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Eros, agape, and typological thought

A review of poststructuralist treatments of Western sexuality

Daniel J. Castellano

May 6, 2002

            Human love is an amorphous concept that cannot be neatly subdivided or categorized, but it would be a mistake to cavalierly deny that there are several distinct kinds of love.  Variations in emotional quality, though difficult to express, have a claim to reality as surely as the mind is as real as the body.  Attempts to reduce human love, and specifically sexual love, to “bodies and pleasures” fail to consider fully that the body is known only through the mind.  Humans experience physiological sensations only through emotions, sometimes associating physical pain with emotional pleasure and vice versa.  Consequently, if we distinguish several “loves” on the basis of a difference in experienced emotional quality, or a distinction in motivation or intent, we are not thereby guilty of pure fabrication, but are simply articulating an experiential difference that is as real as the distinction between physiological pain and pleasure.

Poststructuralist historians are inordinately suspicious of abstract ideas, regarding these as mere cultural constructs to be contrasted with objective physical realities.  In a Foucaultian cosmos of bodies and forces, morality and truth are the stuff of make-believe, as are all derivative abstractions.  Apart from the metaphysical or logical problems of this view, poststructuralism constrains the telling of history by eliminating a priori all that is human qua human from the domain of objective reality.  History thus becomes a science without an object, much as if chemists were to deny the reality of chemicals.  Poststructuralism fails to recognize that the nature of historical truth is necessarily different from that of philosophical or physical truth. The poststructuralist method subjects ethical and social concepts to the reality criteria of physics or metaphysics.  Naturally they fail to meet these criteria, and the poststructuralist is thereby persuaded that the phenomena are not real, human experience notwithstanding.  This approach is reminiscent of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, who believed that he had rigorously proven the impossibility of motion, and so our observations to the contrary must be mistaken.[1]  Similarly, poststructuralists would have us deny that there are really such things as “gender” or “evil”, even if our senses clamor in objection.  Let us take the protean distinction among loves – eros, agape and philia – as a case study in how a total rejection of typological thinking biases the historian against entire classes of questions as needlessly as does uncritical acceptance of rigid categories.

            Eros, philia, and agape have been defined in various ways over the centuries.   Since I am not concerned with advancing a complete psychology of love, but only with showing that more than one kind of love exists, these terms are here defined arbitrarily.  Eros will refer to the physical attraction that accompanies sexual desire, while philia will mean affectionate love that is without sexual desire, and agape will denote any love detached from physical affection.[2]  This division presumes a real distinction between soma and psyche, as well as a distinction between sexual and non-sexual affection.  The reality of this division does not imply a sharp categorization.  As Boswell indicates, the historical usages of terms such as philia, eros, and agape must be determined from context; often they are synonymous, as in the all-embracing English “love”. An obvious proof-text of this is found in the Gospel of John:

      When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest (agapaV) thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love (filw) thee.[3]


Despite this ambiguity, we would err oppositely if we denied any distinction, for God is always agape, never eros or philia.  As always, linguistic usage is plastic: just as some people say “love” to distinguish a sentiment from carnal desire, others may use the term to specifically refer to biological passions.  In reality, the diverse kinds of love are often experienced as a mixture or unified whole.  Nonetheless, the fact that they can be experienced in varying degrees of isolation from one another shows that they are real phenomena.  Instead of positing arcane psychological motivations for the invention of these distinctions, a good observer should appreciate that there is a real multiplicity in the experience of human love.  If we treat lust, love, and friendship as things that are really experienced, though imperfectly expressed linguistically, rather than as interesting myths, we can actually extract positive knowledge from accounts of these phenomena, rather than the negative knowledge that poststructuralism offers.

            When pursuing clarity of thought, it can be fruitful to turn to Aristotle, since this philosopher shares little of the modern obsession with linguistics and epistemology.[4]  He simply defines terms inductively, by asking, “What do people mean when they say X?”  This method can lead to multiple definitions, as with terms such as “nature” and “cause”.  In his treatment of ethics, the Stygian philosopher displays a prudence which is too often lacking in our contemporaries:

