The point of sexual desire

Aristotle’s theory of sexual desire, following Plato, made it a desire for the eternal. Animals could not be immortal as individuals and so reproduced. This presupposed that species were eternal and Aristotle indeed thought they were – his hypothesis was that going back in time simply gave one elephants, beetles, and cuttlefish on earth forever. St. Thomas preserved this in a theory of the universe where all levels of being, from angels to the atmosphere to ants,  were created at once and continued forever.

The hypothesis failed, so now what?

1.) Close enough. We can say that reproduction is near enough eternity. If the animal had some behavior that made it last another generation as an individual, it would be a life-preserving behavior, but reproduction guarantees that it will survive as a type for at least this long. So sexual desire gets a demotion to a desire for the continuation of life for an indefinite (though not eternal) span.

This is pretty thin beer and comes across as ad hoc. We can’t just substitute a big enough (and how big is that?) temporality for eternity. Even if we could, there is a conceptual incoherence in saying that all animals have the same desire to preserve their same type since, in fact, all animals share this same desire with ancestors of a different type.  This leads us to…

2.) The desire for life. Sexuality is not a desire to preserve life of our kind, for life as such. We’re all branches on the big tree and sexuality is our way of keeping the tree alive. There might be something to this, but without serious qualifications and demotions of the idea as it stands, the truth of the option would make my desire to preserve, say, ferrets equal to my sexual desire. Modus Tollens to the opinion.

3.) The Darwinian. Sexual desire exists because all animals without it aren’t among us. This is true of course but if given to the present question it confuses answers to existential questions with answers to essential ones.

Darwinian theory raises a question about the essence of sexual desire that it can’t answer. The problem is what we are desiring when the desire gives rise to beings of a different type as readily as to beings of the same type. Is this best viewed as a desire for continued existence or another mode of existence, or should we rather try to relate sexual desire to more immanent goals, like self-expression (which can be said in different ways of Playboy hedonism and the procession of the Son from the Father.)


Politics since the World Wars

The consensus among historians is that the World Wars accustomed populations to greater regimentation, control, and government involvement to achieve domestic policy objectives that were to be seen as the moral equivalent of war. And so while the ancient lit saw politics as the attempt to set up a shared life among persons, in the aftermath of the wars this was replaced by centralized control of populations for desirable ends.

This demanded first of all the loss of popular control or self-governance. Wartime populations are by necessity more regimented or, less charitably, more herd-like since in the face of immanent threat it is reasonable for everyone to fall into line and put all differences aside. Wartime centralized power achieves this by feeding populations a steady stream of propaganda or, to use its modern name, public relations.

If whatever policy you are trying to achieve is the moral equivalent of war, then much of the population is the moral equivalent of the enemy. Political issues therefore can no longer be openly or publicly deliberative but have to be done by experts out-of-view. The population will not be allowed to enter into deliberation and so will not be allowed to speak about concrete details of policy but instead will have only ideology, that is abstract, ready-made categories of political value that throw a vast amount of random, unrelated concerns into a single heartfelt party line. Popular protests are understood to give the concrete details of policy over to someone else, and to the extent that you are a popular movement pushing for definite goals you will be called a “special interest” or “lobbyist”, i.e. a non-political but merely self-serving entity.

Wartime populations, or any system of centralized power, demands technological advances since they demand all possible extensions of the hands, feet, and nervous system. The bottom line will always be to increase the ratio of output to labor and to make sure that the centralized power gets the first dibs on the whatever does this. This exalts engineering and its handmaiden, science, while leaving humane letters to puzzle over why it should continue to exist. Religion continues to have value, but only as giving a divine imprimatur to ideology. It must become social to be relevant. Sooner or later the humane letters gets in on the same racket.

But – and do we really need to say this – there’s no war. Our efficiency, centralization, and demands for pan-technological solutions is no longer a rational, right? If we really wanted to permanently and fundamentally manage populations in a herd-like fashion then… then what? First off, you’d have far fewer bulls in the field or, what amounts to the same thing, you’d have (a) far fewer reproducing males; whom you’d (b) breed for a stable population of desirable traits. We’ve got the first part of this down through birth control, video games, porn, and more abortion centers in poorer neighborhoods, but we have no idea how to deliver on the second. This indirect mass-neutering policy not only makes the whole population drop below replacement levels but a large part of it continues to be made of surplus males with nothing to do. We deal with the bottom quintile through the prison system or a toleration for cannabis or opioid abuse, but this is a stand-in until we find some way to bend ideology into supporting a more cost-effective way of ensuring their death.

