99 Sexuality: On Some Lines of Virgil

Ed. Note: This has become one of my most popular essays and I’m curious why.  Click here to chat with me about it on WhatsApp.

One of the great failings of philosophy is the fact that no major philosopher before Michel Foucault bothered to think and write extensively about sex – and what Foucault had to say wasn’t all that insightful. Human sexuality has been passed off to theologians, poets, psychologists and everyone looking to sell just about anything.

Immanuel Kant is rumored to have died a virgin and even if not the case, his philosophy sure reads that way. Nietzsche once called Socrates a “great erotic,” yet what we know of his sexual nature comes via Plato – author of some of the most bizarre and repugnant ideas about sex in human history. At least the way I read Plato, he would have been quite pleased with the government in “Gatacca.”

So we’re left with various religious prohibitions on sex and the romantic views of poets. I will agree with Plato on one score – the poets lie too much. We cannot trust their views of sex because of their cloying nature and their deep-seated agon with religion and science. Sex is the Romantic’s religion and so we must always view a poet’s view of it with as much skepticism as we would a political candidate’s opinion on a policy issue.

Sigmund Freud opened the door to a more open public discussion of sex – and modernist artists like D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Marcel Proust made important contributions. But one of Foucault’s genuine insights in his history of sexuality is his claim that sex has never been repressed and there’s no liberation to be found in greater sexual expression. If anything, human beings need some freedom from sex and the oppressive Romantic belief that it holds the key to our salvation and happiness.

The “culture wars” of the 1990s, still ongoing in some respects, revolved around a science vs. religion approach to sex. But making sex either clinical or sinful doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. The most serious attempts to talk about contemporary sexual ethics and mores are in the popular culture – TV sitcoms like Seinfeld and on talk radio, especially the Howard Stern show.

Discussions of sex demand a sense of irony and embarrassing self-confession. After all, the act of sex leaves you at your most vulnerable – naked, on display and open to critique. If you refuse to open yourself up to mockery and cannot speak the raw language of the act, you really don’t have anything useful to add to public sexual discourse.

As mentioned in one of my previous essays, Montaigne bears a great resemblance to Howard Stern when he writes about sex, which is one of the reasons why he’s one of the most important thinkers in history on the subject. I would go as far to say that this essay is the single most thoughtful, bawdy, ironic and wistful writing on the topic, making it one the greatest of all Montaigne essays.

It’s nearly impossible for me to fully capture the depth of Montaigne’s thoughts and feelings on the subject. I typically underline key passages in Montaigne’s essays and use these quotes to recount the key thoughts. In this case, I ended up with 17 pages of notes. To properly treat this Montaigne essay would require a book-length analysis – and I certainly hope that one of the hundreds of philosophy PhD’s in America at the moment is using this essay as the basis of a dissertation.

Montaigne knew that this essay was something different and special – it’s controversy was by design:

“It pains me that my Essays merely serve ladies as a routine piece of furniture – something to put into their salon. This chapter will get me into their private drawing-rooms; and I prefer my dealings with women to be somewhat private: the public ones lack intimacy and savor.”

And he wonders why people have such trouble talking about sex frankly:

“The genital activities of mankind are so natural, so necessary and so right: what have they done to make us never dare to mention them without embarrassment and to exclude them from serious orderly conversation? We are not afraid to utter the words kill, thieve or betray; but those others we only dare to mutter through our teeth. Does that mean that the less we breathe a word about sex the more right we have to allow it to fill our thoughts?”

Montaigne sums up his philosophy of sex very succinctly:

“Reflecting as I often do on the ridiculous excoriations of that pleasure, the absurd, mindless, stupefying emotions with which it disturbs a Zeno or a Cratippus, that indiscriminate raging, that face inflamed with frenzy and cruelty at the sweetest point of love, that grave, severe, ecstatic face in so mad an activity, the fact that our delights and our waste-matters are lodged higgledy-piggledy together; and that its highest pleasure has something of the groanings and distraction of pain, I believe that what Plato says is true: Man is the plaything of the gods — what a ferocious way of jesting! – and that it was in mockery that Nature bequeathed us this, the most disturbing of activities, the one most common to all creatures, so as to make us all equal, bringing the mad and the wise, men and beasts, to the same level.”

