The Pressures of the Flesh

As usual, there is an interesting conversation underway at Bill Vallicella’s place. Dr. V offered a post, entitled Lust, that is brief enough to quote in its entirety:

It is both evil and paltry. The lecher makes himself contemptible in the manner of the glutton and the drunkard. The paltriness of lust may support the illusion that it does not matter if one falls into it. Thus the paltriness hides the evil. This makes it even more insidious.

But there is room for discussion here.

My first thought was to ask what it is about lust that makes it intrinsically “evil”. It arises, after all, from the natural desire of all living things to reproduce. Of course gluttony, too, is related to the need of all living things to nourish themselves, and still we frown on those who indulge in it. In fact we don’t merely frown; these habits are among the Seven Deadly Sins. So what’s the deal? Why so nasty, and what are we supposed to do about it?

Before beginning, let’s be clear what it is we are talking about. “Lust” means, I think, an enormous interest in sexual activity – and not for any consciously final purpose such as tokening one’s love for one’s spouse, or begetting a child, but as an end in itself.

First of all, I should stake out my own philosophical territory here. I am not a Christian, and I am quite confident that we are the product of evolution by natural selection. It is easy, in that framework, to explain lust; it is wired right in as a successful reproductive strategy. Let’s not forget that every one of us is just the latest link in a chain of organisms that had enough interest in sex to pursue it with success. That chain is billions of years old, and has never been broken. Think about that. Anywhere along the way, in a continuous unbroken linkage of living beings starting with the first sexually-reproducing organisms, an ancestor of ours could have lacked the interest, or have had a headache, or have tried and failed, or died too soon. But for us – all of us here today – that never happened, in billions of years. We are the end result of a historical selection process so stupendously enormous that the mind can barely grasp it, and passing the the sexual test was mandatory at every last link in the chain. And where most of those links are concerned you can bet that we are here not because the ancestor in question was talked into sex, or raped, or got a little tipsy one night, but because that ancestor was downright driven to have sex. So there is nothing “unnatural” about lust; quite the contrary.

But just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is necessarily good. As humans we get to decide that for ourselves. And in Christian teaching, as well as many others, it is a sin. I think it is fair to say that many people are visited by lustful urges. So what are the options?

1) Of course the worst thing we can do, presumably, from the sin-avoidance perspective, is to indulge. If we spend our days in strip joints and brothels, tirelessly pleasing the flesh, St. Peter is certainly not too likely to lift the velvet rope.

2) Or we could avoid situations that arouse lustful thoughts. If we were exposed to temptation, we might succumb, so we make good and sure we never see anything that might wind up our spring. This is the idea behind the restrictions on women’s dress imposed by fundamentalist Islam.

3) Next on the list would be to resist. Our thoughts are as randy as always, but we refuse to act upon them. Not a pleasant life, but at least our name might be in the reservation book at the Pearly Gates, even if we don’t get the nice table by the window.

4) Or we could use aversion training, of the sort applied to the ruffian Alex in A Clockwork Orange to curb his violence. We would learn, perhaps by the use of electrical shocks or nausea-inducing drugs, to suppress the lustful urges as soon as they appeared; the contemplation of sexual acts would arouse not desire but revulsion. I don’t think you’ll find a line outside the door for this one.

5) A more subtle method would be to internalize this process – to associate lustful thoughts with God’s disapproval. This, coupled with a variation of the avoidance approach, is how the problem is often tackled by the faithful. Monks sequester themselves. Priests support each other through the difficulties of their vows. Of course this is not, as shown by recent lawsuits against the Church (as well as the extensive historical record of wayward clergymen, often right up to the Pope), always so terribly effective.

6) An extreme approach is castration. Very effective. But does it buy much moral credit? One agonizing slice, then no more temptation, no more struggle.

7) And of course there are simply those few who do not lust at all. They are like those folks who naturally just eat moderately, never gain weight, drink socially but never have too much, etc. In other words, they don’t have to work against temptation because they simply aren’t tempted.

So on this rather simple view – lust is a sin to be avoided – which of these approaches serves us best? Is the person described in 7) better off than the one in 2)? Is there any special virtue in not being tempted, simply due to one’s very nature? It’s hard to see why there should be. On any reading of redemption that I know of, there is supposed to be some effort involved.

