The metaphysics of romantic love

Traditional natural law theory is often accused of reducing sexual morality to mere anatomy, the proper fitting together of body parts.  The charge is unjust.  To be sure, because we are animals of a sort, the natural ends of our bodily organs cannot fail to be partially definitive of what is good for us.  But because we are rational animals, our bodily goods take on a higher significance, participating in our intellectual and volitional powers.  These goods, the rational and the bodily, cannot be sundered or compartmentalized, because man is a unity, not a ghost in a machine.  Even eating participates in our rationality -- food becomes cuisine, and a meal becomes in the normal case a social occasion.  Sex is no different, and the ends toward which it is aimed by nature are as rational, as distinctively human, as they are bodily and animal.

I’ve set out and defended the basic traditional natural law approach to sexual morality elsewhere, most fully at pp. 132-52 of The Last Superstition.  In the context of a recent post on another subject, I had occasion to set out and defend the “perverted faculty argument” that forms an important part -- though only a part -- of a complete traditional natural law account of sex.  As I have argued, whatever else sex is, it is essentially procreative.  If human beings did not procreate, then while they might form close emotional bonds with one another, maybe even exclusive ones, they would not have sex -- that is to say, they would not be man and woman, as opposed to something asexual or androgynous.  (The claim is not that procreation entails sex -- there is in the biological realm such a thing as asexual reproduction -- but rather that sex entails procreation in the sense that procreation is the reason sex exists in the first place, even if sex does not in every case result in procreation and even if procreation could have occurred in some other way.)  Given the Aristotelian metaphysics of essentialism and immanent teleology that underlies traditional natural law theory, this fact is normative.  And that some individual human beings have bodily traits or psychological dispositions that don’t reflect the procreative end of sex no more makes it any less normative than the existence of three-legged dogs (due to injury or genetic defect) falsifies the claim that dogs by nature are “supposed to” have four legs.

Unlike other sexually reproducing animals, though, we know this about ourselves, we know that qua male or female each of us is in some unusual way incomplete.   We conceptualize our incompleteness, and idealize what we think will remedy it.  And it is important to note that this is as true of human sexuality at its most “raw” and “animal” as it is of its more refined manifestations.  Dogs don’t worry about the size of breasts and genitalia; nor do they dress each other up in garters and stockings, or in leather and leashes for that matter.  The latter are adornments --some perfectly innocent, some not -- and reflect an aesthetic attitude toward the object of desire of which non-rational animals are incapable.  

Like the sexual organs, then, our sexual psychology is “directed at” or “points to” something beyond itself, and in particular toward what alone can complete us given our natures.  The human soul as a whole is directed to another soul -- and not merely toward certain organs -- as its complement, man to woman and woman to man.  (Again, that some people do not have a desire for the opposite sex, and in some cases lack sexual desire for anyone at all, is as irrelevant to the natural end of our psychological faculties as the existence of clubfeet is to telling us what nature intends feet for.)  This is why self-abuse and pornography are corrupting -- they take what by its nature can be fulfilled only by another soul and turn it inward, like an arrow pointed back at the archer.

It is this psychological “other-directedness” that makes human sexuality especially interesting and strange.  I had occasion in an earlier post to discuss C. S. Lewis’s useful distinction between Venus and Eros.  Venus is sexual desire, which can be (even if it shouldn’t be) felt for and satisfied by any number of people.  Eros is the longing associated with being in love with someone, and no one other than that one person can satisfy it.  Obviously, Venus can and very often does exist without Eros.  Eros typically includes Venus, but it not only focuses Venus specifically on the object of romantic longing, but carries that longing to the point where Venus, along with everything else, might even be sacrificed for the sake of the beloved if necessary.  Sexual release is the object of Venus; the beloved is the object of Eros.

Now, the natural law theorist argues that the procreative end of sex -- broadly construed to include the rearing of children (and many children at that, in the normal case), which is a long-term project -- points to the need for a stable bond between parents, and thus marriage.  (As always, the existence of occasional legitimate exceptions -- the sterile or aged couple, for example -- do not alter what the norm is, and thus what the point of marriage as an institution is.)  Venus alone hardly suffices for this stability; it prods us to seek a member of the opposite sex, but not to stay with the particular one we’ve found.  For that we need Eros.  

I am inclined to argue, then, that Venus and Eros are, considered in terms of their natural function, not distinct faculties, but opposite ends of a continuum.  Eros is the perfection of Venus; mere Venus is a deficient form of Eros.  Human experience seems to confirm this insofar as it is the rare Lothario who does not at some point desire something more substantial, and the rare Erotic lover who is willing entirely to forego Venus.  A pair of anecdotes illustrate (and I don’t claim that by themselves they prove, but merely that they illustrate) the thesis.  Consider first the following exchange, which Dustin Hoffman reports having had with his co-star (and notorious womanizer) Warren Beatty during the making of the movie Ishtar:

Despite his growing difficulties with [director Elaine] May, Beatty never complained about her—except once.  He and Hoffman were in the desert, along with 150-odd extras.  He took his co-star aside and started venting.  “Warren was going off about how painful it was to make this movie with Elaine,” Hoffman recalls.  “He said, ‘I was going to give this gift to Elaine, and it turned out to be the opposite.  I tried this and I tried that … ’  He was so passionate, but in the middle of it—it’s like he had eyes in the back of his head, because there was some girl walking by, maybe 50 yards away, in a djellaba.  He turned and froze, just watched her.  I mean, this was while he was producing and everything was going in the toilet.  But he couldn’t help it.”