            Our discussion will be adequate if its degree of clarity fits the subject-matter; for we should not seek the same degree of exactness in all sorts of arguments alike, any more than in the products of different crafts.  Moreover, what is fine and what is just, the topics of inquiry in political science, differ and vary so much that they seem to rest on convention only, not on nature….  Since these then, are the sorts of things we argue from and about, it will be satisfactory if we can indicate the truth roughly and in outline; since [that is to say] we argue from and about what holds good usually [but not universally], it will be satisfactory if we can draw conclusions of the same sort. Each of our claims, then ought to be accepted in the same way [as claiming to hold good usually], since the educated person seeks exactness in each area to the extent that the nature of the subject allows; for apparently it is just as mistaken to demand demonstrations from a rhetorician as to accept [merely] persuasive arguments from a mathematician.[5]


Aristotle, the master logician, appreciates the limitations of rigorous argument.  He is not perturbed by the fact that statements on ethics and politics only hold usually, not universally.  More strikingly, he freely admits that notions of “what is fine and what is just” are based on convention, not on nature, yet he does not thereby conclude that these are myths.  Even that codifier of natural law, St. Thomas Aquinas, believes that “at one time robbery was not considered wrong among the Germans even though it is expressly contrary to the law of nature.”[6]  If these philosophers were to read every poststructuralist book ever written, they would find nothing shocking, since they already accepted that customs are not decreed by nature.  Aristotle explicitly states “that none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally”, since what is natural cannot be changed by habit.[7]  Nature gives us the capacity to acquire virtue, and this is achieved by developing habits.  This view complements the idea, expressed in Plato’s Republic, that the function of the state is the development of civic virtue, which entails the adoption of good customs, just as personal virtue is acquired through good habits.  For present purposes, we do not need to inquire whether the classical Greek virtues are “better” than other sets of virtues, or ponder what the proper good of the soul really is.  It will suffice to show that behaviors are real virtues and vices relative to some recognized good.

            Man is a social (or political) animal more completely than Aristotle probably appreciated, for it was commonly supposed in antiquity that distinctly human cognitive capacities would be actualized even in the absence of socialization.  Herodotus relates a legend of two Egyptian babies that were kept isolated from human speech in order to see what would be the first word spoken, thereby determining the natural or most ancient language of humanity.[8]  This belief that a natural humanity could exist independently of education prevailed into the Enlightenment, as Locke and Rousseau imaginatively speculated about the condition of primitive man before he formed societies.  Modern observations of feral children—humans deprived of social contact from early infancy—have provided a less flattering and more chilling view of man without socialization.[9]  In the dozen or so cases subjected to meticulous observation, the subjects proved to be neither Rousseau’s noble savages nor Locke’s fallen Adams, but mere brutes.  They exhibited no desire to interact with humans, walk erect or learn to talk, this last being achieved only very imperfectly and with much resistance.  Their faces expressed no emotion except fear (which is the only emotion with a well-defined biochemical correlate).  Disturbingly, the children did not seem to have any concept of their own personhood; the human potential was never actualized. 

From these bleak tales, it would appear that our very humanity and personhood are nothing more than a set of socialized ideas superimposed on an unintelligent animal.  Once the window of opportunity in early childhood is missed, it is next to impossible to humanize the child, though much more is achieved than would be possible with any ape.  In a sense this is a confirmation of Foucault, but it is also a refutation.  Truly, all human ideas are socially derived, and in fact personhood and humanity itself are formed by socialization.  Still, the person, once formed, is certainly real, and it would be arbitrary to deny the same of human ideas such as virtues and vices simply because they would be meaningless and impossible without an actual human society.  An acquired nature is still a real nature; the distinction between origins and actuality accounts for why Aristotelian thinkers have been little concerned with uncovering the state of primitive society in order to determine what is best and natural, but instead look to a telos that is proper to the person or society being considered.  A fascination with origins and the primordial “state of nature” is characteristic of later philosophers, such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

            John Boswell was not really a poststructuralist, but he was concerned with the origins of ideas, as though pointing to the cultural origin of an idea would discredit it as a fiction.  In Christianity, Homosexuality and Social Tolerance, he attempts to explain the origins of intolerance toward homosexuality.  In the process, he disparages constructs such as “naturalness”, yet imposes the modern constructs of “homosexuality” and “homoeroticism” on societies in which other categories prevailed.  The failure of this method does not prove the unreality of homosexuality and homoeroticism, but results from the fact that the sentiments expressed by these concepts were probably not actually experienced by the particular people described.  Ancient Romans and Greeks who performed homosexual acts did not necessarily see themselves as a different kind of person from those who did not perform them; they simply did not have a strong identification between person and sexual practice.  More pertinent to our study is the treatment of “homoeroticism” in medieval literature.  Although Boswell scrupulously identifies the difficulties of imposing modern terms on medieval people, and indeed questions whether we can determine emotional states from historical sources,[10] he nonetheless attempts to do these things.  He is not to be faulted on principle for making the attempt; historians must often make probable guesses based on inadequate evidence.  The problem lies in his particular interpretation of the evidence.