How about that guy in 2)? Here he is, thinking these lewd thoughts all day long. Some would say that even to have such ideas is a sin; that we must turn away from such thoughts, not just refuse to act on them. But can we help the ideas that occur to us? Is lust as biologically grounded as, say, hunger? No one would castigate the glutton for being hungry, but we might blame a person for fantasizing about eating a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s. What are the equivalents in the spectrum of sexual desire? If we love our spouse, is it sinful to fantasize about getting home and jumping in the sack? Must we be focused merely on the generation of offspring? How much lust are we allowed to mix in with our love?

So perhaps we can take a more subtle look at all of this.

We are animals, yes. And we are heir to some mighty high-octane propellants. But we are also unique, as far as we can tell, in the scope of our options, the degree of our consciousness, and the extent of our freedom to transcend our genetic predilections. What normative guidelines, then, can we find here?

One thing we can do is to look at the “sinfulness” of lust from the viewpoint of squandering a resource. If sexual drive is as powerful a motivating force as it obviously seems to be, then perhaps there is a sense in which we can cultivate it more consciously, in a number of ways.

First, it can serve as a reminding factor as we work to become more aware of ourselves. In a previous post about sleep and awakening I mentioned an ancient metaphor in which we are seen to live our lives drifting in the current of a river. It is only by resisting this flow that we become aware of its soporific power, and of how deeply submerged we are. By resisting these most fundamental habits we can make it possible to begin to see ourselves more objectively, and it is only by forcing ourselves quite ruthlessly to witness their power of their hold on us that we can see clearly how dire is our predicament, and thereby grasp the urgency of our struggle.

Second, there is, according to all esoteric traditions – and many others as well, notably including Freudianism – a uniquely potent energy associated with sex. I will speak in more detail of this later, but by carelessly leaking away this “substance” it is quite possible that we deny ourselves a powerful psychic fuel that for the sake of our inner growth we ought to conserve. There is the old joke about the writer lying in bed with his lover and commenting, in the cool light of postcoital reflection, “Well, there goes another novel.”

I believe that the insistence in most religious traditions on our having command of our sexuality, rather than the other way around, reflects these two goals. As with so much of religious tradition, there is an exoteric set of rules that can be understood and followed by all, but for those who trouble themselves to combine traditional teachings with the self-knowledge that comes from methodical self-examination, a more subtle understanding is possible. The important thing is to be able to understand the value of one’s actions in the light of one’s Aim.

So – is lustfulness bad? It is when it is the product of ignorance.

So I think that this is the point of the doctrine here. I am at most an agnostic regarding the existence of God, but I would say that for those who have a place for God in all of this, what God wants for us is to grow, to awaken, to achieve our full and unique potential as humans. This requires self-understanding, conscious work, and the cultivation of resources. And that is why Lust made the list.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    Very horrorshow, this post.


    Posted February 4, 2006 at 2:47 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    Whoops — I should have said “real horrorshow.”


    Posted February 4, 2006 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Horrorshow? How so?

    Posted February 4, 2006 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Ah, Kevin, you must forgive me. It’s been so long since I saw the movie that I missed the Clockwork Orange reference.


    Posted February 5, 2006 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    By the way, my friend Jess, whose wife is Russian, informs me that “horrorshow”

    is a corruption of the Russian word for “good,” or “great” — something like Kharosho, with a twanging of the epiglottis and accent on the first syllable.

    Posted February 5, 2006 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Yes– my roommate my freshman year in undergrad was a Russian major, so I learned a few Russian words and phrases, including “horrorshow/harasho” (good/great), “glazi” (eye[s]), “droog” (friend), “vidi” (look/watch), etc.

    But: “Ya ni gavryu pa-russkyi.” (If I’m sounding that out right.)
    = I don’t speak Russian.

    The other useless phrases I know:

    Lenin slushayet musiku. = Lenin listens to music.

    Nyet, nyet, ya dumayu shto nyet. = No, no; I don’t think so.

    I should have asked how one says, “Where’s the bathroom?” and “How much for that illegal bottle of vodka?”

    Zdrastvuytye, tovarish! Shto novova? = Hello, comrade! What’s new?


    PS: Can’t forget “da,” “nyet,” “spaciba,” “pozhalusta,” “dobre vyichir,” “privyet,” and “dos vidanya.” All probably romanized incorrectly. With the number of Mongolians in Korea, though, I should be able to find plenty of Russian-speakers. We’ve also got a little Russiatown in the Tong-dae-mun area of Seoul. Fat women with orange hair and bad makeup, usually involved in illicit clothes trafficking, among other things. Also: tall, thin blonde girls who lapdance for Korean businessmen.

    Posted February 5, 2006 at 2:28 pm | Permalink