Loving Our Second Selves

Stefan McDaniel

At my alma mater, we so-called “intellectual Catholics” managed to surmount the lazy prejudices of elite liberal universities and earn the tolerance, respect, and even close friendship of some of the smartest and most thoroughly secular of our peers. But we were, at best, esteemed ambassadors to a foreign country, with little hope of changing the customs and at some risk of going native. And the very core of the “native” culture in the modern university is polymorphously “liberated” sex, which is protected as fiercely as a religion . . . which it arguably is.

Even if you are not surrounded by secularists, living in contemporary America you naturally come to lose any visceral repugnance for most sexual sins, which are, by constant description, discussion, and representation, by casual jokes and unspoken assumptions, made to seem utterly normal, natural, no big deal. Even for someone committed to chastity, the word “chaste” can come to feel cold and leaden on the tongue, suggesting an attitude of insufferable primness probably born of a psychological disorder. Needless to say, to those with no such commitment that impression is stronger still and can seem impossible to correct. One can easily answer any discrete argument in defense of this or that sexual practice (for the few actual arguments that are offered tend to be extraordinarily bad), but how does one effectively contradict a whole climate of feeling, one nourished by the media, the market, and indeed, by many moral authorities?

I was determined not to have it thought that my embrace of chastity was an arational religious taboo—like refusing to walk on my feet on Thursdays in honor of Mumbo Jumbo—which I had the forensic right to embrace myself but no moral right to urge on others. But though I had my many arguments and had them by heart, my confidence invariably failed when it came time to argue this or that point. My voice sounded thin and comical, like a village atheist before the bulletproof conviction of a pious old lady. All can seem futile in the face of the divinely self-confident representatives of a prevailing ethos, of “how normal healthy people see things.” They can effortlessly elicit ridicule, which wins the audience over and drives you to distraction. They can with impunity confuse argument with stipulation and rebuttal with restatement. Most of all, they can tap into the overwhelming psychological urge to rationalize existing norms which, in this case, serve strong and universal appetites. Yes, I had my arguments, my subtle, elaborate arguments, but it was all I could do not to seem like a pompous, prudish moralizer or a babbling idiot.

My predicament is the predicament of the Church as a whole. Over the past several decades we have struggled to develop a response to our society’s new sexual norms that optimally combines moral clarity with charity. I suspect that our arguments (though many are in themselves quite good, and possibly conclusive) are unconvincing to so many because they are too superficial, lacking the solvent simplicity of our Lord’s summary rebukes. Homosexual activity, for instance, clearly cannot be reconciled with Christian morality, but we must recognize that it is merely part of a deeper affective disorder from which our entire society suffers, and it is to this disorder that we must give the better part of our attention.

This disorder may be described as an unnatural and unhealthy conflation of erotic love and friendship. This conflation impairs people of any “orientation” in their pursuit of both “platonic” friendship and romantic love. More important than, say, arguing homosexuals out of homosexuality, is the task of fitting our children for healthy friendships. And the primary way to do that is to make them virtuous. Let me explain what I mean by this, beginning with a discussion of the distinction I have just drawn between friendship and erotic love.

Friendship and erotic love have this important feature in common: the relations between friends and lovers may both be spoken of as relations between second selves. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, while we may speak of “friendships” in which people treat each other as instruments or as playmates, in the focal case of friendship, each loves the other primarily for his virtue. If I am a friend, in the true sense, to somebody, then his excellence and well-being are a good for me. In willing his happiness I therefore will my own. Between true friends, then, the well-being of each is so integral to the well-being of the other that it is as though they share a single state of happiness. People who share a single state of happiness are as two persons in one.

Those familiar with Pope John Paul II’s exegesis of Genesis (or indeed with Genesis itself) will find this language of “two-in-one unity” familiar. Adam famously hails Eve, upon her creation from his rib, as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Men and women throughout history are called to ritually restore the original organic unity of Adam and Eve in the marital act: A man is to “leave his father and his mother and . . . cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Gn 2:24)

Friendship and erotic love may also both be profitably analogized to our relationship with God. Scripture tells us that Yahweh is the bridegroom of Israel, Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, God is Israel’s mighty helper and companion. Christ calls those to whom he has revealed the truths of his Father “friends” (Jn 15:15) and teaches them that there is “no greater love” than that shown in giving up one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).

Yet there is clearly a difference between friendly and erotic feelings, even when we feel them both towards the same person. There is also, I submit, a significant difference in inflection in their analogical relationship to divine love, in the aspect of our relation to God that eros and friendship each illuminate.

Here I will avail myself of distinctions made by C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves. Lewis says that there are three main modes of love: Need-Love (like that of a child for his mother), Gift-Love (like that of a mother for her child, or, in the extreme case, God for his creatures), and Appreciative Love (the love of aesthetic appreciation). Most friendships and erotic relationships in the real world contain elements of all three, but it seems, at least at first blush, that eros is primarily a Need-Love, while friendship is primarily an Appreciative Love.