For example, Boswell identifies Saint Aelred of Rievaulx as “gay”, which he defines as “persons who are conscious of erotic inclinations to their own gender.”[11]  Yet Aelred expressly denies any erotic inclinations, contrasting his adult love for his brothers with that of his adolescence, when “a cloud of desire arose from the lower drives of the flesh” and “the sweetness of love and impurity of lust combined to take advantage of the inexperience of my youth.”[12]  Even if Boswell would like to insist that Aelred was a homosexual on some unconscious level, he would have to respect the reality of the conscious distinction that Aelred makes.  His error is an effective denial of any distinction between eros and philia; blanket characterization of monastic friendships as “homoerotic” presumes that any deep physical affection is qualitatively concupiscent.  This is not the case, as should be evident to anyone who has felt deep emotional and indeed physical affection toward an elderly friend or relative who is sexually repulsive.  Clearly, the philia among friends and relatives, and the eros between lovers cannot differ merely in degree if a positive philia can be accompanied by a negative eros.  This does not prove that the medieval relationships in question were not homoerotic, but it does demonstrate that an affectionate relationship need not arouse sexual desire, so Aelred’s distinction of loves should not be lightly dismissed as self-delusion. 

            Sometimes a difference in degree can effect a difference in quality.  A person who eats a small amount of food is not said to be slightly gluttonous.  As with all cases of intemperance, the fact of excess effects a difference in quality, namely that physical desires have claimed a hold on the will and what was beneficial in moderation has become injurious in excess.  Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is most obviously applicable to the virtue of temperance.  As Foucault observes, Aristotle restricted temperance to things pertaining to the sense of touch, on the grounds that tactile pleasures were held in common with other animals and therefore distracted the soul from its proper good.[13]  The Christian injunction against looking at a married woman lustfully is not really a contradiction of this principle, for the offense consists in the implicit desire for tactile pleasure; there is no sin in a purely aesthetic admiration of beauty.  Here eros and agape are divided along sensory lines: to visually admire a nude without thought of tactile stimulation is never intemperate.  Only eros is subject to the criteria of temperance; one can never have too much agape.  Thus the abstract psychological distinction between loves has a sweeping practical application in ethics; eros is to be moderated or regulated, while agape is extolled unreservedly.  Lofty and poetic ecstasies of mystically inclined saints like Catherine of Siena can exhibit unbridled passion, for this is agapic.  A similar lack of restraint in erotic matters would be damnable to a Christian.

            While we may acknowledge that earlier societies subdivided love much in the way Aristotle’s notion of temperance implies, most modern psychologists, particularly Freudians, would question the psychological reality of such phenomena.  Although they do not deny a conscious distinction, Freudians assert that both the ecstasies of religion and those of sex come from the same unconscious psychic energy, or libido.  Without examining the merits of this position too deeply, we may briefly look at how it impacts history as told by Peter Gay.

Gay is primarily concerned with the regulation of erotic love, so he focuses on the treatment of deviations from societal norms.  He adopts one of the more positive features of Foucault in illustrating how repressive measures, such as the pathologizing of homosexuality and onanism, can actually define and create new modes of discourse.  Unfortunately, this positive knowledge is offset by a disdain for conscious motivations as constructed, while the deeper, unconscious libido is real.  Gay attests, following Freud:

…that all civilization, even the least repressive, exacts sacrifices from the instinctual drives… Since all cultures whatever…must impose painful compromises on the individual, all must be felt as a burden since all do some violence to basic human desires.[14]


Gay describes this as “cultural mendacity”, in preference to Freud’s “cultural hypocrisy”, since true hypocrisy cannot be unconscious.  Here we find a view of society as something superimposed on the individual – a set of constructed norms imposed over and against “basic human desires.”  On the contrary, the feral children indicate that “natural” humanity cannot be neatly disentangled from “constructed” society, so erotic desires have no claim to existential priority over those social exigencies which limit them.