Finally, Beatty turned back to Hoffman and asked, “Where was I?”

“Warren, let me ask you something,” Hoffman said.  “Here everything is going wrong on this movie that you planned out to be a perfect experience for Elaine, and here’s a girl that you can’t even see a quarter of her face because of the djellaba—what is that about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let me ask you something else.  Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not make love to?  If you had the chance?”

“That’s an interesting question: Is there any woman on the planet”—Beatty paused and looked up at the sky—“that I wouldn’t make love to?  Any woman at all?”

Hoffman continues: “He repeated the question, because he took it very seriously.  This problem with the production was now on the back burner, and it was like he was on Charlie Rose.

“Yes, any woman,” said Hoffman.

“That I wouldn’t … ?” said Beatty.  “No, there isn’t.”

“Theoretically, you would make love to any and every woman?”


“You’re serious.”




Hoffman: “He was thinking.  He was searching for the right words.  ‘Because … you never know.’  I thought that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard a man say, because he was talking about spirits uniting.  He was not talking about the cover of the book. 

End quote.   Beatty, it seems, saw in his womanizing, at least in part, a search for something that would finally put an end to it -- the right woman, a particular “spirit” concealed behind one among all the many “covers” he was keen to open in quest of it.  (Apparently, that woman was Annette Bening.)

Another anecdote, and from the opposite end of our continuum, related in philosopher Robert Solomon’s book About Love:

A nun who once took one of my courses admitted to me that she was in love with the priest whom she worked for, and he with her.  They maintained their chastity, and quite obviously emphasized the spiritual and personal aspects of their love.  “But why,” she asked with a kind of despair, “does it seem that the only adequate expression of our love has to be physical?” (pp. 137-8)

As this illustrates, even in those committed to celibacy, Erotic love, when it strikes one -- needless to say, someone who’s taken a vow of celibacy shouldn’t be looking for it -- seems incomplete without Venus.  Again, there seems to be a continuum here, rather than two separable drives.  And it is one that goes deep in human nature itself, since sex -- our being male or female -- is part of what we are by nature.  To use the language of Catholic moral theology, the procreative end of sex has in rational animals been inextricably fused by nature to a unitive end, and the average human being is not entirely fulfilled without realizing both.

Unless, that is, through grace he sacrifices it for an even higher end, a supernatural end (in the theological sense of “supernatural” -- that which adds to our nature -- that I’ve had reason to discuss in this recent post and in this one).  That is what the life of the priest or the religious involves.  Those who’ve taken vows of celibacy do so not because sex, love, and marriage are bad, but because although they are very good indeed, there is something even better to which they have been called, and which demands their exclusive devotion.  

This brings us to the question: If sex is part of our nature, what happens to it in the resurrection, when our bodies are restored to us?  The question is treated at some length in some of the latter sections of Book Four of Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles.  On the one hand, Aquinas argues that the integrity of the body requires that our organs be restored to us, including our digestive and sexual organs.  Hence we will be men and women forever, and in that sense sex will exist forever.  But what about sexual intercourse?  Aquinas argues that that will not occur, and the reason is essentially the same as the reason he says we will not eat in the afterlife: Then, unlike now, we will be forever preserved from corruption by God; hence there will be no need for that which has as its point the preservation of the body (food) or that which has as its point the preservation of the species (sexual intercourse).  

But if we will always be male and female, and to that extent by nature individually incomplete and oriented beyond ourselves -- that is to say, Erotic -- how can this be?  The answer, I would suggest, is to be found in the supernatural rather than the natural order -- though keeping in mind that the supernatural does not negate the natural, but rather raises it up.  Our Erotic drive is not to be extirpated, as if it were something low and merely animal, for it is not that at all.  It is rather to be sublimed, oriented toward an even higher, supernatural object, an antitype of which human lovers are types.  This is presumably part of the point of the biblical imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ, of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and of the virgins running to meet the Bridegroom.  As I noted in a post on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in this life Eros, which seeks to be happy ever after, all too often leads to idolatry and despair.  In the next it will be fulfilled beyond its wildest hopes -- in seeing God face to face, and also in seeing the divine reflection in each other more clearly than we could have before.  And, perhaps, seeing that reflection in a special way in those we have loved in this life.

But a Valentine’s Day post shouldn’t be entirely heavy and high-falutin’.  So, as you curl up on the couch with your sweetheart to snuggle and read Feser’s blog together, here are some choice tunes to provide you with a romantic soundtrack.  From the sublime to the ridiculous:

Duke Ellington, “Where or When”

Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour”

Boz Scaggs, “Miss Sun”

Greg Phillinganes, “Lazy Nina”

Jamiroquai, “Falling”

Bryan Ferry, “Slave to Love”

Artie Shaw Orchestra with Helen Forrest, “All the Things You Are”

Spandau Ballet, “True”

(I dedicate this post and the songs to my wife.  I love you, Rachel.)
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