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Desire Über Alles

As many of you know, I’m currently reading Dante’s Inferno. Canto Five takes us to one of the outer rings of Hell, the one where the Lustful abide. This is why they are in this particular ring (all these quotes are from the superb Esolen translation): I learned that such a torment was designed for […]

As many of you know, I’m currently reading Dante’s Inferno. Canto Five takes us to one of the outer rings of Hell, the one where the Lustful abide. This is why they are in this particular ring (all these quotes are from the superb Esolen translation):

I learned that such a torment was designed
for the damned who were wicked in the flesh,
who made their reasons subject to desire.

There Dante meets Paolo and Francesca, lovers who were murdered when Francesca’s husband discovered their affair. They are bound together in that ring of Hell for eternity, buffeted by the wind. Francesca speaks to Dante, explaining how they ended up there:

Paolo and Francesca, by Gustave Doré
Paolo and Francesca, by Gustave Doré

Love, which allows no loved one not to love,
seized me with such a strong delight in him
that, as you see, it will not leave me yet.
Love led us to one death.

Francesca explains that it was reading a romance — the story of Lancelot and Guinevere — that opened the door to their fatal passion. What is so striking in his passage is that the lovers were damned because of their disordered use of something that is supremely good. In dying righteously, we die in God. Paolo and Francesca died in each other, and are bound together in Hell for all eternity. Because they did not use their reason to rightly order their passions, and refuse them as sinful, they chose their condemnation. In fact, all the sins of the flesh punished in the outer circles of the Inferno are sins in which passion fpr good things overtook right reason, to the damnation of souls.

You could even say that those in Dante’s Hell suffering for sins of the flesh did not consciously abandon their reason as subordinated it to their desires. Does anybody choose Hell in full consciousness that they are doing so? As Virgil begins to lead Dante into Hell, he explains that the damned are actually eager to go into Hell, because God gave them what they chose; the afterlife only perfects them in the way they chose to live on earth. Because God loves us, He makes us free to choose, but He also holds us responsible for that choice. Dante shows us in his journey through Hell that those who suffer there lived as though their passions were reasonable, and justified themselves. It ain’t necessarily so.

All that is prelude to this remarkable story from Germany, as reported by Der Spiegel:

Germany is set to become the first country in Europe to introduce a third, “indeterminate” gender designation on birth certificates. The European Union, which is attempting to coordinate anti-discrimination efforts across member states, is lagging behind on the issue.

The option of selecting “blank,” in addition to the standard choices of “male” or female” on birth certificates will become available in Germany from November 1. The legislative change allows parents to opt out of determining their baby’s gender, thereby allowing those born with characteristics of both sexes to choose whether to become male or female in later life. Under the new law, individuals can also opt to remain outside the gender binary altogether.

Germany is the first country in Europe to introduce this option — Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung is referring to the change as a “legal revolution.” It remains unclear, however, how the change will affect gender assignment in other personal documents, such as passports, which still require people to choose between two categories — “F” for female and “M” for male. German family law publication FamRZ has called for the introduction of a third category, designated by the letter “X.”

The law was passed back in May, but has only now been reported on, following an article this month in FamRZ — just six weeks after Australia became the first country in the world to introduce legal guidelines on gender recognition. Under the Australian system, which applies to all personal documents, individuals can select the third category irrespective of whether or not they have undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy.

A couple of years ago, Australia allowed transgenders who haven’t had gender reassignment surgery to declare a third gender on their passports.

Rusty Reno understands the philosophical implications of this:

It’s fitting that Germany passed this legislation. It reflects our postmodern version of the will’s triumph over given realities. Nazism was an earlier version of this triumph, very different in countless ways, of course, but sharing a basic, underlying similarity. Hitler believed in the priority of the deed over truth, the will over fact, strength over established affairs. He wanted to forge a New Germany in accord with new myths, and part of his appeal rested in the fact that he affirmed the priority of this desire over all else. It’s intoxicating to believe that we can make our own destiny by the strength of our self-choosing.

This priority of the will made Nazism a hyper-modern phenomenon. It was not reactionary in any sense. The old regime was built on metaphysical claims about authority that were fixed and immobile. Hitler wanted no truck with a sacred order that limited the will. Force shapes destiny, and concepts of right and wrong must be made plastic to serve this new future.

A similar triumph of the will—or perhaps more accurately a triumph of desire—animates the gay rights movement. How our bodies function biologically can’t limit what we can and should do. This triumph of the will has been obscured by the fact that contraception has largely made sex sterile in the West, as I’ve pointed out on many occasions. But with this new approach to gender–assigned rather than recognized, chosen rather than given–makes the logic quite clear. Who we are—even our maleness or femaleness—depends on what we want, and nothing more.