Thus it is a mistake for Gay to selectively pathologize or psychoanalyze the repression of sex without subjecting libertinism to similar scrutiny.  [A Freudian approach to history also suffers from its identification of all sensuality as erotic.  To his credit, Gay recognizes that his nineteenth-century subjects did not hold Freudian ideas of sublimation, and that they generally held their views sincerely, not out of some surplus of repressed desire.[15]]  His bias towards desires as more basic than societal repression results in a partisan treatment that ascribes anti-feminism to fear of castration, while feminism is presumably natural and reasonable.[16]  Even the rational genius of Max Planck is valued at nought because of his traditional views about the proper vocation of woman.  Gay rashly attributes Planck’s opinions to “primitive anxieties”, when an equally plausible view is that they were simply comments on the observed vocational preferences of women of his day.[17]

            Distinguishing the sexual from the non-sexual necessarily evokes questions of gender, for one primarily thinks of “sexual” as referring to the differences between the sexes, though homosexuality would make that untenable as a definition.  Poststructuralists can undermine the distinction between sexual and non-sexual by denying the reality of gender.  Marjorie Garber carries this to an extreme by invoking transvestite experiences as evidence of the constructedness of gender.  A simpler explanation of her material would be that lifelong transvestites such as “Mme. Butterfly” and Billy Tippett successfully deceived themselves and others about their gender.  Curiously, a position that arose from a mistrust of human constructs now uncritically grants credence to the self-perceptions of transvestites and the grossly artificial constructions of transsexuals.  If gender is merely a construct, this would be a revelation to neuroscientists and psychologists, who always specify the gender of their experimental subjects on account of substantial neurological and psychological sex differences.  For example, the neurological effects of stress exhibit sexual disparity: male rats become impaired in their ability to learn mazes, while females are unaffected in this capacity.  The human psyche is highly sensitive to sex hormone levels, as small doses of estrogen given to menopausal women can reduce “cognitive deficits and emotional outbursts”.[18]

We must tread lightly when making this kind of observation about humans, for although Garber has informed us that there is no such thing as gender, apparently there is still such a thing as misogyny.[19]  It is certainly impolitic to make such observations as Aristotle did, when intellectuals spoke more freely on these matters:

In all cases, excepting those of the bear and the leopard, the female is less spirited than the male; in regard to the two exceptional cases, the superiority in courage rests with the female. With all other animals the female is softer in disposition than the male, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young; the male on the other hand, is more spirited than the female, more savage, more simple and less cunning.  The traces of these differentiated characteristics are more or less visible everywhere, but they are especially visible where character is the more developed, and most of all in man….


Hence woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike.  She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory.  She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment.[20]


Here Aristotle reveals what an inept misogynist he was, for his unflattering remarks about females are inelegantly combined with favorable comments, and he includes some exceptional cases.  This is poor form for a misogynist polemic, but quite in keeping with the character of dry observation that permeates his biological writings.  Observations such as these are a necessary step toward understanding gender differentiation.  If this entire class of observation is to be dismissed out of hand as sexist, the conclusion that gender is psychologically meaningless is foreordained.  The worst that may be said about an observation is that it is inaccurate. We may quarrel over the cultural specificity of what Aristotle says about humans, yet even if we were to find that only Athenian women cried more often than their male counterparts, this would remain a fact of historical significance.  If we found this to be true for most cultures, it could have anthropological significance.

Garber’s blindness to entire classes of evidence is exampled by her treatment of the veiled men of Tuareg society.[21]  She correctly cites their atypical vestment as illustrating a degree of arbitrariness in the association of particular garments with masculine or feminine traits, yet neglects to pursue the interesting fact that the Tuareg men, despite their different mode of representing masculinity, still identify masculinity with a ferocity common to virtually all human cultures.  How is it that the same basic notion of masculinity is repeatedly manifested in so many different representations, whether Tuareg, Scottish, Roman, or Japanese?  The question is never asked, as Garber will not accept the class of observations necessary to address it.

Garber’s approach to history and anthropology concentrates on the exceptions in order to abolish the significance of what holds in most cases, forgetting that the humanities necessarily make statements about things that hold usually, not always.  Her study focuses on individuals who have a muddled sense of gender, as though this should diminish the certainty of what holds for the vast majority of humans who have a well-defined sense of gender.  We might debate how much of our sense of gender is “innate” and how much is “learned”, but as Candland indicates in his discussion of feral children, this is a false dichotomy.[22]  Part of being a fully “natural” human being is to be socialized by other humans, as many genetic traits are specially designed for social activation.