In fact, Montaigne believes that sex is evidence of human beings’ core stupidity … but in a good way:

“But that other activity makes every other thought crawl defeated under the yoke; by its imperious authority it makes a brute of all the theology of Plato and a beast of all his philosophy. Everywhere else you can preserve some decency; all other activities accept the rules of propriety: this other one can only be thought of as flawed or ridiculous. Just try and find a wise and discreet way of doing it! Alexander said that he acknowledged he was a mortal because of sleep and this activity: sleep stifles and suppresses the faculties of our souls; the ‘job’ similarly devours and disperses them. It is indeed a sign of our original Fall, but also of our inanity and ugliness. On the one hand Nature incites us to it, having attached to this desire the most noble, useful and agreeable of her labors: on the other hand she lets us condemn it as immoderate and flee it as indecorous, lets us blush at it and recommend abstaining from it.”

Like Howard Stern, Montaigne openly discusses his small penis and the problems it has created in his sexual life:

“When I have found a woman discontented with me I have not immediately gone and railed at her fickleness: I have asked myself, rather, whether I would be right to rail against Nature. Should my cock be not long enough nor good and thick, then Nature has indeed treated me unlawfully and unjustly – Even good matrons know all too well and do not gladly see a tiny cock – and inflicted the most enormous injury.”

And this is another reason why there’s never been a truly groundbreaking and useful philosophy of sex – the field is too heavily dominated by men. Give Montaigne credit, though, for raising some uncomfortable questions about men that it might normally take a female philosopher to raise. Such as … have you ever noticed that all male clothing through history makes a special effort to hide or distort the size of the penis? Shouldn’t some truth in advertising be required?

“Why do we parade our genitals even now behind our loose-breeches, and, what is worse, cheat and deceive by exaggerating their natural size? I would like to believe that such styles of clothing were invented in better and more moral times so that people should in fact not be deceived, each man gallantly rendering in public an account of his endowments; the more primitive peoples do still display it somewhere near its real size. In those days they supplied details of man’s working member just as we give the measurements of our arm or foot.”

Montaigne suggests that all men would be better served by getting the issue of their penis size out of the way as quickly as possible:

“It is perhaps a more chaste and fruitful practice to bring women to learn early what the living reality is rather than to allow them to make conjectures according to the licence of a heated imagination: instead of our organs as they are their hopes and desires lead them to substitute extravagant ones three times as big. And one man I know lost out by exposing his somewhere while they were still unready to perform their most serious task …. We bait and lure women by every means. We are constantly stimulating and overheating their imagination. And then we gripe about it.”

Anticipating the wrath of the FCC which has dogged Stern throughout his career, Montaigne notes that he speaks frankly about sex because there’s no other way to talk about it:

“I like modesty. It is not my judgment that makes me choose this shocking sort of talk: Nature chose it for me. I am no more praising it than I am praising any behavior contrary to the accepted norms; but I am defending it, lessening the indictment by citing individual and general considerations.”

Along the same lines, Montaigne notes that you really shouldn’t worry about people gossiping about you – because if what they are saying is untrue, they aren’t actually discussing the real you:

“When somebody told Socrates that people were gossiping about him he said, ‘Not at all. There is nothing of me in what they are saying.’ In my case, if a man were to praise me for being a good navigator, for being very proper or very chaste I would not owe him a thank you. Similarly, if anyone should call me a traitor, a thief or a drunkard I would not think that it was me he attacked. Men who misjudge what they are like may well feed on false approval: I cannot. I see myself and explore myself right into my inwards; I know what pertains to me. I am content with less praise provided that I am more known. People might think that I am wise with the kind of wisdom which I hold to be daft.”