Eros, as Genesis shows, is an expression of our radical incompleteness as human beings in need of community and, more specifically, as sexed human beings, who are only complete (and certainly only fecund) when conjoined. Eros is tyrannical and insistent in its demands. Its substratum, pure sexual desire (what Lewis calls “Venus”) serving as it does the fundamental biological imperative to reproduce, is in an especially crude sense a mere needy craving, and in itself lacks anything that a Christian would call love. Indeed its obvious selfishness, taken in isolation, makes sexual appetite something of a threat even to erotic love. An amusing quotation along these lines comes from Frank Sheed, describing essays he read in the ‘70s (written mostly by men) which dissented from Humanae Vitae. Sheed said:

For the most part they struck me as of a purity so refined I felt earthy and coarse in comparison. The sex act they saw as love’s highest expression. The ruling purpose in their own intercourse seemed to be the enrichment of their partner’s personality. One wonders how refinedly they bore the discovery that she did not want her personality enriched that night. I mentioned this point to a couple of thousand women at a luncheon in Los Angeles. They laughed and laughed. I got the impression that each of them was seeing one special face, not looking its best. . . . I have returned more than once to the fine art of kidding oneself. In no area is autokiddery so active as the sexual. One marvels how anyone can think that bodily union is love’s highest expression. The essence of love is precisely the giving of oneself to the other. But in bodily union the body’s own need for physical release can be urgent to the point of anguish, so clamorous that it is hard to remember the other person as a person at all.

Yet it is precisely the glory of eros that, in Lewis’ fine phrase, it “makes appetite itself altruistic.” Eros is indeed in a sense a Need-Love, but in its ideal form it is perhaps more truly described as a Gift-Love. Under the influence of eros, one feels the need to make a gift of oneself. One has a burning desire to do all one can, to the point of utter self-abnegation, for the happiness of the beloved.

Yet, however cleansed or glorified, eros bears the marks of its biological origins in its consuming, compulsive nature (nothing is more natural than to speak of falling in love as a disaster or an affliction), and its orientation towards union in the sense of identity. As Lewis points out, lovers sometimes speak of wishing to eat each other.

Because it originates from need and seeks satisfaction in union with its object, erotic love is indeed a fitting analogy for our radical creaturely neediness before God, and the romantic love affair provides an apt metaphor for the soul’s hungry approach to God, and to the Sanctifying Union with Him. On this score, the almost scandalous sexual descriptions of spiritual experiences given us by many mystics speak for themselves.

Friendship, on the other hand, assumes and expresses our fullness. It relies on the rich, gratuitous overflow of personality. Friends may well give each other gifts, but any asymmetrical friendship wherein there is one especially “needy” friend will not long maintain the equality Aristotle thinks essential to a real friendship. The virtuous man’s friendship is all the more real because he and his friend do not “need” each other and do not wish to “become one.” Rather, he appreciates his friend in all the splendor of his independence and difference. Indeed, were it not for the clear difference between them, there would be no friendship. Friends do indeed desire a real unity, but rather than the unity of practical identity, they want the unity of conversation, a unity that intensifies individual difference. For there to be conversation there must exist an interval of difference across which recognition and address may pass.

Friendship is therefore the best metaphor (and preparation) not for the Sanctifying Union, but for the life of the Kingdom, wherein, we are told, we shall join in the eternal conversation of the Three in One. We shall offer God praise, freely and without fear or necessity, across the infinite interval of peace and love, and we shall admire the splendor of our fellow rational beings and engage them, too, in an endless conversation whose “topic” is the goodness and glory of God. We shall become ever more diverse as we become ever more united in love.

Thus, if we would neatly express the difference between erotic love and friendship, we may say that eros is like our participation in the God who is One (not dividing the Substance) while friendship is like our participation in the selfsame God who is Three (not confounding the Persons).

Now, it seems clear that our society is having a lot of trouble maintaining both healthy romantic relationships and friendships. It would be tedious to go through the usual litany: divorce, promiscuity, the ever-broadening grey zone between harmless recreation and date rape, and the decline of real friendship. But what, fundamentally, accounts for this situation? Obviously there is no single cause, but let me suggest that we can identify a core problem: the feeble, spectral nature of the average modern or post-modern self. In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy suggests that modern Western man compulsively buys worthless products and follows absurd fashions because “the self in the twentieth century is a voracious naught which expands like the feeding vacuole of an amoeba seeking to nourish and inform its own nothingness by ingesting new objects in the world, but like a vacuole, only succeeds in emptying them out.” That summary seems about right, and I will henceforth assume its accuracy.