            Issues of gender identity may appear to be a distraction from the theme of sexual love, but they become central when sexual conventions are conceived as instruments of a patriarchal power structure.  Reducing sexuality to power relations is a Foucaultian idea, though Foucault has a structureless notion of power that is independent of person, but “immanent in force relationships”.[23]  Most poststructuralists are not as subtle as this French philosopher, and more closely approximate the crude Marxian belief that all politics and religion serve to justify and preserve the existing relations of production; only they would substitute “relations of force”.

Without approaching Andrea Dworkin’s extreme view of coitus as rape, Rachel Maines portrays conventional Western sexuality as existing to justify patriarchy.  Androcentric sexuality is defined by several characteristics: it is heterosexual, coital, and procreative.  These aspects of sexuality are commonly attacked or relativized by poststructuralists, who generally concur with Maines in attributing these features to the demands of the male power structure.  This thesis has an obvious stumbling block, for the opinions of premodern and modern women tend to favor this mode of sexuality at least as strongly as do men; most women hardly need to be cajoled into desiring children or coital intercourse.  Maines is forced to display a breathtaking contempt toward her own evidence, which shows that “all but a small number of [women] (20 percent) respondents said they did not feel cheated if they did not experience orgasm”.   She accuses Peter Gay of conflating “pleasure with orgasmic satisfaction, despite the clearly emotional, rather than physiological, tone of most of his quotations from women.”[24]  She insists that the emotional satisfaction of coitus is not a real orgasm because it is not physiological.  This distinction is psychologically meaningless, since physiological sensations are experienced through emotions.  Ironically, Maines has tried to force female sexuality into a male model of orgasm: a sharp, discrete physiological event.  Since the female sexual experience integrates the physical and the emotional (as we could easily learn if we allowed the women to speak for themselves, rather than assume they were kowtowing to an invisible power structure), it cannot be described by Maines’ crude measure of satisfaction in terms of clitoral orgasms.  Satisfaction, in the last analysis, is emotional; if I desire only physiological pain, then physiological pleasure will leave me unsatisfied.  If women claim to be satisfied, then they are satisfied ipso facto, since they can know their own emotional states with metaphysical certainty.  Eros and philia are seamlessly integrated in the female sexual experience; both are equally necessary to sexual satisfaction, whereas men (and women such as Maines, apparently) are often satisfied merely with the former, occasioning much misunderstanding between the sexes.

Sexuality for both parties can also have an agapic element, as evidenced by the belief held by most women that it is more important to please one’s partner than oneself.[25]  Maines cites this as evidence of androcentrism, but it is at least as likely that this is an agapic self-giving which deepens the sexual experience beyond mutual self-indulgence.  To test Maines’ interpretation, we would need to examine whether men also shared this agapic view.

            The radical separation of concupiscence from love that Maines prescribes for female sexuality is identical to that presented in most pornographic materials, a separation which Freud considered pathological.  Maines’ perception of sexual relations as power relations is not without merit, and her model holds up well when treating the ideas of men who hold a sharp division between eros and philia.  Much of the feminist invective against coitus, particularly as represented pornographically, becomes understandable upon considering that the pornographic films of the sixties and seventies regularly portrayed sex acts in the context of coercion of women through brute force, sometimes taken to the disgusting extremes of torture in Nazi sex camps.  In recent decades, mainstream Western pornography has become more purely hedonistic, so the feminist critique is somewhat dated.[26]

            Walter Kendrick’s treatment of pornography also suffers from denying intrinsic differences in qualities of love. The Secret Museum is an edifying survey of the shifting definitions of obscenity and pornography, but Kendrick goes too far in dismissing these things as mere constructs.  He is correct to ridicule Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography, for knowledge of the universal must precede knowledge of the particular, yet Kendrick oversteps when he dismisses the notion of obscenity.  Definitions of pornography fail insofar as they suppose that obscenity is immanent in a particular object; in that sense there is no such thing as pornography, as Kendrick amply demonstrates.  A notion of the pornographic or obscene becomes intelligible only when we include the intent of the representation’s maker and the effect on the viewer.  Thus modern legal definitions include phrases such as “calculated incitement to sexual desire” and  “appealing to prurient interest”.[27]  These expressions take for granted a distinction of loves.  As Kendrick argues, the same object may evoke dissimilar reactions from different people, and it is always difficult, and often presumptuous, to determine what the effect on the general populace will be.  Disregarding Aristotle’s caution about demanding mathematical exactness in legal matters, Kendrick regards attempts to define obscenity as futile and arbitrary.  There is certainly subjectivity involved when dealing with psychological matters, and it is a mistake to regard an object as intrinsically obscene.  Nonetheless, psychological intents and reactions are real experiences which have bearing on ethical and legal judgments, such as the distinction between murder and manslaughter.  In the case of the obscene, we have only to observe that there is a distinction between concupiscent eros and a more aesthetic agape.  The contradiction of restricting one and not the other disappears once we admit a qualitative distinction.

