Hide and Seek

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The Philosophy of Lust

Is lust really the first rung on the ladder of love?

Lust can be defined as the strong, passionate longing or desire for certain things, not only sex, but also food, drink, money, fame, power, and knowledge, among others. But owing to the resonance of Matthew 5:27-28, lust has come to be particularly associated with sexual desire.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

There are many reasons for which we can desire sex, for example, to be close to someone, to keep or manipulate that person, to hurt someone, to hurt ourselves, to define our identity, to make a child, or, in the case of prostitution, to make money. However, with lust, sex is sought out mostly for itself. 

Yet, it is possible to seek out sex for itself without this desire being lustful. For the desire to be lustful, it has to be disordered, that is, disproportionately or inappropriately strong, or directed at an inappropriate object.

If lust is not acted upon, it is possible to be lustful without being lecherous; but if the lust is acted out, especially repeatedly and habitually, then one is both lustful and lecherous.

Bible and Church

For Dante, lust was the ‘excessive love of others’, excessive in that it rivalled and surpassed even the love of God. Romanesque art depicted lust, or carnal luxuria, as a siren or naked woman with snakes biting at her nipples. According to the Church Doctors, luxuria had several daughters, among whom blindness, haste, and self-love. 

The Church distinguishes lust from fornication, which is having sex with one’s husband or wife for enjoyment rather than procreation, or having sex outside of wedlock, which is even more sinful. In Corinthians 7:7, St Paul famously says that, to avoid fornication, every man should be allowed to have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.

But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

While St Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, King Solomon, who is the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, warns against it, as well as against lust.

I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.

Solomon may be warning against lust and marriage, but he is certainly not warning against misogyny. In fact, the fear of lust and of its effects no doubt contributed a great deal to his, and the Church's, attitude towards women.

Force

King David was undone by his lust for Bathsheba (Solomon's mother), and Bill Clinton, while still the most powerful man in the world, was almost undone by his lust for a young White House intern. Lust is such a strong and subversive force that it can be very difficult to reason clearly about it. There are many people out there who couldn’t organise a two-ticket tombola, but who suddenly become impressively industrious when it comes to acting out their lust. In Dante’s Inferno, souls who have committed the sin of lust are blown around in a hurricane that represents their own lack of self-control. And although MRI scanners were not available in Dante’s time, what they show is that the same area of the brain lights up in people experiencing lust as in addicts receiving their cocaine fix. 

According to mediaeval lore, when Alexander the Great found Phyllis (by some accounts, his wife) riding Aristotle around the garden, Alexander exclaimed, ‘Master, can this be?’ Whereupon Aristotle replied, ‘If lust can so overcome wisdom, just think what it could do to a young man like you.’

Lust is so powerful that it is often beyond the power of reason to contain. 

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait.

These verses are from Shakespeare, who here (Sonnet 129) and elsewhere, goes so far as to aliken lust to madness.

No wonder, then, that in Greco-Roman mythology Eros/Cupid is depicted as a blind child, and the ithyphallic (erect) Satyrs are only half-human.

But it is not just that reason can sometimes be overcome by lust. For Schopenhauer, lust ultimately directs all human behaviour. This is certainly borne out by advertising, which seems mostly about suggesting that buying a particular product will excite the lust of others. In contrast, no one ever made a fortune by peddling restraint or wisdom. It is sometimes said that everything is about sex, except for sex, which is about power. Even the Church, when it needed to express the ecstatic communion with God, could do little better than to paint it in terms of an orgasm.

Consequences

Schopenhauer, who was heavily influenced by Eastern traditions, also notes the misery that will almost certainly result from lust.

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of God’), Lord Krishna declares that, along with anger and greed, lust is one of the three gates to Naraka or hell. When Arjuna asks him by what one is impelled to sinful acts ‘even unwillingly, as if engaged by force’, he replies, ‘It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world … Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin—by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization…’ (See Bhagavad Gita 3.36-43 for the full quotation.)

