We flatter ourselves that we are sophisticated about sex, but that sophistication is, at most, a technical one.
One hears parents boasting, ironically, that their teenagers know more about “the birds and the bees” than they ever did when they were young. They boast of this in the same way that they boast about the younger generation’s precocious facility with computers (another dubious accomplishment, when the same children are unable to read, write, or do math as well as their parents at their age, nor have they the minimal cultural literacy attained from having acquired an education in that antediluvian epoch, when schools still taught the rudiments of history, philosophy, and literature).
What these proud parents really mean is that their children now have more experience with sex, not that they have any deeper understanding of what has, until recently, always been regarded as a mystery. As Dr. Samuel Johnson said, “Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiarity with knowledge.”
In spite of the word’s etymology, one doesn’t require experience with something to be an expert. The best expert on drowning is the man who can swim; the man with too much experience of it will have nothing to say on the subject.
Today, our casual and routine familiarity with sex has bred a kind of childlike innocence about it. In pagan antiquity, Eros was feared and respected as a capricious and omnipotent daimon (as Socrates describes him in the “Symposium”). It wasn’t until the Renaissance that he metamorphosed into the cuddly putto with whom we are still familiar from Valentine’s cards. But even in the Renaissance, everyone knew that Cupid’s innocence was a sentimental snare. With all our supposed modern skepticism and sophistication, we tend to take Eros and the erotic at face value.
Historically, the Sexual Revolution ushered in an era of unprecedented ignorance about the deeper moral and philosophical meaning of human sexuality. Social revolutions are almost always intellectually beggaring in this way, insofar as they require that revolutionary societies unlearn the accumulated moral and social wisdom of the immemorial civilization that preceded them, while rarely knowing how to replace that wisdom with anything wiser.
Revolutions are secular initiation rites, dromena of death and rebirth. The religious mysteries of rebirth (of which social revolutions are pale ideological imitations) were salvific inasmuch as there remained a number of adults around (the elders of the tribe) to shepherd the neophytes prudently into mature membership in the community.
The revolutionary dromenon, on the other hand, too frequently begins by lining all adults over a certain age up against the wall, and ends when everyone in the revolutionary community has been turned, culturally and socially, into a prattling child again.
As in post-Maoist China or post-Soviet Russia, revolutionary societies have often to wait another civilizational epoch before they rediscover those sane and workable social arrangements (marriage, the family, democracy, the rule of law, the rights of the individual, the unhindered exchange of goods) that the revolutionary newborn have thrown out with the proverbial bathwater.
The essential fact about revolutions is that they revolve; they roll back the wheel of human progress to the point that they are sometimes forced to reinvent the wheel.
Liberation From What?
The Sexual Revolution’s intoxicating poetry of “freedom” and “liberation,” while the wonted historical language of revolution, ought to strike us in retrospect as at least paradoxical, if not positively Orwellian.
One remembers that the serial imposition around the world of Marxist tyrannies by the Soviet military was also described as movements of national “liberation.” One recalls, too, that contemporary with the Sexual Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States appropriated the language and imagery of the Exodus, when Moses shepherded the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
But whatever it was, it’s hard to describe the condition in which mankind languished for all those millennia before we were delivered by our sexual emancipators as slavery, not to mention the place to which they have taken us as the Promised Land. Forty-plus years in the wilderness is probably an optimistic description of life in the United States since Woodstock and Roe v. Wade.
Liberated from what, exactly? I doubt that Americans or Europeans on the eve of the Summer of Love felt themselves sexually enslaved. Those who promised emancipation were hardly responding to the seething discontent of ordinary folk who woke up in 1967 and could no longer tolerate laboring for one more day in the pharaonic brickyards of conventional courtship and marriage.
Whatever grinding servitude from which it affected to deliver mankind, the Sexual Revolution had nothing in common with the popular peasant and proletarian revolts of the early 20th and previous centuries. Even accounting for the rhetorical hyperbole of revolutionary propaganda, its prophets could never have brought themselves to say, except as a winking pun, “Chaste and abstinent of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
All populist political revolutions are to some extent aristocratically conceived and driven, but the Sexual Revolution was surely the most top-heavy among them. Its exponents were a tiny intellectual and economic elite of moral bolshevists who had tasted the forbidden fruit of sexual “freedom” and were avid to democratize the pleasure.
“Free love” (as old as Caligula’s Rome, in fact) had always worked for them, inasmuch as they could afford to arrange for discreet abortions, or set up their mistresses in convenient pieds à terre, while packing off any illegitimate offspring to boarding schools.
Free love still works in this way for the rich and famous: bored heiresses, Hollywood stars and starlets, overpaid rock musicians and athletes, and French and Italian politicians. It hasn’t worked out quite so well for the urban black underclass.
The Herd of Independent Minds
After the dismal track record of revolution in the first half of the 20th century—with its gulags, re-education camps, purges, and mass murders—one might have thought that when the sexual liberators came along at the end of the 1960s to offer us another one, we would have said, no thanks. But insurrection was then in the air, and there’s nothing that an independent-minded free-thinker can resist less than the coquettish lowing of the herd of independent minds.
In retrospect, what strikes one most about the heroic nonconformity of the ’60s revolutionaries was their pusillanimous conformism. It should have struck us right away: Non-conformists generally don’t wear uniforms. Genuine dissidents risk ostracism, opprobrium, and jail; but no one advocating the joys of free love was incommoded in the least on account of his brave new ideas. Neither “Playboy” nor “Hustler” had their offices raided or their presses shut down. The smashers of sexual taboos were never forced to circulate their manifestos in samizdat copies cranked out on old mimeograph machines in dank basements or dingy garrets.
