Archive for the ‘Roger Scruton’ Category


SEX 2 From Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy

April 10, 2014
Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings. The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.

Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings. The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.

The intentionality of desire is the topic for a book, and since I have written that book, I shall confine myself here to a few remarks. My hope is to put philosophy to its best use, which is that of shoring up the human world against the corrosive seas of pseudo-science. In true sexual desire, the aim is union with the other, where ‘the other’ denotes a particular person, with a particular perspective on my actions.

The reciprocity which is involved in this aim is achieved in a state of mutual arousal, and the interpersonal character of arousal determines the nature of the ‘union’ that is sought. All desire is compromising, and the choice to express it or to yield to it is an existential choice, in which the self is, or may be, in danger.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the sexual act is surrounded by prohibitions; it brings with it a weight of shame, guilt and jealousy, as well as the heights of joy and happiness. It is inconceivable that a morality of pure permission should issue from the right conception of such a compromising force, and, as I argue in Sexual Desire, the traditional morality, in which monogamous heterosexual union, enshrined in a vow rather than a contract, is the norm, shows far more sensitivity to what is at stake than any of the known alternatives.

If it is so difficult now to see the point of that morality, it is in part because human sexual conduct has been redescribed by the pseudo-science of sexology, and as a result not only robbed of its interpersonal intentionality, but also profoundly demoralized. In redescribing the human world in this way, we also change it. We introduce new forms of sexual feeling – shaped by the desire for an all-comprehending permission. The sexual sacrament gives way to a sexual market; and the result is a fetishism of the sexual commodity.

Richard Posner, for example, in his worthless but influential book entitled Sex and Reason (but which should have been called Sex and Instrumental Reason), opens his first chapter with the following sentence: There is sexual behavior, having to do mainly with excitation of the sexual organs.’ In reality, of course, sexual behaviour has to do with courtship, desire, love, jealousy, marriage, grief, joy and intrigue. Such excitement as occurs is excitement of the whole person. As for the sexual organs, they can be as ‘excited’ (if that is the word) by a bus journey as by the object of desire. Nevertheless, Posner’s description of desire is necessary, if he is to fulfil his aim of deriving a morality of sexual conduct from the analysis of cost and benefit (which, apparently, is what is meant by ‘reason’). So what are the ‘costs’ of sexual gratification?

One is the cost of search. It is zero for masturbation, considered as a solitary activity, which is why it is the cheapest of practices. (The qualification is important: ‘mutual masturbation’, heterosexual or homosexual, is a form of nonvaginal intercourse, and its search costs are positive.)

Posner proceeds to consider hypothetical cases: for example, the case where a man sets a ‘value’ of ‘twenty’ on ‘sex’ with a ‘woman of average attractiveness’, and a ‘value’ of ‘two’ on ‘sex’ with a ‘male substitute’. If you adopt such language, then you have made woman (and man too) into a sex object and sex into a commodity. You have redescribed the human world as a world of things; you have abolished the sacred, the prohibited and the protected, and presented sex as a relation between aliens: ‘Th’expence of spirit in a waste of shame’, in Shakespeare’s famous words. Posner’s language is opaque to what is wanted in sexual desire; it reduces the other person to an instrument of pleasure, a means of obtaining something that could have been provided equally by another person, by an animal, by a rubber doll or a piece of Kleenex.

Well, you might say, why not, if people are happier that way? In whose interest is it, to retain the old form of desire, with its individualizing intentionality, its hopeless yearnings, its furies and jealousies, its lifelong commitments and lifelong griefs?

Modern philosophers shy away from such questions, although they were much discussed in the ancient world. Rather than consider the long-term happiness and fulfillment of the individual, the modern philosopher tends to reduce the problem of sexual morality to one of rights — do we have a right to engage in, or to forbid, this or that sexual practice?

From such a question liberal conclusions follow as a matter of course; but it is a question that leaves the ground of sexual morality unexplored. This ground is not to be discovered in the calculus of rights and duties, but in the theory of virtue. What matters in sexual morality is the distinction between virtuous and vicious dispositions. I have already touched on this distinction in the last chapter, when considering the basis of our moral thinking. I there emphasized the role of virtue in creating the foundations of moral order. But it is also necessary, if we are to give objective grounds for the pursuit of virtue, to show how the happiness and fulfilment of the person are furthered by virtue and jeopardized by vice.

This, roughly speaking, is the task that Aristotle set himself in the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he tried to show that the deep questions of morality concern the education of the moral being, rather than the rules governing his adult conduct. Virtue belongs to character, rather than to the rules of social dialogue, and arises through an extended process of moral development. The virtuous person is disposed to choose those courses of action which contribute to his flourishing – his flourishing, not just as an animal, but as a rational being or person, as that which he essentially is. In educating a child I am educating his habits, and it is therefore clear that I shall always have a reason to inculcate virtuous habits, not only for my sake, but also for his own.

At the same time, we should not think of virtue as a means only. The virtuous person is the one who has the right choice of ends. Virtue is the disposition to want, and therefore to choose, certain things for their own sakes, despite the warring tendency of appetite. Courage, for example, is the disposition to choose the honorable course of action, in face of danger. It is the disposition to overcome fear, for the sake of that judged to be right. All rational beings have an interest in acquiring courage, since without it they can achieve what they really want only by luck, and only in the absence of adversity.

Sexual virtue is similar: the disposition to choose the course of action judged to be right, despite temptation. Education should be directed towards the special kind of temperance which shows itself, sometimes as chastity, sometimes as fidelity, sometimes as passionate desire, according to the ‘right judgement’ of the subject. The virtuous person desires the person whom he may also love, who can and will return his desire, and to whom he may commit himself. In the consummation of such a desire there is neither shame nor humiliation, and the ‘nuptuality’ of the erotic impulse finds the space that it needs in order to flourish.

The most important feature of traditional sexual education is summarized in anthropological language as the ‘ethic of pollution and taboo’. The child was taught to regard his body as sacred, and as subject to pollution by misperception or misuse. The sense of pollution is by no means a trivial side-effect of the ‘bad sexual encounter’: it may involve a penetrating disgust, at oneself, one’s body, one’s situation, such as is experienced by the victim of rape. Those sentiments express the tension contained within our experience of embodiment.

At any moment we can become ‘mere body’, the self driven from its incarnation, and its habitation ransacked. The most important root idea of sexual morality is that I am in my body, not as a ‘ghost in the machine’, but as an incarnate self. My body is identical with me: subject and object are merely two aspects of a single thing, and sexual purity is the guarantee of this.

Sexual virtue does not forbid desire: it simply ensures the status of desire as an interpersonal feeling. The child who learns ‘dirty habits’ detaches his sex from himself, sets it outside himself as something curious and alien in the world of objects. His fascinated enslavement to the body is also a withering of desire, a scattering of erotic energy and a loss of union with the other. Sexual virtue sustains the subject of desire, making him present as a self in the very act which overcomes him.

Traditional sexual education also involved a sustained war against fantasy. Fantasy plays an important part in our sexual doings, and even the most passionate and faithful lover may, in the act of love, rehearse to himself other scenes of sexual abandon than the one in which he is engaged. Nevertheless, there is truth in the Freudian contrast between fantasy and reality, and in the belief that the first is in some way destructive of the second. Fantasy replaces the real, resistant, objective world with a pliant substitute – and that, indeed, is its purpose.

Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings.

The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.

The sexual world of the fantasist is a world without subjects, in which others appear as objects only. And should the fantasy take possession of him so far as to require that another person submit to it, the result is invariably indecent, tending to rape. The words that I quoted from Richard Posner are indecent in just the way that one must expect, when people no longer see the object of desire as a subject, wanted as such.

Sexual morality returns us, then, to the great conundrum around which these chapters have revolved: the conundrum of the subject, and his relation to the world of space and time.


SEX 1 From An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy — Roger Scruton

April 9, 2014
Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination. That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbors the victim's freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain - and it is only what might be called the 'charm of disenchantment' that leads people to receive these daft descriptions as the truth.

Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination. That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbors the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain – and it is only what might be called the ‘charm of disenchantment’ that leads people to receive these daft descriptions as the truth.

I read a lot of Roger Scruton, simply because he makes such great sense. Nowhere does the modern liberal philosophy tank  into meaninglessness is over sex related issues, from abortion to womens’ issues to gay marriage, you can’t spend more than 3 minutes with these masters of the universe that a well-reasoned piece by Peter Kreeft or Roger Scruton wouldn’t demolish easily. Read on.


Sex is the sphere in which the animal and the personal meet, and where the clash between the scientific and the personal view of things is felt most keenly. It therefore provides the test of any serious moral philosophy, and of any viable theory of the human world.

Until the late nineteenth century it was almost impossible to discuss sex, except as part of erotic love, and even then convention required that the peculiarities of sexual desire remain unmentioned. When the interdiction was finally lifted – by such writers as Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis – it was through offering a ‘scientific’ approach to a widespread natural phenomenon. Such was the prestige of science that any investigation conducted in its name could call on powerful currents of social approval, which were sufficient to overcome the otherwise crippling reluctance to face the realities of sexual experience.

As a result, modern discussions of this experience have been conducted in a ‘scientized’ idiom which, by its very nature, removes sex from the sphere of interpersonal relations, and remodels it as a relation between objects. Freud’s shocking revelations, introduced as neutral, ‘scientific’ truths about the human condition, were phrased in the terms which are now more or less standard.

According to Freud, the aim of sexual desire is ‘union of the genitals in the act known as copulation, which leads to a release of the sexual tension and a temporary extinction of the sexual instinct – a satisfaction analogous to the sating of hunger’. This scientistic image of sexual desire gave rise, in due course, to the Kinsey report, and is now part of the standard merchandise of disenchantment. It seems to me that it is entirely false, and could become true only by so affecting our sexual emotions, as to change them into emotions of another kind.

What exactly is sexual pleasure? Is it like the pleasure of eating and drinking? Like that of lying in a hot bath? Like that of watching your child at play? Clearly it is both like and unlike all of these. It is unlike the pleasure of eating, in that its object is not consumed. It is unlike the pleasure of the bath, in that it involves taking pleasure in an activity, and in the other person who joins you. It is unlike that of watching your child at play, in involving bodily sensations and a surrender to physical desire.

Sexual pleasure resembles the pleasure of watching something, however, in a crucial respect: it has intentionality. It is not just a tingling sensation; it is a response to another person, and to the act in which you are engaged with him or her. The other person may be imaginary: but it is towards a person that your thoughts are directed, and pleasure depends on thought.

This dependency on thought means that sexual pleasure can be mistaken, and ceases when the mistake is known. Although I would be a fool not to jump out of the soothing bath after being told that what I took for water is really acid, this is not because I have ceased to feel pleasurable sensations in my skin. In the case of sexual pleasure, the discovery that it is an unwanted hand that touches me at once extinguishes my pleasure. The pleasure could not be taken as confirming the hitherto unacknowledged sexual virtues of some previously rejected person.

A woman who makes love to the man who has disguised himself as her husband is no less the victim of rape, and the discovery of her mistake can lead to suicide. It is not simply that consent obtained by fraud is not consent; it is that the woman has been violated, in the very act which caused her pleasure.

What makes a pleasure into a sexual pleasure is the context of arousal. And arousal is not the same as tumescence. It is a leaning towards’ the other, a movement in the direction of the sexual act, which cannot be separated, either from the thoughts on which it is founded, or from the desire to which it leads. Arousal is a response to the thought of the other as a self-conscious agent, who is alert to me, and who is able to have ‘designs’ on me. This is evident from the caress and the glance of desire.

