In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.
As I try to write about lust, I encounter an immediate block. Sharing personal encounters with pride, sloth or gluttony seemed easier than sharing my encounters with lust. The sin comes with an ambivalent combination of shame – revealing details will bring embarrassment – and righteousness – as an aunt once famously said, ‘do whatever you like with your ass’. After decades of sexual revolution, our current social agreement seems to be that lust is fine, as long as it stays in the shadows. Indeed, there is a very high taboo on the public consumption of lust. Polite society welcomes pride, greed and envy more than it does sex.
Lust has been described as the most minor of all sins, and the root of all sins. I turned and turned around this in my head, until I landed on the concept of scandal. In its original meaning – and in the Gospel – a scandal is, literally, the little stone that enters the shoe. With each step, the scandal digs deeper into the foot, causing pain, and eventually preventing further forward movement.
The question, then, is this: would it be possible to think of lust, the most minor of all sins and the mother of all sins, as not evil in itself, but in its consequences. This I found in Chesterton, articulating the radical nature of Christianity – that no thing in creation is evil in itself, but evil is always spiritual: it lies in the nature of our relationship to that thing. Such is physical pleasure then – orgasm – or the bodies of other people as a source of pleasure. Nothing there is evil in itself, but our relationship to the thing may be sinful.
As a little stone digs into the sole, softening it, increasing sensitivity to pain, and eventually limiting the capacity to walk – so lust digs into the soul, softening it, increasing sensitivity to pain, and eventually limiting the capacity to walk. There is nothing intrinsically bad about the pleasures of the flesh – whether strictly sexual, or more broadly the many pleasure of soft fabrics, elaborate foods, and sophisticated service, that cushion our encounter with the outside world. But each of those makes a little mark that grows larger and softer with each encounter, until we find ourselves unable to deal with harsher circumstances, or bear the absence of a physical comfort. Then freedom disappears, replaced with addiction to pleasure.
Another concept, then, is useful to think about lust: comfort, the milder side of lust, or endless desire for higher and higher levels of cushioning from the world. Addiction, then, could be the more common manifestation of lust. Here, pleasure is no longer found in resolute and coordinated activity, but in pure consumption. As the need for comfort increases – whether in the form of sexual pleasure, cocaine, booze or thick carpets, in higher and higher doses – other people and, indeed, the entire natural world become nothing more than a means to an end, providing me with the comfort I need in order to keep on living.
All forms of abuse ensue – harassment, exploitation, slavery, rape, of individuals, of natural ecosystems. But abuse is equally directed inwards. Our bodies primarily become a means towards pleasure. We curate images of ourselves intended to get us more sex; we sacrifice entire days to recover from a big night out drinking; we sell off our time and energy to the most evil masters in order to get the money that will pay for the luxuries we can no longer live without.
An entire system develops on the back of this boundless appetite, whose only task is to satisfy our addiction: drugs and prostitution. Business class lounges. Chocolate bar manufacturers. Barrista Coffee. Consumer-driven capitalism. And as the system grows, it feeds upon itself: it needs people to maintain it, and those people, irritated by the many scandals of the system, need more comfort to move forward.
‘You should not test your God’ is one of the most important statements of biblical wisdom. We are, after all, largely mechanical creatures – freewill, if ever within our reach, requires immense concentration. We can, at best, only build better habits, and use their momentum as a path towards virtue. If yielding to lust opens the door to gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride and wrath, should we – then – concentrate all our efforts on resisting lust, and virtue will naturally follow?
Among angels, maybe – but not in our present world. The many scandals of a failing system dig from all directions in our souls – public advertisement, addiction to comfort trained from childhood, coffee shops, wine bars & dating apps. Comfort has a calming effect, even if temporary. Giving in to lust puts a balm on our wounds, it relieves us from temporary paralysis, allowing us to take a few steps ahead and – maybe – by doing so, saving us from worse evil. Lust is the mother of all sins, but also the lesser one. Giving in, therefore, rather than firmly resisting, may be prudence: we acknowledge our weakness, and humbly choose a lesser evil.