Contraception And The War Within The Self
In Australia, there is a strange and curious member of the insect world known as the bulldog-ant. If one cuts this unusual creature in half, the severed parts begin to war against each other. The head seizes the tail with its teeth, and the tail relentlessly defends itself by stinging the head. The battle may last for half an hour, until the parts expire or are dragged away by other ants.1
The bulldog-ant both exemplifies and symbolizes what can happen when parts of the same living being are no longer harmoniously related to each other in the context of organic wholeness. Initially, there is a profound alienation characterized by a loss of the sense that the parts belong to the same being; next, and arising from this alienation, is an antagonism which sets the parts against each other as mortal enemies.
This war between two parts of the bulldog-ant also provides an image of utter futility: the tail wants to destroy the head so that it can live as a tail alone, while the head wants to destroy the tail so that it can function solely as a head. The tragic law enacted here is that by attempting to dominate, the part can only destroy. In a war of the parts there can be no winners. In this way, alienation and antagonism combine to produce annihilation.
Has the human species evolved so far beyond the self-alienating potentialities of lower animals, such as the bulldog-ant, that its own identity, integration, and wholeness have become inviolable?
Plato once speculated, in his Symposium, that human beings were originally hermaphrodites or androgyns, made up of equal male and female parts. When this manwoman was cut into two, "sliced like a flatfish," as Plato states,2 the male and female sexes were born. As a consequence, Love was introduced into the world, for Love is the "desire on the part of men and women to be united and melted together," to "become one from two" and re-establish their original wholeness.
This Platonic view of the alienated sexes returning to their original unity has had a great deal of influence in Western thought and bears a striking parallel with Judaeo-Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. In Robert Browning's poem, Paracelsus, for example, we find two severed parts of a whole, named Paracelsus and Aprile, personifying Love and Knowledge, respectively. For Browning, these two great gifts will be preserved only when they are unified:
Are we not halves of one dissevered world,
Whom this strange chance unites once more?
Till thou the lover, know: and I the knower
Love until both are saved.
Platonic idealism, however, which takes little note of a man's fallen nature, obscures the deeper and darker truth that human sexuality is extremely precarious. In fact, from the standpoint of sexuality, homo sapiens may be the most tenuously unified of all species in the animal kingdom. The mere meeting and merging of the sexes does not, by any means, insure complete or lasting unity. Indeed, it is often exploitive and deceptive, fragmentary and episodic.
Consider the relationship between two fundamental dimensions of human sexuality sex and procreation. According to modern convention, the act by which procreation is separated from sex results not in a loss but in freedom. But such a mentality that interprets self-alienation as freedom invariably initiates a war within the self between one part and its amputated counterpart. If procreation is regarded not as a fulfillment of sex but as something incompatible with freedom, war within the self between sex and procreation is inevitable.
The self-alienating effects brought about by the employment of contraception are well documented in medical and psychological journals. They are also frequently expressed in literature and in popular magazines. One longtime user of contraception who subsequently became a natural family planning practitioner speaks for many when she makes the following comment:
I used to think of my fertility as being something like a green monster lurking in a dark closet, ready to strike with a pregnancy at any time. For years I felt hopeless against the "monster" unless I was "armed" with the most powerful contraceptives on the market. What a sad, pathetic view to have held for so many years!3
Contraception aims at separating sex from procreation on a temporary basis. But the natural unity between the two is such that the contraceptive exploit does not always achieve this separation or achieves it only by subjecting the sexual partners to considerable risks, side-effects, and inconveniences. Thus, a more aggressive form of separation, sterilization, is employed in order to separate sex from procreation more effectively and more permanently without subjecting the partners to the kinds of difficulties associated with contraception. Abortion is an even more aggressive measure, separating the fruit of procreation the child-in-the-womb from its mother.
What is common to the mentalities that bear upon each of these separations is the notion that conception is an enemy of sex. Moreover, the escalation of aggression from contraception to sterilization to abortion reveals both the intensity of the warfare as well as the unremitting stubbornness with which nature tries to hold sex and procreation together. Abortion promoters who want to identify an unplanned pregnancy as a sexually transmitted disease thereby attest to the indissoluble bond that unites sex and procreation. Despite the virtual deluge of contraception and sterilization, "unwanted" pregnancies persist.
We find a particularly clear expression of the war between sex and procreation in Ellen Peck's best-selling book, The Baby Trap: "I want to tell you," states the author, "about this trap, not because I see babies as the enemies of the human race, really, but because I see babies as the enemy of you.4
Ms. Peck goes on to explain how children, like the tail of the dissevered bulldog-ant, can sting their parents to death: "Children can cause serious crises within a marriage. Children can precipitate divorce. Children can make a man feel trapped. Children can turn a very nice girl into a frustrated nag." 5
Ms. Peck offers an example, though a solitary one, to illustrate the "typical" carnage that children can wreak on their parents. She cites a once beautiful woman whose two children were the alleged cause of their mother's "ulcers, colitis, hypertension headaches, . . . and a hatred of existence in general." Plato obviously knew nothing about children when he said that love for existence breeds a desire to confer it upon and share it with others.
