Sex and Despair – Josef Pieper

July 12, 2012

Originally published in Ober die Liebe (Munich: KSsel-Verlag, 1972). Translated by Lothar Krauth.


There is no need to declare the present “sexualization” of all aspects of public life as simply our fateful destiny; for too much in it is media hyperbole and commercial manipulation.

On the other hand, such “cutting loose” of sexuality as potential human deviation has, of course, been with us since time immemorial, not only as behavior — which we may find easy to understand — but also as doctrine.

This precisely is the background situation, for example, in one of the great and famous Platonic dialogues: a certain Phaedrus crosses Socrates’ path, a youth still shocked and under the spell of a meeting he has just attended in which avant-garde intellectuals discussed their convictions. Plato characterizes these intellectuals as people who use pompous arguments to reject traditional norms, who claim to lead an enlightened lifestyle, and who advocate total license for every human impulse.

Phaedrus is fascinated by the progressive and elegant tone of a speech given at that meeting by the “greatest author of our era”, and he tells Socrates about their “program”. Put in a nutshell, it proclaims these propositions: desire should be without love; the aim should be maximal enjoyment with minimal personal engagement; any erotic emotion, the passion of love, is seen as a romantic sickness that needlessly complicates things; and the refusal to accept any deeper commitment is explicitly declared to be the only “reasonable” attitude — indeed, this alone could properly be called “decency”, a virtue (arete).

It is clear, perhaps surprisingly so, that these propositions sound strikingly contemporary; more specifically, they express attitudes that men are obviously able to formulate and practice at any time in history.

Socrates listens quietly to the gullible Phaedrus and for a time pretends to be equally fascinated and impressed. Then he puts an abrupt end to this game of pretending: “Don’t you see, my dear Phaedrus, how shameful all this is? Just imagine a truly noble person had listened to our conversation, someone who is devoted in love to someone else likewise of noble mind. This person would have to presume, would he not, that he had just listened to people raised among galley slaves who have never grasped the true meaning of love among free persons. “

Contrary to all appearances, this setting of “free men” against “galley slaves”, of course, has nothing at all to do with the realities of a slaveholder society — I think this requires no specific explanation. “Slavery”, in this context, indeed means something that no social reform, no “emancipation” could ever overcome; it means, rather, something that can crop up in all social classes, as shown in our example of Athens’ upper crust. It means an attitude that in an ethical sense is base and vulgar, and whose facade of civilized refinement nonetheless hides barbaric rudeness and brutality.

What makes this consumer sex without eros so ugly and so inhuman is essentially this: it empties the love encounter of its inner significance within the larger framework of human existence, its essence of stepping out from self-centered limitation by opening up to — and becoming one with – another person. As mere partner in sex, however, the other is not looked upon as a person, a living human being with an individual human face. An American author has described this reality with the tongue-in-cheek yet accurate observation that from a playboy’s point of view the fig leaf has simply been transferred — it now conceals the human face.

The man who merely lusts after a woman does not, indeed, really desire “a woman”, in spite of the words. True yearning for the beloved, for togetherness with the beloved, springs from what philosophy calls the eros. Mere sex, in contrast, desires something impersonal, an object; not a Thou but a thing: “Just the thing in itself”, as the partners in George Orwell’s 1984 explicitly assure each other. “Let’s do that thing”, they say in one of Heinrich Boll’s novels.

Some speak right to the point of the “deception” in the encounter whose object is only sex. True, for a moment the illusion of “becoming one” may arise; but such an outward union, without love, leaves the two more thoroughly strangers to each other than before. No wonder, then, that “in a society where love is based on sex, where love is not the prerequisite for the gift of physical union”, sexuality is paradoxically “separating rather than uniting man and woman, abandoning them to more loneliness and isolation at the very moment when they thought to have surely found the other”. The surprise, or better, the disappointment inherent in this paradox — it only seems a paradox, of course — is intensified as sex becomes more and more a commodity available at any time.

Such a result, remarks Paul Ricoeur — loss of value by being readily available — was certainly not anticipated by the generation of Sigmund Freud when those sexual taboos were smashed. “Whatever facilitates the sexual encounter also helps it sink into irrelevance.” This should come as no surprise at all. It may well be an absolute principle that anything available “on demand” at almost no cost, and instantly to boot (the Americans use the rugged expression “short-order sex”) will necessarily lose not only its value but its attraction as well.

The director of a health center at an American state university, a psychiatrist by profession, relates this experience: promiscuous female students, when questioned, would answer, “It’s just too much trouble to say `no’.” At first this may bespeak enormous freedom, but what it really means is more like, “I don’t care, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter.” This premise already contains its inevitable consequence: a sexuality not only lacking joy, but lacking pleasure as well. “So much sex and so little meaning or even fun in it!”

I mentioned that a generally valid principle prevails here. In his later years Goethe once put it this way, though in an entirely different context: “Every century tries to make the sacred vulgar, the difficult easy, the serious hilarious — which really would not be objectionable at all if only earnestness and fun were not both destroyed in the process.” Here we have it: the fun gets destroyed, too! And so it is frighteningly appropriate that the above-mentioned experience by that university psychiatrist was published under the title, The Roots of Student Despair.

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