An Open Letter to Plato about Sex

Dear Plato,

What are we going to do with you, young man? I'm disappointed with the way you've been intellectually behaving. Don’t you know that your younger brother, Augustine, is just going to want to do what he sees his big brother doing, only he doesn’t even have your tempered judgment? It’s going to be trouble for all of us because of what you started. What were you thinking?

Well, OK, you told us what you were thinking, but let’s think again, for god’s sake.

Lust is not a bad thing. We would none of us be here without it. So what’s this nonsense about the charioteer with two horses? I refer, of course, to that passage in the "Phaedrus" in which you wrote about the good horse and the bad horse. You said:
“The one in the better position has an upright appearance, and is clean-limbed, high-necked, hook-nosed, white in color, and dark-eyed; his determination to succeed is tempered by self-control and respect for others, which is to say that he is an ally of true glory; and he needs no whip, but is guided only by spoken commands. The other is crooked, over-large, a haphazard jumble of limbs; he has a thick, short neck, and a flat face; he is black in color, with grey, bloodshot eyes, and ally of excess and affectation, hairy around the ears, hard of hearing, and scarcely to be controlled with a combination of whip and goad.”
What are you saying, Plato? Everything’s about control, control, control with you. Be a good charioteer, rein in those impulses of that bad horse.

I grant you that controlling ourselves is not an awful idea. In fact, most of the time it’s a pretty good idea. But, Plato, that’s not all there is to the good life. And I don’t think you were thinking about what affect that would have on Augustine. I’m not saying you’re responsible for all the misuses of your ideas by other people, but you tell me this: was Augustine misusing your ideas, or just logically extending them?

It was you, after all, who described all the pleasures of the body as “snares and the source of all ills.”

It's true that you are not the only bad influence on our little Augie. There was that Matthew. Just as you put words in Socrates’ mouth, Matthew put words in Jesus’ mouth. Matthew has Jesus say:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
That’s certainly taking the idea of control to a whole ‘nother level. Somehow it’s not enough to control what we do with our desires; we have to prevent desires from arising in the first place. God only knows how. The Jesus Seminar folks figure Jesus probably never said that, but Matthew said Jesus said it, and Augustine believed Jesus said it.

For Augustine, let me tell you just in case you haven't been paying attention, sexual relations are a bad, bad thing. However, we need kids, so sex must be endured. Ideally, there should be no pleasure involved. It should be like shaking hands. Through sufficient exercise of the rational will, we can control our feelings and impulses so that sexual activity occurs without any enjoyment, but solely for fulfilling the duty of procreating. Though even this is second best. Actually, fourth best.

The ideal would be a life of virginity of heart, mind, and body: without a hint of desire ever arising. Second best would be a life of unmarried virginity of body. Third, matrimony without sex. That’s fine if you can do it, but it’s risky to have a spouse around. Fourth would be matrimony with pleasureless procreative activity. Fifth, procreative activity accompanied by pleasure. This is pretty regrettable -- clearly a degraded state of affairs. But even that would be better than the sixth level, acting for the sake of pure sexual pleasure without intending to produce kids.

Now, Plato, don’t give me that, “It’s not my fault he’s seriously repressed” line. He took your ideas about rational will suppressing the impulses of desire and used that to lay out doctrines that repressed all of Christendom for the next 1600 years. And counting.

When Augustine took up the question of whether Christ was ever sad, he said, yes, Christ was sad at least once, “but sad by taking up sadness of his own free will, in the same way as he, of his own free will, took up human flesh.” But, you see, Plato, and I think you understand this much, sadness is not to be switched on and off by a free will decision. If anyone tells me they switch sadness on and off at will, I’m going to figure they’re not actually feeling the real thing. Same thing with sexual desire. Anyone who says they turn it on or off by rational choice isn’t really feeling the real thing.

Not all of life is about what we choose. Some of it is about what chooses us. Sometimes, in fact, we require loss of control. The good life is about being open to the surprises that come to us, including the surprising emotions, and involuntary sensations. The good life includes the possibility of intimate partners, and when and if we do enter into such a partnership, too much control kills it. We want to feel swept away, and we want them to feel swept away. We want to turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing – a thing grander than our individual rational choice, a thing we don’t choose or control, but simply serve, a thing called love.

Lust is the unchosen desire best satisfied through losing ourselves in the service of love.

Just think about it, OK?

Your concerned friend,

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This is part 22 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 of 4 on Lust)
Next: Part 23: "Lust: Virtue and Vice"
Previous: Part 21: "Faith Envy"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"