was made for -- and babies are the end result.

For Aristotle, all of this intention lies in the way that things are, no more, no less. He regarded final causes as a simple fact of nature. For Aquinas, this intention lies in God's purposes, and here's the rub! Given his Aristotelianism, Aquinas felt able to argue that any sexuality other than heterosexual intercourse for the purposes of conception was unnatural, goes against final cause, and hence offensive to God as a violation of natural law. This does not mean that Aquinas endorsed all kinds of heterosexual intercourse. Rape, for instance, is a violation of another person and as such is offensive to God. But it is not a violation of natural law in the way that masturbation and homosexual (anal) intercourse is. And it is for this reason that Aquinas felt compelled to condemn the solitary wanker as committing a far graver sin than the worst and most callous violator of women. Showing the strength and the weakness of philosophy, even Aquinas felt somewhat queasy over this appalling conclusion. Therefore, he went back over his reasoning, finally convincing himself that counter intuitive though it may seem, it is indeed a valid line of argumentation.

You might think that the more secular philosophers would do better by sexuality, but history shows that this was far from the case. Given his pietistic background, I am not sure how far one would judge the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant to be a secular philosopher, but he certainly stood in the grand old tradition when it came to sexuality. His supreme moral principle, the Categorical Imperative, exhorts us to treat fellow humans as ends rather than means. One might solve the parking problem in downtown Guelph with a few public executions of repeated offenders, but this would be to treat these unfortunates as means to the general end of uncluttered streets. More significantly, something like rape is immoral because the violator is treating his victim as a means to his own sexual gratification rather than a person in his or her own right.

But sexuality generally gave Kant problems. In sexual intercourse, even a conventionally married husband and wife seem to be treating each other as means to self gratification rather than as ends in themselves. As I gasp and groan in sexual passion and desire at my partner's body and genitalia, I am hardly in the respect-for-persons business. Reluctantly, Kant allowed however that this sexual activity was acceptable for married folk (he himself was a life-long bachelor of such regularity that one could set one's watch by his punctuality), so long as in using the other you were aware and intentionally giving yourself to the other. But that was the limit to it, and all other kinds of sexuality was strictly unacceptable. In the most incredible and surely unintentional double entendre, Kant argued that anal intercourse is morally unacceptable because you are thereby treating the recipient as a means rather than as an end in itself.

The utilitarians, those British moralists who claimed that good action is proportional to the happiness produced and the unhappiness reduced, might seem more promising. But this is to reckon without the neurotic sexual timidity of John Stuart Mill, who carried on a several-year relationship with the wife of another man without (so he claimed) doing that which would have brought shame and dishonour on their pure and spiritual encounters. Happiness? Yes. Sexual happiness? Well, that is entirely another matter. For Mill, true happiness does not lie in the animal passions but rather in those refined pursuits of an educated middle-class Victorian gentleman. Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Anyone who thinks that the utilitarians give the green light for a satisfying bonk had better think again.

And so the sad story goes down to the present. Things have changed, but little thanks to the philosophers. Psychologists and others, people like Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey, have shown us finally that not only is sexual activity a major and significant part of human existence, but also that it can be a full and satisfying part of our very being. Sex is not only important. It can be fun. Of course it brings responsibilities and there is need of proper restraint. But of what human pursuit is this not true? The philosophers however continue to stand on the side lines. Either, like the late Michel Foucault, they put forward bad arguments purportedly showing that sexuality entirely transcends morality, "it is all a social construction, isn't it, and so why should we think that sex has anything to do with right and wrong?", or, like the vast majority of Anglo Saxon philosophers, they prefer not to think of it at all. Embarrassed silence or sniggers is the usual response, before we turn to such satisfying pursuits as the finding of epistemic conditions of justified true belief. (Do not ask me what these are. Even I repress some things.)

But, as I said at the beginning, perhaps this is all to be expected. Philosophy, by its very nature, is going to be wary if not opposed to sexuality. This does not mean that we should reject philosophy. It has many virtues. Socrates is right. The unexamined life is not worth living. But we should be very glad that not everyone in this Western world of ours is a philosopher. Especially when it comes to sex.

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