For the Buddha, lust, in the broader sense of coveting or craving, is at the centre of the Four Noble Truths, which are as follows,

1. Suffering (dukkha) is inherent in all life.

2. The cause of all suffering is lust.

3. There is a natural way to eliminate all suffering from one’s life.

4. The Noble Eightfold Path is that way.

For the Buddha, lust is controlled or eliminated through attaining a higher consciousness. This idea can also be found sporadically in the Western canon; indeed, Baudelaire goes so far as to suggest that the artist, who is consciousness personified, should never have sex.

The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes… Only the brute is good at coupling, and copulation is the lyricism of the masses. To copulate is to enter into another—and the artist never emerges from himself.

The other

As well as being destructive to its subject, lust is also destructive to its object. Lust is the only appetite that is for a person rather than an object, but a person qua object rather than a person qua person. Either the other is seen as an object, or as other than they truly are. Through the subconscious processes of idealization and projection, the other becomes what is wished for or needed—quite literally, a fantasy.

It’s not just that the other is treated as an object of lust, but that he or she is shorn of uniquely human qualities and, in particular, of dignity and agency. Thus, the lustful person is not only unconcerned about the fulfilment of the other (and perhaps also of the 'old' partner to whom he is being unfaithful), but will act against her best interests to feed his appetite, and with his appetite sated, discard her as ‘one throws away a lemon that is sucked dry’. These sharp words belong to Kant, who asserted that a person should never be treated as a means to an end, but always as an end in herself.

It is perhaps in the nature of lust that it seeks to possess the other, to incorporate and degrade the other by destroying his dignity and autonomy. In the novel One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis, the protagonist says that, when it comes to sex, his aim is ‘to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.’  Of course, there are some people with rather low self-esteem who consciously or unconsciously want to be hurt, degraded, and sabotaged, or feel that they deserve no better, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Because it is so inhibiting, destructive, and subverting, lust is, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘a waste of shame’. So as to hide that shame, many cultures made use of a male demon who lay upon sleepers, especially women, to have sex with them. This incubus (and the less prevalent female equivalent, or succubus) could then be blamed for embarrassing nocturnal emmissions, disturbing claims of adultery and abuse, and even unexplained children.

Lust or love?

Another way of dealing with the shame of lust is to deceive ourselves into thinking that our lust is in fact love or underpinned by love. While lust is shameful, love is respectable, even commendable. Thus, while we may look warmly upon a couple holding hands or hugging (particularly if they are very young or very old, on the presumption that these groups are asexual), we look around for the police if they start acting out their lust. Love is the acceptable face of lust, but the love that is lust in disguise is even more perverse and destructive, and in that sense, even more shameful, than the lust that knows its game.

How to tell lust and love apart? Often, with difficulty. But while, in general, lust is hasty, furtive, and ashamed, love is patient, measured, and constant. While lust subverts propriety, love is thoughtful and nurturing. While lust is all about taking, love is all about sharing. While lust is all destruction, love is all construction. Lust can lead to love, but it is a poor start, and a poor basis, akin to choosing your favorite book by the picture on the cover. 

The ladder of love

Of course, there is nothing wrong with sexual desire in itself, and none of us would be here without it. Sexual desire is a life force, to be enjoyed and even celebrated. But, as with wine, the problems arise when it becomes the master rather than the servant. It is very important to be able and ready to recognize lust for the blind and destructive force that it is. That's why lust is particularly unattractive in the elderly, because, as the saying goes, there is no fool like an old fool.

Lust is by definition hard to suppress, but it can more readily be redirected or sublimed. If a person feels angry with her boss, she may go home and act out her anger by kicking the dog, or she may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. This second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of unproductive or destructive forces into socially condoned and often constuctive activities. As Baudelaire said, the more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes.

For Plato, lust is not something to be shunned, but the first step on his so-called ladder of love. In Plato's Symposium, Socrates says that a youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body. By loving one beautiful body, he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth learns to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once the physical has been transcended, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, he is able to experience beauty itself, rather than the various apparitions of beauty. In so doing, he exchanges the various apparitions of virtue for virtue itself, gaining immortality and the love of the gods.

In sum, for Plato, so long as one is willing to learn, lust can be its own cure.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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