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.


  1. Hi, Melinda--a quick thought to consider (although I confess to not having spent enough time fully reflecting on the exchange between EP and you) regarding Eve's situation in Genesis: I think it's important for us to remember that the "disordered desire" (as a temptation) in this account is introduced "externally" via the serpent, and, as such, for Eve to intellectually "consider" the temptation presented prior to engaging her will to choose evil would be indicative neither of disordered desire or sin on Eve's part prior to the fall. Her "fall" occurs at the moment her will is engaged and she says "yes" to the temptation (disordered desire) presented to her by the serpent.

    Not sure how this notion affects either perspective at this point, but I thought it might be helpful.

    God bless you,

    Deacon JR

  2. The beauty of a male or female is always a positive good in itself. Its erotic potential is a part of its beauty and is, in its proper sphere, a positive good of the highest sort. Desire for what is good is, in itself a good thing, reflective of appreciation of what is good in it. Temptation is not sin: Our Lord himself (according to Hebrews) was tempted as we are, but without sin. Temptation without desire is not temptation at all. Therefore desire is not, in itself, sin. I agree with what you wrote, that desire does not become disordered or sinful until the will becomes involved, determining that the desire should be fulfilled. Temptation which is not embraced by the will is then not sin, morally neutral; but when it is embraced by the will, it begins to be sin.

  3. Very interesting discussion! Lots of nuances involved, but some ignored too... The Christian tradition (i.e. St. Augustine) would make a greater distinction between pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian willing than I think you, Melinda, afford, and definitely than the two commenters above afford. Not to say that Augustine had everything satisfactorily worked out. You seem to rely a great deal on JP II, who presents a 'new spin' on the subject.
    Right willing is directed to the true good for us, so the question is, in appreciating the sexual dimension of another - first, of the other sex, second, of the same sex, how much of these complex objects are being 'targetted' as goods per se and how much not? Objects of the will are complex things, not simple things, and the act of willing is itself complex too - as St. Paul in Romans makes very clear. I can appreciate the beauty of another man, but how much of that is ordered, how much disordered? No one wills anything with perfect adherence to the good(s) therein. If I like the physique of a physically fit man, is this me appreciating his objective beauty, or is this a kind of covetousness or vanity (herein I am supposing no sexual desire, since I do not recognize that I have any SSA!). Likely it involves something of column (a) and something from column (b)!

    I know how you like Plato, Melinda! I love him too, but his conception of willing is markedly different and incommensurable with Paul's in many ways.

    I do, though, have some significant misgivings with Ed's interpretation of Our Lord's temptations: check out Aquinas's Summa Theologica, Part 3, Question 18. Augustine treats of the subject in Book 14 of City of God and Book 4 of his Unfinished Work Against Julian. Boethius in his famous Theological tractates - though I can't remember which...

    In a nutshell, Christ was in no way attracted to sin. His body 'liked' goods of the body, but was not drawn to will acquiring them whenever it was not the Father's will.

    Great discussion. I enjoy your blog muchly!

    1. Hi Colin,

      Thanks for contributing! To tell the truth, I have my reservations about large tracts of Plato. Can't stand the Laws, and found that the Republic, after a very promising start, descended into elitist daydreaming. In any case, I think that one of the difficulties with philosophizing, and theological anthropologizing, is something that I'm going to call the “angelic pretext.” This is the pretense that we're talking about pure abstractions, natures, essences, all of those lovely things that angels can perceive, and which, as St. Thomas so carefully elucidates in his Treatise on Man, we can know only imperfectly, by means of sensations and phantasms. Of course what we're really doing is describing interior phenomena, subjective acts, as though they were universal and essential – which isn't necessarily true. When it comes right down to it, the reason that I love the Phaedrus is that it makes my heart sing. I feel transported by the text, as though I were really there, lying under the plane tree, listening to the grasshoppers, having my heart stirred by Socrates' inspired ramblings and clever distractions. When Socrates speaks in this dialogue, and in the Symposium, I feel that he is describing something very closely akin to my experience, and that he is describing it better than I've heard it described by anyone else. Now...the difficulty is that Socrates' experience doesn't appear to actually be universal. My husband read the Phaedrus, and his reaction was to find it very alien and hard to understand.
      Part of the difficulty, I think, is that within the diversity of the humanum, there is considerable variation in terms of the actual relationships between the body, the psyche, the will, etc. Our subjectivities are analagous, but not identical to one another: within the most intimate recesses of ourselves, we actually image God in different, though compatible ways. That facet of human experience is then further complexified by the fact that we gain our identities through relationships, that in some sense our experiences are not only communicated but also formed and transformed through discourse – so it could very well be that I relate to Plato's experience reflexively, that is, that I feel what Socrates described because Socrates first described it to me when I was a teen-ager and couldn't even really consciously understand what I was reading.