The logic of human management we’ve taken since the World Wars points to the centralized control of life, death, and breeding, along with everything connected to this. Some bull gets to decide who’s a bull and who’s a steer, and then gets to decide who’s going to be in love with whom (if “love” continues to be seen as an adjunct of breeding, anyway). In this world the ultimate unintelligible and/or revolutionary claim is that the human individual exists for himself in a way that is not just some part of a whole, i.e. he is a person. Still, to leave it at this would make it just another piece of ideology and so unopposed to the system of centralized postwar population management. What cannot be made amenable to such a system is a concrete policy that would treat, say, the bottom quintile as persons, as opposed to seeing them as either lacking moral agency or being culpably lazy and unwilling to better themselves.


Sophistical or Socratic

Judged by numinous power the word “justice” is close to “God” and so appeals to it have a  corresponding ability to influence behavior and inflame passions. The appellants, however, have fallen into two camps for as long as they have been making their cases: the Socratic and the Sophistical.

As a term chanted by protesters JUSTICE! rarely suggests the Socratic ideal. One telling point is that it has no relation to procedure or law. JUSTICE DENIED! Okay, but what exactly I should be outraged about? Was the prosecutor negligent? Was the defendant charged under an inappropriate statute? Is the law badly written? Oh, IT’S THE SYSTEM! What about it? Jury trials? Rules of evidence? Presumption of innocence?

“Blaming the system” charges it as sophistical in the sense we’re invoking now, that is, it is at bottom just an exercise of prejudice, irrational desire and raw power. But our protests against this can only call for one of two things: either we want to make the system more dispassionate, tied to law, dedicated to clearly defined procedure and, in general, more dedicated to a rational ideal or we want to replace their prejudices with ours

Describing this last sort of justice as sophistical is accurate but prejudicial. As experienced, this sort of justice stirs both your own blood and many others’. It has much more of a no-nonsense realist feel to it since it sees with angelic clarity that so-called justice systems are really just systems of prejudice and power. It appeals to rational desires for certitude and clarity in the face of the messy, dialectical, permissive and slow systems that aim at Socratic justice. After all, we know justice on the basis of seeing a news report, or even less! No need to hear both sides of a story and consider how they measure up against a pre-written text of law – our vision and our passion sing in perfect concert to a single, obvious conclusion!

Socratic and sophistical justice have substantial overlap: they agree that a perfect person would have a perfect unity of reason, spirit, and emotional responses to the world; they agree that the raw infliction of power upon (at least some) persons is always wrong; they agree that justice is the will of the rightly disposed and just person. But in the details they completely diverge – the Sophist thinks he has perfect unity of reason and emotion right now, before any training or painful, years-long rewiring of the brain; he divides the world up into those who deserve protection from raw power and those who don’t; and he never questions that his own heart is already perfectly aligned and well-disposed to decide on justice.

And, obviously, if I claimed that these sorts of justice divided persons neatly into two identifiable, stable, ideological groups it would just be more sophistry.

Brains changing themselves

The belief that the brain never changed and was hard-wired early in life was universal dogma until pretty recently. Some part of this was probably a coarse-grained analysis that saw the brains of adolescent rats as observably the same as adult rats, but there was also a strong a priori reason: if brain structure controlled activity then it could not control its structure. Mad scientists might manipulate the brains of others but this was the only sort of “overbrain” that could manipulate brain structure.

For all that, brain structure can be changed by choices and so we were left either having to posit overbrains or speak of “brains changing themselves”. Obviously, the last option won out. The claim was unobjectionable when we understood it as the brain adapting to changing event, like re-allocating resources when we lost a sense power or a limb, but it was more puzzling as a rewiring that overcame ataraxia, like quitting addiction, moral improvement, or following through on a long-term plan to achieve something good. We could speak of one part of the brain forcing another to rewire, but the word “force” is ambiguous since the moral component of the change requires the force to be other-than-natural. That part A modified part B, even if it led to a morally beneficial result and even if A were conscious of what it was doing, would not give the change a moral character. Natural changes that the consciousness of A just went along with and neither initiated nor prohibited would not occasion praise.

