The Philosophy of Lust
Is lust really the first rung on the ladder of love?
Posted August 11, 2014 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
[Article revised on 3 May 2020.]
Lust is the strong, passionate desire for something: not only sex, but also, among others, food, drink, money, fame, power, or knowledge. Even so, owing to the historical resonance of Matthew 5:27-28, lust has come to be associated almost exclusively 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 establish or reinforce our identity, to make a child, or to gain some advantage such as money or preferment. But with lust, sex is contemplated primarily for itself, or, to be more precise, for the pleasure and release that it may procure.
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—even though appropriateness and inappropriateness are, ultimately, value judgements that vary according to person, time, and place. People who feel lust without acting upon it are lustful without being lecherous; but if they act upon it, especially repeatedly or habitually, they are both lustful and lecherous.
For Dante, lust is the ‘excessive love of others’, excessive in that it rivals and surpasses even the love of God. Romanesque art depicts 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, including blindness, haste, and self-love. The Church distinguishes lust from fornication, which is having sexual relations with one’s spouse for enjoyment rather than procreation, or, more sinful still, having sexual relations outside of wedlock.
In Corinthians 7:7, the Apostle 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 or even recommend) marriage, King Solomon, the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, seems to warn against it, and 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 marriage and lust, 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, or historical attitude.
But lust is a strong and subversive force, and very difficult to resist. King David (Solomon’s father) was undone by his lust for the bathing 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. In the Divine Comedy , souls that have committed the sin of lust are blown around in a whirlwind that symbolizes their lack of self-control. More recently, studies with MRI scanners have found that patterns of brain activity in people experiencing lust are very similar to those in addicts receiving their cocaine fix.
No surprise, then, that reason and philosophy are a poor defence against lust. In Greco-Roman art, Eros/Cupid is depicted as a child, and the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs are only half-human. According to mediæval 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:
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action … Past reason hunted, and no sooner had/ Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait/ On purpose laid to make the taker mad;/ Mad in pursuit and in possession so…
But it is not just that lust can sometimes overcome reason. For Schopenhauer, lust, or ‘the will’, is the prime motivator of 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, when it sought 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, held that, so long as we are enthralled to lust, we can know no peace or happiness. 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:
- Suffering (dukkha) is inherent in all life.
- The cause of all suffering is lust.
- There is a natural way to eliminate all suffering from one’s life.
- The Noble Eightfold Path is that way.
Lust, says the Buddha, can be controlled or eliminated by attaining a higher level of consciousness. This idea can also be found sporadically in the Western canon. For instance, Charles Baudelaire goes so far as to suggest that the artist, who is consciousness personified, should never have sexual intercourse:
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 pride, dignity, and agency. The lustful person is unconcerned about the blossoming of the object of his lust. More than that, he 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 asserts that a person should never be treated as a means-to-an-end but only and always as an end-in-herself.
It is in the nature of lust that it seeks to possess or ‘have’ the other, to incorporate and degrade the other by destroying her integrity 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’.
Lust, in the words of Shakespeare, is ‘a waste of shame’. 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 pass off 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 arguably even more perverse and destructive, and, in that sense, even more shameful, than the lust that knows its name.
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 consuming, love is all about making. Lust can lead to love, but is a poor start and a poor basis, akin to choosing your favourite book by the picture on the 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 start when it turns from servant into master. 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 can more readily be redirected. If John is angry at his boss, he may go home and act out his anger by smashing some plates, or he may instead run it off on a treadmill. This second instance of displacement—running it off 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.’ I discuss sublimation at much greater length in Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception .
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. In loving one beautiful body, the youth 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, he 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 he has transcended the physical, the youth 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 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 is able to present its own cure.
Neel Burton is the author of For Better For Worse and other books.