Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Plato was no friend of safe sex, and latex would not have changed his mind. In his great erotic dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus, Plato’s love is like C. S. Lewis’s divine lion, Aslan, who though very good is certainly not tame. The erotic desire beauty provokes, Plato tells us, is the path to madness, not to the security and dull reasonableness of the prudent. We slander love and the gods who bring that desire when we refuse its transfigurations and ecstasies. Control and the dear old self: These are not gods, but their idols of clay.

Every love is a giving birth, a conception that takes lover and beloved beyond themselves into an undiscovered country, a procreation. Love is always emigrant. The Platonic lover muses on the beloved, doting to idolatry over this image and likeness of God. It is union above all duty. Why teach ourselves to hope for less? But in truth we shy from using these sacred names, as much from human fear as holy awe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the new world’s greatest Platonist, understood our reticence. “We but half express ourselves,” he wrote, “and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” To own the mad aspirations of Plato’s fertile love is to risk a charge of public intoxication in this our sober age, which usurps the name of temperance, but shows itself to favor prohibition. Its representative would be T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, whose hundred indecisions and revisions are but poor shelters from the overwhelming questions and indefinite answers of love. Love has no safe harbors, only interminable oceans. It must dare disturb the universe, and it will search out the expressions it needs for its work.

But where do we find ourselves? Erotic lethargy is the master tone of the age. Like Mark Antony by Caesar, we are dispossessed of our erotic estate by mere administrators, and the angels of love fold up their wings affrighted and overpowered. Our genius is fled, since love cannot be found measured and reckoned like so many spoons of coffee. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the great philosophers of the last century. Our mother tongue feels her limits, and stammers and scolds when she tries to speak of love.

The present contractions of our erotic language are painful to behold, and God knows what rough beasts are waiting to be born. Hardheaded realism is the mask worn in our time by hard-hearted cynicism. Emerson saw it coming, this world where our experience refuses all the expressions of idealism. So we keep the high things of the world outside, the better to keep our petty inside secure and tranquilized. “The dearest events are summer-rain, and we the Para coats that shed every drop.” Now sex itself is like the weather, and the law of erotic prudence is always to have at hand one’s slicker.

Scholars and poets are nature’s victims of expression. We wax and wane with the language. Every word chagrins us, and we blush from inarticulacy. The most common word we mouth to describe the conjugal embrace is as old as English, our four-letter friend derived from a Dutch root, fokken, having to do with breeding cattle. (So much for romance.) What is common comes to lose its savor, and in the end is good for nothing but to be thrown in the street and trampled underfoot. When I was a boy four decades ago, the word at least retained a certain vulgar potency, even when voiced only among other boys—it was unthinkable to say it in front of girls, and it was uttered in front of adults only for the most extreme of purposes. It meant something then, something about crossing a line or refusing to feign innocence. We could wear it as an impudent badge of adolescent knowingness. But forty years of trampling have made it in truth what the Oxford English Dictionary says it has been for a century, a “meaningless intensifier.” The limits of this erotic world are common indeed.

One wonders if the century has made a meaningless intensifier not only of the name, but of the action named as well. On college campuses, the genius of language has found the name “hook-up” for an evanescent sexual entanglement, especially when catalyzed by artificial intoxicants. The word is meant, like its precursors “affair” and “fling,” to carry the holiday in its eye, a spirit of roving adventure. I find the association with travel real enough, but the name loses some of its enchantment in my local habitation. Where I live in Indiana, roving is associated with recreational vehicles, those massive motor homes of camping enthusiasts. This vehicular lifestyle depends on transient resting places where the mighty rovers can dump their waste, and campsites with accommodating plumbing advertise the provision of “hook-ups.” Perhaps this connotation of “hook-up” is the Hoosier version of William Faulk­ ner’s pithy description of uncaring sex as finding “an evening’s spittoon.” One does not dote on a hook-up.

But when we try to ascend from the common to the public, do we fare better? The phrase “sexual intercourse,” and the use of the word “sex” to cover not just the fact of male and female, but what we (though not our former President) call “sex acts,” are also hardly a century old. At the very moment our Dutch word left the confines of the erotic and became a general term of excitement or abuse, the vacuum was filled with words more at home in a hospital than the nuptial chamber. Our talk of love came under the severe influence of the public health authorities. The nuptial meaning of the body, to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II’s, all but disappears.

This medical turn in our language made public speech about the erotic possible by sanitizing it, like chlorine in so much sewage. It was the beginning of the movement toward safe sex, a prophylactic of the tongue. “Sexual intercourse” comes from the same region of the language native to various sorts of -ectomies and -oscopies. It does not sound like something for which one would cross the hall, let alone the world. “I’m sorry, I can’t meet you for lunch today; I have to go to the medical center for a sexual intercourse.” My favorite illustration of where this way of talking takes us is the phrase “sexually active.” It seems to be modeled on “radioactive”: the “sexually active” teenager is an isotope with a short half-life, spewing particles of sexuality that threaten to cause beta decay in the surrounding atoms.

The metallic aftertaste of words medical and the impudent tastelessness of words adolescent make every choice unpalatable. They cannot speak to our erotic desires. Here even a good Christian might long to be a pagan. How like finding fresh water it is to read in Plato that Eros is a great god, and to speak of love with the sacred names of Dionysus, god of wine, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty. We have Plato’s testimony that every one of us—male and female, free and slave, gentile and Jew—is pregnant, and erotic desire is our surest sign that the gods will have us give birth.

Our poor tongue seems to cover itself in shame when confronted with this erotic theophany. The earth-bound scholars will try to dispirit us with their malicious insinuation that the Greek word aphrodisia, “the things of Aphrodite,” is merely another way of saying “sexual intercourse.” The fact and the inference are not to be trusted. One might as well say the Church’s word for “cup” is “chalice,” and confuse a mundane instrument of profane life with the container for a bloody yet nourishing god. What conceptions do the scholars attach to love, what to religion! One would not willingly pronounce these words in their hearing, and give them the occasion to profane them with their knowingness. The art of love has a pudency, and will not be exposed. Nietzsche was right to say Eros has been poisoned into degeneracy, but he misidentified the poisoners. It is the intellectuals, not the Christians, who have drugged Eros with a contraceptive of the mind.

In our time, the Catholic Church has done more than anyone else to keep visible this divine aspect of sexuality. I do not claim she has done enough. The tongue remains a most erotic organ, but our language labors to make itself heard over the sniggers of boys with dirty pictures and the cold clatter of doctors with their instruments. We need love-intoxicated Christian poets to find new heaven, new earth, new words. “The conjugal embrace,” “the nuptial meaning of the body,” cannot for most of us be the cadences of our native place. They are the quaint idioms of Vaticanese, the foreign speech of a land where we may visit, but do not live.

It is an honest response to bide one’s time and bite one’s tongue, until the weather clears and new work can be done. As Wittgenstein said, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But there is a risk in waiting, too. If I bite my tongue too often, I may lose the power of speech altogether. And then where will I be? Nowhere to be found.

David K. O’Connor is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Notre Dame and senior fellow of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina. He has edited Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 translation of Plato’s Symposium for St. Augustine’s Press.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift