- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

Oxford University Press has now published “Lust,” the third installment in its remarkable Seven

Deadly Sins series. Taking its place beside “Envy” by Joseph Epstein and “Gluttony” by Francine Prose, this jaunty contemplation of what Cambridge University philosopher Simon Blackburn calls “the black sheep of the family, the ill-bred, trashy cousin of upstanding members like love and friendship” is less a study of the sin of lust than it is a sinfully amusing defense of it.

@Text.rag:Which is not to say that the book lacks seriousness, or scholarship or reason. To the contrary, in these pages, Mr. Blackburn marshals a sweeping and informed look at the history of Western civilization to show how the ancient Greeks, early Christians, 19th-century philosophers and contemporary thinkers account for lust. But his mission to rehabilitate his subject is never far from view.

Early on in this compact book it weighs in at only 130 pages Mr. Blackburn writes that the task he has set for himself is to “clean off some of the mud, to rescue from the echoing denunciations of old men of the deserts, to deliver it from pallid and envious confessors of Rome and the disgust of the Renaissance, to destroy the stocks and pillories of the Puritans, to separate it from other things that we know drag it down (for we shall find that there are worse things than lust, things that make pure lust itself impure), and so to lift it from the category of sin to that of virtue.”

This is a bit of a departure from Mr. Blackburn’s original assignment and the raison d’etre of the series, which was to find “the conceptual and practical challenges that a deadly sin poses to spirituality, ethics and everyday life.” Mr. Blackburn takes a different path. To start, he writes that “the Seven Deadlies did not originate in the Bible. Sources identify early lists of transgressions classified in the 4th century by Evagrius of Pontus and then by John of Cassius. In the 6th century, Gregory the Great formulated the traditional seven.”

From there, he sets about with his philosophical method, tugging and tweaking conventional wisdom across the ages. Like a debater poised to strike out at any display of illogic or inaccuracy, Mr. Blackburn forcefully makes his points. Sometimes he is simply playful.

One could argue that the very playfulness of much of the book and the license Mr. Blackburn has taken with his assignment undermines his reliability.

But that would be to deny him his central thesis, which is that history shows more often than not that lust is part of a positive life force rather than something darker, something shameful. And it would deny him his skill. Mr. Blackburn knows his subject and he knows how to argue, and agree with him or not, one can’t help but admire his command of the material.

Though history provides the chronological framework for his observations, he does in many ways forswear it. He notes that “The sponsors might have asked a historian or a theologian, but this is an essay by a philosopher. It is an essay about lust itself, but still more about ideas about lust.”

And he avers that his profession (philosophy), country of origin (England) and age (middle) might disqualify him from being the best man to take on lust. Of his age in particular he notes that “Sins of middle age are melancholy, envy, gluttony and anger. By the time you are an age to give a public lecture on lust, lust may have lost a little of its luster.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Blackburn proceeds, using logic and rhetoric to rout out inconsistencies, hypocrisies and just plain nonsense. On one hand he knows what the price of lust can be. He writes that “lust subverts propriety. It stole Anna Karenina from her husband and son, and the besotted Vronsky from his honorable career. Living with lust is like living shackled to a lunatic.

“In Arthur Schopenhauer’s splendid words, almost prophesying the Clinton presidency, ‘lust is the ultimate goal of almost all human endeavor, exerts an adverse influence on the most serious business at any hour, sometimes for a while confuses even the greatest minds, does not hesitate with its trumpery to disrupt the negotiations of statesmen and the research of scholars, has the knack of slipping its love-letters and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts.’”

And Mr. Blackburn adds “Am I to stand alongside the philosopher Crates the Cynic, who believing that nothing is shameful, openly copulated in public with his wife Hipparchia? Certainly not, but part of the task is to know why not.”

Mr. Blackburn begins by considering desire as it was expressed earliest in the poems of Sappho. He notes that it is “enthusiastic desire” that constitutes the meaning of lust. But enthusiastic desire is one thing, excess is another. And from there, Mr. Blackburn segues into his discussion of St. Augustine, who serves, if anybody does, as the villain of his ruminations.

Mr. Blackburn lays just about all of lust’s bad reputation at Augustine’s feet, and he identifies the point at which the early Church fathers’ thinking may have gone astray. Augustine was concerned with the “surfeit and abundance” of desire but did not appear to take moderation into account. Mr. Blackburn writes, “Excessive desire is bad just because it is excessive, not because it is desire.” Forswearing ascetism and solitude, he adds that “it is not true that sexual pleasures debauch a man’s mind. Newton seems to have been fairly ascetic, but Einstein certainly was not.”

Despite the example of Sappho, most of the Greek philosophers expressed wariness of sex. The Cynics thought too much fuss was made about it. And the Stoics “anticipated nineteenth century British empire builders with their stiff upper lips.” The church period that followed what Mr. Blackburn calls “the Christian panic” built on “Augustine’s lurid views of lust and sin” that “undoubtedly saturated the subsequent western tradition. Just as sin trickles down, hatred of sexuality trickled down.”

There followed the cult of virginity and monasticism and the association of lust “with uncleanliness and disgust as well as with the wiles of the devil, darkness, the animal, the body and eventually death, damnation.” It was the fear of all this demonizing that landed lust in the company of the other deadly sins. Later philosophers like Schopenhauer (“with sex we make ourselves ridiculous”) and Sartre kept up the heat by viewing the subject in a pessimistic light. Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey and other evolutionary psychologists did not provide any relief from lust’s darker aspects.

Mr. Blackburn’s book is adorned with drawings and paintings depicting lust (Botticelli, Titian, Toulouse-Lautrec) and with his own philosophical preferences. David Hume gets positive treatment, Roger Scruton less so. And it can be argued that Mr. Blackburn mostly succeeds in his goal of wresting lust from the other deadlies and being mightily entertaining in the process.

But in the end one finds the pinning down or righting of lust an elusive goal, as illustrated by a statistic Mr. Blackburn cites: “Even now, earnest questionnaires find that 65 percent of undergraduates thought sexual desire was a typical characteristic of being in love, which still leaves 35 percent who do not. One wonders what they think.”

LUST By Simon Blackburn Oxford University Press, $17.95, 151 pages, illus.

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