Title: Lust: The Seven Deadly Sins
Author: Simon Blackburn
Publisher: Oxford University Press
• Handy book about most people's favorite sin
• Asks us to think more critically about the way in which lust is usually portrayed
• Exploration of the history of people's ideas about lust
• Argues that lust may not be as bad as most people assume it is
• Attempts to "rescue" lust from bad philosophies and ideologies
Lust is by far the most popular sin among readers of this site - nearly half of those who have taken the poll report that lust is their favorite of the seven deadly sins, with pride coming in at a distant second with less than 20%. Oxford University Press has been doing a survey of the seven deadly sins as well, and over the course of 2002 and 2003 they invited seven prominent scholars to talk about sin in lectures at the New York Public Library.
Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, was asked to talk about lust - not an easy task, given the scope of the subject in human culture, religion, and history. He does so in a way that calls upon us to reconsider our notions about lust. Instead of treating it as a nasty sin, perhaps we should be willing to embrace it a bit and treat it as something fundamental or necessary to our humanity.
What is lust? Even though our language makes it clear that it can have broader applications, lust is often associated with sexual desire. Blackburn describes lust as "the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake." While there exists lust for power or money, sexual lust occupies most people's time.
Rather than worrying about lust, perhaps we should spend more time worrying about control - or the lack thereof. As Blackburn writes, "The important thing is that generally anything that gives pleasure has a presumption in its favour. The question is how we control it." But is this a desire that should be controlled, that is only acceptable when it is under control? Perhaps not:
"[W]e can learn that lust best flourishes when it is unencumbered by bad philosophy and ideology, by falsities, by controls, by distortions, by corruptions and perversions and suspicions, which prevent its freedom of flow."
Here, then, we see Blackburn's theme of "rescue" - it's not that lust is bad or even that a lack of control is necessarily bad (for that is what characterizes lust). In fact, it is the corruption of lust through bad philosophy and ideology, warping people's understanding of themselves and their environment which we really need to be concerned with.
In considering how lust has been treated, Blackburn takes on historical survey of ideas about lust - from Plato and other ancient Greeks through Augustine and Christian theologians to Sartre and modern popular culture. Blackburn is as good of a reader of this source material as he is a writer - especially when it comes to juxtaposing disparate thinkers in order to reveal more about their ideas.
At every turn, Blackburn defuses various objections raised against lust, leading to his argument that while we may lose ourselves in lust, we may also find another. It is in this manner that lust can lead to the deepest sort of communion possible. It is no accident that scenes of religious ecstasy has long been described or portrayed in terms very similar to that of sexual ecstasy.
More could certainly be said about the nature of lust in Western culture and the role of lust in religion or art, but it's unlikely that any better introduction to the religious, cultural, and philosophical issues will come around for quite some time. This is a slim volume that covers a great deal of very interesting ground, making it highly recommended.