            The basis for regulating eros in Western tradition has multiple causes.  In one sense, it is simply a question of temperance.  Nussbaum believes that this ancient view is in sharp contrast to the Christian attitude toward sexual desire.[28]  On the contrary, the idea that sexual desire can be shameful is not particular to Christianity; people of all cultures have understood it to be shameful in certain social contexts, the most ubiquitous of all being incest.  Thus Oedipus’ joy plunges into disgrace upon learning that Jocasta is his mother.  Moreover, it is untrue that Catholic (or Orthodox) Christianity has historically regarded sexual desire as ipso facto shameful.  Evidence of this can be found not only in the actual practices of the laity during the classical and medieval periods, but also in the more austere teachings of the Latin Church.  Lust is an intemperate form of sexual concupiscence; the former differs from the latter as gluttony does from hunger (though most modern authors describe eros indiscriminately as “lust”, occasioning much confusion).  Lust is considered a mortal sin, but concupiscence is shameful only to the extent that it overwhelms the will and promotes attachment to worldliness at the expense of the love of God.  St. Augustine, among the most austere and widely accepted Christian teachers, believed that all sexual acts are tainted by the unruliness of concupiscence.  He speculates on marriage before Adam’s sin:

…God forbid that we should think that marriages in Paradise must have been such, that in them the procreative members would be excited by the mere ardour of lust, and not by the command of the will for producing offspring, -- as the foot is for walking, the hand for labour, and the tongue for speech.  Nor, as now happens, would the chastity of virginity be corrupted to the conception of offspring by the force of a turbid heat, but it would be submissive to the power of the gentlest love; and thus there would be no pain, no blood-effusion of the concumbent virgin, as there would also be no groan of the parturient mother.[29]


Augustine does not object to the pleasure of sex, much less sex itself, for he assumes it existed even before the Fall.  It is the violent nature of the passion, which usurps reason and commandeers the soul like a possessing demon, that Augustine finds to be an obstacle to the “gentlest love” which should exist in the ideal.[30]  To varying degrees, concupiscence is antithetical to the tenderness of sexual union; in the ideal state, this tension would be absent.  Augustine’s thought on this point is akin to feminist fears that sex always contains an element of violence and coercion, except that he locates the problem in the desire rather than the act.  The saint draws a positive link between the lustfulness of the act and the virgin’s pain; the uncontrollable element injects a violent imperative into an act of supreme tenderness.

Nussbaum’s assessment that sexual desire is always shameful for a Christian is a caricature of reality; the genuine Augustinian opinion is codified by Gratian:

If for offspring, then coition is no sin, venial or mortal. Indeed, if done for love [caritas], it merits eternal life. The same is true when copulation is to pay the debt. Again, when it is for incontinence, coition is venial and the man sins venially. But when it is from lust or for the sake of pleasure, then the coition is a mortal sin and the man sins mortally. But whether the coition itself is a sin or not, it is never done without sin because it is always done and associated with some itching and pleasure. For in the emission of sperm there is always some fervor or pleasure which cannot be without blame.[31]


If the distinctions among loves are ignored, it becomes impossible to grasp the essence of conventional European Christian sexuality.  Coition for the sake of caritas, or agape, can actually merit eternal life, but if it is only for the sake of eros, man sins mortally.  A starker disparity is scarcely imaginable.  The last two statements by Gratian, as well as many by St. Augustine and St. Paul, appear to suggest that all concupiscence is sinful.  This was Luther’s interpretation, which was condemned as heretical by the Council of Trent:

But this holy synod confesses and is sensible, that in the baptized there remains concupiscence, or an incentive (to sin); which, whereas it is left for our exercise, cannot injure those who consent not, but resist manfully by the grace of Jesus Christ; yea, he who shall have striven lawfully shall be crowned. This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.[32]  


