Reflections on the revolution in pants
No one denies that something radically new was fecundated in the mud of Woodstock. But whatever it was, it was not from the marriage of true minds. Taking their cues from the Orwellian discourse of revolution (war is peace; dictatorship is democracy), the sexual rebels prettified lust as love. For all of their free-thinking and iconoclasm, they lacked the courage to forgo such a sentimental and bourgeois evasion. Under love’s sweet auspices, they rehabilitated into a virtue what had always been regarded by men of self-reflection as either a resistible human frailty or a feral vice.
It was the ethical first principle of the Sexual Revolution that sexual pleasure is a human desideratum; from it have followed all of the arguments of our age in defence of unrestricted abortion, universal contraception, and homosexuality. If the joy of sex is an innocent human good, then it is every man’s “birthright,” as the late Joe Sobran has pointed out; and if it is “natural,” (as the anthropologists of the period informed us with academic gravitas) it is man’s obligation to pursue it in his quest to discover who he really is. No individual, endowed with this right and seeking to fulfill his personal destiny, ought to be made to suffer hardship or impediment, not even if it is the direct result of his own actions. Pregnancy or parenthood, when unintended, are extreme penalties for what is a perfectly “normal and healthy” human activity. And if sexual bliss is a natural right, then the freedom to enjoy it, scarcely different from freedom of speech or association, must be vigilantly guaranteed. It follows that birth control and abortion are not merely expedients to facilitate life-style choices, but rights essential to the exercise of a fundamental human liberty. Naturally, there is nothing sacred about marriage, parenthood, or the family; on the contrary, these are often fatal obstacles in the way of self-realization. As a universal right, sexual rapture shatters the “stereotypes” of traditional gender roles; women, no less than men (as feminists have argued) mustn’t have their personal development impeded by pregnancy or motherhood, and are equally entitled to their orgasms. If man is called to explore his sexuality, what can be wrong with adultery? homosexuality? pedophilia? polygamy? bestiality? Nothing whatsoever. As Sobran put it, “sample every exotic delicacy on the sensual smorgasbord. Sex is free.”
Leaving aside its disastrous social and economic consequences, there is little evidence that in pursuit of his sexual destiny man has finally achieved eudaimonia, or that the release of our pent-up libido has inseminated any great cultural or intellectual flowering. The signal new literary genre of the Sixties was the sex manual, and its ongoing spawn of magazine articles on how to “spice up” your sex life (so bland and commonplace has it apparently become that it can only go down with added seasoning). One would have expected that the Sexual Revolution would inaugurate a renaissance in erotic poetry, but it has produced nothing to compare with the Song of Songs, Catullus, the trouveres, the medieval courtly romances, or the sonnet sequences of the Renaissance, nor does today’s pornography approach the artistry of anything penned or painted through the centuries of Christian rectitude and Victorian prudery – a persuasive enough argument for sexual restraint, if only on aesthetic grounds. In music, we had the Seventies disco beat to grind by, and more recently the brutally misogynist lyrics of rap and hip hop to incite us to violent lust, but nothing as wittily provocative as 1950s rock-and-roll. A good deal of what comes out of the mass-market fashion houses, advertising offices, and film and TV studios today can only be described as pornography-lite, whose effect is to keep the populace in a permanent state of arousal, ready at a moment’s notice for intercourse as the ancient Spartans were ready for war – a ridiculous condition akin to that of the herms that once marked the boundaries of ancient Roman fields or the Priapic statuary that adorned their gardens, with the exception that their raison d’etre was to encourage fertility, whereas our sexual readiness is usually barren.
If the rapture of sex is a human telos, then restraint and self-mastery are no longer virtues; on the contrary, restraint is “repression.” How risible such an idea would have seemed to our ancestors, for whom, until 50 years ago, self-mastery was the defining virtue of man.
From the very dawn of Western philosophy, no school of thought, religious sect, or civilized nation has disagreed on this principle. It is one of the longest-running themes in the Western tradition that what distinguishes man from the beasts, and defines his essential human nature, is his rational soul. The exercise of his human freedom and realization of his essential self depend upon right reason directing an active will in pursuit of the good, rather than passively succumbing to involuntary animal instincts and appetites. The latter is the opposite of liberty; it is slavery (another ancient commonplace). And the enslavement of the rational spirit to the animal passions effectively denatures man, degrading him ontologically to a rank on the chain of being lower than he was born to. The cult of sexual passion is, on this order, precisely the forfeiture of man’s birthright: not self-discovery, but self-abnegation.