Better that the head strike the tail first, that sex exclude procreation in order to prevent the procreated offspring from having even the opportunity of waging their defense.
But if there were freedom in childless-ness, living by the popular maxim, "Make love, not people," did not appear to give birth to much happiness. Two recent movies are graphic images of how the severed parts of a two-in-one-flesh marriage can recapitulate the ferocity of the bulldog-ant. She-Devil, starring Roseanne Barr and Ed. Begley, Jr., carried the advertisement that "Love is Hell," while The War of the Roses, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, played out the horrific message that "Love is War."
Divorce has become so commonplace that today eleven-year-olds are using the courts to get divorced from their parents. Greeting cards now offer congratulations to divorced parties as they enter into their new-found freedom. Attorney Mel Krantzler, in his book Creative Divorce, explains how it is divorce rather than preserving marriage that is truly creative. A popular song, "I Married Badly but Divorced Well," creates the impression that divorce is a state of life. For many teenagers, "monogamy" is sleeping with one person at a time.
If wedlock is viewed as padlock, separation is regarded as liberation. Perhaps a fitting epitaph for modern man would read:
Here lies modern man
Who multiplied his problems
Seeking freedom through division
This same problem of deifying one thing and excluding all the rest has plagued man from his earliest days. In mythology, the gods granted Sybil whatever she wished. She chose immortality. But in her enthusiasm for just one thing, she forgot to combine her wish with eternal youth. Sybil shrank with age until she became small enough to fit in a bottle. At this point the only thing she could then wish for was death. Dr. Faustus sought power over life to the exclusion of love for life. King Midas worshipped gold, but at the price of surrendering everything else. Don Juan's tragedy lay in the fact that his consuming lust for women prevented him from either knowing or loving them.
Gnosticism chooses knowledge and rejects the body, while stoicism opts for discipline and repudiates pleasure. Hedonists repress reason to enjoy pleasure, whereas radical existentialists idealize freedom at the expense of meaning. Positivists cannot combine science with religion, cynics fail to reconcile experience with truth.
Immanuel Kant suppressed knowledge in order to save faith. Friedrich Nietzsche glorified power and shunned community. Sigmund Freud isolated sex from freedom, Karl Marx separated social progress from brotherly love. Bertrand Russell set logic against mysticism, while Wilhelm Reich opposed feeling to thought.
Mahatma Gandhi organized his celebrated "Seven Sins of the Modern World" in accordance with this same line of thinking which exalts one value while disparaging complementary values. These "sins" represent a profound moral myopia, which results in a kind of spiritual warfare between a single value and its counterbalancing opposite. The list reads accordingly:
1) Wealth without work
2) Pleasure without conscience
3) Knowledge without character
4) Commerce without morality
5) Science without humility
6) Worship without sacrifice
7) Politics without principle
To this list we could add: sex without procreation, procreation without sex, parents without spouses, and children without parents.
Perhaps the strangest of all these reductions is the one popularly represented by the expression, "Good Sex." Such a view presumes that sex is most robust when it is most emaciated, that is, when the range of values it embraces is kept to an absolute minimum. It is a view reminiscent of that espoused by the Roman poet Lucretius who held that any affection for one's partner actually interferes with one's pleasure since it spoils the cool and critical receptivity of the palate. It is a view endorsed by author Gore Vidal who insists that sex is at its best when it is reduced to "thingness." "Sex that makes a thing of the partner is a joy," he writes. "There is nothing more depressing to any of us than our personalities . . . I say, 'The best thing that a person can be is a thing.' And two things meeting consensually is what it's all about."6
Sex, of course, is not merely sex. It is naturally ordinated to love, marriage, children, and community. The importance of the relationship between being and order is no better realized than in the natural relationship between sex and life. One might say that sex complicates things when it goes beyond itself, but this term is far too cynical. Sex is the seed that is destined to produce the flower. Sex may have its initial murmurings in what seems to be just a private desire, but its native impulse directs it toward ever-widening spheres of life. It is like the Mississippi that begins in a small stream ten feet wide and less than twenty-four inches deep and flows for 2,350 miles to the great Delta at New Orleans. To keep sex chained to desire is to rob it of its promise and rid it of its meaning. "Sex is an instinct that produces an institution," as G. K. Chesterton once remarked. "That institution is the family; a small state or commonwealth which has hundreds of aspects, when it is started, that are not sexual at all. It includes worship, justice, festivity, decoration, instruction, comradeship, response. Sex is the gateway of that house; and romantic and imaginative people naturally like looking through a gateway. But the house is very much larger than the gate. There are indeed a certain number of people who like to hang about in the gate and never get any further."7
The freedom that modern society most highly prizes, unfortunately, represents its negative side, that narrow vision of freedom that proceeds by a series of separations. The terminus of such freedom (freedom from) is a sterile isolation that can lead to compulsive and addictive behavior. On the other hand, positive freedom (freedom for) advances by a series of integrations. In matters of sexuality, negative freedom avoids those widening integrations that would assume additional responsibilities, while positive freedom not only welcomes them but thrives on them.