This interpretation is consistent with the theological tradition that culpable sin must be voluntary.  The “Christian” belief that sexual desire is always sinful is actually a Lutheran belief (shared by several other Protestant denominations, and earlier heretical sects such as the Cathars); the broader Christian tradition is more psychologically nuanced.  Also of Lutheran origin is a strong identification between concupiscence and original sin, rather than seeing irrational sexual desire as merely one natural consequence of the loss of original grace.   The Pauline antagonism between the flesh and the spirit can be understood in a simple Platonic sense: since the two principles have different objects – pleasure and truth – they can be in natural conflict with one another.  No specifically Christian principle needs to be introduced.  Since Reformation thought posits an unnatural antagonism, with the desires of the flesh being sinful in essence, the repression of said desires has a different meaning in Protestant cultures than it would in Catholic culture.

            Augustinian thought also assumes a functional element in sexuality: that it ought to be ordered to procreation.  From a strictly biological perspective, it is evident that the principal telos of sexuality is procreation, and the desire is only a means to facilitate this end.  Such a conclusion would not be resisted if procreative sexuality, like all other human affairs, were not bound up in social and political issues.  Believers in original sin can recognize that sex acts are generally not performed with this end in mind, but this can be seen as a perversion from the ideal, much like the glutton whom Aristotle describes as enjoying the sensation of food sliding down his throat, so that he “prayed for his throat to become longer than a crane’s”.[33]  We would not use this glutton as proof that the primary end of food is not nourishment, so counterexamples to procreative sexuality are also of limited value.

            A critical methodological failing of the poststructuralist approach is the exploitation of diversity in custom as a basis for attack on an intellectual or social norm, effectively using evidence to obtain negative knowledge rather than positive knowledge.  A poststructuralist will look at the diversity of customs regarding marriage and see it as proof that nothing is innate, and therefore all is arbitrary.  As I have tried to show, the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  A qualitative and quantitative examination of marriage customs across the world will give us a much less relativist notion of the nature of marriage.  While it is true that monogamy exists only in a minority of cultures, the overwhelming majority of cultures throughout the world are either monogamous or polygynous.  Surely this has anthropological significance.  Further, we find that in most polygynous cultures, polygyny is either practiced only by a small minority, or by an ordered system in which men take a widow or older woman as a second wife, thereby circumventing the problem of equal populations of the sexes.  Polygynous marital arrangements are usually monogamous in the sense that a husband spends the night with only one wife at a time, and wives tend to be jealous of their prerogatives.  Polyandry is very rare, but when this does occur (mainly in India), the husbands are usually brothers sharing a wife in order to keep their estate united.  Other forms of polyandry also tend to be property-conscious.  Group marriages are rarest of all, and are often derivative of polyandrous arrangements.[34]  Viewing this data, we see that human marital customs are not without a general structure, but sexual relations tend to be monogamous even when marital arrangements are not, and the rare deviations from monoandry tend to be motivated by non-sexual concerns.  This picture is as far from structureless as it is from a monogamous ideal.

            Let us focus on a culture that is superficially very different from Western norms.  The Muria people of eastern India have their unmarried youth live in a common dormitory, or ghotul, from about the age of six.

Two types of ghotul are found among the Muria. In one, which is held to be the older type, a boy who joins the group is given a ghotul wife. A kind of mock marriage ceremony is performed in imitation of an adult wedding.  From that time on the boy and girl are expected to sleep together…. The latter is not the person whom one marries after leaving the ghotul.

                The second type of ghotul is the one which resembles group marriage.  In this kind of ghotul no mock weddings are celebrated, and no spouses are assigned. Instead, every effort is made to break up close attachments between a boy and girl.  The dormitory officials choose which boy and girl spend the night together, making sure that they do not sleep together for more than three nights in a row.  The reason for this is that the Muria believe that pregnancy occurs only when a couple cohabits over a long period of time.  They consider it unlikely that a girl could become pregnant after sleeping with a boy for only three nights.[35]


If a girl does become pregnant, she leaves the ghotul to be married, so that even this unusual society recognizes that the end of marriage, if not of sexuality, is the upbringing of children.  Despite the libertine appearance of this socially sanctioned promiscuity, it is actually as strictly regulated as any Western society.  Even the most grotesque sexual practices of the Canaanites were steeped in rituals and laws; tight regulation of eros is universally observable, the only thing we fail to find is the supposedly natural libertinism that most poststructuralists espouse.  This is as elusive as man without society, and it cannot be attained by becoming primitive, but only by becoming truly feral.