A caress of affection is a gesture of reassurance – an attempt to place in the consciousness of the other an image of one’s own tender concern for him. Not so, however, the caress of desire, which outlines the body of the recipient; its gentleness is not that of reassurance only, but that of exploration. It aims to fill the surface of the other’s body with a consciousness of your interest – interest, not only in the body, but in the person as embodied. This consciousness is the focal point of the other’s pleasure. Sartre writes (Being and Nothingness) of the caress as ‘incarnating’ the other: as though, by your action, you bring the soul into the flesh (the subject into the object) and make it palpable.

The caress is given and received with the same awareness as the glance is given and received. They each have an epistemic component (a component of anticipation and discovery). It is hardly surprising, given this, that the face should have such supreme and overriding importance in the transactions of sexual desire. On the scientistic view of sex it is hard to explain why this should be so – why the face should have the power to determine whether we will, or will not, be drawn to seek pleasure in another part.

But of course, the face is the picture of the other’s subjectivity: it shines with the light of self, and it is as an embodied subject that the other is wanted. Perversion and obscenity involve the eclipse of the subject, as the body and its mechanism are placed in frontal view. In obscenity flesh becomes opaque to the self which lives in it: that is why there is an obscenity of violence as well as an obscenity of sex.

A caress may be either accepted or rejected: in either case, it is because it has been ‘read’ as conveying a message sent from you to me. I do not receive this message as an explicit act of meaning something, but as a process of mutual discovery, a growing to awareness in you which is also a coming to awareness in me. In the first impulse of arousal, therefore, there is the beginning of that chain of reciprocity which is fundamental to interpersonal attitudes. She conceives her lover conceiving her conceiving him … not ad infinitum, but to the point of mutual recognition of the other, as fully present in his body.

Sexual arousal has, then, an epistemic and interpersonal intentionality. It is a response to another individual, based in revelation and discovery, and involving a reciprocal and co-operative heightening of the common experience of embodiment. It is not directed beyond the other, to the world at large; nor is it transferable to a rival object who might ‘do just as well’. Of course, arousal may have its origin in highly generalized thoughts, which flit libidinously from object to object.

But when these thoughts have concentrated into the experience of arousal their generality is put aside; it is then the other who counts, and his particular embodiment. Not only the other, but I myself, and the sense of my bodily reality in the other’s perspective. Hence arousal, in the normal case, seeks seclusion in a private place, where only the other is relevant to my attention. Indeed, arousal attempts to abolish what is not private – in particular to abolish the perspective of the onlooker, of the ‘third person’ who is neither you nor I.

I explored some of the ways in which the subject is realized in the world of objects, and placed great emphasis on intention, and the distinction between predicting and deciding for the future. But it should not be supposed that the subject is revealed only through voluntary activity.

On the contrary, of equal importance are those reactions which cannot be willed but only predicted, but which are nevertheless peculiar to self-conscious beings. Blushing is a singular instance. Although an involuntary matter, and – from the physiological point of view – a mere rushing of blood to the head, blushing is the expression of a complex thought, and one that places the self on view. My blush is an involuntary recognition of my accountability before you for what I am and what I feel. It is an acknowledgement that I stand in the light of your perspective, and that I cannot hide in my body. A blush is attractive because it serves both to embody the perspective of the other, and also at the same time to display that perspective as responsive to me.

The same is true of unguarded glances and smiles, through which the other subject rises to the surface of his body and makes himself visible. In smiling, blushing, laughing and crying, it is precisely my loss of control over my body, and its gain of control over me, that create the immediate experience of an incarnate person. The body ceases at these moments to be an instrument, and reasserts its natural rights as a person. In such expressions the face does not function merely as a bodily part, but as the whole person: the self is spread across its surface, and there ‘made flesh’.

The concepts and categories that we use to describe the embodied person are far removed from the science of the human body. What place in such a science for smiles as opposed to grimaces, for blushes as opposed to flushes, for glances as opposed to looks? In describing your color as a blush, I am seeing you as a responsible agent, and situating you in the realm of embarrassment and self-knowledge. If we try to describe sexual desire with the categories of human biology, we miss precisely the intentionality of sexual emotion, its directedness towards the embodied subject.

The caricature that results describes not desire but perversion. Freud’s description of desire is the description of something that we know and shun – or ought to shun. An excitement which concentrates on the sexual organs, whether of man or of woman, which seeks, as it were, to bypass the complex negotiation of the face, hands, voice and posture, is perverted. It voids desire of its intentionality, and replaces it with a pursuit of the sexual commodity, which can always be had for a price.

It is part of the intentionality of desire that a particular person is conceived as its object. To someone agitated by his desire for Jane, it is ridiculous to say, ‘Take Henrietta, she will do just as well.’ Thus there arises the possibility of mistakes of identity. Jacob’s desire for Rachel seemed to be satisfied by his night with Leah, only to the extent that, and for as long as, Jacob imagined it was Rachel with whom he was lying. (Genesis 29, v. 22-25; and see the wonderful realization of this little drama in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers.)

Our sexual emotions are founded on individualizing thoughts: it is you whom I want and no other. This individualizing intentionality does not merely stem from the fact that it is persons (in other words, individuals) whom we desire. It stems from the fact that the other is desired as an embodied subject, and not just as a body. You can see the point by drawing a contrast between desire and hunger (a contrast that is expressly negated by Freud). Suppose that people were the only edible things; and suppose that they felt no pain on being eaten and were reconstituted at once.

How many formalities and apologies would now be required in the satisfaction of hunger! People would learn to conceal their appetite, and learn not to presume upon the consent of those whom they surveyed with famished glances. It would become a crime to partake of a meal without the meal’s consent. Maybe marriage would be the best solution.

Still, this predicament is nothing like the predicament in which we are placed by desire. It arises from the lack of anything impersonal to eat, but not from the nature of hunger. Hunger is directed towards the other only as object, and any similar object will serve just as well. It does not individualize the object, or propose any other union than that required by need.

When sexual attentions take such a form, they become deeply insulting. And in every form they compromise not only the person who addresses them, but also the person addressed. Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination.

That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbors the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain – and it is only what might be called the ‘charm of disenchantment’ that leads people to receive these daft descriptions as the truth.


Shameless and Loveless — Roger Scruton

July 31, 2012

The Venus of Urbino is a 1538 oil painting by the Italian master Titian. Titian returns us to the Garden of Eden, instructing us that we are not to see this body as naked, as though the woman were exposing herself to us in the manner of the girl above in the Venus of Urbino. The nude’s sexuality is not offered to us, but remains latent and expectant within her — awaiting the lover to whom it can be offered not shamelessly, but nevertheless without shame. Focus on the dog. The dog reminds us that she, unlike it, is capable of shame, while being neither ashamed nor shameless. This stupendous fact is presented to us not as a thought or a theory, but as a revelation — the kind of revelation that is contained in every human form, but which is of necessity hidden by our daily commerce and retrieved and clarified by art.


The condition in which we now find ourselves is novel in many ways. Perhaps the most interesting is the enormous effort that is now devoted to overcoming or abolishing shame.

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

 Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Philip Larkin, Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began, according to Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in 1963. Four decades have elapsed since then, and these decades have seen a growing recognition that sexual liberation is not the answer to the problems of sex but a new addition to them. Traditional sexual morality reinforced the society-wide commitment to marriage as the sole legitimate avenue to sexual release.

It is easy to understand such a morality. It has a clear social function — ensuring stable families and guaranteeing the transfer of social capital from one generation to the next. And it has an intrinsic rational appeal in making sense of love, commitment, jealousy, courtship and the drama of the sexes. The problem is that, by impeding our pleasures, it creates a strong motive to escape from it. And escape from it we did, with a great burst of jubilation that very quickly dwindled to an apprehensive gulp.

The condition in which we now find ourselves is novel in many ways. Perhaps the most interesting is the enormous effort that is now devoted to overcoming or abolishing shame. The Book of Genesis tells the story of man’s fall, caused by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Until eating the forbidden fruit, the Bible tells us, ‘they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed’. No sooner had they eaten, however, than ‘the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons’.

When you do something wrong and are discovered you feel ashamed of yourself. This kind of shame is a moral emotion, founded on the thought that someone else is judging you. But it is not what is referred to in the verses quoted, which are about sexual shame. Sexual shame differs from moral shame in two ways.

  1. First, it is not a confession of wrongdoing: on the contrary, it testifies to the reluctance to do or suffer wrong.
  2. Secondly, it is not troubled, as moral shame is troubled, by the thought that you are being judged as a self, a free being, a moral subject. On the contrary, it arises from the thought that you are being judged as a body, a mechanism, an object.

Hence the German philosopher Max Scheler described sexual shame as a Schutzgefühl — a shield-emotion that protects you from abuse, whether by another or yourself. If we lose the capacity for shame we do not regain the innocence of the animals; we become shameless, and that means that we are no longer protected from the sexual predator.

Shame still existed in 1963. Couples hid their desire from the world, and sometimes from each other — at least until the moment when it could be clearly expressed. Obscenity was frowned upon, and by nobody more than the prophets of liberation, such as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. Sex, for them, was something beautiful, sacred even, which must not be sullied by dirty language, lavatorial humour or exhibitionist displays.

Shame has since been banished from the culture. This we witness in Reality TV — which ought to be called Fantasy TV since that is its function. All fig leaves, whether of language, thought or behavior, have now been removed, and the feral children are right there before our eyes, playing their dirty games on the screen. It is not a pretty sight, but nor is it meant to be.

This shamelessness is encouraged by sex education in our schools, which tries both to discount the differences between us and the other animals, and to remove every hint of the forbidden, the dangerous or the sacred. Shame, according to the standard literature now endorsed by the DES, is a lingering disability. Sexual initiation means learning to overcome such ‘negative’ emotions, to put aside our hesitations, and to enjoy ‘good sex’. Questions as to ‘who’, ‘whom’ or ‘which gender’ are matters of personal choice — sex education is not there to make the choice, merely to facilitate it.

In this way we encourage children to a premature and depersonalized interest in their own sexuality, and at the same time we become hysterical at the thought of all those pedophiles out there, who are really the pedophiles in here. I see in this the clear proof that shame is not a luxury, still less an inhibition to be discarded, but an integral part of the human condition. It is the emotion without which true sexual desire cannot develop, and if there is such a thing as genuine sex education, it consists in teaching children not to discard shame but to acquire it.

Equally novel is the loss of the concept of normal sexual desire. In 1963 we still saw homosexuality as a perversion, even if an enviably glamorous one. We still believed that sexual desire had a normal course, in which man and woman come together by mutual consent and to their mutual pleasure. We regarded sex with children as abhorrent and sex with animals as unthinkable, except for literary purposes.

Thanks in part to massive propaganda from the gay lobby, in part to the mendacious pseudo-science put out by the Kinsey Institute (whose charlatan founder has now been admitted to the ranks of saints and heroes), we have abandoned the concept of perversion, and accepted the official view of ‘sexual orientation’ as a natural and inescapable fact.

Indeed, things have gone further. Around 1963 the philosopher Michael Polanyi presented his theory of ‘moral inversion’, according to which disapproval once directed at an activity may become directed instead at the people who still disapprove of it. By moral inversion we protect ourselves from our previous beliefs and from the guilt of discarding them.

Moral inversion has infected the debate about sexual inversion to the point of silencing it. To suggest that it would be better if children were not exposed to homosexuality or encouraged to think of it as normal, that the gay scene is not the innocent thing that it claims to be but a form of sexual predation — to make those suggestions now, however hesitantly, is to lay yourself open to the charge of ‘homophobia’. And this will spell the end of your career in any place, such as a university, which has freedom of opinion as its guiding purpose. In this area, as in so many others, the ruling principle of liberalism applies; namely, all opinions are permitted, so long as they are liberal.

