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. However, 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 hold on to or manipulate that person, to hurt a third party, to hurt ourselves, to define our identity, to make a child, or to gain some advantage such as money or security. In the case of lust, sex is contemplated primarily for itself, or, to be more precise, for the pleasure and release that it could procure. However, 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, inappropriately strong or inappropriately directed. If a person feels lust but does not act upon it, he is lustful without being lecherous; but if he acts upon it, especially repeatedly or habitually, he is both lustful and lecherous.
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 spouse for enjoyment rather than procreation, or, more sinful still, having sex outside of wedlock. In Corinthians 7:7, Paul recommends 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 Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, King Solomon, the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, seems to warn against it, as well as against lust, on the grounds that they detract from the path to God:
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. The fear of lust and its evils no doubt shaped Solomon’s attitude towards women, and, through Solomon, the Church’s attitude and society’s attitude.
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 impeached by his lust for a young White House intern. Lust is such a strong and subversive force that it can be very difficult to see through it or see it through. There are many people who couldn’t organize a two-ticket tombola, but who suddenly become impressively industrious when it comes to acting out their lust. In the Divine Comedy, souls who have committed the sin of lust are blown around in a whirlwind that symbolizes their lack of self-control. Since Dante’s time, MRI scanners have revealed that the same area of the brain lights up in people experiencing lust as in addicts receiving their cocaine fix.
Lust is so powerful a force that it is often beyond the power of reason to contain. According to mediaeval lore, when Alexander the Great found Phyllis (by some accounts, his wife) riding Aristotle like a horse around the garden, Alexander exclaimed, ‘Master, can this be?’ Quick on his feet, Aristotle replied, ‘If lust can so overcome wisdom, just think what it could do to a young man like you.’
Shakespeare goes so far as to compare lust to a form of madness, as for instance in Sonnet 129:
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
No wonder, then, that in Greco-Roman mythology Eros/Cupid is a blind child, and the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs are only half-human. But it is not just that lust can sometimes overcome reason. For Schopenhauer, lust ultimately directs all human behaviour. This is certainly borne out by modern advertising, which seems mostly about suggesting that buying a particular product will help us to obtain the objects of our lust. 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 itself, which is about power. Even the Church, needing to express the ecstatic communion with God, could do no better than to picture it in terms of an orgasm.
Schopenhauer, who was heavily influenced by Eastern traditions, also drew attention to the misery that is likely to pour out of lust. In the Bhagavad Gita, 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 willingly, 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...’ For the Buddha, lust, in the broader sense of coveting or craving, is at the heart of the Four Noble Truths, which run 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.
Lust, said the Buddha, is controlled or eliminated through attaining a higher consciousness. This idea can also be found sporadically in the Western canon. For instance, poet Charles Baudelaire went so far as to suggest that the artist, who is consciousness personified, ought never to have sex:
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.
As well as being harmful to the subject, lust is harmful also to the object. Lust is the only appetite that is for a person rather than an object, but a person qua object rather than qua person, shorn of uniquely human qualities such as dignity and agency. The lustful person is not only unconcerned about the blossoming of the object of his lust (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 casts aside a lemon which has been sucked dry’. These acerbic 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 or ‘have’ the other, to incorporate and degrade the other by destroying his dignity and autonomy. In Kingsley Amis’s novel One Fat Englishman, 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 who consciously or unconsciously want to be hurt, degraded, or sabotaged, or who feel that they deserve no better, but that is a subject for another day.
Because it is so destructive and subversive, lust is, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘a waste of shame’. So as to hide that shame, many cultures magic up a male demon who lays upon sleepers to have sex with them. This incubus (and the less prevalent female equivalent, or succubus) is made to carry the blame for embarrassing nocturnal emissions, disturbing claims of adultery and abuse, and even unexplained children.
Another response to the shame of lust, and much more prevalent in our culture, is to misconstrue lust as romantic love. In contrast to lust, love is respectable, even commendable. We look on approvingly at a pair holding hands or hugging, but 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 itself. How to tell lust and love apart? While lust is hasty, furtive, and deceitful, love is patient, measured, and constant. While lust is all about taking, love is all about sharing. While lust is all about using, love is all about building. Lust can lead to love, but it is a poor start and a poor basis, akin to choosing your favourite book by the picture on its cover.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with sexual desire per se, 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 begin when it turns from servant into master. It is important to be ready to recognize uncontrolled lust for the blind and destructive force that it is. Uncontrolled lust is especially unattractive in the elderly, because, as the saying goes, there is no fool like an old fool.
Lust is hard to extinguish, but is more readily redirected. If John is angry with his boss, he may go home and act out his anger by smashing some plates, or he may instead run for 30 minutes on a treadmill. This second instance of displacement—running on the treadmill—is an example of sublimation, which is the channelling of unproductive or destructive forces into socially condoned and often constructive activities. As Baudelaire put it, ‘the more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes.’
For Plato, lust is not something to be shunned or shunted, but the first step on the 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.
Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.