Friday, June 15, 2012

The Insubordination of the Flesh

"Pleasure is preceded by a certain appetite which is felt in the flesh like a craving, as hunger and thirst and that generative appetite which is most commonly identified with the name lust, though this is the generic word for all desires." (Augustine)

I've always had great respect for Catholic moral psychology, though not much love for Catholic ethics. So, for example, I agree about the mechanics of "proximate occasions" of sin, but not that we should avoid such occasions. This does not mean I think we should sin, but that we should be open to the situations where sin, and therefore virtue, is possible.

I have a feeling that Augustine's views on lust and pleasure have to be part of my own canon on this subject (they are of course just part of the the canon on the subject.) I've said that pleasure is the immediate satisfaction of desire in the act, unmediated by an emotion (intellectual pleasure is the immediate satisfaction of belief in the fact, unmediated by a concept). But I have also argued, following Kierkegaard, that this still requires an "image", which just is the immediate presence of the act (or fact) in experience.

Augustine does not (at least here) mention the important work of the imagination in shaping and indeed civilizing (or humanizing) lust. Pleasure is not just the satisfaction of a "craving". It requires the formation of an image (the passage from craving to imagining) and it is here that our "spiritual" lives begin. What Pound described as "a form of stupidity not limited to Europe, that is, idiotic asceticism and a belief that the body is evil", is this substitution of the idea that images arise in the human body with the notion that man is created in the image of God. After the fall, the body is construed as merely "insubordinate". Spinoza was very right to suggest that "we don't yet know what the body can do." And to make this the basis of sane ethical inquiry.

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