Back when I was growing up in the 1960s there was a vague feeling in the air that in the previous decade, the 1950s, the legitimate demands of nature, specifically of the human body and sexuality, had been to some degree disvalued, downplayed, treated as something to be ashamed about, instead of as something natural. One recalls the TV shows from the 50s and early 60s that showed married couples sleeping in separate beds, for example. Although this sense that sex and the body were disvalued was inchoate, poorly grounded in first principles, and quickly became little more than a justification for unchastity, nevertheless I have long thought that there was a certain amount of truth in it. The 1950s had been guilty, I think, of that sin of angelism, as Jacques Maritain labeled it in his book, Three Reformers. In its Cartesian form, angelism treats man as essentially a soul, with a body awkwardly attached. But this is false. Human beings are rational animals, not angels. We are, wrote Maritain, “a transitional form between the corporeal world and the spiritual world,” dependent on matter and the senses even for our knowledge. The sexual revolution, then, was not merely a revolt of unbridled sensuality, but like most revolutions included some element of truth.
In the particular iteration of angelism based on Descartes’ thought, there is another twist. This is his effective abolition of nature altogether. By reducing matter to a featureless extended mass, Descartes did away with the natural differences among material things, the unique qualities that make one thing differ from another and give each thing its prerogatives or responsibilities. This angelism has been a recurring intellectual error of Western civilization, and since Descartes has most often served as the more or less “official” post-Enlightenment understanding of man.
The Sexual Revolution Wins all
It is standard wisdom that the sexual revolution pretty much triumphed. In the 1970s the ideas and the artistic and expressive modes that in the previous decade had been mostly confined to college campuses were extended into the wider culture. The mass media happily appropriated them, and big business found them a fertile source of advertising ideas. But along the way something strange happened. The protest on behalf of nature and the body was hijacked by a revived Cartesian angelism and transformed into an assertion of the supremacy of the will and the ultimate irrelevancy of the body.
This happened early on with homosexuality, where the very logic and shape of the body was ignored and the mind was given a precedence that should have been seen as utterly inconsistent with nature. It is curious that the public debate, such as there was, during the 80s and 90s on acceptance of homosexuality, and later of same-sex “marriage,” was conducted, for the most part, not on the level of a discussion of the obvious unnaturalness of homosexual acts, but by means of disputes about the meaning of often obscure texts from the Old Testament.
After the confused acceptance of homosexuality as normative came the even more bizarre phenomenon of transgenderism. If the 1960s was characterized by an intuition that the human body and human sexuality were natural and hence good, transgenderism is one more step toward an utter disvaluing of the body in the interests of the will. It would be hard to find a more perfect example of Cartesian angelism in practice.
Where will all this lead to? In C. S. Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength, the third volume of his space trilogy, we can see where the anti-nature attitude of Professor Filostrato has led.
In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it…. We must get rid of it…. Slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.
In the novel Filostrato is simply the dupe of demons and of those directly in touch with demons. For the Devil, in spite of all his promotion of sins of the flesh, hates the human body, if for no other reason than that the Eternal Logos has assumed a human body as part of his complete human nature. This must be intolerable to that proud, pure spirit, Satan. Hence his relentless attack on our bodily nature.
Descartes All Over Again
While Catholics hardly noticed, if fact, while we were gleefully dismantling so much of our traditional and hence anti-Cartesian liturgy, Western culture returned fiercely to its Cartesian trajectory. If we are to oppose that we must do so from the Catholic understanding of the essential goodness of things, of human nature, including human sexuality, and of the many concrete created things and acts which we once incorporated so abundantly into our worship. It may be too late in the current epoch, since the minds of our contemporaries seem strangely unreachable. But any hope of reaching them must lie, I think, in pointing out again and again that we are not angels, and that if we truly appreciate the essential goodness of humanity, that appreciation must include as well our bodily selves, our bodily whatness. In this, perhaps, we do have a point of agreement, which, if we follow it up with both charity and careful logic, may be of some effect, at least something to start a conversation about.