The heroism of the sexual rebels was, in short, a completely dangerless heroism. A Christian is at greater peril today of being hauled before the authorities for calling sodomy a sin than anyone in the ’60s would have been for openly practicing it.
No one denies that something radically new was fecundated in the mud of Woodstock. But whatever it was, it wasn’t from the marriage of true minds. Taking their cues from the Orwellian discourse of revolution (war is peace; dictatorship is democracy; slavery is liberation), 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 in itself a human desideratum, and from it have followed all of the arguments of our age in defense of unrestricted abortion, universal contraception, and homosexuality. If the joy of sex is innocent, then it is every man’s “birthright,” as journalist Joseph Sobran pointed out; and if it is “natural” (as the anthropologists of the period informed us with academic solemnity), it is man’s moral obligation to discover his sexual nature in his quest to discover who he really is.
No person, endowed with this right and seeking to fulfill his destiny, ought to be made to suffer hardship or impediment, not even if it’s the direct result of his own actions. Pregnancy or parenthood, when unintended, are extreme penalties for what’s a perfectly “normal and healthy” human activity. And if the pleasure of sex is a natural right, then freedom to experience it, scarcely different from freedom of speech or association, must be vigilantly protected and guaranteed.
It follows that birth control and abortion aren’t merely expedients to facilitate lifestyle choices, but rights essential to man’s exercise of a fundamental human liberty. Naturally, there’s nothing sacred about childbirth, 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 assiduously argued), mustn’t have their personal development delayed by pregnancy or motherhood, and are equally entitled to their orgasms. If man is called to explore his sexuality, what can be wrong with homosexuality? Adultery? Pedophilia? Polygamy? Nothing whatsoever. As Sobran has said: “Sample every exotic delicacy on the sensual smorgasbord. Sex is free.”
A Cultural Renaissance?
Leaving aside its disastrous social and economic consequences, there’s little evidence that in pursuit of his sexual destiny mankind 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 ’60s was the sex manual and its ongoing spawn of magazine articles on how to “spice up” your sex life (so bland and commonplace had it apparently become that it could 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 Goliard poets, the trouveres, the medieval courtly romances, or the sonnet sequences of the 16th century, 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 semi-arousal, ready at a moment’s notice for intercourse as the ancient Spartans were ready for war, a pitiable 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 chronic sexual readiness is usually barren.
If the rapture of sex is a human telos, then, of course, restraint and self-mastery are no longer virtues; on the contrary, restraint is “repression.” How risible such an idea would have been considered by our ancestors, for whom, until 50 years ago, self-mastery was the defining virtue of man.
From the very dawn of Western philosophy in ancient Greece, no school of thought, religious sect, or civilized nation has disagreed on this. It’s one of the longest-running topoi in literary and philosophical history 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 biological instincts and animal appetites. The latter is the opposite of liberty; it’s slavery (another ancient topos). 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 carnal desire; 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 and moral exempla warning of the folly and peril of subordinating reason to sensuality, adulterous passion above all.
Greek mythology veritably begins with Paris’s world-destroying lust for Helen, which re-asserts itself in Achilles’s irresponsible lust for Briseis and Patroclus, and Odysseus’s 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 mutilating lust of Tereus for Philomela, 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 demeaning 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 ’60s slogan “Make love, not war”), and mockingly enumerates the rules of romantic passion in his hilariously satirical “Ars Amatorica.”
It was hardly the Church, then, that invented the enmity between the spirit and the flesh; that enmity has been experienced by every human person who has ever achieved consciousness. The revolutionaries of the ’60s, on the other hand, seem hardly to be aware that body and soul are different human principles, having different loyalties and ends.
It’s one thing when materialists deny the possibility of a metaphysical proposition such as the soul; it’s 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? And if so, on what grounds do they explain the opposite pull of their bodily appetite on the one hand and that impulse not to give in to it on the other?
The 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 unitary 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 lost paradise. The trajectory of a life driven automatically 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 thus a singularly 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 tradition well beyond anything a progressive thinker would normally dare to entertain.
The reductive modern definition of what is “natural” is part of the problem. 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 nature and birthright, all the more so, in fact, because inherited from that higher and universal Nature that suffuses and rationally governs the cosmos.
Two millennia later, Milton still remembers this opposition in “Paradise Lost,” when the fallen Adam, gazing upon the amorous dalliances enjoyed by the generation before the Flood, imagines that “here Nature seems fulfill’d in all her ends.” To which, Michael replies:
“Judge not what is best
By pleasure, though to Nature seeming meet,
Created as thou art, to nobler end
Holy and pure, conformity divine.”
Commenting earlier on the same scene, Michael invokes man’s higher Nature explicitly:
“Their Maker’s Image … then
Forsook them, when themselves they vilifi’d
To serve ungovern’d appetite, and took
His Image whom they served, a brutish vice …
Disfiguring not God’s likeness, but their own,
Or if his likeness, by themselves defac’d
While they pervert pure Nature’s healthful rules
To loathsome sickness …”
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 reductive and one-sided definition of man, many now find suspect and dispensable all of the 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 determines 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 equate man’s end with sexual pleasure see no use for moral fences; they seem completely oblivious, besides, of the fact that the greatest poets and sages throughout Western history could hardly imagine life—at least, not human 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.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.