Simon Blackburn’s Lust: A Review

In 2002 and 2003, the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press hosted seven lectures on the seven deadly sins.  The lecturers were from various fields and approached the topics from differing angles.  The lecture on lust was delivered by Simon Blackburn.  His lecture, along with the others, were all later published as a series of books on the sins.  I noted this when these first came out about a decade ago, but I remembered it specifically some weeks ago when I was preparing to preach on Jesus’ words concerning lust from the Sermon on the Mount.  I was happy to see that philosopher Simon Blackburn’s volume, Lust, was available on Kindle, and I found it to be an interesting if saddening read.

I knew, of course, that I would not be reading a Christian take on lust, but I was interested nonetheless to see how a philosopher like Blackburn would approach the subject.  Again, the book is very interesting and I actually drew a number of illustrations from it for the sermon.  Blackburn is at his best in trying to define lust and in giving illustrations, often literary, of what lust is.  He defines lust as “essentially the anticipation of the pleasures of sexual activity” and notes that “lust is not only desire, but desire that is felt, the storm that floods the body, that heats and boils and excites” (Kin.Loc.171,178).  His summary definition is helpful:

Putting it all together, we are talking about the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake, and from now on that is what we shall take lust to mean.

Blackburn makes some memorable observations (“Living with lust is like living shackled to a lunatic.” Kin.Loc.63) as well as some patently absurd ones (“Sexual climax…drives out prayer, which is part of the church’s complaint about it.” Kin.Loc.223).  He does rightly show that some Christians have taken a tragically low view of sex itself.  I would simply want to point out, however, that Scripture itself does not take this low view, and that the view that sex is inherently dirty or wicked is a blasphemous notion to orthodox Christians who see creation as good.  Sex is not dirty, but the abuse or misappropriation of it is.

Anyway, his survey of approaches to lust, religious and otherwise, is indeed interesting and helpful, but Blackburn’s great error is in his dismissal of the Christian sexual ethic and in his possible caricaturing of it as well.  Blackburn’s personal conclusion is rooted in Thomas Hobbes’ notion of lust as a movement towards human completion.  He likens lust, when it is reciprocated, as something of a symphony, a relationship between two people in which lust acts as an agent of longing for unity.

What is interesting about this is that, as I read it, this mitigates a bit against Blackburn’s own earlier definition of lust as a desire for sex in itself.  What Hobbes seems to be describing would be something like mutual desire leading to completion.  As a believer, that is seen as a good thing so long as the sexual act of completion is reserved for the bonds of matrimony.  But lust itself is, I would say, a pernicious longing for pleasure that is dependent upon the objectification of another as an object of pleasure.  Which is simply to say that what makes lust a sin is its consumerism and objectification devoid of God and residing in a vacuum of the self.  It seeks to own and to use.  It does not desire reciprocal motions.

Reading philosophers is always a bit of a challenge, for it’s never really clear what exactly they’re saying, but as I understand Blackburn I think what we have here is simply a green light for a kind of benevolent lust that does not seek to harm another.  As a Christian, this view of human sexuality is naive, for it does not honor the divine intent of the marriage bed and it does not take into account the effects of lust on the human heart.  Lust is never benevolent.  It is always selfish.

It really is a very dangerous sin.

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