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by Simon Blackburn
Oxford University Press, 2003
Review by Berel Dov Lerner, Ph.D. on Aug 12th 2004

Lust

Simon Blackburn, a prominent Cambridge philosopher, was invited by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press to tackle the topic of Lust for their lecture and book series on the Seven Deadly Sins. The enduring product of this assignment takes the shape of a diminutive volume containing 133 smallish pages of uncramped text.  It is a beautifully written and produced book, and its aesthetic appeal is further enhanced by sixteen attractive colors and monochrome plates depicting works of art discussed by the author.  Lust could easily serve as a more literate and substantial stand-in for the traditional Valentine's Day card.  The author would no doubt be pleased for his work to be exploited towards aphrodisiacal ends. 

Slyly confessing his lack of credibility as an expert on the topic (his advanced age, British nationality, male-heterosexual gender, and philosophical vocation all speak against him), Blackburn develops a working definition of lust as, "the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake" (19).  He is aware of lust's dangers and limitations, both real and imagined, especially when compared to its more sublime and dignified twin, love.  However, in his survey of western attitudes towards sexual passion, Blackburn eagerly takes up lust's cause against all its detractors.  Plato does not come out too badly; he does leave a place for lust's charms, but is perhaps too anxious that its influence on the mind be held in check.  Later developments in the Greek tradition move towards extremes.  The cynics, on the one hand, downplay the whole mystique of lust, going so far as to perform sexual acts in public in order to drive home the message that sex is not a big deal.  The Stoics, on the other hand, appear as control freaks who are very worried about the loss of composure that accompanies passion.

With the advent of Christianity, we are introduced to the true villain of the piece.  Blackburn is especially troubled by St. Thomas Aquinas's doctrine, according to which sexual intercourse is intrinsically dirty, but when performed for procreative purposes within the confines of marriage, complies with Nature's purposes and the dictates of Reason.  While Christian hatred of the flesh continues into the modern era, Blackburn already discovers positive depictions of lust in Renaissance art. However, by the nineteenth century, artistic representations of women oscillate "between Madonna and Whore" (p. 77), ending in a dark vision of lust as the "fascinating essence of evil" (ibid).

Mobilizing an eclectic group of writers (Shakespeare, Dorothy Parker, Stendahl and David Hume!), Blackburn moves on to discuss the idealizations and self-deceptions generated by lust.  Steadfastly uncynical, he will not deny lust's sweet illusions their role in the promotion of true love.  That positive note leads to the philosophical core of the book, an "optimistic" account of lust whose essence is discovered, of all places, in an obscure quotation from that usually less-than-optimistic political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.  "Hobbesian unity," as Blackburn refers to it, is a pleasantly humane theory that views lust as an intrinsically interactive passion, which includes the excitement of knowing that one has excited one's partner as an integral element of the whole experience.  In fact, partners in lust find themselves emotionally intertwined in an infinite regress of reciprocal concern: A is excited by the thought of having caused B to be excited by the thought of having caused A to be excited….

"Hobbesian unity" serves as an antidote to Kantian and Freudian fears that the satisfaction of lust involves lovers in mutual offenses of exploitation in which they reduce each other to mere objects of pleasure.  Such fear of sexual objectification finds its most extreme formulation in Sartre, who viewed sexuality as a game of attempted reciprocal annihilation, fueled by shame.  The Hobbes-Blackburn account responds with the claim that concern for one's partner is an intrinsic element in one's own sexual pleasure.  Lust becomes a dance of mutual acknowledgement and encouragement. 

The book's concluding chapters quickly address a number of related issues.  Blackburn is unimpressed with arguments that pornography is conceptually tied to objectification, but prostitution fares less well in the light of his analysis.  What could be more pathetic than a client trying to imagine that a prostitute finds his arousal exciting?  In a gesture towards intellectual fashion, the book also contains an unflattering comparison of evolutionary psychology's theory of feminine modesty with David Hume's cultural explanation of that phenomenon. 

This summary does not do justice to the various entertaining historical anecdotes, surprising quotations and clever turns of phrase that have been packed into this brief book. 

 

© 2004 Berel Dov Lerner

Born in Washington, D.C., Berel Dov Lerner studied at Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, before becoming a member of Kibbutz Sheluhot in Israel's Beit Shean Valley.  He completed his Ph.D. at Tel-Aviv University, and currently teaches philosophy at the Western Galilee Academic College.  His first book, Rules, Magic and Instrumental Reason was published in 2001 by Routledge.