Now there is a venerable tradition of believing that the person actually cannot change themselves morally. The first step of any 12-step program is to admit one’s powerlessness in the face of moral demands, which is part of a larger belief system that reframes quondam moral disorders as physical disorders, i.e. diseases. If change occurs it is, so far as it is in us, a natural change lacking any component for which we should be praised. The critique of such a position is familiar, though it’s curious that the believer in “a higher power” is defending the position that is closer to Naturalism about human beings while his (perhaps Naturalist) opponent argues for a force that is nowhere in the catalogue of natural forces. Both determinists and some sorts of Christians agree that only a god could save us; both Christians and Nietzcheans agree that there is some willing component of the self that is not powerless in the face of some the infinite chain of natural causes being pushed a tergo. 


God is not the only thing whose existence is proved through his effects. Proving there are electrons or conducting forensic examinations occur in the same way. But physical argument needs to show the existence of homogeneous things e.g. the electron you blast through foil has to be equivalent to all of them, and the more a murder investigation advances the more the case approaches actually seeing the event. Theistic argument never assimilates God into some genus and the more it advances the more we realize that we don’t see God himself.

Three ambivalences in existence as standing

Existence is a primitive notion but one that the West has a long history of relating to the primitive notion of standing. Its IE root sta cultivates a line of analogues from the concrete referent of the characteristic upright posture of the human person. Any symbolic representation of the person (think of bathroom signs or stick men or the picture of man on the Voyager record) is shown standing, i.e. as performing the primal act that one does independently and of himself, both in defiance of and in unity with the natural, non-human forces that of themselves would make the body collapse and fall.  Because of this, standing is both an action and a readiness for action,  both a primal and  a pre-action, a fundamental doing and yet doing nothing. Call this the first ambivalence of standing.

Standing is status, that is, both a report of whatever you happen to be and a degree of dignity. On the one hand your status might be deplorable, degraded, or anywhere above this; on the other hand to have status is always a dignity, which is why it makes sense to speak of status-seeking. The second ambivalence.

We modify the standing with ex- to have it be out or apart. Verbally, existence is what stands out or is  outstanding. This places the existent relative to the indifferent, the undifferentiated, the mediocre, the homogenous. Existence is the foregrounded in opposition to the background. The background is both context (or even world) while at the same time being the irrelevant, the edited-out, and the sum of all invisible gorillas.  Existence is therefore both what all things have and yet a foregrounding that sets one thing apart from the whole universe. The third ambivalence.

The primary component of being

The lynchpin of Lonergan’s account of being is to qualifiy being as “the content of the unrestricted act of knowing” with the primary component of being as opposed to secondary (Insight, Part II, c. XIX, part 6). This distinction follows two senses of “intelligible”. There is a broad component so far as one speaks of an object understood (the secondary sense), but within these sorts of objects we can identify a ground or source of intelligibility as a primary component in the object. The distinction between them is that primary components are understood only with a grasp of understanding itself while secondary components can be understood without any awareness of what understanding is.  Lonergan’s example is from the positive integers. One can do arithmetic without knowing what an insight is, but one can’t recognize the infinitude of the same integers without having an insight about what mind can do. The amazement that even a young child gets from recognizing infinity is a recognition of his involvement in it, or of how he can keep going just as they keep on going, and this element of understanding is present in any act of understanding. How many trees do you understand in “tree”, or forces in the idea of “force”? True, the infinitude of the concept is, for us, very dim and in need of a good deal of fleshing out, but this speaks to the clarity or mode of the primary component and not to its nature or extent.

So there is a primary and secondary component in all intelligibles. But being is the content of the unrestricted act of knowing, and the secondary component of being is restricted by definition since it leaves off the intelligible source in knowing the intelligible thing while the primary component does not. Therefore being is the primary component of being. The theistic implications are clear.

A neoplatonic-Christian morality

1.) Is eternity attainable? 

If so, it cannot be before death since the whole of this life is in time. So even if we say “yes” we will distinguish the morality of attainment and the morality of this life, or a happiness that is absolute from one that is for now.

2.) If attainable, then how? 

There seems to be no one who argued we could know it was attainable by reason, though if it is attainable then we could not rule out its being possible. So far as reasoning is discursive and fed from sensation, the attainment of eternity is unintelligible to it. In order to attain the eternal a rational being must acquire a new nature, which happens only by rebirth.

3.) If attainable, can it fail to be obtained? 

If so, after death those who fail to attain must be met either with annihilation or the perpetual continuance of time. But annihilation introduces duality into the divine act and so is at least unfitting and probably impossible. Leaving aside the question of punishment or what the metaphor of the flames means, the eternity of Hell is perpetual time.


