Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic
Roger Scruton is a Wagnerian romantic and a Thatcherite conservative; a tentative, questioning philosopher who is enamored of dogmatic political conclusions; a subtle writer on cultural diversity who is also drawn to making sweeping biological claims about human nature. These are some of the contradictions that inhabit his uneven, exasperating, yet never trivial new book. Scruton’s career displays this complexity. A Reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, he has written valuable books and articles on aesthetics, the imagination, the significance of culture. At the same time, he has written conservative journalism of a rather narrow and polemical type and served enthusiastically as an adviser to the Thatcher government.
This book suffers from this double commitment. As a philosopher, Scruton wants to help us reflect on a highly complex topic on which it is unlikely that any good work of philosophy would reach simple conclusions. Yet he also wants to advocate a simple practical program which is critical of feminism and homosexuality, supportive of state religion and the institution of marriage. The program does not follow in any obvious way from the reflections to which his philosophical investigation leads him.
Scruton’s central purpose is to attack the idea that sexual desire is simply an animal appetite, a blind physical urge that has no intimate connection with our thoughts and conceptions. He argues, instead, that desire is a part of our characteristically human “intentionality”—that is, it is connected with the way we take a perspective on the world and react to things as we interpret them. Desire does not simply push toward its object; it conceives of the object, and its own internal movements are highly sensitive to changes in conception and belief. Intrinsic to sexual desire is a conception of its object as another “first-person perspective,” a living, interpreting self. The aim of desire, like that of conversation, involves the mutual awareness of an intention to communicate with another self, and a mutual responsiveness to that mutual awareness.1
From this starting point, Scruton goes on to argue that sexual desire is directed at an object that it sees as irreplaceably individual; and that its aim is some sort of spiritual union with the other person, insofar as the other expresses or manifests him or herself2 through bodily signs. This being so, the true or natural aim of sexual desire is only fully satisfied in deep erotic love. And since love is closely linked to esteem, and cannot coexist with the belief that its object is profoundly unworthy, the aim of love is itself, in turn, satisfied only in a stable relationship that is based on moral approval, in which the partners come to share their central goals and aims. In a concluding political section, Scruton argues that this stable love can itself be best achieved and maintained within the institution of marriage; and that this institution can best be protected in a conservative society with a state religion. (He advances criticisms of feminism and homosexuality to which I shall turn later.) Thus a straight path (apparently) leads from the true nature of sexual desire to Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain.
A book on this most personal of subjects cannot fail to be shaped by the author’s own sense of life. So we may begin by pointing out two features of Scruton’s attitude that surface throughout the book, shaping both its arguments and its failures to argue. One is his distaste for the flesh—for animals and for the animal in human life. If Scruton defends the importance of thought and a specifically human form of awareness in sexual experience, it is in part because he finds the sexuality of animals so disgusting. He repeatedly speaks of the body as if, without human thought to animate it, it is something inert and repellent. In a revealing section on original sin, he argues that our complex self-conscious sexuality is a hard-won spiritual victory over the “original slime” of a life that is “no more than flesh.” He earlier recalls an anecdote from Aubrey’s Brief Lives about the Countess of Pembroke, who, preparing to meet a lover, excited herself by watching two horses mating. And Scruton cannot understand this except as the result of a perverted desire to “degrade” herself by divesting herself (in imagination) of all that is human. He altogether lacks the sense that the body of a stallion is beautiful, an object of wonder. It is no surprise, then, that he views with distaste any human lover who delights in the animal energy and exuberance of the sexual act, who sees this as one of its marvelous features, rather than as a constraint to be overcome. Sex, for him, is a heroic labor against the body, rather than an expression of joy in it.
Connected with this is the complete absence, in this long book, of any sense of play. Scruton has many serious things to say about sex; what he never says is that it is fun. His favorite writers on the topic seem to be Sartre and Wagner, neither one famous for a light touch. And his own humorless prose gives no hint of many aspects of sexual delight. Consider this passage, about the moments following intercourse:
Suddenly everything seems flat, arbitrary and mundane; what was for a moment a glowing body, offered and accepted as an individual life, is now only a piece of human flesh, to be rewrapped and set aside for another occasion. At no point does a woman feel cheaper or more expendable than at this one, and hence, out of shame, she will wish to lie still with her lover, naked, talking out of her nakedness, until it becomes accepted again as her.
