I am excited to begin reading and writing on Dietrich von Hildebrand's In Defense of Purity.
Sex. It's a word that means something different to almost everyone. Something pleasurable? Something dirty? Something erotic? Something to do with marriage? Often, modern society is described as being “saturated” with sex. Celebrities are rated in popular magazines according to sex appeal. Musicians use sexual imagery in their lyrics, and films push the envelope to include as “much as they can” within a given rating. There's an appearance of sex as almost omnipresent in the overall cultural scene.
Yet, the public forum is empty of any real discussion of sex, focusing instead on particulars surrounding sex, such as the definition of marriage, availability of contraception and abortion, and other legal matters. Laws dealing with marriage touch upon the issue of sex, guiding behavior in a general sense. The meaning of sex and its purpose in our lives is left to the individual, as a private matter. While this way of understanding sex does manage to understand one aspect properly, it fails to recognize the objective structure of reality. Man is not the measure of all things.
Hildebrand starts by distinguishing sex from other bodily appetites. The appetite angle is quite popular in current thought, the argument being that people should be free to pursue pleasures as they desire them. As we’ve discussed before, pleasure being transitory, it is ultimately secondary in our search for value. The appetites of hunger and sex cannot be directly paralleled, as the appetite of hunger is inherently shallow whereas the sexual appetite goes deep to the personal core.
Sex is of a different character than the other bodily appetites. Sex has an intimate, personal, and private quality. “Because sex is the secret of the individual, to disclose and surrender it is in a unique sense to surrender oneself” (p 6). The sex act, then, is a surrender of self. In sex a person is either surrendering this part of themselves to another person, or they are surrendering themselves to pleasure. A surrender of self to pleasure is ultimately an empty act. Pleasure satiates only with the result of increasing desire. Thus, surrendering the self to pleasure means surrendering the self to nothing.
Sex, while an essential part of who we are as bodily beings, cannot be reduced to the level of other bodily appetites. Hildebrand mentions Freud's unfortunate impact on modern society, saying “Freud's thesis regards the body and the physiological life as the 'form' of the soul, not the spiritual soul as the 'form' of life and the body. As sensationalism has always done, it constructs man from below” (p 8). For Freud it is as if the appetites of the body are meant to determine the powers of the soul, even limiting the depth and meaning of the human person. Whereas Hildebrand understands the spiritual element as the highest aspect of man. The spiritual soul informs the body, and the body must be understood in terms of it.
Sex as the surrender of self, as the “secret of the individual” (p 6), makes it much more important and capable of impact on the inner life of the human person than a casual approach. There is an urgent need for a discussion of this kind in the public forum; a discussion that recognizes the reality of sex in its full depth and meaning.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1962)
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