Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Recovering From the Enlightenment

In March I posted an article suggesting that the Enlightenment had left men and women desexualised, as the fruit of its sexual revolution ironically produced the opposite of its intended result. In this article I want to explore this theme further, drawing together the threads of some of my earlier articles on this subject.

Modesty and Love

In the article I posted in February, we saw that Rousseau argued that the attraction between the sexes, the happiness of marriage, and by extension the smooth running of society, hinged on men and women being different. (How Rousseau applied this in practice is more problematic, and we might want to join Wollstonecraft in disputing some of his arbitrary definitions of feminine qualities.) However, it is instructive to note that, for all her feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft could not help but agree that the happiness of marriage is an implication of the gender polarity she was so anxious to homogenize. For example, she concedes that her educational agenda - and no doubt the androgynous impetus behind it - will lead to unhappy marriages.

It would be tempting to try to show that Wollstonecraft’s admirable agenda for female education might be easily retained within a framework that still preserved the gender polarization, but that would be to miss the point. In Wollstonecraft’s mind, at least, the two points were inseparable: her educational program was bound up with an ideology of androgyny. The fact that she recognizes these pursuits to be antithetic to the happiness of marriage is very revealing, in that it shows she was not unaware of the implications of the unisex trend. However, this did not worry Wollstonecraft since

"an unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and that the neglected wife is, in general, the best mother. And this would almost always be the consequence if the female mind being more enlarged...[i]

Later, when discussing the need to restrain the common appetite of passion, Wollstonecraft noted that

"Nature, in these respects, may safely be left to herself; let women acquire knowledge and humanity, and love will teach them modesty."[ii]

We are hard pressed to understand what Wollstonecraft means by modesty here apart from the kind of sexual/gender related modesty she so painstakingly avoided earlier (see my earlier article). It should come as no surprise that, in the context of love at least, Wollstonecraft could not help but lapse into a gender-specific kind of modesty. This is because love is the ultimate argument against androgyny and sexual reductionism. This will be made clearer in the following section.

Feminism and Marriage

According to Biblical teaching, the ultimate expression of love is when lovers give all of themselves to each other, as expressed in lifelong commitment and total physical donation. On the other hand, those who have tried to escape the significance of the gender polarity have less of themselves to offer since they are struggling to be less than the man or woman God originally designed them to be. Thus, there is a logical consistency at work in those feminists who are arguing that romantic love, like gender distinctions, is one of the remnants of an unenlightened society. As Amy Erickson puts it, “romantic ideals were simply a means of maintaining male dominance at a time when overt demands of submission were no longer acceptable.[iii] To this must be added the famous maxim that marriage is little more than ‘legalised rape.’

In 1934, Naomi Mitchison complained that the feminist movement was creating a generation of women so fostered on a defiant idea of equality that the mere sensation of the male embrace roused an undercurrent of resentment. Commenting on Mitchison’s words, C. S. Lewis observed that “at some level consent to inequality, nay, delight in inequality, is an erotic necessity.”[iv] He then speaks of the tragic-comedy of the modern woman who is “taught by Freud to consider the act of love the most important thing in life, and then inhibited by feminism from that internal surrender which alone can make it a complete emotional success.”[v] It is ironic that feminism has produced unfulfilled and unhappy women when feminism’s primary objective was the opposite.

At the end of the day, gender egalitarianism turns out to be a cheat.

Sex: A Big Deal?