Among the unfortunate consequences of not having a self is that, being a vacuum, you are always busy consuming, and so are incapable of either the Gift-Love of eros or the Appreciative Love of friendship. But sexual impulses must have expression, and so they find them in the various perversions and pathologies of our day.

There is no way scientifically to demonstrate the truth of this claim, but there is highly suggestive evidence in its support. Consider the following quotation from a very close friend of mine, who has been taking part in online discussion groups for men who want to overcome (or at least manage) unwanted homosexual attractions:

The overwhelming anecdotal evidence (my own and others’) suggests that we’re attracted to the characteristics we think we lack. I think most SSA [Same-Sex-Attraction] guys really are attracted to guy-guys [i.e. distinctly masculine men] but settle for people who won’t punch them when propositioned. This comes up over and over again in the discussion board. That’s why demystification (developing the mutually acknowledged equality of nonsexual friendship) is the best antidote to the attraction, and why every sexual act really is an act of envy. I actually resent effeminate men and hear much the same from other SSA guys. . . . [I have long noticed] that SSA guys divide the world of men into those they disdain for their inferior masculinity and hero-worship for their superior masculinity. No in between.

Is it surprising, given what I have said, that (in many cases, at least) the phenomenology of same-sex desire is that of eroticized envy? It appears that some men perceive other men as having a masculinity, a solid identity as men, which they themselves lack, and so seek to somehow consume masculinity through erotic congress. It also seems telling that sexual behavior in the gay subculture (and this nobody with the least familiarity with even mainstream gay literature can deny) is so frequently, flagrantly and unapologetically compulsive and promiscuous. There is no lasting satisfaction, no final identification with the object consumed, and so consumption must continue indefinitely.

Among heterosexuals there is, of course, a culture of promiscuity. Much of this can be explained simply as the effect of biological compulsion, the loosing of a most easily inflamed appetite. But there are also, I believe, complex existential aspects to the contemporary heterosexual ethos, on which Percy’s observation casts light. For instance, in a world with few concrete or compelling models of how to live, in a world where you know neither who you are nor who you ought to be, sexual activity allows you to gain a sort of rudimentary identity as a ‘modern” or “normal” person, even if, as a large proportion of men and an even larger proportion of women report, this activity is more often than not attended by feelings of shame, guilt, emptiness, discomfort, and dissatisfaction. This can always be attributed, as Christopher Hitchens attributes it, to the evil residual effects of religion, but as more and more people come of age in a culture shaped by the Sexual Revolution, this argument loses plausibility.

Among men, sexual activity also is one of the few remaining means of asserting gender identity in a world where men are supposed to be ashamed of their maleness. It is no surprise that the language of the locker room is so often predatory and contemptuous: how can you really admire and respect what you would consume? Primarily among women, sexual activity is also sought as though it were identical with or were always accompanied by, its ideal complement: intimacy and companionship. Talk of young women “looking for love in all the wrong places” is a truism because it is true.

Finally, many young people, by their own admission, do not know who they are, feel less themselves, when they are not in romantic relationships. In our day, because we have so debased the currency of physical intimacy, sexual intercourse is almost a basic, a minimal token of deep affection and commitment.

What to do about this? Well, it is difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously regard someone as a friend (that is, as an equal, dignified and cherished person) and treat her as an instrument, commodity, or playmate. This is why I believe the penultimate solution to our problem is to promote friendship.

If Aristotle is right, only virtuous men can be real friends. Thus the ultimate solution to our problem is to promote virtue. The exercise of virtue is the means by which one constitutes oneself as a true, robust self. It is the means by which one attains, through self-discipline and concrete commitments, proper identity, stability, and control, so as to become more than a “voracious nought” or a mere collocation of impulses.

It is interesting that, in the Politics, Aristotle prescribes private property on the grounds that it is natural and right for men to show forth their liberality to their friends, and that they cannot do so if they have nothing of their own to give. We moderns would do well to learn from this, and even to extend its logic: we need enough inherent wealth, in a more than material sense, to be generous to and un-envyingly appreciative of both friends and lovers. We must have selves before we have second selves, and to this end we must cultivate virtue.

Now, pretty much every sexual disorder of our day can be described thus: a concupiscent habit born of an inner emptiness. The habit (the concrete behavior and characteristic orientation of imagination and thought) must be changed, but simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, the emptiness must be filled.

The concupiscent habit must be changed by the wildly unpopular discipline of chastity. Granted, chastity is the hardest of hard sells, but it is not merely morally correct but strategically expedient to insist on chastity, because it is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, an “apprenticeship in self-mastery.” It consists in the deliberate restraint of what is perhaps the most powerful of the appetites, not merely by forbearance from specified physical actions, but by practicing what we Catholics call custody of the eyes, ears, and tongue both within and without marriage.