Novel too is the way in which sex and the sexual act are now described. In 1963 it was possible — just — to believe that the language of Lady Chatterley’s Lover safeguarded the moral core of sexual emotion, and showed it to be the beautiful and personal thing that it is. Sex, for Lawrence and his liberated followers, was still something holy, which could therefore be defiled. Forty years on we have acquired a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalized terms. Having lost all sense of the human being as ‘made in God’s image’, we take revenge on the body by describing it in what the Lawrentians would regard as sacrilegious language.

A significant contribution has been made, in this respect, by pornography. You can study a picture and see only lines, colors and shapes, while failing to notice the face that shines in and through them. So you can look at a person and see only the body, and not the self that lives in it. It is precisely our sexual interest that presents us with this choice: whether to see the other as subject or as object.

This explains both the charm and the danger of pornography, which represents people as objects, so that the body becomes peculiarly opaque, a prison door behind which the self shifts invisibly, inaudibly and inaccessibly. People are repelled by pornography and also fascinated by it, and now that it is available to everyone on the internet, it seems that just about everyone is logging on.

The growing toleration of pornography, which will soon be regarded as an industry like any other, protected against criticism by the same moral inversion that now protects homosexuality, is rapidly changing the way in which the human body is perceived.One way of understanding this change is by invoking Kenneth Clark’s distinction between the naked and the nude.

In Titian’s nudes you will often find a lapdog, whose eyes and posture express an eager interest in the woman who reclines on the couch. Dogs have no conception of what it is to be naked, and their calm unembarrassability before the sight of human flesh reminds us of how very different the human form is in their eyes and in ours. 

Venus with a Mirror Titian (c.1555)

In this way Titian returns us to the Garden of Eden, instructing us that we are not to see this body as naked, as though the woman were exposing herself to us in the manner of the girl above in the Venus of Urbino. The nude’s sexuality is not offered to us, but remains latent and expectant within her — awaiting the lover to whom it can be offered not shamelessly, but nevertheless without shame. The dog reminds us that she, unlike he, is capable of shame, while being neither ashamed nor shameless. This stupendous fact is presented to us not as a thought or a theory, but as a revelation — the kind of revelation that is contained in every human form, but which is of necessity hidden by our daily commerce and retrieved and clarified by art.

The people in the pornographic image are not nude like Titian’s Venus but naked — even if they are also partly clothed. The focus is on the sexual act and the sexual organs, which are exposed, framed by the camera and detached from any personal emotion. In this way pornography effects a shift in focus — a shift downwards from the human person, the object of love and desire, to the human animal, the object of transferable fantasies. This shift in focus is also a profanation. By focusing on the wrong things we pollute and diminish the right things. In pornography, desire is detached from love, and attached to the mute machinery of sex. This is damaging to adults in just the same way that modern sex education is damaging to children. For it undermines the possibility of real erotic love, which comes only when the sexual act is hedged round with prohibitions, and offered as a gift and an existential commitment.

The growth of internet porn is easily explained, however. Pornography has a function, which is precisely to relieve us of commitments. Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all is it difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence, make demands that we may be unwilling to meet. It requires a great force, a desire that fixes upon an individual, and sees that individual as unique and irreplaceable, if people are to make the sacrifices upon which the community depends for its longevity. It is far easier to take refuge in surrogates, which neither embarrass us nor resist our cravings. The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which the erotic force is dissipated and the needs of love denied.

The effect of pornographic fantasy is therefore to ‘commodify’ the object of desire, and to replace love and its vestigial sacraments with the law of exchange. When sex becomes a commodity, the most important sanctuary of human ideals becomes a market, and value is reduced to price. That is what has happened in the last few decades, and it is the root fact of post-modern culture, the ultimate explanation of what is observed and commented upon on every side — namely, that our culture has become not just shameless, but loveless. For the human body has been downgraded in our perception from subject to object, from self to tool.

The distinction between body and self is not to be explained as a distinction between the physical body and the ethereal soul. It is a distinction between two ways of seeing our embodiment. Nor is it a distinction that we can really apply to the rest of creation. But it belongs to the truth of our condition. And it is only when we look on people as we should, so that their physical embodiment becomes transparent to the self-conscious viewpoint that is uniquely theirs, that we see the moral reality. That moral reality is what is meant when it is written that we are made in the image of God. Take that phrase as a metaphor if you like; but it still refers to something real, namely the embodiment in the human form of a free being, capable of desire, love and commitment and capable also, therefore, of shame. This reality was vivid to us four decades ago; today it is still perceived, but through a glass darkly.

These radical changes have consequences that nobody would have foreseen in 1963. It was still assumed in that year that men made advances, and that women gave in to them only when consent was complete. What happened thereafter was the responsibility of man and woman alike. This assumption can no longer be made. In the world of ‘safe sex’ those old habits of courtship seem tedious and redundant. If sex is simply the pleasurable transaction that is on sale over the internet and advertised in schools, then consent is easily obtained and easily signified.

But it seems as though consent, offered so freely and without regard for the preliminaries once assumed to be indispensable, is not really consent and can be withdrawn at any time, even retrospectively. The charges of harassment or even ‘date rape’ lie always in reserve. The slap in the face which used to curtail importunate advances is now offered after the event, and in a far more deadly form — a form which is no longer private, intimate and remediable, but public, militarised and, in America at least, possessing the absolute objectivity of law. ‘Date rape’ is now a serious and increasing crime on the American campus. It doesn’t matter that the girl said ‘yes’, since yes means no. In the absence of feminine modesty, ardent courtship and masculine address — behaviour still common in 1963 — you cannot assume that a woman knows what she is doing when she does it with you. You might take this as showing that ‘safe sex’ is really sex at its most dangerous. Maybe marriage is the only safe sex that we know.

With the crime of ‘date rape’ has come the lesser crime of sexual harassment, which means (to put it honestly) advances made by an unattractive man. The choreography of seduction was inherited in 1963 from the institution of marriage. But it has since decayed to the point where men are forced to be blunt about what they want, while being no longer trained to disguise their desires behind an offer of protection. In consequence unattractive men, reduced to blurting out their sexual need to its reluctant object, expose themselves to humiliation. And because women, however much they are schooled in feminist ideology, despise men who fail to be men and who appear to treat them as mere commodities, ‘sexual harassment’ has become a serious and wildly proliferating charge, a way in which women can release their generalized anger against men — an anger which is itself the long-term product of sexual liberation, and among the most distressing of the many legacies of 1963.

For four decades we have been defying human nature, making purely theoretical assumptions which fly in the face of customs and instincts that have existed, in one form or another, from the beginning of recorded history. Sexual liberation is here to stay; but we should try to temper it, to rescue the natural order that it threatens, and to safeguard the two great projects which, since 1963, have been in such serious decline: the project of love and the project of raising children.


Pornography, Persons And Sexual Desire – Roger Scruton

May 18, 2012

Dr. Norman Doidge, a neurologist at Columbia, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, describes how pornography causes re-wiring of the neural circuits. He notes that in a study of men viewing internet pornography, the men looked “uncannily” like rats pushing the lever to receive cocaine in the experimental Skinner boxes. Like the addicted rats, the men were desperately seeking the next fix, clicking the mouse just as the rats pushed the lever.
Pornography addiction is frantic learning, and perhaps this is why many who have struggled with multiple addictions report that it was the hardest for them to overcome. Drug addictions, while powerful, are more passive in a “thinking” kind of way, whereas pornography viewing, especially on the internet, is a much more active process neurologically. The constant searching for and evaluating of each image or video clip for its potency and effect is an exercise in neuronal learning, limited only by the progressively rewired brain. Curiosities are thus fused into compulsions, and the need for a larger dopamine fix can drive the person from soft-core to hard-core to child pornography—and worse. A paper published in the Journal of Family Violence in 2009 revealed that 85 percent of men arrested for child pornography had also physically abused children.

The “rival picture of human sexual desire” Scruton presents here is nothing less than the image that emerges from the Churches’ understanding of the human person, particularly in what we find in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’m beginning a new category for these writings on pornography but, in truth, this is really TOB in a different context.


Now, I am one of those who think of pornography as something we should avoid ourselves and do everything we can to forbid to our children. But nothing in the modern myths justifies that attitude, and therefore I must search for the error these myths involve, and replace them with a rival picture of human sexual desire.

This is what I wish to sketch in the remainder of this paper. But first, let me make some disclaimers.

  1. First, these myths involve an “instrumentalized” view of sexual conduct — the view that the sexual act, in whatever form it takes, is a means to something else, be it sensory pleasure, orgasm, or relief from internal pressure. It does not follow from this that the act does not have some other value. Just as eating is a means to gustatory pleasure and also to nourishment, so does it have another value — especially eating in company, a form of companionship that brings with it both intimacy and comfort.
  2. Second, someone could adhere to the instrumentalized view of sexual desire and still argue that when we take this pleasure in company there is a social payoff, in the form of an intimacy and mutual enjoyment, and go on to build a picture of “good sex” which reconstructs some of the moral values we associate with loving relations in general and marriage in particular. However these moral values will not be intrinsic to the sexual act. They will be by-products of the act, and will have no intrinsic bearing on the morality of the act itself, any more than the social value of dinner à deux has any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of eating the particular thing that is eaten (and which may in fact be forbidden by some dietary code).
  3. Finally, in opposing these myths, I am not insisting that the only alternative to them is the old morality that regards heterosexual relations within marriage as the only legitimate form of sexual expression, and which, for example, dismisses homosexuality as a perversion. Exactly what moral code is the right one, or whether there is any single right one, is not a matter that concerns me directly in this paper. I am concerned only with the more fundamental question, which is a question of philosophical psychology rather than morality — the question of what to put in place of the instrumentalized view of sex. If I go on to draw moral conclusions, they will be tentative, and based in a sense of what is at risk in our sexual encounters.

Persons And Animals
The first point to make is that sexual desire belongs to that aspect of the human being which we summarize in the concept of the person. Many of the things that we experience we experience as animals, and what we feel does not normally depend upon thought, intention, or personality. We feel the same pain from a wound that a dog might feel if wounded in the same way. But there are other states of mind •that only persons can experience. While a dog can experience aggression, he cannot experience remorse or shame, cannot wonder about the laws of nature, cannot judge another dog morally, and so on.

There are some states of mind that are rooted in our animal nature, but are transformed by our involvement as persons. Soldiers in the front line respond to an attack on their comrades by joining with them in the fight, and this response belongs to those collective reactions exhibited by pack animals. However, the soldier who rushes to share the danger of his comrades is not just obeying an instinct. He has risen above that instinct and judged acting on it to be right and honorable. He has not just an urge to join the battle but a motive, and that motive is honor and duty toward his fellows, and shame at letting them down.

The soldier is acting for others, and from a conception of himself, and of how he looks in others’ eyes. Such a motive can prevail over the animal instincts of fear and dread only because the soldier also has the virtue that enables him to act on it — the virtue that we know as fortitude or courage. In short, he acts from a full, free, personal involvement in his predicament, conscious that he is judged for what he does, and aiming at a good that he understands in personal terms.

Exactly similar things should be said of sexual desire. Sexual desire is rooted in instincts we share with the other animals, and the pursuit of one person by another may not look so very different from the encounter of horse and mare in a field. However, just as in the case of the soldier, the person who responds to these instincts also stands in judgment upon them. Is it right or wrong to respond? When he responds, he responds from a judgment that this is the right person, that in doing this thing he is in her eyes not demeaning himself but gaining her acceptance, just as she is in his. They share a reciprocity of glances, a gradual accommodation in which their consent is woven into their desire, so that the desire becomes an expression of something other than instinct. Of what?

