Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Eros and Eschaton
Below is a post I wrote for Ethika Politika in response to their critique of my "Looking to Desire".
The editors have kindly invited me to engage with the criticisms of my work which they offered in their post “Is Homosexual Desire Basically Good?” The point of contention is whether or not Eve could have experienced disordered desire while in a state of innocence. It would seem to me that if we assume that a concupiscent or sinful desire can be experienced by innocent nature, then the original sin would not have been the taking and eating of the fruit, but rather the gaze which Eve turns towards it when she sees that it is “pleasing to the eye,” and so forth. According to such an account, she would commit the sin of covetousness the moment that she entertained a desire for the fruit, and the rest would be only a formality. Her nature would thus have fallen the moment that she perceived the fruit as desirable.
This seems to me to be problematic. It would seem that she experiences spontaneous desire (simplex voluntas) at the moment when she apprehends the fruit and it attracts her as good. Classical moral theology differentiates between such a spontaneous desire and the more voluntary forms of intentional desire which occur when the will is engaged. In post-lapsarian man, the aspect of desire which arises prior to consent may be effected by concupiscence, that is, a fallen nature may perceive the good in an object which is evil, as, for example, when a sadist feels attracted to the pain of other human beings. In Eve, however, concupiscence could not have existed prior to the exercise of her volition towards an undue object. This would seem to indicate that her spontaneous desire for the fruit was grounded in the perception of genuine goods, and that her desire became disordered because she chose to appropriate what she ought merely to have appreciated. If she had refused the temptation, had gazed upon the fruit, seen that it was pleasing, good and desirable, and had then given praise to God for having created such a thing without entertaining in her heart any intention to procure it for herself, then there would have been no original sin, and hence no concupiscent desire.
There are, however, admittedly difficulties in applying such an analysis to the desires of historical man. Since the fall, it has been common for men to experience spontaneous desires for undue objects, what the scholastics referred to as “valleities.” These non-culpable concupiscent desires are distinguished as morally neutral -- a helpful distinction for priests dealing with scrupulous penitents. The ethical dimensions of desire become significant only when volition begins to be engaged, that is when the soul begins to covet and to contemplate the means of obtaining that which it desires. For instance, David may first have had a velleity for Bathsheba, then allowed his eyes to linger a little longer than they ought on her body bathing in the moonlight. He might then have experienced a concupiscent movement of the flesh, consented to the pleasure thereof, and proceeded deliberately to the cultivation of unclean phantasms. But it gets worse. He then lays plans to carry out the very act of carnal indulgence, summons her to his boudoir, and finally consummates his unlawful passion for the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Obviously his complicity with the temptation would have increased with each voluntary movement of the will towards the accomplishment of his goal.
It seems clear that same-sex desire may be a non-culpable valleity, provided it is not intentionally indulged, but as such it would still be “disordered,” that is, it would still be a desire for an undue object. The question, then, is whether or not there is any sense in which the erotic dimensions of another woman might be a due object of contemplation for a woman such as myself.
Within the Christian tradition, there is a tendency for erotic desire to be understood solely in terms of the desire for sexual union, that is as a kind of love proper to the spousal meaning of the body and the sexual relations between women and men. Plato suggests an alternate understanding of eros: the Platonic eros is simply desire as such, especially desire for that which is beautiful, whether that beauty is found in the body of a youth, or in the Athenian constitution, or in the contemplation of God. There would seem to be some analogous sense in which the Platonic eros is related to sexual eros – philosophically speaking they are definitely distinct phenomena, but existentially speaking they are intimately related and it is not difficult for the heart of man to confuse or blur such neat abstract distinctions. My personal suspicion is that the true point of meeting for these two forms of eros is the eschatological horizon: that Plato's non-sexual eros is a kind of desire, analogous to spousal eros, which is properly an expression of the soul's desire to be intimately united with God. This is why Socrates proposes an erotic movement from the contemplation of the beauty inherent in the body of man towards the contemplation of beauty as such. If we may be so bold as to translate the Socratic experience into the terms of Christian theology, it would seem that he is proposing a contemplation of the erotic dimensions of the human body solely in relation to the imago dei, without reference to the concupiscent desire for sexual intimacy.
Is such a thing possible? I believe that it is. I will not claim that it is common, or that it is easy, or that it is often to be found amongst men in its pure form. I would, however, be loathe to condemn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as the fruit of a wholly disordered eros. There is no question that Michelangelo spent a great deal of time contemplating the beauty of Adam, including the spousal meanings inherent in his body, in order to produce this work. Michelangelo himself appealed to a Christianization of the Platonic eros when describing his experiences of masculine attractiveness, God “in His grace, shows himself nowhere more / To me than through some veil, mortal and lovely, / Which I can only love for being His mirror.” Although it seems that the great Master's attractions were not wholly uncolored by lust, it would also seem, at least to me, that the images of male beauty which have inspired the Christian world for over 500 years are visible evidence of a redeemed and ordered Platonic desire.