    2. I had to laugh at the juxtaposition of your comment just above here and your announcement of your article on natural law. I mean, the above comment made me wonder: does she stretch the relative too far and undermine nature? And then your article on natural law...

      Of course, having read both now I see you are being very consistent, and I generally agree with everything you are saying. A few phrases could be explained - like this one: "Christians must find a way to appeal to the truths about the human person that the postmodern age has brought to the forefront." I guess you mean that the postmodern age has called into question - or perhaps brought to the light for consideration?

      Anyway, I enjoy reading your thoughts.
      I don't know where you live, but I am shortly moving to Ottawa: I would love to eventually establish a group to discuss intellectual matters - including Plato, if you are ever around, I think you could make a fine contribution to it!

      Keep up the good work: you are like the guy who tight-roped over Niagara, I can't but feel!

    3. Hi Colin,

      I would definitely love to meet up -- I'm in Tweed, a couple hours down Highway 7. Drop me a line (melinda-at-vulgatamagazine-dot-org).
      I do mean "brought to the forefront" in a reasonably literal way. I think that there's a lot more potential in every human being than could possibly be realized, and that different cultural traditions will tend to elucidate or draw out different aspects of the humanum. Foucault makes a really interesting point in the intro to Volume Two of his History of Sexuality -- he talks about philosophy allowing a kind of "ekstasis," that is a literal standing outside of one's own viewpoint, both personal and cultural. It's quite true: if you really immerse yourself in a different cultural tradition and it's philosophy, you start to operate differently. It effects the way that you think, the way that you react to things, the way that you feel, the way that you experience emotions and sensations. I still think that there's a genuine human nature underlying all of that -- but that it's a nature that is extremely broad and varied, such that the complete "human nature" can only be realized by the process of history and the diversity of cultures.

  4. I don't know if it's helpful, but something Descartes wrote reminds me of this post and the essay it is a response to: "For it seemed to me that I could find much more truth in the reasonings that each person makes concerning matters that are important to him, and whose outcome ought to cost him dearly later on if he has judged badly, than in those reasonings engaged in by a man of letters in his study, which touch on speculations that produce no effect and are of no other consequence to him..."

  5. Thanks for your comment. I believe this is an area that needs to be thought about, and one I have meditated upon for years now.

    As I see it, Jesus Himself drew a sharp distinction between His will and that of His Father. Begging to be released from the bitter cup of the Cross He said, nevertheless, nor my will but thine. Clearly He wanted what the Father had determined He should not have. Knowing it to be sin to deny the Father's will He subjected His own will and denied it, and thus won our redemption. Being tempted in all points like as we are, he saw and knew the lesser good that would come from the actions offered, and knew the desire for these lesser goods. Who would not want them? One has to be especially perverse to be attracted to sin because of its sinfulness, but Satan's temptation is much subtler. He offers us real good. He offered Eve the beauty of the fruit, its good taste, and presented it as conferring wisdom, surely a good in itself. To speak of temptation and deny that there was desire raised by it is pure linguistic and theological nonsense. Temptation is desire - but desire can be resisted. Jesus would have been tempted by the genuine good being offered, though not by the sin constituting its price. This is a crucial difference. He desired, but exercised His will to refuse the good because of the price.

    I don't think any of this is in contradiction of Aquinas or Augustine, and it has meant a great deal to me. When I see the breathtaking beauty of a boy or man and feel the rush of desire to be closer to him, I am perceiving one of the wonders of God's creation. It is only right to be in awe of such beauty and, yes, to desire it. My will can make one of two choices: to lift this experience to God in praise, submitting my desires to God's will; or to reach out, if only mentally, for what I know is not permitted me. One is worship, and the other is sin. I'm intimately acquainted with both responses to desire, very aware of those times when my will has seized upon desire as something to be had, and thankfully aware of those blessed times when that desire is given to and transfigured by God. One can be tempted, really tempted, and yet not sin, and not even want to sin. This last being always true of Jesus and sometimes, though perhaps rarely, true of us.

    I hope this is clearer than the earlier comment.