To answer that question we must look a little more closely at the concept of the person. Most animals are not persons, and some persons are not animals. We, however, are both. Hence there are features of our mental life that non-personal animals do not share. We have rights and duties; we make judgments, reflect on past and future, on the possible and the impossible; we are self-conscious, distinguishing self and other, and attributing our mental states to ourselves on no basis; we relate to each other not as animals but as persons, through dialogue, judgment, and moral expectations.

Indeed, there are arguments for saying that the concept of the person is essentially tied to interpersonal relations: To explain what a person is, we must explain how persons relate to each other. One vital feature of interpersonal relations is their emotional content. My stance toward self and other is reflected in my emotional life. Emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, remorse, gratitude, forgiveness, and rejoicing are essentially directed toward persons — whether self or other — and learning to feel these things is part of what it means to grow up, i.e., to pass from the animal to the personal condition.

Fundamental to all these emotions, and to the life of persons generally, are our beliefs about freedom and responsibility. No two philosophers agree as to what freedom and responsibility presuppose, but for our present purposes we can leave the philosophical controversies to one side; my sole concern is to examine how we actually envisage ourselves in our lives as persons. In all our conduct toward each other we treat both self and other as free. My responsibility is revealed in my shame, and my freedom in my forgiveness. The belief in freedom and responsibility is pre-supposed in anger and resentment, in gratitude and love. Take that belief away and little would remain of our emotional life and its rewards.

The heart of freedom is the self. Kant suggested, in his lectures on anthropology, that the distinctiveness of the human condition is contained in the fact that human beings can say”I.” Self-consciousness brings with it the condition of freedom, and the knowledge of both self and other as responsible. But there is a yet more remarkable fact about the use of “I.”

By my use of this word I create a new center of being: I set my body aside, as it were, and replace the organism with the self, and present to others another target of their interest and response. To know my mind, and also to change it, they do not examine my body: They look to my words, my opinions, my thoughts. They enter into dialogue with this thing called “I;’ and see it as standing in the arena of freedom, both part of the physical world and situated on its very edge.

Something like this is assumed in our ordinary human relations. Just think of your response, when your friend betrays your secrets. You don’t think of him as you would of a computer, in which you stored information that somehow got out. You don’t ask yourself about who hacked into his brain. You go to him and you address him in the second person, I to I: “You promised:’ you say, and your words are addressed to that very center of being where his “I” resides. In accusing him you are not trying to provoke some physical reaction. You are expecting a response from that I — a response from the center of freedom where he resides, one self-conscious subject among others.

You expect him, in other words, to take responsibility for what he did, to say “I am sorry,” and maybe to show how he is going to atone for his fault, to make amends, and in this way re-establish your relations in such a way that you will forgive him. There is a process here, in which one “I” faces another, both of them exercising their freedom, taking responsibility for their choices, and acting as the sovereign of the human animal.

This does not mean that there are two things here — person and animal. There is one thing — an organism, organized as a person. That is how we treat each other in all our free relations.

And Desire
Now for sexual desire. It is rooted in animal instincts, but in a person desire is re-centered, self-attributed to the I, so as to become part of the interpersonal dialogue. It is an interpersonal emotion, in which subject and object confront each other I to I. Hence sexual desire, as we know it, is peculiar to human beings.

In describing sexual desire, we are describing John’s desire for Mary, or Jane’s desire for Bill. And the people themselves will not merely describe their desires, but also experience them, as my desire for you. “I want you” is not a figure of speech but the true expression of what I feel. And here the pronouns identify that very center of free and responsible choice that constitutes the interpersonal reality of each of us. I want you as the free being who you are, and your freedom is wrapped up in the thing that I want.

You can easily verify this, as I show in my book Sexual Desire, by studying sexual arousal. This is not a state of the body, even though it involves certain bodily changes. It is a process in the soul, a steady awakening of one person to another, through touches, glances, and caresses. The exchange of glances is particularly important, and illustrates a general feature of personal relations.

People look at each other, as animals do. But they also look into each other, and do this in particular when mutually aroused. The look of desire is like a summons, a call to the other self to show itself in the eyes, to weave its own freedom and selfhood into the beam that calls to it. There is a famous description of this phenomenon by John Donne, who writes in “The Ecstasy”:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.
So to engraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one;
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

The experience described by Donne is known to every sighted person who has ever been aroused. Likewise the caress and the touch of desire have an epistemic character: they are an exploration, not of a body, but of a free being in his or her embodiment. They too call to the other in his freedom, and are asking him to show himself.

All the phenomena of desire can be understood in that way, as parts of a mutual negotiation between free and responsible beings, who want each other as persons. And this has an important metaphysical consequence, which in turn has important moral consequences. Persons are individuals in the strong sense of being identified, both by themselves and by others, as unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes. This is something Kant tried to capture in his theory of persons as “ends in themselves.”

Somehow the free being is, in his own eyes and in the eyes of all those in a personal relation with him, the being who he is. He is never merely an instance of some useful attribute. To treat him merely instrumentally is always in a measure to abuse him; and while I can employ you for a job and in doing so recognize that someone else might have served my purpose just as well, I must, in employing you, respect your individuality, and not treat you as a tool or a slave. You are for me, even in this functional relation, the free being who meets me I to I.

It follows from this that, in those relations between persons in which self and other relate as subject and object, each views the other as unique, without a substitute, This has an immediate impact on sexual desire. John, frustrated in his desire for Mary, cannot be offered Jane as a substitute. Someone who says “Take Jane, she will do just as well” does not understand what John wants, in wanting Mary.

It follows also that desire requires complex, compromising, and potentially embarrassing negotiations, and that without these negotiations sexual intimacy is liable to induce self-disgust. When girls complain of date-rape, it is this kind of thing they have in mind. It is not necessarily that they didn’t consent to what happened. Outwardly maybe they did. But inwardly they did not, and didn’t realize, until too late, that this was so. Consent has to be prepared by elaborate games and intimacies, in which freedom and responsibility are alertly deployed by both parties to the transaction.

What I have said points at every juncture to difficult philosophical issues concerning the nature of persons, of freedom, of responsibility and self-awareness. I am consciously refusing to address those issues, because my task is simply to remind you of what you all know and what you all have experienced in moments of desire.

Arousal and desire are not bodily states or even states of individual persons: they form one pole of an I to I encounter, and involve a going out to the other, in which his or her freedom and responsibility are intimately involved in what is wanted. It is only in this way that we can explain some of our most immovable intuitions about sex.

Consider rape. On the instrumentalized view of sex surveyed earlier, rape is a crime of the same order as leaning on a woman without asking her permission and at the worst like spitting on her, doing something that disgusts her without caring what she feels. It involves using someone for a purpose that could have been achieved with any other instrument, but without troubling to seek her consent and even by ignoring her resistance.

As we know, however, rape is next in line to murder, by way of an assault. It is a violation of the other person in the very depths of her being. The view that I have offered immediately explains this. The rapist is not merely prepared to use his victim as a means: He steals her most precious possession, the thing that she wishes to offer only as a gift and in a condition of mutual surrender. He does not merely disregard her freedom: He poisons it, removes from it the most important thing for which it was made, which is the mutual self-giving of desire. And that is why rape is experienced as an annihilation and not just an abuse.

This account of desire explains why we feel disgust at pedophilia, impose a taboo on incest, and regard bestiality and necrophilia as perversions. It explains the role of modesty as an invitation to correct behavior, and shame as a protection against abuse — a point vividly made by Max Scheler in his long paper on shame. I do not think I need to spell these things out, since anyone who recognizes the core of truth in what I have said will be able to spell them out for himself.

Disowning The Myths
My purpose now is to sweep away the myths I began by enunciating. All of them, it seems to me, arise from a fundamental mistake about the intentionality of sexual arousal and sexual desire. These states of mind are not directed toward pleasure, orgasm, or any similar thing. They are directed toward one free being by another.

That last point is worth lingering over. You might think that the rapist is indifferent to the freedom of his victim. On the contrary, however. It is precisely her freedom that he wishes to seize, to overcome, to force to bow before him. For this reason you cannot rape an animal, even if you can sexually abuse it. The victim of rape is a free being, compelled to accept what she does not consent to.

The myths depend upon removing from the picture of sexual activity both the self-conception of the subject and the other-conception of the object. The subject regards the other as a tool with which to induce excitement and pleasure, and conceives himself as a sensory organism. The myths remove from the picture of desire both the person who feels it and the person toward whom it is felt. The myths, in other words, do not describe desire at all, but something else — something that we might observe in animals or children, or, as Socrates put it (according to Xenophon) in pigs rubbing against a post.

One thing that tempts people to endorse the myths is the very obvious fact that sexual activity involves bodily changes and bodily sensations, leading (though not always) to orgasm. This has made the caricature of desire believable, in the minds of those who take an accountant’s view of human satisfactions. It looks as though you could enumerate the benefits of sexual activity in terms of pleasure, and the costs in terms of the time and energy needed to find the person willing to stimulate you, and on that basis proceed to give a utilitarian morality of sexual behavior. If that sounds ridiculous, do not be deceived, It is ridiculous, so ridiculous that Judge Richard Posner has written a whole book, called Sex and Reason, devoted to treating the phenomena in this way.

There is a downside to such books, and to the myths they reinforce. Myths can work on reality in such a way that they cease to be myths and become true descriptions instead. Thinking of sex in the instrumentalized way that Judge Posner exemplifies you actually prepare yourself to experience it in this way.

Henry James had an inkling of this when he wrote, in the Preface to The Bostonians, of “the decline in the sentiment of sex;’ meaning the loss of that full-hearted, self-committing form of sexual desire which animates the heroines of Jane Austen, and its replacement by short-lived, titillating forms of seduction. And the more people think of sex as a means to the production of pleasure or a means for obtaining orgasm (as was famously believed by the madman Wilhelm Reich, who even invented a machine to help the orgasm-seeker to reach his goal), the more the other drops out of consideration as irrelevant, and the more sex ceases to be a form of interpersonal relation and retreats into narcissistic solitude.

Pornography And Self-Abuse
In conclusion I want to touch on the relation of pornography to a highly unfashionable idea, that of self-abuse, a term originally applied to all forms of masturbation, in ways that led to much ridicule and scorn of our ancestors and their puritan hang-ups. It is surely obvious from my account that sex, in what I would wish to describe as its normal form, involves a moving out from the self toward the other — an attempt to know and unite with the other in her body. It involves treating the other as a free subject, and enjoying the mutual arousal which is possible only through the reciprocal interest in each other as conscious and free.

The self is at risk in this: The other may refuse to cooperate, may turn away in disgust, may act in ways that elicit shame and humiliation. That is why you have to be ready for it, and one reason why it is such an injustice to inflict sexual relations on children. In the face of this risk people are tempted to retreat from the direct forms of sexual desire, and take refuge in fantasy objects — objects that cannot damage or threaten you, that cannot withhold consent since they cannot give it, that are without the capacity to embarrass or shame the one who watches them.

Such objects are provided by pornography. The people displayed in the pornographic film have no relation to the viewer, nor are they displayed as being in any other relation to each other than that of each using the other’s body as a machine à frotter. It is impossible to know what they are feeling, and in any case their feelings are in no way directed to the person who is using them and at the same time abusing himself.

The viewer’s pleasure is not the pleasure of desire, since there is no one he is desiring. Nor is he really aroused except in the purely physiological sense, since there is no mutual arousal of which he is a party. Everything is cold, bleak, objective, and also free of cost and personal risk.

Pornography exactly conforms to the myths about desire that I have rejected: it is a realization of those myths, a form of sexual pleasure from which the interpersonal intentionality has been surgically excised. Pornography takes hold of sexual desire and cuts away the desire. There is no real object, but only a fantasy, and no real subject, since there is nothing ventured of the self. To say that this is an abuse of the self is to express a literal truth — so it seems to me.

