Temperance pt. 1: Human concupiscence.

“We spoke last class about the irascible appetite and saw that it was instrumental to the desires of concupiscence. The irascible can be viewed as a remedy to a problem with concupiscence, that is, concupiscence would not seek after anything difficult or demanding, and therefore would end up not even getting the sort fo pleasures it most desired, which usually involve dealing with some difficulty or another. If you just ate whatever food was lying around, or which you could get with no effort at all, chances are that you wouldn’t eat for very long, and you certainly wouldn’t eat well or eat what is most worth eating.

“But if irascibility is wholly subordinate to concupiscence, then how can we make sure that concupiscence itself is working well? This demands a new virtue: Temperance. We’ll approach the virtue by first talking about what it means for concupiscence to be human, and to figure this out we’ll first consider concupiscence in animals.

“Notice that there are certain animal behaviors that you understand pretty well: when you see a dog or a lion chase down food, you can understand the interior state that they are experiencing that makes them do that. One can take this too far, I suppose, but all I mean here is that you understand the pains of hunger and the pleasures of feasting. Likewise, you don’t need to think too hard about why bull chases after cows in heat, or (what is more obscure but at least intelligible) why a salmon swims up river to fertilize eggs. We have sexual desires of our own, and so we can recognize when non-human animals are experiencing them too. There’s a third class of animal behavior that we also understand but which took longer for biologists to discover: certain animals seek out fermented berries, eat them, and then stumble around. We understand this too – the desire to intoxicate oneself is, for whatever reason, a given in us. All these things are intensely and physically pleasant to us, and by all appearances the same is true for animals. It’s this sort of intense, physical pleasure that most of all characterizes concupiscence.

“Now in animals, the pleasures of concupiscence are kept in check by extrinsic factors. The reason wolves are not obese is because there isn’t enough food around to make them so. If a pet is obese, you don’t think to blame the pet but something in its environment: like an indulgent owner. Animals usually only mate at certain times of the year, and sexual desire is often dormant or less intense for the rest of the time. The most familiar experiment showing that concupiscence is governed by extrinsic factors in non-human animals is the famous cocaine-rat studies that were popular in the “Just Say No” years of the 1980’s. Rats were hooked up to IV’s of  cocaine, and then got a hit each time they pushed a lever. The rats, predictably, kept pushing the lever until they died. Now some have pointed out that these experiments were overly contrived and loaded towards the result: for example, some of the rats were starved, they were put in cages alone and not allowed to experience other pleasures (though they were given access to food), etc. This is all fine, but it doesn’t affect our point here, namely that the question of whether an animal’s concupiscence will drive it to self-destruction is a question of environmental and natural factors. But with human persons, there is an additional factor. If you hook me up to the same machine, you can’t explain why would overdose by merely pointing to environmental factors, as important as these might be. You must also take account of my choices. You have to see me as responsible. You have to invoke not just natural and extrinsic factors but also an interior one. We cannot separate human concupiscence from this constellation of ideas: choice, responsibility, interior life, etc. Absent these things, concupiscence ceases to be human in such a way that it literally destroys what we are.

“There are four levels at which concupiscence becomes inhuman and destructive:

a.) When it destroys health. This is the easiest way to recognize when concupiscence has become destructive. Alcoholism destroys the liver, eating too much fatty food saps our energy and clogs arteries, smoking causes heart disease and cancer, “hard” drugs put us at risk of overdose, etc. Notice this destroys our humanity on a level we share with non-human animals – for they too get clogged arteries from cholesterol and can overdose on cocaine. This is as far as most people can understand temperance, but, for a moral point of view, it is really the least destructive form of inhuman concupiscence.

b.) Addiction. Human concupiscence is essentially a personal and human reality, and so is taken up into self-control, responsibility, and interior direction. Seen from this point of view, addiction is the inversion of this order. What is personal in us – what the ancients and Medievals called “reason” – becomes a mere planner and subordinate to the directives of concupiscence. Our personal life is swept along by the pleasures we seek to attain or a pain we wish to avoid.

c.) The destruction of human relations. Concupiscible desires are centered on the self and therefore force our attention inward to our own desires. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but given we are social creatures, concupiscence can become destructive of our humanity when it severs us from others by depriving those others of the attention and care we should give them. This sort of destruction becomes clear in addiction: for addiction forces us to spend so much time tending to merely our own pressing physical desires and needs and simply leaves us with no time to be with others. Even if we had the time, the self-absorption of inordinate concupiscence keeps us from being able to recognize the needs of others.

d.) The dissolution of the self. The self is properly human, but the peculiar destructive potential of concupiscence is to dominate this part. But this leaves us in the state where we cannot even do what we want to do. We cannot take the “I” out of “I want”, and this “I” can only be a person, a self, a center of responsibility and action. Just as with the previous point, this sort of dissolution becomes clear in addiction, but it is not restricted to this. Inordinate concupiscence – even before we indulge in it – tends to require that we live in  a fantasy world, i.e. the sort of world in which a real person cannot live. The fantasy worlds of concupiscence are abstractions and distortions: they are worlds with all benefits and no side-effects or consequences; worlds where those who satisfy our needs are not persons (with lives of their own outside of our desires) but simply our servants and tools, who are used by us and love us for it; worlds where infinite indulgence does not leave me unable to do what I want but “free” to do whatever “I” want.”

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1 Comment

  1. thenyssan said,

    February 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I’m stealing every last word of this when I get to Pieper’s section on Temperance in a month.


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