Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aristotle's sex life

Aristotle can sometimes say some surprising things. This is one of my favourites. In NE VII.11 he is giving a list of reasons why you might think that pleasure is not a good thing in a human life. (He doesn’t endorse these entirely, but runs through them nevertheless before showing why they might not be as compelling as you’d first think.) One of the reasons is that pleasures might be an impediment to thought. You can imagine a po-faced Platonist thinking something like this if he has been reading the Phaedo in a lazy way and not quite got the idea that there can be pleasures had from thinking too. But at least some kinds of pleasure might get in the way of a good think. And then Aristotle gives an example:
 οἷον τῇ τῶν ἀφροδισίων· οὐδένα γὰρ ἂν δύνασθαι νοῆσαί τι ἐν αὐτῇ. (1152b17–18)
  (… as with the pleasure of sex: no one could have any thoughts when enjoying that.) trans. C. Rowe.
I like to imagine Theophrastus sitting in the audience and being a bit taken aback… (I don’t know why I think this might bother Theophrastus; he just seems like that kind of person.  And I don't think I’d get away with a comment like this in a lecture. Just imagine the questionnaire returns.) It’s a reasonable point, I suppose, if you add some further thoughts. If sex is a natural human activity and sex is very pleasurable and it is impossible to think properly while having sex then perhaps there is a tension between at least some parts of our nature and our wonderful intellectual capacities.

Still, is it just me or does this conjure up all sorts of other images? Perhaps Aristotle had tried it out. (‘Hang on, darling, I’m just wondering about a first figure syllogism…’)  And I suppose if you do manage to do a bit of demonstration while having sex, you perhaps are not really engaging properly in either activity.  Anyway, it's a shame he doesn't come back to this in 10.5 when he explains how his account of the way in which activities each have a characteristic pleasure explains various phenomena like this.


Joachim said...

Funny passage. But apparently it's all really a matter of training or devotion. A) Rowe's translation isn't quite right here (a rare thing). Of course you can have some thoughts, e.g. Where is the water?. B) Just as builders can build and listen to music, why wouldn't people either really into sex or contemplation be able to do both? Sure Book X says they interfere, but it doesn't always seem to be so. C) In Murakami's 'Kafka on the shore' there is a steamy sex-scene that has the woman talk about Hegel's philosophy. It's fiction alright, but the scene is rather persuasive.

James Warren said...

Thanks, Joachim. I think you're right that 'νοῆσαί' here might mean something a bit more elevated than 'having a thought'. The objection works better, I suppose, if it means something more demanding. Perhaps Aristotle just was not really into multi-tasking... As for you're (C), I'll take your word for it!

Matthew Duncombe said...

On a related note as an undergrad I went Craig Bourn's lectures on predicates. Throughout the course, he used, as examples of predicates, the ascending tricolon: 'is long', 'is hard', 'is throbbing'. No one complained about that...