Like all cost-free forms of pleasure, pornography is habit-forming. It short-circuits that roundabout route to sexual satisfaction which passes through the streams and valleys of arousal, in which the self is always at risk from the other, and always motivated to give itself freely in desire. The short-circuiting mechanism here is in all probability not different from that researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey in their studies of gambling and TV addiction.

It exhibits in addition, however, a depersonalizing habit — a habit of viewing sex as something external to the human personality, to relationship, and to the arena of free encounters. Sex is reduced to the sexual organs, which are stuck on, in the imagination, like cutouts in a child’s picture. To think that this can be done, and the habit of doing it fully established, without damage to a person’s capacity to be a person, and to relate to other persons as one sexual being to others, is to make a large and naive assumption about the ability of the mind to compartmentalize.

Indeed, psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by pornography, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. Sex, portrayed in the porno-image, is an affair of attractive people with every technical accomplishment. Most people are not attractive, and have only second-class equipment. Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that pornography encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy. People who lose confidence in their ability to attract soon become unattractive.

And then the fear of desire arises, and from that fear the fear of love, This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.


Five Myths About Sex — Roger Scruton

May 17, 2012

When sexual gratification occurs in the context of pornography use, it can result in the formation of a virtual mistress of sorts. Dr. Victor Cline, in his essay, “Pornography’s Effects on Adult and Child,” describes this process as follows:

In my experience as a sexual therapist, any individual who regularly masturbates to pornography is at risk of becoming, in time, a sexual addict, as well as conditioning himself into having a sexual deviancy and/or disturbing a bonded relationship with a spouse or girlfriend.

A frequent side effect is that it also dramatically reduces their capacity to love (e.g., it results in a marked dissociation of sex from friendship, affection, caring, and other normal healthy emotions and traits which help marital relationships). Their sexual side becomes in a sense dehumanized. Many of them develop an “alien ego state” (or dark side), whose core is antisocial lust devoid of most values. In time, the “high” obtained from masturbating to pornography becomes more important than real life relationships. . . .

The process of masturbatory conditioning is inexorable and does not spontaneously remiss. The course of this illness may be slow and is nearly always hidden from view. It is usually a secret part of the man’s life, and like a cancer, it keeps growing and spreading. It rarely ever reverses itself, and it is also very difficult to treat and heal. Denial on the part of the male addict and refusal to confront the problem are typical and predictable, and this almost always leads to marital or couple disharmony, sometimes divorce and sometimes the breaking up of other intimate relationships.

Dr. Doidge notes,”Pornographers promise healthy pleasure and a release from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is addiction, and an eventual decrease in pleasure. Paradoxically, the male patients I worked with often craved pornography but didn’t like it.” In the book Pornified, Pamela Paul gives numerous examples of this, and describes one person who decided to limit his pornography use, not from a moralist or guilt-based perspective, but out of a desire to again experience pleasure in actual physical relationships with women.

“Porn impotence,” where the man experiences sexuality preferentially with porn instead of a woman, is a real and growing phenomenon. When a man’s sex drive has been diverted away from his spouse in this way, writes Dr. Cline, the wife can “easily sense this, and often [feels] very lonely and rejected.”

The following is a Reading Selection from “The Abuse Of Sex.”  It could be subtitled Why Liberals Are Wrong About Sex.


We are a long way from the days when homosexuality was described as a perversion, pornography as an offense against public morals, and masturbation as “self-abuse.’ The old morality that condemned sex outside marriage and saw nothing wrong with treating homosexuality as a criminal offense, even if it has a following in the Muslim world, has few adherents in the West. We have moved on at such a pace in the last half-century that to many people any talk of sexual morality at all appears quaint. If there is sexual misconduct, it is only a special case of the more general sin of forcing, defrauding, or manipulating other people into doing something they do not really want to do. If they really do want to do it, and the feeling is mutual, then what on earth is wrong?

That is the view I wish to challenge. What I say may not persuade everyone; indeed, it may not persuade anyone. But I will have achieved half of my purpose if I convince you that the argument is not about consent but about the very nature of the sexual act and the desire expressed in it.

Some Modern Myths
This way of describing and in consequence experiencing sexual phenomena I believe to be founded in five myths. Some of the myths originate in wishful thinking, and some in scientific and pseudoscientific theories.

  1. The first myth is that sexual desire is desire for a particular kind of pleasure, ie sexual organs. On this view all sex is like masturbation — a manipulation of sexual organs for the sake of pleasure. The other person is a stimulus to the desire, but not an object of it. The desire is not for him or her but for a pleasure that could be obtained in other ways. The effect of this myth is to remove sexual pleasure from the realm of interpersonal- responses, and reconstitute them as purely sensory appetites, like the desire to scratch and the pleasure of scratching.Why should people believe that? There are two dominant reasons, I think.

    One is that it simplifies the phenomena of sex in a way that makes them intellectually manageable. Sex becomes like eating and drinking: the desire is for sensory gratification, and is part of the general pleasure-seeking character of the animal organism. The instinct on which this pleasure depends is aroused by the sight of or contact with another person: and that explains the function of sexual pleasure in the life of the human organism, and why it is usually aroused by a member of the opposite sex. This pleasure helps the reproductive process, in just the way that the pleasure of eating helps to keep the organism fed.The other reason for believing this myth is that it simplifies the phenomena of sex in ways that make them morally manageable. If sex is just like eating, then personal relationships, commitment, and the rest can be discounted from the moral point of view.  

    As long as the other person sits down with you voluntarily to enjoy the meal, the elementary requirements of morality are satisfied. Maybe you should be careful about the diet, but only for health reasons. All those old reasons for care, such as shame, honor, marital duty, and the rest, are as irrational as the Jewish dietary laws and a mere survival from an era in which “safe sex” was difficult to guarantee.

  2. The second myth is that sexual satisfaction depends upon such factors as the intensity and duration of sensory pleasure, culminating in orgasm, and that “good sex” is a matter of getting those things right.This is what lovers should aim at, and what ultimately cements the bond between them. Around the myth of “good sex” has grown an enormous literature, both popular and “scientific.Like the previous myth, this one serves to simplify the phenomena of sex, both factually and morally. It reduces to a technique what is more properly described as an art, and represents as a means what is understandable only as an end. In short, it “instrumentalizes” the sexual act.
  3. The third myth is of a different kind, since it involves an attempt at, or at any rate a pretense of, science. This is the myth that sexual urges need to be expressed, and that the attempt to “repress” them is psychologically harmful. The origins of this myth lie in the theories of Freud, who did not, however, endorse the view that repression is harmful. What Freud did do was to introduce the “hydraulic” imagery with which sexual desire is now so often understood. The urge welling up inside can be kept down for a while, but eventually will seek a channel to escape, and if not allowed to escape through one channel may escape through another. The longer it is kept down, the more dangerous might its inevitable eruption be, if it finds release in activities such as sadism or child abuse.

    The great apostle of this view was Wilhelm Reich, who saw orgasm as a kind of release, sex as the technique for securing it, and repression as the path to insanity.

  4. Associated with this third myth is a fourth, which is that sexual desire is the same kind of thing, whatever the nature of the partner who arouses it. The urge welling within me might be stimulated by a woman, or a man, or an animal, or an imaginary being. Convention and decency set limits to how a human being should satisfy his sexual urges. But nothing in the urge itself demands any particular kind of partner. Sexual `orientation,” as it is now called, is simply an ingrained habit of arousal, trained on a particular object. This myth goes naturally with the other three, but the motive for adopting it is rather different, namely the desire to revise and perhaps even abolish the traditional idea of sexual normality.

    For the fourth myth offers an easy path to the conclusion that there is no such thing as sexual normality, and that homosexuality (for example) is not in itself a perversion. Homosexual and heterosexual conduct use different instruments, but to the same end, and any argument for distinguishing right from wrong applies equally to both. There should be no coercion, no fraud, no trickery; and each partner must be open and honest with the other, but the sex of the partner is irrelevant to the morality of the act.

  5. Finally, the fifth and in many ways most important of the modern myths about sex tells us that attitudes such as shame, guilt, and disgust are unhealthy. What makes people feel bad is the “judgmental” attitude prevalent in the surrounding culture, which people interiorize, so that they accuse themselves in the very moment of sexual release. Hence we should strive to free ourselves from these hangovers from an old and discredited ethic of `pollution and taboo and learn to engage in sexual activity in full awareness that it is in essence no more guilty an activity than eating or drinking — a psychological benefit that need have no psychological cost.

    Much modern sex education is designed as a therapy for guilt and shame, a way of getting young people to accept their sexual urges and to find ways to express them without feeling bad about doing so. Moral progress means freeing ourselves from this internal judgment, learning to express our sexuality freely, and to overcome the irrational guilt that stems from others and not from our true inner selves.

Now, I agree with the view that we must find ways to express our sexual desires without feeling guilt and shame. But I also think that guilt and shame are often justified, and that what they demand of us is not therapy, in order to remove them, but right conduct, in order to avoid them.

Some Consequences Of The Myths
Not everyone adheres to these myths, and there are of course more and less subtle ways of upholding them. But they define a pattern of thinking in our society, which affects every aspect of the culture. Whenever people write of the “recreational” use of sex; whenever they suggest that there is no basis to sexual morality other than the rule that force and fraud are forbidden; whenever they describe “gay” sex as though it were a mere variation of an activity that exists also in a “straight” variety — they are usually leaning on those myths.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of the triumph of these myths is the growing indifference in our society toward the glut of pornography. For if these myths are true, it is impossible to condemn pornography or the practice of those who use it as a sexual stimulant. Indeed, pornography might even be regarded as the best form of sexual recreation, in that it is free from the dangers — medical, psychological, and personal — of sex with a partner. As Oscar Wilde said of masturbation: “It is cleaner, more efficient, and you meet a better class of person; by which he meant himself.


Eros and Agape – Roger Scruton

May 4, 2012

Roger Scruton

In a once widely read book, Eros and Agape, the Swedish Protestant theologian Anders Nygren made a radical distinction between erotic love, which is motivated by its object, and the Christian love commended by St Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, which is motivated by God. Greek distinguishes the two as eros and agape, we as romantic love and neighbor-love. And a great change came over the world, in Nygren’s view, when agape replaced Eros, as the raw material for the love of God.

In Plato eros arises in a god-like way — that is to say, as an external and invading force, which overwhelms the psyche. But it ascends like a fire, and carries the subject heavenward, to the realm of the forms which is the kingdom of God. St Paul, by contrast, emphasizes agape, which comes to us from God, rather than raising us to him. The downward turning love of the almighty fills us with gratitude, and we reciprocate by spreading it outwards to our neighbors here on earth.

It would certainly be a mistake to confound eros and agape. Sexual love is not in itself a benefit conferred on the target: it may well be an affliction. Sexual love desires to possess, and usually to possess exclusively — or at least with an alert distrust of rivals. Sexual love can be cruel and full of anger; it has an ambivalent relation to moral virtue, and in certain forms — such as that described by Jean Genet in Le Journal du voleur and Notre Dame des fleurs – is inspired and excited by vice. It makes massive and unfair discriminations between the beautiful and the ugly, the strong and the weak, the young and the old. It is jealous, and cannot rejoice in the good things given by a rival.

A person can murder the object of erotic love as Othello did, and when people fall in love they are aware that they are embarking on a path that is as much a threat to the social order as a natural fruit of it. Hence lovers are furtive; they conceal their feelings, knowing that the world is as likely to be angered as pleased by the sight of their attachment. [Schopenhauer makes much of this point in the essay on sexual love, in The World as Will and Representation, vol. 2.]

