Civilization and its Contents: Platonic Reflections on Sex and the Culture Wars

A précis of the book I’m hoping to finish in the next nine months or so. I’m going to start linking from this page to posts of of draft chapters soon. Comments always welcome!

Civilization and its Contents: Platonic Reflections on Sex and the Culture Wars critiques the conception of human sexuality that underlie both left and right in the contemporary culture wars. It presents a radically new  account of sexuality and its place in human life, one that encourages various good ways of pursuing sex that bring pleasure and a connection to other people and in a way that recognizes and supports the fundamental equality of  men and women.

The three philosophical essays of part one of Civilization and Its Contents set out the traditional view of sexuality in some detail and contrasts it with a very different view, inspired by Plato and Aristotle.  I show that extremes of left and right share a picture of sexuality as a powerful, anarchic, uncontrollable force that come from the lower, animal-like part of our selves. The right holds that civilization is only possible if sexuality, especially female sexuality, is limited and controlled. The far left holds that sexuality must be utterly unconstrained if human beings are to be fulfilled. Following some suggestions of Plato, as well as contemporary evidence about the varieties of sexual expression, I show that while human sexual desire is expressed in our bodies it is given shape and power by our souls. It is neither anarchic nor uncontrollable. It is far stronger in human beings than in other creatures not because of the intrinsic power of lower animal-like desires but because the desire for sex is not just bodily but rather is intrinsically relational, shaped by our self-understandings, and powered by deeper human desires including what Freud called our erotic and aggressive desires, which for Plato are two sides of a single human aspiration.  Sexuality, on this view, is not a chaotic force that needs either restraint or unfettered freedom, but rather is a way in which we can both secure physical pleasure and express and create a  variety of connections with other people. Sexuality only becomes a source of division between human beings when it becomes allied to extreme forms of the drive for mastery and control, as it has been for much of Western history since the ancient Greeks. It becomes a source of profound connection between human beings when allied to the erotic desire to unite with others.

The three essays of part two of the book trace the development of ideas of sexuality from ancient Athens and Jerusalem to today in a way that reveals how sexuality has been too often allied with  what I call dominator sexuality. These essays show how Christian asceticism evolved from the confrontation of Greek Philosophy and Jewish thought with the dominator sexuality of the Greeks and Romans and how in the transition to modernity asceticism was transformed from a way to escape the burdens of everyday life to a way to succeed in everyday life. The modern transformation of asceticism also reversed the ancient notion that women are far more sexual than men and instead led to the idea that the incentives created by the chastity of women is the critical means by the dangerous and powerful sexual desires of men can be kept in check. (The same transformation in thought leads to the first real condemnation of masturbation as a terrible sin rather than a somewhat humorous and harmless practice.) Contemporary right wing views of sexuality as well as the tendency of modern political communities to oscillate between periods of sexual freedom and sexual restraint are the result of this the modern transformation of asceticism.

The essays of part three of the Civilization and Its Discontents address a number of  contemporary issues in sexuality. “Having Sex and Making Love” looks at how sexuality is expressed in different kinds of relationships and why those various relationships are valuable in different ways. “Why I Don’t Chase Women” critiques the account of sexuality presented by contemporary evolutionary psychologists, explores the good of sexuality in marriage, and looks at some possible futures for marriage. “The Culture of Viagra” looks at what the popularity of this drug—and its frequent failure to solve sexual problems—tells us about how we think (wrongly) about sexuality today. “Why We Don’t It” looks at contemporary concerns about low libido in both men and women and suggests this problem primarily arises because we misunderstand sexual desire. “Rape and Dominator Sexuality” shows how rape—and the culture that encourages it—is connected to the understanding of sexuality that has for too long dominated Western culture. Despite its ironic title, “The Myth of Male Orgasm” explores the nature of orgasm in order to argue that differences between the sexuality of men and women are far overstated and concludes that while men and women may both suffer from less than optimal orgasms given contemporary sexual practices, there is no specifically female orgasm problem.

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One Comment

  1. Marc,
    Intriguing read. I’ll be interested in reading your final production when it’s published. (You might consider ‘self’ publishing, although a book deal is a good way to pay for your effort).

    I wish you success.

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