21 January 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 3: an argument for celibacy

Here is where I expect my series on a realist approach to the pelvic issues to veer into the controversial, because I anticipate that it will offend (for different reasons) certain Anglo-American ‘conservative’ sensibilities as well as feminist ones. But I don’t fit particularly well into the Anglo-American ‘conservative’ political-cultural schema anyway; nor am I a straightforward feminist, even though I’m sympathetic to some feminist principles and goals. At the same time, I’m going to attempt to examine some of my own a priori attitudes and prejudices, and place myself on a firmer footing. I do so with the explicit aim in mind of attaining the Orthodox ‘mind of the Church’, unclouded by the philosophical or theological pseudomorphosis which has crept in at various places. So if I do say something shocking in that attempt, please realise what it is I am attempting to do.

In my first essay on the subject, I pre-emptively rejected (to the chagrin of my irascible erstwhile gentle reader Mr P—) the Puritanical intellectual legacy as a resource for combatting what I consider to be the evils of prostitution and pornography. Mr P— argued that I was unfairly (and ahistorically) casting the Puritans as censorious prudes, and rejecting them purely for æsthetic reasons. I think it’s fair to point out that the language of ‘prudishness’ I used to describe the Puritan position was clichéd and based on Miller’s caricature. But even after our heated discussions, I think that adopting even an actual (as opposed to a caricatured) Puritan view of sex would ultimately be a detriment to the causes I would seek to serve by it.

Philosophical and ethical realists – from Thucydides to John Maynard Keynes – have all held that rationality is much more malleable than we are tempted to think it is; this holds equally true with regard to sex as it does with œconomics and foreign affairs. I have attempted to be, up to this point, very careful and deliberate in building up a case for the realist view; basing it on an anthropology that acknowledges the protean, animalistic and pre-rational element of the sexual human being (and simultaneously the ennobling potential of erōs), and that acknowledges the sexuate division within human nature. I hold that neither of these elements is ever fully under our rational control. Sex is a powerful and potentially dangerous force in human nature, and the first of the realist philosophers were quite awake to the knowledge that it can and does overwhelm our rationality. In fact, our rationality itself is under the influence of our embodiment and our animal erotic urges. At the same time, in Plato’s work there is the acknowledgement that the sex drive – even as a spark of ‘divine’ madness – has powered men and women to perform great feats of bravery, altruism and self-sacrifice for their beloved; to work tirelessly for the benefit of their children; to produce great works of art and music and poetry; to think deep and profound thoughts about nature.

I should note here that this textured, realist view of sex preserves a conceptual space for a positive view of celibacy, as an actively-chosen way of life. Erōs is for making babies, but it clearly isn’t just for making babies. Instead it also (when correctly-directed) inspires virtue beyond our ‘rational’ capacities. The erotic urge can be sublimated. Plato himself was not averse to the idea that profound erotic longings could be sublimated in healthy, positive and edifying ways, without being consummated (as Socrates’ was for Alcibiades in the Symposium).

Monasticism from its inception has been guided by such a textured understanding of love – including erotic love – directed toward the Divine. The Rule of Saint Benedict in the West (and particularly in pre-Norman England, which produced hordes of Benedictine saints) has historically prescribed four vows for its monks: those of obedience, stability, poverty and chastity. Similarly, the Rule of Saint Basil in the East has also prescribed four parallel vows: obedience, renunciation, poverty and self-abnegation. In each case, the monk abjures the love of money, the love of sensual gratification, and even the love of self-rule – and directs these desires instead into the love of God and the love of neighbour. It’s worthy of note, actually, that Saint Basil and Saint Benedict were both well aware of the strength and power of the erotic urge, and how it could resurface even in renunciation. They gained this awareness by observing various eremitical disciplines. Both great saints cautioned monks away from excessive mortification and self-abuse (what we would now call ‘masochism’), and instead urged them to focus their energies and desires into prayer and physical labour.

Please note carefully that this is a positive view of sex. Even if the monk forswears sensual gratification and sexual consummation, there is still a deep awareness that the monk is a sexuate being with the same animal drives, the same susceptibilities, to the same forms of madness and inspiration, that the layman has. The difference is that the monk is called to direct all his energies toward God, in a way that is mediated only by the Rule and the community to which he is bound; whereas in married life, consummate erotic love is directed to God in a mediate way, through a self-giving devotion to one’s husband or wife. Very much worthy of note, also, is this: even as the Church was beginning to embrace monasticism, it refused to condemn marriage or the act of consummation, even for those people who did not take vows of celibacy – and it condemned celibates who held sex in abhorrence. Monasticism and celibacy were not to be a Gnostic rejection of the body!

The much-later Protestant reformers (and especially the Calvinists), on the other hand, held such monastic rules in contempt, in part because they had a much flatter conception of erōs. All celibate devotion was rejected as ‘superstition and Popery’, and those who took monastic vows – men or women – were suspected to be feeble-minded, frustrated, impotent or hypocritical. Note what the Puritans have done here in criticising monasticism in this way. All of the reasons someone might choose a celibate life have been subject to rationalisation: celibates are simply to be dismissed, in Puritan thinking, as irrational, or otherwise moral derelicts or physically deformed. But one unintended consequence of this Protestant rejection of elective celibacy, is that in the process it actually limits and denatures consummate sex as well. In order to discredit those who renounce sex as irrational or hypocritical, sex has to be made a matter of rational utility. Instead of erōs being messy, dangerous, thrilling, maddening (and possibly inspiring and ennobling), sex is reduced to its ‘rational’ purposes of procreation and physical pleasure – and in Puritan literature especially, gets cast in terms of duty and debt. The rejection of celibacy on the part of the ‘reformers’ represents one significant turn – perhaps the most significant – in a long intellectual process that ultimately empties sex of its existential and normative content, turns it into a matter for utilitarian barter, and opens it up to post-structuralist tinkering.

Perhaps it sounds like a Chestertonian paradox – and so much the better for it. But the idea that the institutional space and high regard preserved for the celibate vocation, is one of the key factors which kept antique and mediæval culture healthily bawdy, is perhaps not so mad as it first sounds.


  1. But is it not a reality of married life that a lot of the time sex is not 'dangerous, thrilling, maddening'? Is there a not an element of sanctified domesticity in boring mundane conjugal love?

    Maybe I'm missing your point.

  2. Hi Matthew! Welcome back, and great question! I have got a piece coming up in this series that will touch on that, that will put forward a defence of marriage as an ascetic discipline parallel to (but not identical with and not to be confused with) the monastic life.

    But first I have some objections to this piece on FB that I want to respond to. Don't worry; I'll get to it!

  3. Sorry, I don't comment that often. A lot of the stuff you write on culture involves issues I haven't thought about, so I don't feel able to comment. I sort of sympathize with what Goering said about people talking about culture.

    When you write stuff I disagree with, I tend not to comment, because I would rather build common ground.