None of those things is true of agape (charity), and no society could be founded on erotic love as a society might be founded on the love of neighbor. Hence eros is a danger: it is a force that undermines trust as much as it builds trust, and the greatest danger is that it might become detached entirely from inter-personal relations and returned to its animal origins. This is what Plato feared, and why he developed his theory of what we now know as Platonic love — maybe the most influential psychological theory in history. For Plato the physical urge must be overcome, so that the desire directed to the beautiful boy can be redirected to its proper object, which is the form of the beautiful itself.

Plato’s mistake was to think that normal sexual desire is directed towards the beautiful body, rather than towards the embodied subject. The solution to the problem of desire is not to overcome it, but to ensure that it retains its personal focus. A society based on agape alone is all very well, but it will not reproduce itself: nor will it produce the crucial relation — that between parent and child — which is the basis on which we can begin to understand our relation to God.

Hence the redemption of the erotic lies at the heart of every viable social order — a fact well understood by traditional religions, all of which see sexual union as a `rite of passage’ in which society as a whole is involved, and which brings about an existential change in those whom it joins. This existential change requires a blessing, so as to be lifted from the realm of mutual appetite and remade as a spiritual union.

On the Cathedral of Reims there is affixed the sculpture of an angel, whose smile is intended to represent the love of God for men — the downward-tending, all comprehending love of agape. The sculptor has tried to represent the kind of existential support that we receive, on the Christian view, from God. He wishes to display the essence of love as Aquinas described it — the willing of another’s good. [Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, qqs 25-8]. In the Thomist view love and friendship are to be understood as endorsements — ways of saying to another that `your being is my desire’.

For this very reason, however, the smile on the angel’s face makes us uncomfortable. It is not the tender smile, the smile of the flesh, that one lover confers on another or that a mother confers on her child. It has a willed and abstract quality. This smile has not been `called forth’ onto the angel’s face by the particular person who is its object, for agape makes no distinctions, and may have no particular person in mind. Hence the smile has a double aspect: now it seems deliberate and therefore false, now involuntary and therefore replete with unearthly benevolence.

There is a truth in Aquinas’s view of love, that it involves willing the other’s good. But only some kinds of love are like that. Erotic love may desire the non-being of its object just as much as the being — something that we surely did not need Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to show us. If I feel erotic love for another, I endorse her being for my sake as much as for hers. And the circumstances might arise in which my endorsement is withdrawn: like Othello, I might, in a passion of jealousy, seek her destruction.

If I feel neighbor love for her, then my endorsement is entirely for her sake. It is unconditional in a way that erotic love can never be. Yet more unconditional, of course, is the love than shines in the old face of Rembrandt’s mother, who quietly and unassumingly makes a gift of herself to her son. The angel is not making a gift of himself: he is relaying the love of God. And although Christians believe that God also made a gift of himself, through Christ, this is a peculiarity of the Christian religion that is not reflected in the account of God’s love that we are given in the other Abrahamic faiths.

On one Christian understanding marriage is a sacrament — which means a union forged in the presence of God. And the purpose of the sacrament is to incorporate eros into the world of agape — to ensure that the face of the lover can still be turned to the world of others.

Human societies differ in the way that they manage this, and some don’t even attempt it. But the purpose, where it exists, is everywhere the same: to ensure that the private face of the lover can at a moment become the public face of the citizen, or the outgoing face of the friend. Hence where marriage is not regarded as a sacrament, but merely as a contract between the husband and the parents of the bride, the face of the wife often remains hidden after marriage: marriage does nothing to lift her from the private to the public forms of love. That is the deep explanation of the burqa: it is a way of underlining the exclusion of women from the public sphere. They can appear there as a bundle of clothing, but never as a face: to be fully a person the woman must retreat into the private sphere, where eros, rather than agape, is sovereign.

The Thomistic idea of love, as willing the being and the flourishing of another, assumes a kind of existential separation between the lover and the beloved. I will your being by willing you to be other than me. In erotic love, however, there is an existential tie: the partners are bound up in each other (as we say `involved’), and this is an impediment to the attitude described by St Thomas. I do not will my lover to be wholly other than me, and I am not `happy for him’, as I am happy for others when they obtain something that they desire.

And this is a partial explanation of the fact noted earlier, that lovers do not look at each other, but look into each other, and search the eyes and face of the beloved for the thing to which they seek to be united (and with which they can never really be united, since it is not a thing but a perspective, defined for all eternity as other than mine). C. S. Lewis puts the point nicely with his remark that friends are side by side, while lovers are face to face. [The Four Loves, London, Harvest Books, 1960]

Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining why it is that the great mystics and religious poets, when they endeavor to describe the love that the soul has for God, almost always follow Plato’s example, and take erotic love as their analogical base. This is true of St John of the Cross, of St Teresa of Avila, of Rumi and Hafiz. For the love of God is also an acknowledgement of total existential dependence, of the nothingness of my being until completed by him.

Maybe his love coming down to me and through me to my fellow men is agape. But mine that aspires to him, and seeks him out in utter servitude, is more like eros, a condition of existential need. In the extreme forms of ecstasy, whether religious or sexual, the face is in fact eclipsed, the self utterly expelled from it, wandering as it were outside the body, and this is what we see in the face of St Teresa as Bernini depicted her. This is a face no longer inhabited by the self, like a place abandoned and falling into ruin.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to say something about the destiny of the face, in the world that we have entered – a world in which eros is being rapidly detached from inter-personal commitments and redesigned as a commodity. The first victim of this process is the face, which has to be subdued to the rule of the body, to be shown as overcome, wiped out or spat upon. The underlying tendency of erotic images in our time is to present the body as the focus and meaning of desire, the place where it all occurs, in the momentary spasm of sensual pleasure of which the soul is at best a spectator, and no part of the game.


The Erotic Face – Roger Scruton

May 3, 2012

Roger Scruton

When sexual attentions take the form of hunger they become deeply insulting. And in every form they compromise not only the person who addresses them, but also the person addressed. Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves: it is an expression of my freedom, which seeks out the freedom in you. Hence modesty and shame are part of the phenomenon — a recognition that the `I’ is on display in the body, and its freedom in jeopardy.

This we see clearly in Rembrandt’s painting of Susanna and the Elders, in which Susanna’s body is made to shrink into itself by the prurient eyes that observe her, like the flesh of a mollusk from which the shell has been prised.

Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination. That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. I don’t need to emphasize the extent to which our understanding of desire has been influenced and indeed subverted by the literature, from Havelock Ellis through Freud to the Kinsey reports, which has purported to lift the veil from our collective secrets.

But it is worth pointing out that if you describe desire in the terms that have become fashionable — as the pursuit of pleasurable sensations in the private parts — then the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. Rape, on this view, is every bit as bad as being spat upon: but no worse. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain — and it is only what I have called the `charm of disenchantment’ that leads people to receive the now fashionable descriptions as the truth.

Rape is not just a matter of unwanted contact. It is an existential assault and an annihilation of the subject. This fact has seldom been more poignantly captured than by Goya, in  one of his paintings devoted to scenes of brigandage. The girl in this painting  is being relieved of her clothes by her captors, who handle the precious stuff with a concupiscent delicacy that is all the more excruciating in that we know how they are about to handle her. She hides from them, not her body but her face, the place where her shame is revealed, and by hiding which she does all that she can to withdraw herself from what is about to happen.

Sexual desire is inherently compromising, and the choice to express it or to yield to it is an existential choice, in which the self is at risk. Not surprisingly, therefore, the sexual act is surrounded by prohibitions; it brings with it a weight of shame, guilt and jealousy, as well as joy and happiness. Sex is therefore deeply implicated in the sense of original sin, as the sense of being sundered from what we truly are, by our Fall into the world of objects.

There is an important insight contained in the book of Genesis, concerning the loss of eros when the body takes over. Adam and Eve have partaken of the forbidden fruit, and obtained the `knowledge of good and evil’ — in other words the ability to invent for themselves the code that governs their behavior. God walks in the garden and they hide, conscious for the first time of their bodies as objects of shame. This `shame of the body’ is an extraordinary feeling, and one that no animal could conceivably have. It is a recognition of the body as in some way alien — the thing that has wandered into the world of objects as though of its own accord, to become the victim of uninvited glances.

Adam and Eve have become conscious that they are not only face to face, but joined in another way, as bodies, and the objectifying gaze of lust now poisons their once innocent desire. Milton’s description of this transition, from the pure Eros that preceded the Fall, to the polluted lust that followed it, is one of the great psychological triumphs in English literature. But how brilliantly and succinctly does the author of Genesis cover the same transition. By means of the fig leaf Adam and Eve are able to rescue each other from the worst: to ensure, however tentatively, that they can still be face to face, even if the erotic has now been privatized and attached to the private parts.

In his well-known fresco of the expulsion from Paradise, Masaccio shows the distinction between the two shames – that of the body, which causes Eve to hide her sexual parts, and that of the soul, which causes Adam to hide his face. Like the girl in Goya’s picture, Adam hides the self; Eve shows the self in all its confused grief, but still protects the body — for that, she now knows, can be tainted by others’ eyes.

I have dwelt on the phenomenon of the erotic because it illustrates the importance of the face, and what is conveyed by the face, in our personal encounters, even in those encounters motivated by what many think to be a desire that we share with other animals, and which arises directly from the reproductive strategies of our genes.

In my view sexual desire, as we humans experience it, is an inter-personal response — one that presupposes self-consciousness in both subject and object, and which singles out its target as a free and responsible individual, able to give and withhold at will. It has its perverted forms, but it is precisely the inter-personal norm that enables us to describe them as perverted.

Sexual relations between members of other species have, materially speaking, much in common with those between people. But from the intentional point of view they are entirely different. Even those creatures who mate for life, like wolves and geese, are not animated by promises, by devotion that shines in the face, or by the desire to unite with the other, who is another like me. Human sexual endeavor is morally weighted, as no animal endeavor can be. And its focus on the individual is mediated by the thought of that individual as a subject, who freely chooses, and in whose first person perspective I appear as he or she appears in mine. To put it simply, and in the language of the Torah, human sexuality belongs in the realm of the covenant.

Someone might respond by saying that I have described what is at best an ideal, and that the reality may be very different. Our world abounds in sexual practices that ignore or by-pass the subjectivity of the other — sexual encounters in dark rooms where the face cannot be seen, encounters with `real dolls’ that respond with a caricature of human excitement, encounters imagined through the screen or vicariously enjoyed through pornography, voyeurism and video sex-games.

But I would reply that, in almost all cases where we do not refer directly to perversion (as in bestiality and necrophilia) the object of sexual interest is being treated as a substitute: the object is the imaginary other, the fantasy subject, and serves a sexual purpose precisely by being tied in my imagination to the real desiring me. Objects can be substitutes for subjects as the target of sexual excitement, but they cannot replace them. It is not the shoe that the fetishist desires, but the imaginary woman with whose aura it is filled.

Hence there is an important sense in which human sexual desire is non-transferable: to the person wanting Jane it is absurd to say `take Elizabeth, she will do just as well’; for what he wants to do is an action in which Jane is a constituent, and not just an instrument. True, Elizabeth could be substituted for Jane, as Leah was substituted for Rachel in the Old Testament story of Jacob’s marriage (Genesis 29:21-28). But Jacob’s desire was not transferred to Leah: he simply made a mistake, believing her to be Rachel. It is true too that you can desire more than one person, or move promiscuously from one person to the next. But there is a deep difference between orgiastic sex, in which the other is relevant only as a means, and serial seduction, in which the inter-personal intentionality of desire is maintained in truncated form.