The privation account of moral evil

Manichaeism can’t be foolish or shallow since most of my students aren’t shallow but most of them are Manichaeans. As a moral theory it is the simplest and most initially persuasive on offer, and it’s so basic it tends not to be formally articulated at all. The foundational axiom is there are good objects and bad objects or moral choice requires a good and bad object. It took an Augustine to see what was wrong with this, but even his privation account of evil tends to just be understood in a Manichaean way e.g. we understand the good object as “something” and the bad object as “nothing” and then continue on just as before. The puzzles and contradictions soon fatigue, however, with students saying things like “evil is wanting nothing” or “evil is a desire for non-existence”, etc.

The Neoplatonic account of moral evil, which is the point of departure for any privation account of it, rests on an account of the difference between time and eternity. Time is a distension or dispersal of goods, or a mode of existence where some goods cannot be had without renouncing others. Eternity is much simpler: to enjoy all goods. Time consists in a series of zero-sum-games that arise from the intrinsic limitations of things, which in turn gives rise to the need for choices that are made with an eye to enjoyment; eternity is the enjoyment that one has in the absence of all such limitations. There are no choices in eternity, only the willing enjoyment of what one has.

Both evil and moral choice exist only in time since they can only exist in the context of zero-sum games wherein the good we grab can involve moving closer to or renouncing the ultimate good. Evil is not an object or even something we can think about while acting but a good that can’t serve as a means to attain the ultimate. In the absence of an ultimate good both evil and moral choice become unintelligible, which is why all moral theories tend to be named after their account of what the ultimate good is (utility, virtue, duty, divine decree, etc.)

One value to the Neoplatonic account is that it comes with eternity as a paradigm or limit case of the ultimate good, even if this is not attainable. Morality then becomes a contextualized or qualified as an attempt to do the best we can with a morality that cannot be defined by its absolute condition, i.e. the attainment of the good that is ultimate without qualification. For Augustine morality gets a new urgency from the belief that the ultimate good is attainable as a moral goal since our choices are capable of being either co-ordinated or uncoordinated with the enjoyment of God himself. Our own accounts of morality – even the Christian ones – don’t seem to raise this question of ultimate goods and this infects all moral questions with some degree of darkness, confusion, and an attempt to accept some tragic condition.

Thomistic vs. Lucretian theosis

The essentials of humanism have been articulated for a very long time as what you get when you tear down god and put man in his place. It’s hard to beat the haunting majesty of Lucretius’s way of putting this:

Opteritur nos exaeqat victoria caelo. 

[religion] has been torn down, and this victory makes us equal to the gods.

Christianity also has a way of making man equal to the gods though the Incarnation and, in its Western articulation, though a vision of the divine essence in which God himself takes the place of any possible idea or even direct intuition we might have of God. While St. Thomas’s attempt to articulate this is strained and hesitant, his last word on the problem is that the divine essence is united to the created intellect as the object actually understood, making the intellect in act by and of itself. While STA doesn’t push this argument to the next stage by pointing out that a similar thing would be said about the act of the will, so far as our idea of God is replaced by God himself we have to allow some sense in which self-love and love of God become identical, making the two greatest commandments coincide in a single action.

So there is both a Thomistic and Lucretian humanism corresponding to different accounts of divination or theosis. The two differ in means: the Lucretian is from the advance of a disenchanting scientific model of the world that reconstructs the whole of reality from principles whose natures are are clearly known from the beginning (space, void, force, particles) the Thomistic vision is the approach to a cause whose nature is known only at the end since beatitude is, so far as reason is concerned, the culmination of our attempts to know the essence of the cause of the world. The Lucretian advance of knowledge drives out the gods since it rules out ab initio any need to conclude to the principles of the world, the thomist argues that we can only know that there is a principle of the world from the beginning, not what it is in itself.

The two also differ in ends: the Lucretian theosis is mostly a narrative of liberation and authority where we throw off the impediments that kept down humanity and claim the right to determine our own destiny. On the one hand we want a brotherhood of all persons, now seen as free and equal with a dignity of existing for themselves; on the other hand the control of our destiny has to involve the power over life and death along with a rational disgust at the idea that our community would be allowed to arise from the dumb luck of whoever might happen to be born by random acts of conception and then raised by undirected acts of parenting. The Thomistic theosis is not something to be achieved now, and this present world is one whole ultimate reason is to be revealed later. Whatever cultivating or directing roles we take in natural processes are always subordinate to a larger narrative where what actually happens – mistakes and all – will be seen as part of a divine plan to be revealed in our vision of the cause of the world.



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