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Book Review: Seven Deadly Sins, Part III: Lust

Book Review: Seven Deadly Sins, Part III: Lust

9 Mins
March 15, 2011

May 2008 -- Simon Blackburn, Lust: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 192 pages (paperback), $9.95.

Simon Blackburn has an ambitious goal: to raise lust “from the category of sin to that of virtue.” His effort, Lust, is the third in a series of books about the seven deadly sins, each by a different author, published by The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press between 2003 and 2006, and all newly available in paperback as of late 2006.

A professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and the author of several other books, including the best-selling Think and Being Good, Blackburn realizes that some readers “might deny that there is any task left to accomplish.” Western culture, his critics might say, is already highly sexualized. We are no longer particularly prudish, embarrassed, or ashamed when it comes to sex. It seems we have long since rehabilitated this particular deadly sin.

While there is an element of truth to this, the whole story is more complicated. The persistence until 2003 of sodomy laws in several American states, the continuing battles over same-sex marriage, the tax dollars spent on abstinence-only sex education in spite of its glaring shortcomings, and attempts to keep condoms out of developing countries all undercut a too-rosy assessment of our attitudes about sex. Furthermore, as Blackburn notes, “Like England, nearly all U.S. states deny prostitutes anything like adequate legal protection, in spite of the overwhelming social ills that the prohibition creates, in this field and others.” Considering also that, in certain parts of the world, female lust is so feared that little girls regularly suffer genital mutilation, it seems clear that there is still some work to be done.


So, what, exactly, is lust? The answer might seem obvious, but like a good philosopher, Blackburn is careful to nail down a definition of his subject. In doing so, he considers and discards several promising but ultimately inadequate alternatives. For instance, lust is not simply the desire for sex, because sex can be desired for many reasons (procreation, pleasing one’s partner, money, etc.), and to qualify as lust, sex must be desired for its own sake. Lust is not merely the desire for orgasm, either, though this is a part of the story. Orgasm “is typically the ecstatic finale, and when we go to the theatre, we do not want to miss the ecstatic finale. But neither is the ecstatic finale all we want, as if we could just make do with it, bypassing the rest of the performance.” Nor can lust simply be identified with sexual arousal, for this physical state can be present without feelings of lust. The mind must be brought in, for lust is a psychological as well as a physical state. Blackburn also rules out a kind of wistful yearning to feel desire, a wanting to want sex without truly feeling it. He finally defines lust as “the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake.”

Before moving on, Blackburn turns his attention to the metaphorical use of the word lust, as when we speak of lust for life, lust for gold, or lust for power. Here, the word seems to have the concept of excess built into it. “If we say that someone has a lust for gold, we imply more than that he simply wants money, like the rest of us . . . It is not just that gold puts a gleam into his eye, it is that nothing else does, or gold puts too bright a gleam.” But if lust is excessive by its very nature, then any attempt to rehabilitate it is lost from the start.

If lust is excessive by its very nature, then any attempt to rehabilitate it is lost from the start.

Blackburn admits, of course, that sexual desire can be excessive, either in its intensity or in its scope, but he sees no reason to believe that it must be so. “If we talk of excess, it seems we ought to be able to contrast it with some idea of a just and proportionate sexuality: one that has an appropriate intensity, short of obsession but more than indifference, and directed at an appropriate object.” He also points out as an aside that excess is not the only reason we criticize lust: “President Clinton is reported to have gone into therapy in order to ‘cure’ his sexual ‘addiction,’ yet the problem on the face of it (if that is the right word) was not with the intensity of his desire, but with its wayward direction and his limp self-control.”

There is another way, though, in which lust might be thought to be excessive by its very nature. Blackburn writes, “As the body becomes flooded with desire, and still more as the climax approaches, it blots out much of the world. It fills our mental horizon . . . [S]exual climax drives out thought. It even drives out prayer, which is part of the church’s complaint about it.” But this extreme abandonment to the moment is hardly to be lamented, at least for the less pious among us. Indeed, as Blackburn notes, “It is a good thing if the earth moves.” Far from a moral crime, these ecstatic experiences “are usually thought to provide one of life’s greatest goods, and a yardstick for others.”

With this caveat in place, Blackburn concludes, “we must not allow the critics of lust to intrude the notion of excess, just like that. We no more criticize lust because it can get out of hand, than we criticize hunger because it can lead to gluttony, or thirst because it can lead to drunkenness.”


