I recently watched two films. One was the 2020 rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma, and the other was the heartbreaking Marriage Story by writer-director Noah Baumbach.
While they shared much in common, like an impeccable cast and screenplay, the biggest difference between the two were their endings. Emma ends with the protagonist, of whom the film is named after, finally discovering her true love after a string of indecent and dishonest bachelors.
The man, Mr. Knightley, truly cares for her, he makes her laugh and cry during their deep friendship, and ultimately sacrifices everything for her hand. Marriage Story, however, ends with a once madly in love couple finally accepting the aftermath of a nasty divorce and custody battle for their son.
There’s a bittersweet hint of friendship between them in the finale, a remembrance of what was lost but can never be regained. And then. . . the screen fades to black.
These films present us with two visions of human sexuality. Let us call Emma’s the “Enchanted view” and the latter the “Disenchanted view.” In the enchanted view, the virtuous man and woman end up together, and their romance is not without passion, humor, or great intimacy.
In the disenchanted view, however, permanence is never guaranteed or promised, the relationship is never truly secure or liberating, virtue is valued but never enforced (or even understood).
The Disenchanted View
The disenchanted view of sexuality is much closer to the reality of our world. People have defended reducing marriage to merely a contract between two (or more) people without any expectation of permanence. Instead, they can treat their relationship as a sort of “lease” where they rent each other’s time and body.
This sort of thinking stems from the sexual ethics I shall call the “mere consent” view in which two rational wills or parties (of any number) agree to have sex. Any other expectations of personal intimacy and closeness are extra, but not required. Indeed, the two parties could be total strangers to one another who meet for just a night and then disappear the next morning – the “hookup culture” in a nutshell.
The disenchanted view is often defended with a hint of aggression and frustration. This aggression and frustration arises from the cliché to blame the enchanted view for our current conundrum – the rising feelings of loneliness, distrust, and isolation.
The defenders of disenchantment claim that the enchanted view endorsed a much too high standard for human sexuality and, in the process, became oppressive to both men and women. They insist that we must compromise for a view of sexuality more realistic and humane.
I submit they are wrong. In actuality, the spirit of compromise gradually chipped away at the enchanted vision until the social structures and expectations that once upheld it were lost. It is the disenchanted view that dehumanized us and, in the process, denigrated our most precious longing – to be purely and assuredly loved.
The Enchanted View
The enchanted view begins by recognizing the strength of our sexual passions, and the natural – not accidental – desire for relationship and intimacy that follows. It begins by understanding human nature in order to humanize and dignify the entire person, especially when deducing safeguards for sexual activity.
This view recognizes that human beings are not just rational wills who just so happen to have bodies, our bodies are not pieces of property subject to market forces and mere contracts – we are one with our body and will. Our physical needs are also rational, and they speak in our body’s hungers.
Consider the pornography epidemic. Young men and women are attracted to porn due to the excitement and beauty of sex, but they are often left more lonesome and empty after consumption. Why? It is because our ignited sexual passions are urging us towards another person in whom these desires find their termination and completion. But, that’s where our problem lies.
Our very real desires are ordered towards another very real person. But, what kinds of persons are around us today? Are they the sorts of persons we can trust? It doesn’t seem that way, and even the disenchanted view admits this.
But, once more, notice the problem: we are seeking another person in whom we can trust, but such persons aren’t there. It seems unnatural that our desires, up to this point, should suddenly stop pointing towards something real and be fulfilled. So, what produces trustworthy persons? The answer is simple – virtue.
The Beauty of Men and Women
Virtues are character traits or dispositions of a person towards the good. And, the good is the final end or purpose in which our longings find their fulfilment. For instance, honesty is a disposition towards truth, and forgiveness is a disposition towards friendship, reconciliation, and freedom.
In the case of sexuality, our physical nakedness towards another person also becomes a total nakedness. Recall that we are not, on the enchanted view, wills who just so happen to have bodies but are unities in ourselves. So, our naked physicality is also a bare manifestation of our entire person.