Consider Don Juan. The essence of his personality is seduction, and seducing means eliciting consent, through representing your own consuming interest in doing so. Don Juan is seductive because he feels passion for every woman he meets, and yet his passion is not transferable. It would be absurd to break into his seduction of Zerlina (in the version that we owe to Da Ponte and Mozart) with the announcement `take this one, she will do just as well’ (hence the pathos of Donna Elvira’s interruption). This point is made clear by Casanova in his Memoirs, in which his intense and interrogatory desire singles out each object in turn for the very person that she is, and for whom no other could possibly be a substitute — which is why Casanova was irresistible.

If we thought of desire merely as a kind of hunger, satisfied now by this human burger, now by that, it would make sense to think of it as transferable. But, as I have suggested, even in the pathological cases like those of Don Juan and Casanova, it is the interest in the other that is the intentional heart of desireand in the other as an embodied person, with a unique subjectivity that defines his or her point of view.


The 100th Psalm – Roger Scruton

December 22, 2011

Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528) was a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg. His prints established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties, and he has been conventionally regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance ever since. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. His woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavor than the rest of his work. His well-known works include the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (shown here, 1514), which has been the subject of extensive analysis and interpretation. His watercolors mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.

Moving to the country ten years ago I went out of curiosity to our local church, no longer as a thief but as a penitent. And because the little church announced the use of the Book of Common Prayer — in whose idiom my prayers are invariably expressed — I joined the congregation, and volunteered to play the organ. The truth contained in the words of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion is not directly there on the page, but revealed in the silence of the soul that comes from speaking them. It is a truth that reaches beyond words, to the inexpressible end of things.

Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. It was by reflecting on this psalm that I came to see how its pure and unsullied idiom contains the answer to the lamentations of Michael Stipe in his pop hit of the time “Losing My Religion.” The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. It is a notable fact of our modern civilization, in which duties to God are ignored or forgotten, that there is very little gladness and still less singing. `Losing my Religion’ is a moan, not a song, and the idiom of heavy metal expressly forbids its followers to `join in’ when the music starts.

Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature — these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.

The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: `Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology. It is reminding us first that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarized in a statement of identity. We know God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God. Christians believe that they have three ways of knowing God: as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. But they also believe that our knowledge of God is a matter of personal acquaintance, which cannot be conveyed in the language of science.

The psalmist is also reminding us that we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the world in which we live. Such is the presumption of modern science that it strives to deny even this evident truth. Scientists are endeavoring to unravel the secret of creation, so as to take charge of it and to turn it in some new direction. This project — hailed by all forward-looking people as promising the final victory over disease, suffering and even death itself — was foretold and rejected by Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. Huxley’s message was really a religious one. If human beings ever unlock their own genetic code, he foretold, they will use this knowledge to escape the chains of nature. But having done so, they will bind themselves in chains of their own.

The chains of nature are those that God created. They are called reason, freedom, morality and choice. The human chains foretold by Huxley are of a quite different composition: they are made entirely of flesh and the pleasures of the flesh. They bind so tightly that reason, choice and moral judgement can find no chink in which to grow and corrode them. So completely do they encircle the human soul that it shrinks to a tiny dot within the organism. There is no suffering in the Brave New World; no pain or doubt or terror. Nor is there happiness. It is a world of reliable and undemanding pleasures, from which the causes of suffering have been banished, and with them all striving, all hope, and all joy.

But love is a cause of suffering; so too are freedom, judgment and choice. Hence these things too will disappear from the Brave New World. As a result, confronted with the inhabitants of this world, we do not recognize ourselves. We instinctively reject this new form of life as monstrous, inhuman, meaningless. And that is because we seek in vain for God’s image, in a world where man has presumed to be in charge.

Finally, the psalmist says that God created us. For many people this proposition is the sticking point. They can accept that, if there is knowledge of God, then it is a kind of personal knowledge; they can accept that we did not create ourselves and even that the attempt to put ourselves in the position of self-creators is dangerous presumption. But they cannot accept that God created us. They have a better explanation, and that is Darwin’s.

Thanks to the work of scientific popularizers like Richard Dawkins the debate between evolutionism and creationism, which once rocked the schools of theology, is now rocking the world. If we evolved from apes, and if the whole process of evolution is merely an outgrowth of the chemistry of carbon, what place is there for God? Can we not explain everything without that old and stale hypothesis? Such are the questions that animate contemporary discussions; and people seem eager to be taken in by them.

From a philosophical perspective, however, it is very strange that people should think that the psalmist and the scientist are mutually opposed. We are natural beings, part of the biological order. Natural beings exist in time and therefore change over time. That we should evolve is inevitable. If we ask the question how we humans came to be as we are, then any conceivable answer will refer to the unfolding of a process — and processes take time. The surprising fact is not that we should have evolved from the humble chemistry of the oceans but that it should have taken so long to discover this. [Though there are hints of Darwinian thinking among the Greeks, especially Anaximander]

Of course, one thing that prevented the discovery was the story of Eden, understood not as a parable but as a literal truth about creation. But the proposition that God created the world and the proposition that we evolved over time are not merely compatible; they arise in response to quite different questions. Evolution tells us how the world is spread out in time, the story of creation tells us why.

The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why. When we ask for the why of the world we are seeking a point of view outside all time and change, from which we can view the world as a whole. Only God can obtain that point of view. Hence it is to him that we must look for an answer. That, surely, is what the psalmist meant when he said that it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.

What follows from this truth, however, and how does it affect our lives? The psalmist goes on at once to tell us, in a beautiful phrase: `we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’. God watches over us, as a shepherd watches over his sheep. And the world in which we live is a pasture. It was natural for the poet, living in a pastoral community, to use this imagery. And it is all the more emotive for us, in that we are conscious of the history that has severed us from the green pastures of our ancestors.

We long, in our hearts, to return to a simpler and more pastoral way of life, just as we long to be united with God. Hence the psalmist’s words have a dual function. They remind us that we depend on God’s mercy and power. And they remind us of our fallen state, of our need for safety, and of the long history of human pride and arrogance that has sundered us from nature. Our world was intended as a pasture, and we have turned it into a junkyard.

The psalmist is reminding us, too, of other things. Like sheep we go astray; and like sheep we stray as a crowd. Moreover, sheep that stray from their pasture are making a huge mistake: they are venturing into territory where they are no longer protected. We, who have damaged the natural order, are in a like condition. We have emerged into a world much of the fabric of which has been deflected from its natural condition, so as to depend upon us for its survival. And yet we haven’t the faintest idea how to ensure that this world survives. We improvise from day to day, and each day we become more deeply mired in error.

And the process seems to obey a terrible and inexorable logic. We overcome the danger presented by cars by building better roads, which make the cars go faster, so increasing the danger. We try to rescue our towns from the frenzy with bypasses, and within a year or two they are twice as dangerous, since the bypasses have brought more traffic to the towns. We think we can make the streets safer with street lights, only to discover that we pollute the night sky and shut out the stars, so causing us to lie half-awake at night under a searing light that troubles our body rhythms. Every attempt to correct our mistakes seems merely to add to them. And those who tell us this are greeted with anger and vilification, since the one thing that people wedded to error cannot bear is the truth. Men who tell the truth are dangerous. They should be crucified.

To return, however, to the Hundredth Psalm. The right course for those sheep who have strayed into unknown territory is to go back through the hole in the hedge. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are so often sneered at. Yet there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.

I don’t mean to imply that the conservation of nature is the answer to original sin. But I do mean to suggest that the truth that is being brought home to us in the sphere of ecology applies equally to the rest of human life. The General Confession tells us that `we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, and thereby implies that the ways to which we are called are part of our nature and our destiny, and not to be improved upon. If you ponder the many ways in which people have recently tried to improve on the human condition — from sexual liberation to modernist architecture, and from television to junk food — you will surely cone to see how true is that ancient vision of the sheep-like nature of humanity.

We have made an idol of progress. But `progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights.

The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it.

But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame. Misfortune becomes an injustice, and a ground for compensation. Hence our world is full of hatred — hatred for the other, who has got what is mine. Look at contemporary art, literature and music and you will find in much of it a singular joylessness, a revulsion towards human life. This revulsion is the inevitable reward of those who think only of what is owed to them, and not of what they owe.

That is why the psalmist enjoins us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude. `O Go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.’ Once we have made the decision to turn back to the ways of duty, gratitude will flow naturally into us, and — so the psalmist reminds us — gratitude is the precondition of joy. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well­being are not rights but gifts.

A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth. And that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them?

Where there is no gratitude there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise.

That is why we should say, even in the midst of suffering, that the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. After all, we might not have existed; precisely because we are finite, created beings, we endure from moment to moment by God’s grace. It is not through our own efforts that we attain peace but through the great endowment of good will, which lays down for us commands that only a free being can obey. That is what is meant by `everlasting mercy’: not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct, even through suffering and hardship.

However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom, since this is not the way of the flesh. Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God. This knowledge breaks through the barrier of time, and places us in contact with the eternal. Hence the psalmist concludes by telling us of God that `his truth endureth from generation to generation’.

Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent — or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.

If, therefore, I am called upon to express my much-amended but nevertheless regained religion, it would not be in the penitential words of Little Gidding, nor in the self-centered cries of Rilke to his Angel, but in the tranquil words of the Jubilate Deo:

O Be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that bath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

O Go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.

For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth endureth from generation to generation.



The Loss Of Religion – Roger Scruton

December 21, 2011

Beneath the loggias of the relics Bernini created huge niches which hold four colossal statues, almost 10 m. high, which are associated with the relics. In the first pier on the right is the statue of St. Longinus, the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus, from which "blood and water" flowed. It was carved by Bernini in 1643 from four blocks of marble.

In our civilization, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce.

Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.

Except that the loss need not occur. This is the lesson that I draw from my own experience, and that has caused me to revisit the Christianity of my youth. I was brought up in the England of the fifties, in which it was generally assumed that, with the exception of the Jewish minority, you were either Nonconformist or Church of England. On official documents that required you to state your religion you wrote `C of E’ regardless. And you could be confident that God was an Englishman, who had a quiet, dignified, low-key way of visiting the country each weekend while being careful never to outstay his welcome.

When Eliot addressed that God — the very God of the Anglican communion — with the cri de coeur of Ash Wednesday and the solemn psalmody of Four Quartets, we were shocked and also moved. Maybe, beneath those formal robes, there beat a real and living heart and one that cared for us! This possibility had not occurred to us before.

In the England of today God is a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, with aggressive manners and a violent way of intruding into every gathering, even in the middle of the working week. The Muslims in our midst do not share our impious attitude to absent generations. They come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet and his hands full of strange gods. They are manifestly in the business of social, as well as biological, reproduction. They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred: namely, the future.

In the presence of this new religious spirit the voice of the English churches becomes ever weaker, ever more shy of doctrine, ever more conciliatory and ill at ease. The idea that the British should be re-evangelized would be dismissed by most of the official clergy as an act of aggression, even a racist affront to our Muslim minorities. The Church is not there to propagate the Christian faith, but to forgive those who reject it.

Now of course it is one of the great strengths of Christianity that it makes forgiveness a duty and freedom of conscience a religious ideal. But Christians recognize the duty of forgiveness because they seek forgiveness too. Those brought up in our post-religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment, and can neglect their duties without being crippled by guilt. Since religion is the balm for guilt, those brought up without religion seem, on the surface, to lose the need for it.

But only on the surface. You don’t have to be a believer to be conscious of a great religious deficit in our society. We saw its effect during the strange canonization of Princess Diana, when vast crowds of people congregated in places vaguely associated with the Princess’s name, to deposit wreaths, messages and teddy bears. The very same people whose pitiless prurience had caused Diana’s death now sought absolution from her ghost. Here was beauty, royalty, distinction punished for its fault, to become a sacrificial offering and therefore a saintly intercessor before the mysteries that govern the world.