            When focusing on European history, poststructuralists can blame sexual repression on Christianity, the Romans, or the Greeks, but if we broaden our view, they would have to consistently blame every culture in existence, and indeed culture itself.  Poststructuralism is a philosophy singularly unsuited for history, as it harbors deep contempt for the object of history, which is human culture.  Freud, though he believed that desire was more basic than repression, nonetheless accepted that some repression must exist as a necessary tradeoff for the benefits of civilization. Even the most libertine sexual athlete must deny himself sexual gratification more than ninety percent of the time; the ubiquity of the appetite makes indulgence impracticable.  Appealing to the pleasure of sex as evidence of its unqualified goodness makes little sense, for as Augustine says, “Si enim nihil delectaret inlicitem, nemo peccaret.”[36]  An acknowledgment of the richness and variability in human love, in terms of experience, intent, and social context, is indispensable to understanding the scientia sexualis that Western civilization has developed.  This scientia is not a “hard” science like physics or chemistry, so its conclusions will hold usually, not always, even when its observations are sound.  I do not pretend to have systematically refuted the poststructuralist works discussed here, but only use them as illustrations of what goes wrong when typological thinking is categorically rejected on the mistaken assumption that humans and their desires are existentially more fundamental than the societies that mold them.

[1] Parmenides’ paradox arose from a failure to recognize that there is more than one sense of “being”.  This error is curiously similar to that which I wish to address.

[2] I will not concern myself with more metaphysical distinctions, such as whether the object is loved for its own sake, or for the pleasure it gives the lover.

[3] John 21:15 [1899 Douay-Rheims]

[4] Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (Toronto, 1949).  Gilson contrasts the philosophy of the last 500 years, in which knowing precedes being, with that of premodernity, where being precedes knowing.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (New York, 1985), I, 4.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q.94, 4.  Trans. Paul E. Sigmund, St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics (New York, 1988), p.51.

[7] Aristotle, op. cit., II, 1.

[8] Herodotus, Histories, II, 2.  For the curious, the word was bekos, the Phrygian word for “bread”.

[9] Douglas K. Candland, Feral Children and Clever Animals (New York, 1993).

[10] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980), pp.48, 134.

[11] Ibid., p.44.

[12] Ibid., p.222.

[13] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, p.40; Aristotle, op. cit., II, 10.

[14] Peter Gay, Education of the Senses (New York, 1984), p.418.

[15] Ibid., p.421.

[16] Ibid., pp.208-9.  The same holds for his treatment of birth control, masturbation, and pornography.  The repression is an enigma to be solved, while the obverse merits no similar analysis.

[17] Ibid., p.225.

[18] Tracey J. Shors, “Stress and Sex Effects on Associative Learning: For Better or for Worse”. The Neuroscientist (1998), 4(5):353.

[19] Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests (New York, 1992), pp.71, 354.

[20] Aristotle, Historia Animalium, IX, 1. Trans. Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York, 1941), p. 637.

[21] Garber, op. cit., p.338.

[22] Candland, op. cit., p.69.

[23] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1978), p.97.

[24] Maines, Rachel. The Technology of Orgasm (Baltimore, 2001), pp.64-5.

[25] Loc. cit.

[26] It is dated in the West, but grotesque sexual violence continues to be nihilistically portrayed in mainstream Asian pornography, as well as in Asian films that are not principally pornographic.

[27] Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum (New York, 1987), pp. 199, 201.

[28] Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (New York, 1999), p.267.

[29] St. Augustine, Treatise on the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin, II, xxxv. Ed. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. V (Buffalo and New York, 1886-1900).

[30] As discussed in Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, p.49, Plato similarly identified the irrational, compulsive nature of sexual desire as meriting special restraint, so this is not a peculiarly Christian analysis.

[31] Gratian, Decretum, C.32.2.2.  Trans. Paul Hyams.

[32] Council of Trent, V, 5. Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London, 1848)

[33] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, op. cit., III, 10.

[34] Victor Barnouw, Ethnology (Homewood, Illinois, 1971) pp.127-36.

[35] Ibid., p.137.

[36] Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, XXII, 28. "If there were no pleasure in what is illicit, no one would sin."

© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org