  6. Great comment, Ed. I, too, have wrestled with this issue of desire for some time. The boundaries of when 'glancing at' and recognizing beauty; and, 'desiring at' are certainly personal; and, wax and wane throughout one's lifetime. And, surely, we know when we're moving into shades of grey.

    However, are we missing something more important here, which you, Ed, brought to mind with Our Lord submitting His Will to His Father's in the garden? Someone, correct me here if I'm wrong; but, I believe Our Lord could have chosen not to pursue His Agony and Death and still been within His 'Rights', not have committed sin: as Our Lady could have refused her Fiat; and, not have committed sin, as St. Thomas points out.

    My question, still unanswered for me, is are we same-sex sexually attracted persons sacrificing the best for the sake of the good? When I identify as queer, gay or try to argue that my gay eros (within limits) ... is good, have I sacrificed the best, supernaturally, for the sake of a natural good?

    Clearly, Holy Mother Church sees same-sex sexually attracted persons as emotionally ill (exhibiting a mental pathology, speaking in the CCC, paragraphs 2357-2359, " ... its psychological genesis ...") ... unless, someone can prove to me, otherwise. Nevertheless, what does the following CCC sentence from Paragraph 2358, mean for each of us: "These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."

    Do the difficulties we may encounter include not only the obvious struggling with our erotic attractions and sublimating them in chastity and learning to live a single life within that framework; but, are we also to submit ourselves to the pastoral language regarding what we say of ourselves, how we speak of ourselves and identify ourselves, to whom we reveal ourselves and only revealing when it's of necessity for our spiritual well-being and those of others? Does the common greater good require this? And, as a consequence, will I grow spiritually because of it? Are there due-limits, to personal, spiritual self-immolation before it becomes a pathology, in and of itself?

  7. Regardless of where our "orientation" comes from, what causes it, how innate it may be, and how it may be described as disordered, it is a part of our present reality and becomes potentially a tool for good in God's hand. St. Paul's words in Romans 8:28 come into play here: "...all things work together for good to those that love the Lord, those who are called according to His purpose"

    Melinda, for example, finds herself with a ministry she would not have been able to pursue were it not for her orientation, and I am convinced that much good will be done in and for many who would otherwise have been untouched by the Gospel.

    I can testify on a very personal level (O Lord, help me here - it's thorny ground - I don't want to brag about myself, and I don't want to look dangerous either). One boy whom I've always "wanted" but never willed to "have" has a complex of mental disabilities and has needed help beyond what his parents can give. I've been there for him because of a deep and rather irrational love and (yes, I'll say so myself) have made a big difference. He's 20 now, still very immature, and what I always suspected and feared has emerged. He is indeed subject to SSA and was recently almost snared by a predator. Someone in the process revealed to him that I was "Gay" - a thing he never suspected. Suddenly I've become mentor on yet another area, and find myself to be a trusted person who can model for him him what it is to be both gay and celibate. Frankly, if I were not as I am, I believe he would have long since been victimized and probably sucked up into the "lifestyle". There is reason that God has had me continue as an SSA male.

    This is not the only situation in which my 'disordered' nature has been used to help others

  8. I really want to be believe your logic here, Melinda, and it makes a lot of sense. But I keep getting hung up on Matt 5:27-28. How do you think that fits into what you are saying here about desire?

  9. Hi Kristen,

    Translations of Matt 5:27-28 vary -- some just say "He who looks on a woman with desire," others are more explicit. I believe one of the King James versions inserts "desires to go to bed with her," while the Jerusalem simply translates it as "looks at a woman lustfully." John Paul II distinguishes between reductionistic desire and ordered desires as well. In any case, it seems clear that committing "adultery in the heart" is not a matter of attraction, but a matter of entertaining that attraction in a way that reduces the person to the level of a sex object.

  10. Thanks, Melinda! Very, very helpful. And I'm really enjoying your blog in general, and the most recent posts specifically. And your book was phenomenal! Thanks for writing!


Please observe these guidelines when commenting:

We want to host a constructive but civil discussion. With that in mind we ask you to observe these basics of civilized discourse:

1. No name calling or personal attacks; stick to the argument, not the individual.

2. Assume the goodwill of the other person, especially when you disagree.

3. Don't make judgments about the other person's sinfulness or salvation.

4. Within reason, stick to the topic of the thread.

5. If you don't agree to the rules, don't post.

We reserve the right to block any posts that violate our usage rules. And we will freely ban any commenters unwilling to abide by them.

Our comments are moderated so there may be a delay between the time when you submit your comment and the time when it appears.