Recognizing Purity

6:00:00 AMMeredith Kuzma

Dietrich von Hildebrand considers impurity from many different perspectives in his work In Defense of Purity, investigating the ways in which the challenge of purity must be lived out. This concept of somehow broadening the definition of impurity is striking in a society that is overly casual about sexual activity and doesn't even acknowledge what impurity is to begin with. Though our culture is ignorant of the danger of impurity, it is clear that modern attitudes about sex are impure all the same. But looking at variations of impurity may help uncover other flaws in ways of thinking or behaving that would otherwise go unnoticed. In reflecting on our own experience of sexuality, we ought to strive to realize the good in our lives.
For one, Hildebrand discusses “men who will to be pure,” or at least on the surface seem to be. Concerning these men, he continues that “wherever they recognize its presence, carefully avoid any conscious surrender to sex taken in isolation for its own sake, but who nevertheless are not genuinely pure, for they seek and find a certain sexual satisfaction in their love of excitement, their craving to make an impression, their sensibility, their self-importance, their carriage, the entire rhythm of their lives” (p 25).  Some men while not overtly seeking anything illicit will derive an inappropriate excitement from seemingly innocent things. But purity demands honesty and a heart open to the truth of the situation. This concept of excitement regarding impurity harkens to an earlier discussion regarding the allure of illicit sex; to describe this phenomenon, Hildebrand uses the phrase “honeyed poison.”

I am intrigued by the fascination for excitement that these men in the paragraph above have. In a way, fascination underlies all temptation. Why would we ever do something that didn't appeal to us in some way? The ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, thought that human persons always desire the good. Drawing this out, the implication is that when we desire something that is evil we see some good in it. For example, desiring to eat more chocolate cake even though you are full would show that you recognize the good of food and the good of delicious chocolate cake. The problem there is that you have already eaten your fill and continuing to eat would be gluttonous.

When we seek illicit pleasure in obscure ways, it can be just as bad or worse than plainly engaging in it. Though the impure man may be seeking after the good in some confused way, he must examine his conscience so as to live his life completely in accord with the truth of the value of the human person.

Reflecting on this kind of purity gives us an opportunity to examine our own experience and see the impact these ideas may have on us. Can we find in ourselves an impurity of unkind thoughts about others? What are ways in which we can cultivate purity in our thoughts about others?

Hildebrand continues with his thought above, saying that these men “even perhaps despise the union of wedlock, because they consider it too fleshly and themselves too precious to surrender their person to another in this fashion” (p 25). This brings to mind the Gnostics, a collection of various ancient religious groups who thought that we should shun the material world. Here is an example of a dangerous kind of thinking that leads to the avoidance, removal, or in some cases destruction of what is good in the name of abolishing evil.
We must be conscious of our interior lives and strive for the good. We must be alert for any tendencies or behaviors that do not recognize the value in ourselves or other people. When we respect the human person and realize what purity really is, we will acknowledge that the union of wedded love is the true place for sexual activity and a beautiful expression of love through the surrender of self.

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