But it takes more than merely a rejection of androgyny to enable one to truly enjoy sexual intimacy. One needs to return to the Biblical codes of morality overthrown by the Enlightenment. It may seem strange to suggest that the way to truly enjoy a thing is to restrict it, even though our world furnishes numerous examples of this principle. Yet it should not really be surprising that those who are so sexually active that they give no second thought to a one-night-stand, and are consequently treating sex like it is no big deal (often being actively encouraged to do so[vi]), should find the activity less pleasurable than those so-called ‘prudes’ for whom sex is still a Very Big Deal. And according to the Bible, sex should be a Big Deal, and not merely because this makes the experience more fulfilling, though of course it does.[vii]

This is the legacy that the Enlightenment has left us. Because materialism denied that a transcendent God had revealed himself to His creation, it placed man as the sole arbitrator of morality. The result was that man turned sex into a god. It is a Biblical principle that whenever a thing is worshiped idolatrously, the original thing is destroyed. In removing the restrictions of sexuality and denying the design God created, the sexual revolution ended up de-valuing the very thing it sought to elevate. It was observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex just does not sell products like it once did. The reason, as Cristina Odone reported, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal it doesn’t entice us any longer. It has been like taking a picture in colour and turning it into black and white. No wonder young people are now reported as making comments like, “I’m so used to it, it makes me sick.”[viii] Nor should we be surprised that in Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, people are often quoted as saying that sex is boring.

This shows one more reason why the Biblical teaching on morality and modesty is so crucial. Central to the very delight of sexual union is the pleasure of being admitted into a place that is not open to anyone else. Sexual intimacy is a gift from God set apart only for those who have entered the covenant of marriage. What it is set apart from is the ordinary and the commonplace (hence the importance of modesty and chivalry to protect the value of sexuality); what it is set apart for is the covenant of marriage (hence the importance of chastity). Havelock Ellis, though not someone whose writings I would want to be associated with, nevertheless stumbled upon the truth when he wrote:

"Without modesty we could not have, nor rightly value at its true worth, that bold and pure candour which is at once the final revelation of love and the seal of its sincerity."[ix]

Seen in this way, modesty (not only of dress but of manners, speech and conduct) need not be indicative of an under-sexed temperament, as is often thought; rather, it is an acknowledgement and preservation of one’s sexuality as a gift from God. Modesty and chastity are not matters of negation, but of affirmation: affirming the sacredness and beauty of sexuality and committing to preserve the sense in which it is set apart and cherished.[x] This perspective challenges both promiscuity and prudery, as Shalit has pointed:

"Whether she decides to have scores of men or none, promiscuous and prudish women in some sense embrace the same flippant world-view, which one might call the nothing-fazes-me worldview. As types, they represent two sides of the same unerotic coin, which flips over arrogantly and announces to the world when it lands: “Ha!- I cannot be moved.” Modesty is prudery's true opposite, because it admits that one can be moved and issues a specific invitation for one man to try. Promiscuity and prudery are both a kind of antagonistic indifference, a running away from the meaning of one place in the world, whereas modesty is fundamentally about knowing, protecting that knowledge, and directing it to something higher, beyond just two. Something more than just man and wife."[xi]

We can begin to see how ironic it is that those who pursue modesty are often said to be the ones “uncomfortable with their bodies” or “ashamed of their sexuality.” That is comparable to saying that I am uncomfortable with my expensive silver kitchenware because I refuse to use it on a picnic. Just as my valuable silver is too precious to put to common use, so the treasure of our body should be too valuable to use in any but the appropriate context.

C. S. Lewis observed that “when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common.”[xii] Thanks to the Enlightenment, sexuality has come to be common. No wonder we no longer see the need for it to be enclosed.

Thank You Enlightenment

For hundreds, even thousands, of years, there has been a collective instinct in Western society which told us that sexuality should have boundaries around it. Even when people failed to live by these standards, there was a shared sense that this was a deviation from what was morally normative. That is why sexual impropriety generally used to be clocked about with hypocrisy. Since hypocrisy is ‘the tribute that vice plays to virtue’ (Matthew Arnold), the loss of hypocrisy is usually corollary to the loss of moral consciousness. In our own era, because there is nothing to be ashamed about there is nothing to be hypocritical about.

The only reason that our Western culture ever had these shared assumptions was because our civilization had been built on the foundation of the Christian worldview. The Christian roots of our society have been part of the very air people breathed, whether they were believers or unbelievers.

