A Sad Perspective on Human Sexuality
by Tibor Machan
Date: Sun, 20 Aug 1995 08:28:12 -0500 (CDT)
From: Tibor R Machan firstname.lastname@example.org
To: Multiple recipients of list AYN-RAND AYN-RAND@IUBVM.UCS.INDIANA.EDU
Subject: From FULL CONTEXT
The attached, published recently in FULL CONTEXT, may be of some interest.
George F. Kennan was one of this nation's most interesting and controversial diplomats, the architect of the doctrine of Soviet containment, one he later argued against in favor of detente. As will happen with prominent people in their old age, Kennan has written something of an autobiography, perhaps more of a series of accounts and reflections about his life.
What is interesting about Kennan is that he is one of the few American diplomats who exhibits the flavor of the old American aristocracy. His style of life is reminiscent of what passes for the upper class English stereotype:
manners is nearly all! Good form, proper demeanor, civility and politeness are uppermost in the minds of those who adhere to this kind of life.
The sadness of it comes through most poignantly in how Kennan views human sexuality. His reflection on this score bears lengthy quotation:
There is no getting around it: we have to do here with a compulsion we share with the lowest and least attractive of the mammalian and reptile species. It invites most handsomely, and very often deserves, the ridicule, the furtive curiosity, and the commercial exploitation it receives. To highly sensitive people, it can become a never-ending source of embarrassment and humiliation, of pain to its immediate victims and to others, of misunderstandings, shame, and remorse all around. Not for nothing do the resulting tragedies dominate so much of realistic as well as of romantic literature. Not for nothing has this urge earned the prominent place it takes in the religious rites of confession and prayers for forgiveness.
There is, in short, no escaping it: the sexual urge, the crude expression of nature's demand for the proliferation of the species, enriching, confusing, and tragedizing the human predicament as it does at every turn, must be regarded as a signal imperfection in man's equipment to lead life in the civilized context. It cannot be expected to be otherwise at any time in the foreseeable future. (George F.
Kennan, Man, The Cracked Vessel [New York: W. W. Norton, 1993], pp. 19-20.)
If there is anything the modern era may have begun to achieve is the gradual abandonment of Kennan's view of human sexuality. This "Yes, but" attitude toward sex is perhaps the very source of our confusion and dismay about romance and sex.
For centuries human beings have, on the whole, accepted that they are caught between two parts of their nature, one that places them here on earth with the rest of the living world, the other which places them beyond nature, in some realm that stands above nature and shows nature's imperfections and short comings. Often it has been religion that has popularized this vision, although it has been the substance of many secular philosophies as well - for example, the philosophy that Plato attributes to Socrates, perhaps the greatest teacher of Western civilization.
But whatever the source, this view has wrought havoc in our lives. Instead of seeing ourselves, including our sexual nature, as a normal, rational, sensible feature of reality, this view inclines us to view ourselves as fundamentally divided. It leaves us agonizing about how to reconcile what, by its own substance, cannot be reconciled. In consequences, this view promotes cynicism, the abandonment of the effort to come to grips with our lives and solve our predicaments. If we are torn and if the division in our nature is indeed hopelessly irreconcilable, why bother to seek solutions? Why seek for the mean between extremes?
It was Aristotle, another great philosopher from ancient Greece, who began putting a solution on record, only his theories were lost to the West until the 12th century. When Aristotle's more naturalistic philosophy was recovered, with the help of St. Thomas Aquinas, it did serve to liberate science from the grips of fear and disdain.
But it was not completely victorious. Rather the naturalist view, whereby human beings are the crown of nature, not apart from it, became fused with the earlier Platonic outlook that left us with a divided world and a divided self.
What has this done for human sexuality? Put us into a frame of mind that left some seeking to give it up altogether, against their nature, while leading others to debase themselves and abandon themselves to thoughtless, pointless, mad sexuality. The middle way was thought to be impossible. A sensible, rational yet still celebratory view of human sexuality was left out of reach.
Human beings have been blinded, to some extent, by the sheer awesomeness of their kind of life: to be a thinking and self-aware is indeed nearly out of this world. It is almost forgivable that for centuries human beings didn't quite have any notion where to place themselves and entertained the thought that they perhaps belonged apart from nature, at least in large measure.
But to have given this view the standing of our official philosophy, such that even in 1993 a major figure in our society can unabashedly subscribe to it, is tragic. It perpetuates the misunderstanding, the agony - it gives little hope to our children who may by this time in humanity's history expect a bit better on this score than we have been giving to them up to now.
Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His latest book is PRIVATE RIGHTS AND PUBLIC ILLUSIONS (Transaction Books, 1995).
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