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.)




  1. The Lambton Worm said,

    June 23, 2017 at 4:22 am

    The most obvious response to my mind would be to push further in a Platonic direction: this kind of desire is never for continued existence as such but for continued (preferably eternal) posession of good. What we want of our children is not that they continue our own mode of existence exactly but rather that they lead good or happy lives, preferably better lives than we did ourselves. So a first step toward resolving the problem might be to say that what we want to preserve through reproduction is not unqualified sameness but sameness in respect of ability to seek or possess goods. Something on these lines.

    • June 23, 2017 at 9:24 am

      This theory might help to explain how sexual desire can be the same even for animals of a different type. The desire is not properly for this type of life but for the possession of the good, even if circumstances or environment demand that this can only happen with changes of species.

      But wouldn’t this intensified Platonic response mean giving up on an account of sexual desire as such? Explaining sexual desire through a desire for the continued possession of the good is like explaining digestion as ordered to health. It’s true, but it doesn’t explain what part digestion as such plays to achieve the end. Both faculties can achieve those more universal ends only when they act in concert with other powers and faculties.

      • The Lambton Worm said,

        June 28, 2017 at 3:40 am

        I’m not sure I understand why it means *giving up on* an account of sexual desire as such. I mean, saying that digestion is ordered to health seems to be necessary to give a proper account of it, because it by reference to health that you determine what is proper functioning and what is malfunctioning for that system. This is the kind of account that a doctor gives and the doctor’s account seems like the most obvious one. Further, it seems reasonably obvious to me that sexual desire does achieve its ends only in concert with other powers – a lion that didn’t teach its young, or a snake that didn’t bury its eggs to get the right temperature, would be defective.

        Would you might explaining the objection a bit more?

      • June 28, 2017 at 1:46 pm

        Aristotle proposed the striving for eternity not as a goal of animal life as animal, but as reproductive. You’re proposal was more general than this, since ensuring the good of offspring involves many powers outside reproduction. Food gathering, for instance.

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