Forget the gruesome kitsch and liturgical vagueness — necessary results, in any case, of the decline of organized religion. We were in the presence of a primordial yearning for the sacred, one reaching back to the very earliest dream-pictures of mankind and recorded in a thousand myths and rituals.

Many religions focus on such episodes of sacrificial offering, often, as in Christianity and Shi`ism, through a re-enacted martyrdom, in a collective ritual that purges the believer of his sins. So widespread is the phenomenon that Rene Girard has seen it as the fundamental secret of religion. In Girard’s view, the suffering of a victim is necessary if the accumulated violence of society is to be released and abjured. That is why we are moved by the story of Christ’s Passion. It is we ourselves who nailed this man to the Cross, and the compassion that we feel for him is also a purging of our guilt. This guilt arises from the experience of society; it is the residue of the aggressions through which we compete for our thrills. In our post-religious society these aggressions are no longer sublimated through acts of humility and worship. Hence the sadistic forms of entertainment that dominate our media in Europe. But, if we accept Girard’s view – and there is surely a lot to be said for it — we must also accept that Generation X is just as subject to the burden of religious guilt as the rest of us.

And indeed, as soon as we look at religion in that detached, anthropological way, we begin to discern its subterranean presence in European society. Although doctrine has no place in our public life, a fear of heresy is beginning to grip the countries of Europe — not heresy as defined by the Christian churches, but heresy as defined by a form of post-Christian political correctness. A remarkable system of semi-official labels has emerged to prevent the expression of dangerous points of view. And a point of view is identified as dangerous if it belongs to the old Judaeo-Christian culture, thereby reminding us of what we were when we actually believed something.

Those who confess to their Christianity are `Christian fundamentalists’ or even part of the `Christian fundamentalist right’, and therefore a recognized threat to free opinion; those who express concern over national identity are `far-right extremists’ — a label attached to Holland’s Pim Fortuyn, despite his impeccable left-wing credentials; those who question whether it is right to advocate homosexuality to schoolchildren are `homophobic’; defenders of the family are `right-wing authoritarians’, while a teacher who defends chastity rather than free contraception as the best response to teenage pregnancy, is not just `out of touch’ but `offensive’ to his pupils. To criticize popular culture, television or contemporary rock music, even to press for the teaching of grammatical English in English schools — all these are proofs of `elitism’, whereby a person disqualifies himself from the right to speak. It is as though our society is seeking to define itself as a religious community, whose very lack of faith has become a kind of orthodoxy.

There is nothing new in this. Jacobinism and Communism both began life as anti-religious movements, and both bear the marks of the Enlightenment. But they recruited people in just the way that religions recruit them, offering inviolable orthodoxies, mysterious rituals, witch-hunts and persecutions. And that is why they were successful. Living as we do in an age without certainties, we like to believe that we can finally dispense with the religious instinct and coexist in open dialogue with people who dissent from the premises on which we build our lives. But we too need orthodoxies, we too hunger for rituals, and we too are apt to confront the critic and the dissenter with persecution rather than argument.

We even have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess, in the crazier rhetoric of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.

On the other hand, we have abandoned those aspects of religion that provide genuine guidance in a time of spiritual need. The instinctive awe and respect towards our own being that the Romans called pietas has more or less vanished from the public life of Europe. And nowhere is this more clearly noticeable than in the officially Roman Catholic countries of France and Italy. Now that the Church has ceased to be a public voice in those countries, the culture is being colonized by secular ways of thinking.

Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia — subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny — proceed in once-Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure-seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.

The Romans warned against impiety not only because it would bring down judgment from heaven but because it was a repudiation of a fundamental human duty — the duty to ancestors and progeny. The ills of modern civilization have their origins in the loss of piety, and we should take a lesson from the Romans, who had such a clear perception of why piety matters. The important thing, in the ancient world, was not theological belief, which was hidden behind the plethora of gods, but the cult. Religion was first of all a practice, a habit of worship, a humble setting aside of self and a deep genuflection in the presence of the divine — as Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, finally bows down before Isis, and is reborn to the world. Faith may or may not step into the ensuing silence. But it is the silence itself that matters: the silence of the penitent soul. Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace.


What Losing Faith Really Means – Roger Scruton

December 20, 2011

Luis Buñuel has reputation as one of the most important surrealist filmmakers in history. He got his start by collaborating with Salvador Dali on the 16-minute short Un Chien Andalou. His long career in surrealist filmmaking and religious rabble-rousing had its share of peaks and valleys, as he traveled from Spain to France to America to Mexico and back again. Simon of the Desert, his last Mexican film, is certainly one of the peaks. Simon of the Desert is Luis Buñuel’s wicked and wild take on the life of devoted ascetic Saint Simeon Stylites, who waited atop a pillar surrounded by a barren landscape for six years, six months, and six days, in order to prove his devotion to God.

Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be `members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.

This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.

Faith is not therefore content with the cozy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community — the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.

The loss of faith may begin as an intellectual loss. But it does not end there. It is a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn. Reading the great Victorian doubters — Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them — I am persuaded that they were not ready for this experience. Hence they attempted to patch up the social world while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it. And the remarkable fact is that they were successful. Their loss of faith occurred against the background of a still perceivable religious community, whose customs they did nothing to disturb. They inhabited the same Lebenswelt as the believer, and saw the world as marked out by institutions and expectations that are the legacy of religion.

We witness this in the writings of nineteenth-century secularists such as John Stuart Mill, Jules Michelet or Henry Thoreau. Their world bears the stamp of a shared religion; the human form for them is still divine; the free individual still shines in their world with a more than earthly illumination, and the hidden goal of all their writings is to ennoble the human condition. Such writers did not experience their loss of faith as a loss, since in a very real sense they hadn’t lost religion. They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made — the world of secure commitments, of marriages, obsequies and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art. Their world was a world where the concepts of the sacred, the sacrilegious and the sacramental were widely recognized and socially endorsed.

This condition found idealized expression in the Gothic Revival, and in the writings of its principal high Victorian advocate, John Ruskin. Nobody knows whether Ruskin was a vestigial Christian believer, a fellow-traveler or an atheist profoundly attached to the medieval vision of a society ordered by faith. His exhortations, however, are phrased in the diction of the Book of Common Prayer; his response to the science and art of his day is penetrated by the spirit of religious inquisition, and his recommendations to the architect are for the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Gothic style, as he described and commended it, was to recapture the sacred for a secular age. It was to offer visions of sacrifice and consecrated labor, and so counter the dispiriting products of the industrial machine. The Gothic would be, in the midst of our utilitarian madness, a window on to the transcendental, where once again we could pause and wonder, and where our souls would be filled with the light of another world. The Gothic Revival — both for Ruskin and for the atheist William Morris — was an attempt to reconsecrate the city as an earthly community united by real presences in sacred precincts.

Loss of faith involves a radical change to the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. The most ordinary things take on a new aspect, and concepts that inhabit the soul of believers and shape their most intimate experiences — concepts of the sacred and profane, of the forbidden, the sacramental and the holy — seem to make no contact with the world as it appears to the person who has lost hold of the transcendental.

In response to this we might strive as the Victorians did to maintain and repair the faith community, to hope that the process of re-consecration would continue, refurbishing the image of humanity as god-like and redeemed. In short, we could go on stealing from churches. But it doesn’t work — not now. More appropriate to our time is the response of Rilke and Eliot, the two poets over whom I stumbled when first I discovered books. They did not hope for that enduring simulacrum of a religious community, but instead wished to rediscover the real thing, only lying dormant within us.

Among the greatest religious poems of the twentieth century we must surely count The Duino Elegies of Rilke, and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot. In the first a private religion is created from the fragmentary offerings of intensely subjective experiences, which are gradually elaborated until they seem to contain the intimation of a personal redemption. In the second the poet is living in a world that refuses his religious yearning; he rediscovers, through a lost but imagined religious community, the experience of the sacramental from which he had been cut off. Both poets are restored in imagination to what they had lost in fact. There is a kind of belief there, but it is a belief that recreates the religious community out of memories, intimations and signs.

In The Duino Elegies the idea of the transcendental is embodied in the figure of the Angel, summoned into existence by the poet’s need, and representing the triumph of consciousness over the world of fact. In all of us, Rilke believes, there is the deep need to transform fact into thought, object into subject, Earth into the idea of Earth: the Angel is the being in whom this transubstantiation is complete. He is like the soul released into Brahma, who has translated matter to spirit so as to be co-terminous with his world.

We emulate this process of translation, but we must begin from the fragments of our earthly experience where the sacred can take root — the places of love, heroism, death and memory, in which Earth beseeches us to take conscious note of her, to ingest her into our own transcendental presence, which is also an absence. For Rilke the experience of the sacred is saturated with the image of community, with the full, conscious rejoicing of the tribe, now dormant in all of us, and resurrected in imagination in the tenderness of sexual love:

Look, we don’t love as flowers love, out of
a single year; there rises in us, when we love,
immemorial sap in the arms. O girl,
This — that we loved in ourselves, not one yet to be, but
the innumerable ferment; not a single child
but the fathers resting like ruined mountains
in our depths –; but the dry river-bed
of former mothers –; but the whole
soundless landscape under its clear
or cloudy destiny –, this, girl, came before you.

In that passage Rilke finds in the intense longing of erotic love the intimations of a religious community — one dedicated to its own reproduction. The transcendental is contained in the moment — the moment of desire that summons past and future generations as witnesses to the present passion. Angels live like this always; we only sometimes, in those moments when we recognize our own mortality and embrace it.

Eliot had another vision, one nearer to that of the Gothic Revival — though his is a Gothic Revival of the imagination, in which the effort of renewal takes place inwardly, in the subjective experience of the suffering poet. His pilgrimage to Little Gidding, once the home of an Anglican community dedicated to the life of prayer, leads him to the following thought:

     if you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

This is a very different vision from Rilke’s, of course. Not for Eliot that unvordenklicher Saft in die Arme: the erotic has been banished from his world; or rather, it never intruded there. Instead we have a search for the `timeless moment’ — and, stated thus briefly, it sounds like a chocolate-box platitude. But the context clarifies the thought. Eliot has found his way to a sacred place, and imagined himself into the community that made it holy. He is in communion with the dead, has passed over to them from the empirical world, and is kneeling beside them in that transcendental region. He has rediscovered the sacred, in a world that seemed to exclude it from view.

Eliot’s redemption at Little Gidding involves the imagined recovery of the old Christian community. Rilke’s self-made redemption through the society of Angels involves the invention of a community that is not of this world. Both are quintessentially modern responses to the loss of religion — attempts to recuperate the transcendental and the sacred from the raw experience of the solitary self. But they cannot compensate for that other and greater loss, which is that of the religious community itself. For that community contained a vital store of moral knowledge – knowledge collectively generated and collectively deployed.

The moral knowledge that I have in mind is manifest in our response to other people, in our social projects and in our sense of ourselves. It is also manifest in our ability spontaneously to understand and to act upon human realities. Moral knowledge is a practical, not a theoretical acquisition. It does not consist in the knowledge of truths. Nevertheless it may open the way to such knowledge. For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgment in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects, who relate to each other reciprocally. There are all the other vital truths that I have discovered through growing up with Sam. To the person with religious belief — whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not — those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent.

Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the `human form divine’, as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgment. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ.

The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss — a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.

By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his great and world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus — all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.

For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals and judgements. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.

At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude.

 Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by Rene Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things.[Rene Girard, La violence et le sacre, Paris, 1972]

I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children — to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely — the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenliederm, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.

In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labor, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce.

Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.


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