dietrich von hildebrand dignity

Sex is not its own End

6:00:00 AMMeredith Kuzma

I continue my comments stemming from Hildebrand's In Defense of Purity.

Rarely in life is it a good idea to treat something as its own end. Oreo cookies, for example, are delicious but making one's life all about Oreo cookies signals a disordered perspective both of the cookies and of life. Delicious food has a definite place in life, just not at the center. Many other examples of this can spring easily to mind: watching athletic sports, buying clothing, and making money are a few more examples of activities and behaviors that should not be their own ends. The pursuit of good physical health is a good worth pursuing. Being artistic in the way one dresses is also worth pursuing. Making money is a means to providing for one's family and helping others. Yet, none of these things should be the single focus of an individual.

Sex is a topic that seems more distinct from things like Oreo cookies. It may be more difficult to explain sex and understand the role that it plays in our lives, but that means we need to make sure that it is integrated. Hildebrand writes, “It is obviously beyond the power of language to describe sufficiently, or even 'deduce,' the evil inherent in the nature of sex when treated as its own end” (p 23). We've talked before about how human persons are body and soul, requiring us not to treat sex as an end. Further, we are not to use our bodies as tools for pleasure. Sex is not merely a physical process, like eating; rather there is a depth and intrinsic importance to sex. However one comparison can be made: when you eat, nutrients enter your body and in that way affect you. Sex also affects you, but the way in which it does is much more mysterious. The mystery of the person is contained in sexuality in a way that is not in eating.

One aspect of sex that seems to be often overlooked in modern society is the biological imperative. Reproduction is one of the natural ends of sex, for Hildebrand one of the three meanings of sex: the sacrament, fidelity, and children. Sex can't be treated as its own end because it has a personal meaning beyond the physical action; it communicates a person’s love. The impact on human persons when sex is treated as its own end can not be understated. When sexual pleasure is the sole end, human persons become means. This is always wrong.

Ignoring the biological reality of sex as procreation can be easy in the modern world. But what can we gain if we don't ignore it? We gain the truly unified, three part meaning of sex. The modern world may also focus exclusively on the physical pleasure of the sexual act. Again, this divorce from the full meaning of sex robs it of the ability to thrive that occurs when all three parts are joined.  As Hildebrand says, sex treated as its own end causes a corrosion of the soul. When ordered properly then, this corrosion can be avoided. Wedded love as the proper place of sex is an approach that allows the human person to fully flourish. Wedded love allows sex to be “formed” from within and capable of positive fruits. Sex has an inner meaning based on the person which can either be fulfilled or allowed to perish.


Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1962)

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