Ignore the Godwin’s Law screaming meemies and grasp the deeper point Reno is making about how we allow desire, abetted by technology, to determine reality. I am reminded of this passage from Ross Douthat’s contribution to the terrific 2006 TAC issue, “What Is Left, What Is Right?” Excerpt:

Liberals are Baconists: they believe in Francis Bacon’s dictum that the ends of politics are “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” … [C]onservatism only really exists to say “no” to whatever liberalism asks for next, it fights nearly all its battles on its enemy’s terrain and rarely comes close to articulating a coherent set of values of its own. … Liberals, on the other hand, dream the same dream and envision the same destination, even if they disagree on exactly how to get there. It’s the dream of Thomas Friedman as well as Karl Marx, as old as Babel and as young as the South Korean cloners. It whispered to us in Eden, and it whispers to us now: ye shall be as gods. And no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.

It also brings to mind this interview with the Marxist-turned-Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Excerpts:

I imagine that this sense of disorientation was further exacerbated by the emergence of Marxism, to which tradition you were connected for a long time.

Certainly Marxism added another dimension of complexity. But it also represented a turning point. It was in thinking about Marxism that I began the work of resolving the conflicts in which I was trapped. Even if Marxist characterizations of advanced capitalism are inadequate, the Marxist understanding of liberalism as ideological, as a deceiving and self-deceiving mask for certain social interests, remains compelling. Liberalism in the name of freedom imposes a certain kind of unacknowledged domination, and one which in the long run tends to dissolve traditional human ties and to impoverish social and cultural relationships. Liberalism, while imposing through state power regimes that declare everyone free to pursue whatever they take to be their own good, deprives most people of the possibility of understanding their lives as a quest for the discovery and achievement of the good, especially by the way in which it attempts to discredit those traditional forms of human community within which this project has to be embodied.


However, from this point on it is easy to slide into a form of absolute relativism.

It can happen that a tradition of moral thought and practice fails to flourish. Its resources may not be adequate to solve the problems that are crucial to its rational inquiries. Its internal or external conflicts may undermine those agreements which made collaborative debate and inquiry possible. And its dissolution or rejection may leave a society without adequate resources for reconstructing its morality, while making the need for such reconstruction painfully evident.

And is this the case of the European Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century?

Precisely. In After Virtue I argued that the failure of the Enlightenment project is best understood as a sequel to the wrong-headed rejection, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of what I called “the tradition of the virtues.” That tradition had its birth first in the transition from older forms of Greek community to the fifth-century Athenian polis, and then in the criticism and construction of a theory and practice of the virtues in which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the key names. It is a tradition with a shared core conception of virtues. Virtues are those qualities of mind and character without which the goods internal to such human practices as those of the arts and the sciences and such productive activities as those of farming, fishing, and architecture cannot be achieved. Second, virtues are those qualities without which an individual cannot achieve that life, ordered in terms of those goods, which is best for her or him to achieve; and third, those qualities without which a community cannot flourish, and there can be no adequate conception of overall human good.

From a textual point of view, your stand on the recovery of “virtues,” as opposed to the universalistic idea of “a virtue,” in the singular, is anchored in the philosophy of Aristotle.

True. This complex conception of virtues received its classical statement from Aristotle in a form that requires not only the justification of the central theses of his political and moral philosophy, but also that of the metaphysics which those theses presuppose. This latter connection between virtue and metaphysics I had not understood when I wrote After Virtue. What I had recognized was that the failure of the Enlightenment project left open two alternatives: to reconstruct the moral theory and communal practice of Aristotelianism in whatever version would provide the best theory so far, explaining the failure of the Enlightenment as part of the aftermath of the breakdown of a tradition; or, instead, to understand the failure of the Enlightenment as a symptom of the impossibility of discovering any rational justification for morality as hitherto understood, a sign of the truth of Nietzsche’s diagnosis. So the choice posed by After Virtue was: Aristotle or Nietzsche?

And before you freak out over Reno’s mention of Nazism, reflect that on MacIntyre’s point that Martin Heidegger, the great philosopher who disgraced himself by abasing himself before Hitler, conceded that his philosophy, derived from Nietzsche’s glorification of the “will to power,” paved the way for the acceptance of Nazism. It’s like this: if Nietzsche is correct, and might makes right, then empowered desire, not reason, rules the world, and can dispose of it as it wishes. Or, as MacIntyre summed up Nietzsche’s point: “If there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates.”

In MacIntyre’s view, after the failure of the Enlightenment to ground morality in pure reason — a failure that Nietzsche brilliantly diagnosed — our only choices are to live with a) a belief that we can do whatever we like, that our desires should be our guide to morality (emotivism), or b) a belief that there is a teleology embedded in Nature, including our natures, and we must shape our morality around it.

Technology and desire will free us from the tyranny of our bodies. And, as Dante knew, it will ultimately open the gate of Hell, because it so seductively appeared to us as Good. Here is one way to state the temptation:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

That is true, insofar as it is a metaphysical statement about free will. But it is a seductive truth, because it is ultimately nihilistic, claiming that morality is what we say it is, and calling that liberty. It is no wonder that those lines, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, on behalf of a Supreme Court majority, were used to justify leaving mothers free to murder without restriction their unborn children. A passionate love of liberty so construed leads us to choose one death.



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