Accordingly, our invitation to the other person to do as they please with us, and to let us respond, is almost paradoxical in nature. It invites awkwardness, clumsiness, and laughter as we unearth our physicality and personality.
To make such a beautiful and significant decision, one must understand themselves, their nature and true desires, and trust that the other person has done the same and will reciprocate our nakedness, ensuring we are not alone in our vulnerability.
As the late Sir Roger Scruton once said, “It is not enough to be nice; you have to be good. We are attracted by nice people; but only on the assumption that their niceness is a sign of goodness.”
This was the wisdom once commonsensical to our ancestors. It was considered the birth right of every man and woman who ever wished to be loved. And, it was lost as the spirit of compromise prevailed. Patriarchy instrumentalized women into man’s mere means of pleasure and domination, stripping her of her full humanity. In turn, men became unworthy of the glory of women.
And, as good men became harder to find, many women begrudgingly surrendered the enchanted vision, refusing love altogether, or allowed less virtuous men to have their way, eventually believing themselves to somehow be unworthy of their cries for love.
Likewise, pornography has reduced men and women into machines for pleasure. It has diminished our natural desire for the real presence of another person into toleration for a false, simulated sexuality.
All of these losses were due to a spirit of compromise, of settling for less, of seeing what we could get away with. In the process, however, we surrendered everything.
A Final Plea
This is not to deny that the mere consent ethic and pornography have their delights. The mere consent ethic is safe, but it is a cheap knockoff of trust. And, pornography is also titillating and exciting, but only because it borrows from the reality of our longings when it cannot even in principle fulfill them.
Indeed, both of these compromises to human sexuality get away with their dehumanization by borrowing from the fullness of the good we were made for: the reality of loving intimacy our unified bodies and wills desire. They form a divide within us between the “good” and “reality,” grotesquely insisting we must settle for the disenchanted view of the world.
Hence, the argument I have been making is not that the enchanted view of the world would diminish our sex lives. No, that is a lie peddled by the disenchanted. My argument is that our happiness and its security should have no compromises.
We should be living in a world where our dignity, our humanity, is not diminished into a contract or a piece of commerce but is beautifully reflected in the mirror of another person’s soul. Our happiness should not be left to the sinking sands of relativism but cherished and protected by the firmness of virtue. As C.S. Lewis once said,
“[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Suan Sonna is a philosophy student at Kansas State University who is interested in moral and theological issues. He runs the online page and YouTube channel Intellectual Conservatism which aims at defending traditional ideas with the best thinkers of the past and present.
Rampell, Paul. “A High Divorce Rate Means It’s Time to Try ‘Wedleases’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Aug. 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-high-divorce-rate-means-its-time-to-try-wedleases/2013/08/04/f2221c1c-f89e-11e2-b018-5b8251f0c56e_story.html.
See Scruton, Roger. Sexual Desire: a Philosophical Investigation. Continuum, 2006.
See Pereyra, Samuel Alejandro, “Pornography Use and Loneliness: Assessing Correlations Using Three Associative Models” (2016). All Theses and Dissertations. 6417; Beste, Jennifer. “Are College Students Happy in Contemporary Party and Hookup Culture?” Oxford Scholarship Online, 2017, doi:10.1093/oso/9780190268503.003.0005.; Yoder, Vincent Cyrus, et al. “Internet Pornography and Loneliness: An Association?” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, vol. 12, no. 1, 2005, pp. 19–44., doi:10.1080/10720160590933653.
“Roger Scruton Quotes (Author of Beauty).” Goodreads, Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/12399.Roger_Scruton.
Fessler, Leah. “A Lot of Women Don’t Enjoy Hookup Culture-so Why Do We Force Ourselves to Participate?” Quartz, Quartz, 23 Jan. 2017, qz.com/685852/hookup-culture/.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. HarperOne, 2001, pg. 26.