Lust: The Seven Deadly Sins Hardcover – 5 Feb 2004
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'Simon Blackburn on lust and Joseph Epstein on envy have produced little classics: written, researched and argued exemplarily, they take their topics seriously but discuss them with elegance and humour as well as insight. Francine Prose on gluttony joins them at the top of the list with a kind and thoughtful meditation.' (A.C. Grayling, Financial Times Magazine)
About the Author
Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1990 was a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is the author of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and the best-selling Think and Being Good, among other books.
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Top customer reviews
Most philosophy books fall into two deadly and sinful categories. They tend to be either simplistic, so that anyone with a serious interest beyond degree level becomes frustrated and dissatisfied; or they're way too 'academic' and technical, forcing the reader to tear his (or her) hair out by the roots and retreat to the sports channels on television. Blackburn avoids both hellish places here, giving an intelligent overview of his allocated sin while keeping the reader pinned to the pages as though reading a novel.
His amusing and often almost poetic writing style not only grips, but leads you down alleyways of the history of ideas that both entertain and get you thinking. But that's his chief problem, because once you think a little about what you're reading, you realise the flaw in his method of argument. He's simply enjoying himself too much.
This shouldn't hurt, and really it doesn't; on the other hand it leaves you with the feeling that he's missed something along the way. Sin is, after all, quite deadly, and rather than condemning as prudes or psychologically scarred misfits those people who have historically told us that it's bad, it would have been helpful to have been taken along the darker streets of lust for a change.
Hell, it's fashionable these days to defend things like lust. John Portman's In Defense of Sin is a shining example of reader-friendly 'diet academia' which gets the blood flowing and the mind racing, but it's ultimately little more than an excuse to be naughty and dress it up as a "serious examination of why we believe x y or z". For anybody who has experienced lust and got their fingers (or anything else for that matter) burnt, Blackburn just doesn't go far enough.
Every one of the Deadly Sins has its friendly brother whom we mistake for the real thing. Envying somebody else's car while we drive down the street in our Skoda may technically be called envy, but it's a barmy thought process that would lead anybody to think that because it only scratches us and doesn't cut us, envy isn't necessarily that bad after all. The same goes for lust. While a 'Hobbesian unity' sounds fantastic, it doesn't account for the darker or more destructive sides of the thing.
We don't need to mention the agonies of rape or other forms of sexual abuse to see this. Imagine simply lusting after other women while your wife waits at home with the dinner, or think of the discomfort you might feel upon seeing a boyfriend looking hungrily at another girl's legs...
Lust can hurt love. Lust can cause us to turn away from more giving feelings. Lust can draw us away from, not always 'Hobbesianly towards', our partners. Why didn't Blackburn discuss this? Why did he do no more than nod once in its direction?
Why didn't Blackburn discuss the husband whose lust is tethered and never actually acted upon, but fairly indiscriminate nonetheless, and whose wife is consequently devalued even when never technically cheated upon? Why didn't he mention the wife who has no indiscriminate lust but forms a lustful attachment to one of her work colleagues, and while never acting upon her basic urges knows full well that her husband would be devastated to find out (and rightly so - this isn't some childish jealousy that he'd be feeling)? Why doesn't he mention the girlfriend who has neither indiscriminate lust nor lust for a colleague, but who suddenly finds herself chomping at the bit on just one occasion? I'm no prude, I feel and will hopefully continue to feel powerful lustful urges, but I recognise that they're not always fun and happy. Lust can damage people beyond recognition. Having lustful dreams about a friend is bad enough, but waking up and being disappointed to find my girlfriend lying next to me was injury to insult; finding my commitment (but happily not my fidelity) to another girlfriend tested and found wanting by an urge I may never lose reminds me, over and over again, that there's more to lust than fun, the fulfilment of love, or pointing a disapproving (although in Blackburn's case eridute) finger at Mediaeval philosophers and theologers.
It's a great book. I don't want to knock it. But it seems to think that lust is a great sin, rather than just a great big dirty one. I just can't help thinking that while Blackburn intelligently defends, explains and even to some extent promotes lust in his book, all those occasions that I've been torn apart by it and all those times where otherwise beautiful relationships have been damaged, sometimes irreperably, by it have been done just a little disrespect by the notion that, well, you'd have to be a puritan or a prude not to see its advantages.
I also don't believe that Blackburn has deliberately led the reader to challenge him and think about the other side of the coin; he spends so much time examining so many of the minutiae of lust that his feels like a book that sets out to inform rather than lay down a gauntlet. Yet I still, after all this, urge you to buy it.