Doesn’t Scruton know that it is fun to talk in bed? Not out of shame, but out of simple delight in the relaxed and playful talk that is possible at that moment—and in the perceived similarity between the responsiveness of lovemaking and the responsiveness of good conversation? Delight, too, in the complete absence of shame and constraint, in the improvisatory freedom of the body. Scruton needs to listen less to Parsifal, and more to Billie Holiday—an antidote that Nietzsche would surely have suggested, had he known of her.
Scruton’s central thesis is actually at least four different theses, and he slides back and forth among them as he discusses the idea that desire’s object is another “individual.” I shall call them the Intentionality Thesis, the Particularity Thesis, the Romantic Thesis, and the Character Thesis. They differ in accordance with the different ways in which Scruton thinks of individuality.
The first and most pervasive thesis is that of intentionality, according to which sexual desire (like the desire to engage in conversation) is directed at the other person as a “first-person perspective”; it aims at a conversational relationship characterized by a mutual awareness of intentions. The very same responses and movements will cease to be objects of desire if they are known to come from a machine, or even from a less than fully human form of life. This is persuasively argued; and on this basis Scruton makes effective criticisms of reductionist pseudosciences of sex that have severed desire from its personal and subjective aspects. But this thesis does not imply, clearly, that desire is naturally highly selective, or aimed at lasting union. To “converse” well with a partner requires attention to him or her as a separate life, as long as that relationship is in progress. But this sort of attention seems to be compatible with a sequence of affairs, and perhaps even with several simultaneous involvements. Scruton sees this point when he admits that Don Juan is a perfectly good case of sexual desire in this sense.
From the Intentionality Thesis and its conception of the individual object, Scruton accordingly, and unclearly, slides over to the Particularity Thesis and a different conception of the individual. Sexual desire treats its object as irreducibly unique and particular, attending to and cherishing all of its perceptible properties (apparently as elements in the object’s “individuality”). Scruton defends this claim by an interesting comparison between sexual attention and the attention we give to works of art. But even this thesis and this analogy yield neither a very strong conception of the irreplaceability of the person desired or a very “inner” conception of individuality. For the analogy implies, first, that anyone who shares all the same “external” perceptible characteristics should be acceptable as a replacement for the object of desire. And it also clearly suggests that there is nothing inappropriate in turning rather rapidly from one object of desire to another, as different perceptible features are found pleasing. When I look at Turner’s Regulus in the Tate Gallery, I am not attending to it well unless I am examining all of its particular features with care. It could be said that a person who was unable to discriminate between Regulus and Turner’s The Angel Standing in the Sun—a picture somewhat similar in composition that is hung nearby—and whose attention does not include the features that distinguish the two paintings, had not fulfilled an aim that is intrinsic to the structure of aesthetic desire and aesthetic attention. But surely it is no perversion of aesthetic values to turn from Regulus to The Angel after five minutes or so; and the suggestion that the natural aim of the desire to look at Regulus is the formation of a lasting inner union with that work seems absurd, if not perverse. Don Juan can satisfy the Particularity Thesis too.
To move further toward love, Scruton shifts (at times, and inconstantly) to talking about the desired person as a unique and irreplaceable spiritual being, characterized by a distinctive inner life that merely manifests itself on the surface of the body. And here we get the Romantic Thesis: desire’s aim is to establish union with that ineffable spirit, through contact with its embodied traces. Scruton sometimes speaks as if this is just the same as the Intentionality Thesis, since that thesis too insists that the other person is seen as a distinct living being with its own inner life. But it is one thing to say that I desire a distinct life (I wouldn’t make love with something I knew to be a machine), quite another to say that I desire this very distinct life and no other, that desire is superficial and second-rate if it does not aim at a lasting and deep relationship that involves the entire spiritual being of both parties.
Like many a romantic, I find this claim deeply appealing. I have the same difficulty Scruton evidently does in separating sex from erotic love; and I am tempted to believe that sexual experiences that stop short of deep love are, even as sex, deficient. But Scruton’s argument (unlike his argument for the Intentionality Thesis) does not persuade me to think of these intuitions as more than pieces of my idiosyncratic history—not rare, perhaps, but surely not necessary, brought about, perhaps, by seeing too many operas at an impressionable age. I am sure we should hesitate to condemn people whose experience of desire is different from this; and Scruton gives us no reason at all to cast off that hesitation.
Here Scruton's views have been anticipated by Thomas Nagel, "Sexual Perversion," in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979).↩
The pronouns are mine and not Scruton's; he defends the use of the masculine as "stylistically correct."↩