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.)


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