In contrast to certain Eastern traditions, like Taoism, which claim for lust “rejuvenating and life-giving powers,” Western thought has pretty much always been down on carnal pleasure. Even the Ancients, while not as prudish as later Christians, nonetheless had some hang-ups about the urge to merge. Summing up three separate Greek myths about sex, Blackburn notes,

For our purposes, what is clear is that poor lust is already firmly categorized: misshapen, deaf to entreaty, and above all shameful. The context is not Christian in the least, but the presumption is not only that lust is willful and therefore in need of restraint, for the same could be said of any appetite, such as the desire for food; the further presumption is that lust is shameful, and that to succumb to the pleasures of sexuality is intrinsically some kind of failure. What was the argument for this? It seems to have crept in simply as an axiom that we are all to rely upon.

This was the thinking of sages, despite the fact that common folk seem to have thought of sex as not only permissible but also quite wonderful. Leave it to deep thinkers to pile on the guilt.

The Cynics, perhaps in reaction to this moralizing, maintained that even copulating in public should not be considered shameful, and they are said to have carried out demonstrations of their beliefs. The Stoics, for their part, swung back hard the other way, aiming to eliminate lust altogether, arguing that it interfered with the exercise of reason.

Questionable though the Stoics’ reasoning on sexual desire may have been, it took Christianity to raise lust from a mere impediment to sober thought into a veritable sin. Blackburn writes, “It is always convenient to have a villain we can name, and [Saint] Augustine’s lurid views of lust and sin undoubtedly saturated the subsequent Western tradition.” Blackburn argues, though, that in addition to the Ancient Greek and Roman influences, the Christian attitude of disgust and damnation was already well established before Augustine. The good saint “needed only to breathe it in.” Even a supposed moderate like the later Saint Thomas Aquinas still no more than tolerated copulation—only within marriage, and only in order to propagate the species—and wrote about lust in clearly derogatory terms. Musing about the Christian legacy, Blackburn writes, “it is almost impossible to exaggerate the effect of this simple combination of thoughts about lust, restraint, reason, and what is natural.”


Where does the notion of romantic love fit into Blackburn’s attempt to rehabilitate lust from sin to virtue? He first sinks his teeth into the subject when discussing the works of William Shakespeare. As Blackburn tells it, the Bard considered romantic love “a kind of overlay or varnish over lust, and what it adds is not itself very much to do with good things like truth and trust. Love is more associated with unreasonable dotings, fiction, madness, bubbles, blindness, and illusion.” It is not Shakespeare’s view that lovers intentionally deceive each other as a rule, although this can happen; it is rather that lovers want to be deceived and aid in their own deception. A lover projects ideals onto the beloved that are only partially grounded in reality. A lover tends to flatter, and tends to enjoy being flattered in return. As Blackburn notes, “It is nice to be thought better than we are; indeed, a lot of human effort goes into appearing better and more beautiful than we are.”

Lest we imagine that Blackburn (who has written extensively about truth elsewhere) is endorsing pleasant self-delusion, he gives us reason to doubt the felicity of this Shakespearean version of love. “Conventional wisdom gives us that lust is just about all right, provided the partners love one another. But if it is a choice between lust plus illusions, or straight lust, it is not obvious why anyone should prefer the first.” And in fact, certain classical philosophers like Epicurus and Lucretius did advise us to “take our lust neat.”

This dismal advice is unconvincing, and Blackburn knows it. For although love may often start off with a measure of self-delusion, he writes, “If all goes well, the play becomes the reality; the poem becomes true.” Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on this important point. One can plausibly flesh this out, though, to mean that in the best of cases, what lovers see in each other is unrealized potential, and in so seeing, they inspire each other to strive harder to fulfill that potential.

Returning to his main objective of rehabilitating lust, Blackburn ignores Epicurus and instead takes a cue from the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that lust was not merely a sensual pleasure but also “a delight of the mind.” The thing is, we enjoy not only the pleasure that we get but also the pleasure that we give, as well as the sense of power that we get from being able to give. These last can only be enjoyments of the mind. Seen in this light, Blackburn writes that sex can be an experience of communion “in the same way that successful music-making is a communion. When the string quartet comes to a triumphant end, the players have been responding and adjusting to each other delicately for the entire performance. No wonder there is a sense of communion on completion.” This “Hobbesian unity,” as he labels it, is Blackburn’s version of lust at its best, lust as a virtue.