Since it requires such will, such steady-eyed self-criticism, chastity is an indispensable means to the end of personal integration, by which one makes the body totally obedient to and expressive of the reason and the will. Once achieved, this self-mastery and self-integration promote healthy pride. Furthermore, cultivation of the pure, un-predatory eye leads (this especially in the case of men) to greater respect for others. The chaste person is less prone to envy, a sense of inadequacy, and shame: the vices and pathologies which fix a man’s mind on himself. Thus, since it frees one up for the disinterested love of others, chastity is the ideal preparation (as, again, the Catechism says) for friendship with people of either sex.

Nor need we fear that chastity will somehow impede the attraction between the sexes. There is not, it seems to me, the slightest danger of that happening. It merely civilizes this attraction. Indeed, by subordinating it to reason and will, chastity alone can really humanize it.

From a purely practical point of view, chaste friendship is the ideal substratum for a sound marriage, not only because chastity is a most comforting token of the capacity for fidelity, but also because it helps to clear the fog of lust, ensuring that the sympathies between people are more than sexual, that they are deep and strong and can survive the practical trials of partnership and the inevitable cooling of the blood.

Furthermore, since love may be defined as the commitment of the will to the true good of the other, the clamor of self-interested passion must sometimes be hushed, even within marriage, so that one may clearly identify and promote the other’s good.

While the disordered appetite is being changed by chastity, the emptiness must be filled with the virtue of generosity. This may seem paradoxical, since the problem, according to me, is precisely that we are empty and have nothing to give. Yet observation and reflection shows that it is a basic part of our nature that we enrich ourselves chiefly in trying to give of ourselves.

To encourage generosity as more than a benevolent attitude, Christian young people in their formative years need to be encouraged to serve. The Church, as a sovereign polity within polities, should recognize young people’s real capacity for leadership and responsibility, indifferent to the arbitrary norms of the surrounding culture.

Christian educators (in general, but especially in seminaries) should attempt to channel the wisdom of the ancients by reviving the Greek ideal of the “magnanimous man.” Such a man is wholly virtuous, and so enjoys total self-possession. He is above all temptations to envy, affectation, or base ingratiation, because he abides peacefully in the knowledge of his own excellence. He delights in acts of great liberality, which are the privilege of the superior man with his godlike self-sufficiency, and is appalled at the thought of being the object of “charity,” which is to him the mark of being an inferior. Of course we must baptize this roguish character, cure him of his disdain and of the pride that refuses to let others serve him. We should never forget that we are contingent and dependent, first as creatures, second as interdependent social animals. Yet who can fail to see something of a proto-Christ in the classically magnanimous Socrates, with his simplicity, his directness, his calm good humor, his unwillingness to complain or to burden others?

An often overlooked element of generosity is the auxiliary sub-virtue of pugnacity. It is, after all, an act of charity to vigorously defend the defenseless and correct the mistaken. Like a cautery (to paraphrase theologian David Bentley Hart), Christian charity must often wound to heal—never forgetting, of course, to salve the wound and bind it up as well. In this, the anti-abortion and pro-chastity movements have been relentless vehicles of charity. God has made good out of the evil of the culture wars by forming a hardy generation of Christian men and women who are set apart from the vast majority of their secular peers by their sheer mental and emotional toughness and their experience at organizing and fighting. What is more, these movements have generated friendships that seem certain to have wonderful and far-reaching consequences for Christian culture over the next several decades. We must give every possible encouragement to the high-school and college branches of these movements, and pray that they go from strength to strength in numbers and influence.

Finally, we must take a page from the 19th century “muscular Christians” and encourage sports, especially team sports. The benefits of this are at least twofold.

First and most simply, we thereby encourage discipline, selflessness, intelligent obedience, and self-respect. Second, we do this while reawakening proper awareness of the body. Just as we are not beasts, we are not angels. Upon inspection, most arguments for sexual liberation turn out to rest upon an assumed dualism, according to which the body is the mere instrument and possession of an angelic “self.” Young men and women in our day are frequently alienated from their bodies because they see them either as instruments for pleasure and objects of aesthetic delight, or as burdens and objects of shame and disgust.

But human beings do not merely have bodies to which they can stand in some sort of simple external relation. In a mysterious but true sense we are bodies. People fully alive to the reality that they are incarnate persons, who see that they do “with” their bodies they do as whole, integral persons, will understand with much greater intuitive clarity the proper bodily relations between them and their variously sexed second selves.

Stefan McDaniel was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he attended Mona Preparatory School and St. Georges College. He then attended Groton School in Massachusetts, followed by Princeton University, where he majored in religion. Starting this summer, he is a Junior Fellow at First Things. He likes theology, philosophy, literature, liturgy, music (particularly Dylan and Bach), European history (the High Middle Ages and the World Wars), and American history (particularly the manifold glories of Princeton).