Many of the critics of the Sexual Revolution have described its philosophy as “neo-paganism,” but this is an insult to paleo-paganism. None of the ancient pagans with whom I am familiar encouraged the indulgence of merely biological urges, not even Epicurus, who regarded inordinate bodily pleasure as contemptible, and almost certain to render its subject liable to even greater pain. Classical mythology is a repository of admonitory tales condemning the folly of subordinating reason to sensuality. That mythology veritably begins with Paris’ world-destroying lust for Helen, continuing with Achilles’ petulant lust for Briseis and Patroclus, and Odysseus’ idle lust for Calypso. Virgil answers Homer with Dido’s maniacal, suicidal lust for Aeneas, while Apollonius of Rhodes relates the tragedy of Medea’s demonic lust for Jason. Ovid retails the violent lust of Tereus for Procne, the degrading, feral lust of Apollo for Daphne, the homicidal lust of Venus for Adonis, the unnatural lust of Pasiphae for her beautiful bull, the family-wrecking lust of Phaedra for Hippolytus, the auto-erotic lust of Narcissus for himself, the deranged lust of Pygmalion for a statue, and the degrading lust of Jupiter for practically every man and woman else. Ovid also mercilessly ridicules the emasculating lust of Mars caught in the net of Vulcan with Venus (the decisive riposte to the Sixties slogan, Make Love, Not War), and mockingly codifies the rules of adulterous passion in his hilariously satirical Ars Amatorica.
It was hardly Paul or the Christian Fathers, then, who invented the enmity between the spirit and the flesh; that tension has been experienced by every human person who has ever achieved consciousness. The revolutionaries of the Sixties, on the other hand, seem hardly to be aware that body and soul are distinct human principles, having different loyalties and ends. It is one thing when materialists deny the possibility of a metaphysical proposition such as the soul; it is rather another when they deny even the plain empirical evidence for the existence of divergent human tendencies and aspirations. Have they never felt the temptation to eat too much, and resisted?
The besetting predicament of human consciousness is duality: the ordeal of being torn apart by the opposites. The pagan emblem for this condition is Hercules at the Crossroads; the Christian is the Universal Man on the Cross, sectioned by the vertical of the spirit and the horizontal of the flesh. In the pre-conscious infancy of the race (as in the infancy of every individual), man once lived in a paradise of certainty, directed by instincts inherited from his evolutionary past, and as yet unconscious of the opposites (subject and object, good and evil, spirit and flesh). The myth of the Fall records the felix culpa by which the curse of consciousness came into the world. In moods of weariness, we yearn for the recovery of that original paradise. The trajectory of a life driven by instinct is blissfully straight and clear; but it evades the duty that consciousness has imposed upon us, however much we dream of sailing down a turnpike on cruise control, never having to endure the Herculean agon of choosing.
For all its heroic pretensions, the morality of the Sexual Revolution was a submissive and regressive one, as if men were doomed by Fate never to move beyond their animal ancestry; or, rather, as if men were positively called to return to it. This takes respect for the past well beyond anything a progressive modern thinker would normally dare to entertain.
Long before Darwin, the ancient Platonists and Stoics understood well enough that man inherits from nature his carnal and biological appetites; but they recognized other spiritual factors that were no less a part of his essential being and birthright, all the more so, in fact, because inherited from that higher and universal Nature that suffuses and rationally governs the cosmos.
Rousseau, Darwin, and Freud have by now effectively defenestrated the higher Nature, and convinced us to seek our authentic selves in the lower. Accepting this one-dimensional definition of man, many now find dispensable all of the pinching moral norms and social institutions of a supposedly artificial and merely customary civilization (even though they were “selected” after millennia of adaption and perfection by a process precisely analogical to that of Darwinian evolution).
They are like the rambler whom Chesterton imagines happening upon a fence in an open field; not seeing the use for it, he resolves to tear it down. But it is only the man, as Chesterton admonishes, who, seeing the use of a thing, is in any position to recommend its removal. Those who identify man’s end with sexual pleasure not only see no use for moral fences, but seem blithely unaware of the fact that the greatest thinkers throughout Western history could hardly conceive of life – at least, not the examined life – without them.
Harley Price has taught courses in religion, philosophy, literature and history at the University of Toronto, U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, and Tyndale University College. He blogs at Priceton.org where a version of this article originally appeared.