Why? I don't know. Perhaps it's just because while I didn't always agree with him, I don't think that disagreeing with someone means that his book can't be enjoyed and recommended. It IS intelligent; it IS readable; it IS informative. It even prompted me to buy more of his work.
If we could choose when to lust, if we could choose whom we lusted after, if we could choose how much we lust and if we could choose who lusted for us, the world would be a better place, and perhaps more accurately reflected by Blackburn's otherwise excellent little book.
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In Blackburn's hands (pardon the bad pun) lust loses the automatically pessimistic sheen of sin that the Christian tradition has bestowed on it. As Blackburn says (p. 27), "we [should] no more criticize lust because it can get out of hand, than we [should][ criticize hunger because it can lead to gluttony or thirst because it can lead to drunkenness." Looked at in itself, lust--desire for sexual pleasure--is neutral. Context and disposition are the dividing lines in separating moral from immoral lust.
Lust that fully recognizes the partner as a fellow human being and desires his or her sexual fulfillment in the encounter is, says Blackburn, the optimal situation. There's a kind of feedback look that occurs when sexual partners mutually recognize one another: I desire your pleasure, and seeing it enhances my pleasure, which enhances yours... Blackburn refers to this as Hobbesian unity (from a passage from Hobbes in which he writes of the relationship between imagination and mutual pleasuring in sex). This doesn't mean that all lust which falls short of Hobbesian unity is tarnished. One of the healthier aspects of Blackburn's approach is his recognition of degrees. As he says (p. 133), "if Hobbesian unity cannot be achieved, it can at least be aimed at, and even if it cannot be aimed at, it can be imagined and dreamed."
Blackburn's book achieves what all good philosophical treatments do: it simply has the ring of familiar common sense.
I had more fun reading this book than I have reading any book on such a serious moral topic. Simon Blackburn lives in the real world and he writes as if he intends to help everyone else who lives there as well.
Absolutely must reading for the serious and not-so-serious minded as well. The press that printed this book is to be commended for having selected Simon Blackburn for this task (writing clearly about the meaning and importance of "lust".
This book focuses on lust from a Western perspective. The space limitations (about 130 pages) most likely precluded a detailed discussion of lust from other cultural traditions, which is too bad, because there is a lot to chew on when comparing different cultures' views on the subject. Still, there is a brief mention of eastern thoughts on lust, which only provides a teaser for what could be learned from a more detailed comparison, but that must be left to other books.
Starting off, the author says he is taking a "philosophical stroll in the park" of the subject. That is an accurate assessment. The fifteen chapters each take on a different aspect of the topic. There is a flow of information from one to the other, but it is a casual flow, not an Aristotelian logical analysis based on predicate logic or Venn diagrams. This is a good thing.
Each chapter provides a glimpse into the multifarious worlds that open up when the rusty door of lust is forced from its hinges. For example, how do we know exactly what we desire when we desire something or someone? Is it simply a person's sensual body or is it something less direct, such as revenge, the fulfillment of a past sexual shafting or emotional issue? It's not always clear; there is a discussion on the nature of excess, or "what is too much?" with the inevitable mention of President Clinton (the Monica Lewinsky scandal had a decidedely medieval tone to it). The book deals with technical issues such as this.
Lust from a historical perspective juices many of the book's chapters. Lust has a long history as a deadly sin, and many famous philosophers and Saints have had much to say about it (the author relaxes some of the blame too often put on Saint Augustine alone). The Greeks accepted lust as something endowed in human nature, but something to keep in check. "Nothing in excess" more or less sums up the Greek moral view of lust. Then something happened when Christianity became the dominant Western morality. The "cult of the virgin" took hold, and lust was not something merely to control, but to obliterate altogether; it was tantamount to Satanic influence. The book's at a glance view of this transition is fascinating, but sadly all too brief.
There is optimism here as well. What the author calls a "Hobbesian Unity" (after, of course, Thomas Hobbes) may be one of the aims of lust. Could this salicious thing be pointing us towards unity and romantic love of another human being? Obviously not always, but it's a possibility. What successful relationships don't have even a trace of lust in them? It seems hard to imagine a successful union between people "in love" in which sexual desire plays absolutely no role. There are of course dangers, and the book touches on these as well: objectivity, obsession, dominance, etc. There is a brief glimpse at evolutionary psychology's point of view. In the end, the author has an optimistic tone about lust, but is as unavoidably clueless as the rest of us are on the subject. Not that he claims any special knowledge, but the book will manifest no solutions to lust's power, though it will provide new perspectives and avenues down which further research can be taken. Overall a good read that will leave one deep in thought about one's own issues with the very complicated issue of lust. After all, if you're human, you've likely succumbed to some degree.
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