In a few carefully argued pages in his recently translated The Crisis of Modernity, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto del Noce explains the “ascendance of eroticism.” Del Noce died in 1989, but his account could have been written yesterday. He illumines why Fifty Shades of Grey strikes a cultural chord, why same-sex marriage became the cutting edge of radical politics, and why virtually no Democrat dares to oppose abortion rights. It’s a little tour de force of philosophical and political analysis.
The sexual revolution, del Noce argues, was a radical change in Western metaphysics and views of human nature. Wilhelm Reich’s manifesto, The Sexual Revolution, began from the unargued assumption that there is no “order of ends, no meta-empirical authority of values.” In a world without purposes, “all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality.”
This worldview is partly a product of a deliberate war against Christianity, especially Catholicism, but Del Noce sees it as the fruit of the elevation of science into a metaphysics. Modern science eliminates Aristotelian-Thomist teleology and deals only with efficient causes and natural forces. Sexuality becomes nothing more than a play of drives, without purpose or ultimate value. “The sexual revolution is . . . the point of arrival of ‘scientism.’” Any limit on our drives is an assault on our dignity. Sexual inhibitions are unnatural, every prohibition a threat to human freedom.
Sexual revolutionaries thus turn sexual morality upside down. Earlier ideals like modesty, purity, and restraint are now seen as repressive and abnormal. The category of “sexual perversion” must be eliminated. Behind this is the anti-teleology of the new sexual metaphysics: Sex best expresses its essence when it has no goal (e.g., procreation) beyond itself, and so “homosexual expressions, either masculine or feminine, should be regarded as the purest form of love.”
The sexual revolution transforms the past into “what has to be surpassed,” what Reich calls “the dead trying to suffocate the living.” The past is “what must be negated to find psychological balance.” We are not free unless we are free to couple and decouple at will, without faithfulness or future. As del Noce puts it, “the domain of free sexuality is the pure present.”
Logically, the family comes to be seen as the “repressive social institution par excellence,” because family “is inseparable from the idea of tradition, of a heritage of truth that we must tradere, hand on.” Marital sex is embedded in a generation-to-generation transmission of a heritage, and this violates the premises of the sexual revolution. The moral and metaphysical revolution must be completed in a social revolution.
The sexual revolution marks the crucial divide between the old and new left: “The new left [has] become sexualized.” It is “defined precisely by its unwillingness to reject either Freud or Marx,” but its synthesis would satisfy neither. The sexual revolution gives up Marxist teleology and abandons Freud’s tragic moralism; it regards Freud and Marx as bourgeois sell-outs. Eliminating social and economic inequities isn’t enough. Sexual revolution alone brings total revolution. De Sade, not Marx or Freud, is the true hero of total revolution.
Del Noce makes it clear that we cannot combat the sexual revolution with a sociological defense of the family that emphasizes the social goods of traditional families. The sexual revolution is a metaphysical attack on the family, and only an alternative metaphysics meets its challenge. Del Noce says that we need “classical metaphysics.” I’d modify that: We need a theology of the body that is also a theology of the human, which, fortunately, a recent pope has provided.
I don’t agree with the Catholic Church’s rejection of all forms of artificial birth control, but the Catholic position pinpoints the place of practical resistance to the sexual revolution. If we’re going to restore sexual sanity, we need to reattach sex to an intergenerational process of traditioning. We need to welcome the most immediate consequence of sex—that is, children—and equip them to carry a tradition into the future. The sexual revolution will be overcome when sex is no longer a pure present, but the intersection of past and future, of parentage and descent.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.