Montaigne was well ahead of his time in criticizing sexual mores for protecting the interests of men. Here he notes that women have a point in rejecting the mores entirely:

“Women are not entirely wrong when they reject the moral rules proclaimed in society, since it is we men alone who have made them. There is by nature always some quarrelling and brawling between women and men: the closest union between us remains turbulent and tempestuous. In the opinion of our poet we treat women without due consideration. That is seen by what follows.”

From here, he analyzes how foolish it is to expect chastity from women and not men. To begin, he notes that women simply have a greater capacity for sex, so it’s nonsensical to expect them to have less of a sex drive:

“Women have an incomparably greater capacity for the act of love than we do and desire it more ardently – and we know that this fact was attested in Antiquity by that priest who had been first a man and then a woman: He knew Venus from both angles …. We go and assign sexual restraint to women as something peculiarly theirs, under pain of punishments of the utmost severity. No passion is more urgent than this one, yet our will is that they alone should resist it – not simply as a vice with its true dimensions but as an abomination and a curse, worse than impiety and parricide. Meanwhile we men can give way to it without blame or reproach …. Yet we men on the other hand want our wives to be in good health, energetic, radiant, buxom… and chaste at the same time, both hot and cold at once.”

Culture trains girls at a young age to be sexually desirable … and the very nature of female relationships makes them far better attuned to romantic interest than men:

“We train women from childhood for the practices of love: their graces, their clothes, their education, their way of speaking regard only that one end. Those in charge of them impress nothing on them but the face of love, if only to put them off it by continually portraying it to them. My daughter – I have no other …. There is no word, no exemplary tale and no stratagem which women do not know better than our books do. The doctrines which nature, youth and good health (those excellent schoolmasters) ceaselessly inspire in their souls are born in their veins.”

I could go on like this for dozens of pages. But I’ll wrap this up by pointing out just two more of Montaigne’s insights about sex. First is his thoughts on what matters most for a man in gaining the attention of women:

“If anyone were to ask me what is the first quality needed in love I would reply: knowing how to seize an opportunity. It is the second and the third as well. It is the factor that can achieve anything. I have often lacked good fortune but also occasionally lacked initiative. God help those who can mock me for it! In our days you need to be more inconsiderate – which our young men justify under the pretense of ardor; but if women looked into it closely they would find that it arises rather from lack of respect. I myself devoutly feared to give offense and am always inclined to respect whomever I love.”

Montaigne made that comment rather wistfully … bear in mind that this essay is one of the last pieces he ever composed. His sexual life had almost entirely passed him by at this point, giving the piece a vibe similar to Proust’s “Time Regained.” His final section relates to a sexual life seen in retrospect. First, he restates his belief that sex, for all of its absurdity, is a healthy, important activity:

“It is a vain pastime, it is true, indecorous, shaming and wrong; but I reckon that, treated in this fashion, it is health-bringing and appropriate for loosening up a sluggish mind and body; as a doctor I would order it for a man of my mould and disposition as readily as any other prescription so as to liven him up and keep him in trim until he is well on in years and to postpone the onset of old age.”

Finally, Montaigne turns to the issue of sex and growing old. It’s a sad close to a fairly joyous chapter – but it shows great wisdom as well. As noted two essays ago, Montaigne believes it is very important for people who have grown beyond their sexual prime to keep a young mind and not become hypocritically intolerant in their old age. This passage needs to be read with that thought in mind:

“I am well aware that love is a good thing very hard to recover. Our tastes have, through weakness, become more delicate and, through experience, more discriminating. We demand more when we have less to offer: we want the maximum of choice just when we least deserve to find favor. Realizing we are thus, we are less bold and more suspicious; knowing our own circumstances – and theirs – nothing can assure us we are loved.”

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