Blackburn again leaves it to the reader to complete what I see as the most plausible final link in his chain of reasoning: that when we love our partners—not blindly but with eyes wide open, seeing clearly and being seen—we enjoy being able to give them pleasure that much more. I would have preferred it if he had made this explicit, perhaps by drawing from Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Romantic Love. In that deep and moving work, Branden writes, “When we love, our concept of our self-interest expands to embrace the wellbeing of our partner. That is the great compliment of love: to declare to another human being that his or her happiness is of selfish importance to ourselves” (emphasis in original). I realize Blackburn wants to rehabilitate lust specifically, and Hobbesian unity by itself is clearly a good and worthwhile thing, but full-blown, realistic romantic love is the true ideal.


Since lust at its best can be immensely pleasurable and life-affirming, it is perfectly reasonable to consider it a virtue instead of a vice or sin. Admittedly, though, lust does not always live up to this ideal. Many of us have hang-ups and complexes that get in the way of pure enjoyment, a fact that hardly surprises Blackburn. “When something is both intensely desirable, and culturally identified as intensely shameful, we can expect psychic turmoil.”

Under the continuing influence not only of Christianity but of thinkers from Immanuel (lust is degrading and objectifies the other person) Kant to Sigmund (only degrading sex is fun) Freud, our sex lives tend to be somewhat less glorious than they could be. Summing up these two thinkers’ twisted views, Blackburn writes, “In a nutshell, then, sex is either too disgusting to engage in, or when engaged in, not disgusting enough to be gratifying unless one can make use of one’s servants and maids.” This does not have to be the case, but thinking that it does just might make it so.

Certain feminists have taken Kant’s message and run with it. Martha Nussbaum lists seven separate features of objectification: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity. Blackburn comments, “Although the items on Nussbaum’s list look bad and are bad, unfortunately some of them are close neighbors of things that are quite good.” For instance, “At the time of crisis, it is probably true that lovers are not treating their partners decorously or with respect or as fully self-directed moral agents.” But this feeling of being “lost to the world” is nothing other than the surrender to the moment alluded to above. “The player is sufficiently lost in the music to become oblivious even to the other players. The body has taken over, saturated with excitement and desire. But this is marvelous, even if moments of rapture mean a pause in the conversation.”

Issues like pornography and prostitution ruffle the feathers of feminists and cultural conservatives alike. Blackburn allocates a mere four pages in all to both, though he does manage to make good use of the space. He writes, “Nobody is really going to say that they represent lust at its best, since in neither of them is there a chance of Hobbesian unity. In pornographic enjoyments there is no real partner at all, and in prostitution there is no partner who desires your desire, only one who desires your money.” Then again, he wonders, “are they quite as bad as normally painted?”

Issues like pornography and prostitution ruffle the feathers of feminists and cultural conservatives alike.

Some critics of pornography think it is a short step from consuming pornography to objectifying women. Blackburn finds this unconvincing. “I should say instead that the central use of pornography, as with other words and pictures, is to excite the imagination.” This hardly sounds like a moral crime; in fact, it sounds rather like a good thing. The most Blackburn will acknowledge is that, “There are problems of production, and there are problems in the way women are falsely presented as endlessly available, that constitute real objections. For there are many men in whom the distance between fantasy and reality is less than it should be.”

Prostitution he compares to a piece of theatre, although again he acknowledges that things are not always so innocuous. Whatever we may think of it, though, prostitution is a voluntary exchange—and yet when prostitutes are victimized and abused by their clients or employers, they have no legal recourse. The proper role of government is to prevent people from initiating the use of force against each other, but in this case, the law instead “prefers to let defenseless young women bear the brunt of this, as of so many other exploitations, so that it can go on pretending that it does not happen.”

It is easy to slide from identifying and championing an ideal version of lust to condemning anything that falls short of that ideal. But between the truly damnable and the ideal stretches a vast continuum of options, some of which deserve to be discouraged but not disallowed; some of which should be openly tolerated; and some of which, though suboptimal, nonetheless deserve to be celebrated. Deciding what belongs in which category depends at least in part upon individual context and matters of taste. One thing is certain, however: We will be able to make rational decisions about the matter only to the extent that we are able to reexamine our cluttered cultural baggage.

Blackburn may not always see his arguments through, but his engaging little primer nonetheless helps us to think more deeply about this important subject. And as sexually liberated as we imagine ourselves to be in the West, it is a help we can surely use.

Bradley Doucet
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Bradley Doucet
Ideas and Ideologies