1 MARCH 1986, Page 24


A Godless innocent

Piers Paul Read

SEXUAL DESIRE: A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION by Roger Scruton The spectacle of sex under the scrutiny of the intellect is something like that of the idle monkey who to pass the time of day fights its front paws with its hind legs, the one assaulting the genitals while the other attacks the face. Though both our brain and our sexual organs must co-exist in the same body, the reasoning mind is at the opposite pole of the human personality to the impetuous loins, and invariably shows a disdain for sexual desire. From the time of Plato almost every philosopher has condemned it, and it is only in our own time that men like Alex Comfort in The Joy of Sex and Wayland Young in Eros Denied have proclaimed the evil of repres- sion and the triumph of Eros.

In this new 'philosophical investigation' of sexual desire, Roger Scruton suggests `that our civilisation has suffered a pro- found crisis in sexual behaviour and in sexual morality', and sets out to 'sketch a sexual morality whose basis will be located not in religious belief but in human na- ture . . .' It is an ambitious project, not just because so many before him have tried and have failed, but because modern phi- losophy is often inward-looking and rarely gets beyond wrangles about the meaning of words. The result, however, is a dazzling treatise, as erudite and eloquent as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and con- siderably more sound in its conclusions.

Scruton's principal purpose, if I under- stand him correctly, is to refute the concept of a dichotomy between body and soul and `the moral and philosophical impulses that lead us to assign sexual desire to the animal part of human nature'. These stem from the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, and have infected not just Christian teaching but also more recent philosophers like Schopenhauer, Freud and Sartre. To Scru- ton, sexual desire must be more than a drive towards pleasurable sensation, be- cause if it was only that then 'it could as well be satisfied by masturbation as by the time-consuming strategems of courtship and seduction.'

Rather, sexual desire in men and women is felt not for the body but for the embodiment of another rational being. The erotic caress is both exploratory and incar- nating, and so 'sexual arousal has an epistemic intentionality'.

In our experience of these things, our sense of the animal unity of the other combines with our sense of his unity as a person, and we perceive these two unities as an indissolu- ble whole. That experience, I contend, is the foundation of our form of life.

From this perception of desire there necessarily follows a sexual morality at the core of which is Aristotle's idea of happi- ness as a kind of 'flourishing'. A human

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being can only reach his full potential as a human being through intentional, interper- sonal love for another human being of complementary gender. That love is neces- sarily 'nuptial': it must be a total commit- ment to achieve the fusion to which it aspires. It must also be established by a vow of eternal fidelity, because if it is limited in time, it admits to the possibility of being redirected to a third person. Scruton is in no doubt that 'jealousy is one of the greatest psychical catastrophes, in- volving the possible ruin of both part- ners . . .' It follows that 'a morality based on the need for erotic love must forestall and eliminate jealousy', and that it is 'in the deepest human interest . . . that we form the habit of fidelity. This habit is natural and normal, but it is also easily broken.'

Ineluctably, over almost 400 pages, we are led to the conclusion that the tradition- al morality of our fathers is necessary to human happiness and fulfilment, and that `traditional sexual education was, despite its exaggerations and imbecilities, truer to human nature than the libertarian culture which has succeeded it.' Promiscuity and perversion are condemned, while chastity, fidelity, purity and innocence are restored as desirable virtues.

Parts of Sexual Desire will be impenetr- able to the general reader, and Scruton recognising that philosophy 'has no mean- ing for the common man' — suggests which sections the reader can skip if he finds the philosophy too difficult. Even those who take this easier route, however, may baulk at his uncompromising erudition. No trans- lations are given, for example, of the quotations in foreign languages. In the end, however, perseverance pays off be- cause it is in the detail of his writing, not in the general argument, that we find the most arresting and original perceptions. It is also when he escapes from the rigours of philosophy that we come across passages of stylistic delight. He writes without a trace of any secret prejudice 011 topics of some delicacy such as homosex- uality and bestiality, and since his conclu- sions are an affront to the accepted moms of Western society, it is important to stress this. His detachment is entirely convincing, and if there is an air of precocious inno- cence in his analysis, it does nothing to invalidate his conclusions. One would hope to see Sexual Desire as a set book not just the departments of philosophy, but in every seminary and faculty of social sci- ence.

My principal misgiving about the book is as to whether, in the end, Scruton does succeed in establishing his Godless sexual. morality. He places too much trust in his own discipline of philosophy, and is too dismissive of other disciplines such as anthropology and psychology. He con- vinces us that Freud's language is not scientific, and that his ideas pertain more to myth than to medicine, but myth can have its significance and there are psYche- logists other than Freud. It is astonishing' for example, that Scruton makes no men- tion of Jung. It is the same when he comes to theoltr gy, for while he purports to construct 10 morality without reference to religion, h, finds it hard to escape the concept n' original sin. Indeed, it is remarkable 110 close his idea of sexual morality comes tn that of the more rigorous theologians in the contemporary Catholic Church. He takes the word `nuptuality' from John Paul II: and he acknowledges, in a foot-note, Oa: `The views of the present pontiff, while in line with the Augustinian tradition, s1140 marked Kantian influence, which apPrnx,1 mates them to the theories expounded 1;.. this work.' Though he does not say so in his book, one can suppose that Scruton, lik the Pope, would admit the possibility of a man committing adultery with his wife. His principal difference with the Church lies in the procreative constituent in erotic love. To him the nuptial is not necessarily fruitful. It seems to offend him that sexual love should have an end other than in the love itself.

This brings me back to his innocence and — to use the word in its vulgar sense — his `romantic' view of erotic love. He recog- nises that desire 'has a tendenciy to with- er', but contends that the human spirit can only flourish in a love 'which is no longer erotic, but is based on trust and compan- ionship'. He underestimates the import- ance of children in the fulfilment of love of this kind.

He also fails to define what kind of flourishing we are to expect from sexual virtue. Without a God in his equation, he would have to contend that a man like Victor Hugo, who not only had a wife and a mistress but also satisfied a strong appe- tite for maid-servants well into his old age, was somehow a stunted human being; and give pride of place to Darby and Joan in his pantheon of heroes.

It is fitting, however, that the author of this impressive treatise should retain a shred of that innocence which he rehabili- tates and extols; for as he says in conclu- sion,

What we understand in our condition may also pass from us in the act of understanding. For we were never meant to have knowledge of this thing; we were meant to be subject to its command.