All this began to change at the time of the Enlightenment. Although the worldview of materialism robbed our sexuality from having any objective or transcendent meaning, the effects of this were not fully felt until our own time, as we have seen. When a civilization moves from one worldview to another, it often takes hundreds of years for the old worldview to wear off, even in the thinking and practice of those who explicitly reject it. So the materialists of the Enlightenment really had the best of both worlds: they could advocate materialism with the corollary that God was no longer an inconvenient obstacle, while still working on the borrowed capital of thousands of years of Christian tradition.

That state of affairs continued for a long time. Even when Darwinism charged the materialistic worldview with an enormous boost in the 19th century, the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview still continued to function in many areas, not least where gender and sexual morality were concerned. Yet gradually the borrowed capital has been running out. For our society this is bad news, but Christians can find something to be glad about. Since it is no longer possible to unthinkingly follow a general Christian consensus, Christians have been forced to go back to the foundations of their faith and examine afresh the implications of their worldview.

For many years the church was living on the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview just as much as the world was, without properly working things through from the first principles of their faith. Now that this borrowed capital has run out, Christians seem to be waking up, returning to their foundations and strugling to articulate a genuinely Biblical philosophy of life. Not only is that a good thing, it is something we can thank the Enlightenment for.Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The answer is, of course, that the righteous can rebuild the foundations. Everything good that the Enlightenment destroyed must be rebuilt. But more than that, it must be rebuilt a hundred times as strong. That is something that is already happening now. It is a project that each one of us can be part of as we articulate and apply the Christian worldview to every area of our lives.

[i] Texts II, p. 246.
[ii] Ibid, p. 266.
[iii] A. L Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), p. 7.
[iv] C. S. Lewis, ‘Equality’ in Present Concerns: Ethical Essays (London, Fount Paperbacks, 1986), p. 19.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Nearly all the sex education curriculum today is specifically aimed at convincing children that sex is not-a-very-big-deal. Consider, as a paradigm case, a booklet published in England by a government funded sex education group. The booklet, titled Good Grope Guide, instructs children of 14 and younger on how to have sex, saying that sex can happen “at friends’, watching videos on Saturday morning, or while taking a walk in the park.” The tables have turned to the point that those who are not particularly interested in having Saturday-morning-sex are the ones considered to have a problem, to be not-quite-nice (“Nice girls feel sexy and nice girls make love. That’s a fact of life.” Good Grope Guide.) See 'Controversial sex book launched' on BBC news, Friday, 4 August, at
[vii] The anecdotal evidence bears this out. Many, many studies have shown, not merely that married women are generally more sexually fulfilled than sexually active single women, but the most strongly religious women are also the most sexually responsive. Interestingly, “Stendhal…asks himself why the most sensitive women – let us call them the ‘high responders’ – are always the ones who end up being the most sexually reticent. Stendhal concludes that it’s such a shame the high responders are drawn to modesty, because these are the women who are the most fun to have sex with – the very ones who are, in effect, ‘made for love.’ …his quarrel with female modesty, as a man, seems to be: it’s not fair that the high responders should be the modest ones, because then the sensualists are hoarding their sensuality…. What seems to have escaped him is that it is no accident the sensualists end up hiding behind modesty, because it is modesty which protects their sensuality – for the right man that is. If the sensualists tried to overcome their natural modesty and to become more promiscuous, as Stendhal suggests, then their experiences would have less meaning for them, much of what excites them would be diminished, one man would serve more or less as well as any other – in other words, they would no longer be sensualists.” Wendy Shalit, op. cit., pp. 186-87.
[viii] The words of a 16-year old boy, cited in ‘Text and emails spell the death of dating’, The Week, 19th June, 2004, p. 15.
[ix] Havelock Ellis, "The Evolution of Modesty,'' Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 1, 3rd edition. (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis), 1899.
[x] See Kathleen van Schaijik, ‘A Different Perspective on the Modesty Question’, The University Concourse, Vol. IV Issue 5, March 11, 1999, at,5,3-11-1999/vanSchaijik.htm
[xi] Shalit, op. cit., pp. 182-183
[xii] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (first published by John Love, 1945).

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