Positive freedom wants to enter the house, despite the many demands its rooms impose, of cooking and cleaning, dusting and decorating, patching and planning, repairing and renovating, helping and healing. But as the house is transformed into a home, the language that describes prosaic household activities becomes the language of human care: mending hearts, ironing out problems, washing away tears, polishing egos, and feeding encouragement. Negative freedom, thinking itself clever and realistic, chooses to sleep in the entry-way. The home is where we participate in life, the entry-way is where it eludes us.
The ultimate question that tests sexual activity is whether the partners can become good parents. In other words, good parenting demands far more than participating in "good sex." It demands integrations with a host of values that enlarge freedom so that it becomes wide enough to embrace good parenting. Chastity is far more spacious than lust, and for this reason the Russian word for chastity, "tslomudrie," means "the wisdom of wholeness."
In L. Frank Baum's perennially endearing story of The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow, tin man, and lion each have enough wisdom to be acutely aware of the goods they lack: the scarecrow needs a brain, the tin man a heart, the lion courage. Even more to their credit, they ardently seek what they need.
There can be little doubt that one reason for the broad and continuing appeal that The Wizard of Oz enjoys lies in the fact that Dorothy's curious companions characterize the very needs that plague modern society. We need a brain so that we can know what we need to know in order to direct our lives properly. Realistic ideas are crucial. They are, as one philosopher remarks, "what enables man to live a life which is something above meaningless tragedy or inward disgrace."8 At the same time, it is only too common for people to submerge their capacities for realistic ideas, illuminating knowledge, and clear thinking under a torrent of emotionalism. If it "feels good, do it" better represents the contemporary ethos than "use your brain."
We need a heart so that we can love, so that we can extend to everyone the warmth of personal affirmation. Knowledge furnishes light, but love provides joy. Yet there is much discrimination, violence, and abuse in our society, and even the family, which Christopher Lasch refers to as A Haven in a Heartless World, is under massive attack.
We need courage so that we can face dangers, difficulties, and oppositions, without abandoning our commitment to what is right. Courage gives us the strength to stand by what we know and those we love. Nonetheless, the lack of courage in society is only too apparent. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has stated that the "decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days."9 "Such a decline in courage," Solzhenitsyn went on to say, "is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society."
We must view the scarecrow, tin man, and lion not as individuals who each seek one thing, but as a triumvirate or collectivity that seeks to integrate knowledge, love, and courage. In this regard, Plato was an ancient forefather. In his Republic, Plato spoke of man's tripartite soul which consists of reason, the reflecting principle, and desire, the unreflecting appetite, being coordinated through spirit which transmits the verdict of reason to desire and establishes a powerful bond between them.10 In a similar way, C. S. Lewis states that, "the head rules the belly through the chest."11 The head alone is too abstract, cerebral. The belly alone is too animalistic, visceral. "The dream of many people," writes Erich Fromm, "seems to be to combine the emotions of a primate with a computer-like brain." But it is through the intermediary of the chest, or spirit, or courage, that man becomes fully man.
The turbulent drama of sexual passion is not going to be brought under control by the mere dictates of reason. It requires something no less passionate than itself, a vibrant, animated courage, if it is to be integrated within the whole person. Knowledge and love will not be harmonized with each other in the absence of such a courage.
History makes it only too plain that the path to personal wholeness is indeed a long and crooked one. When ancient Egyptian embalmers prepared the Pharaohs' bodies for their journey to the next world, they performed their task diligently and lovingly. They believed that every organ had a special purpose and consequently preserved each one in a special way. There was one part of the body, however, for which they could not find any particular function. This was the brain, which the embalmers simply discarded.
In the twentieth century, Albert Einstein willed that when he died, all of his remains be cremated except his brain. His disembodied brain is now housed in a research center in the Pyradomes, just north of Wichita, Kansas. After the passing of millennia, from the Pyramids to the Pyradomes, humanity is still merely an apprentice to personal wholeness.
Compared with moral progress, scientific progress (or what one might even term "brain progress") has been all too easy. In fact, it has been virtually automatic. Five hundred years ago, when Columbus set sail in quest of a new world, the youngest of his crew was assigned the job of keeping time. Each half-hour the lad inverted his sand clock and marked another thirty minutes or so of the fleet's long and tedious voyage. The expression, "Time is running out," was a literal fact for Columbus and his mates.
Since 1492, progress in precision measurement of the passing of time has been decisive. The latest chronometric device is accurate to one second in 1.6 million years and represents a marked improvement over its immediate predecessor whose precision was only to one second in 800,000 years. Watchmaking scientists are confident, however, that future clocks will be even more precise.
To illustrate the point that scientific progress and moral progress are by no stretch of the imagination one and the same, novelist and social critic Walker Percy alludes to the fact that the designer of Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds off schedule after a flight of six years, is, personally, one of the most mixed-up people in the state of California.
The domain of sexuality is especially demanding of wholeness. Knowledge is needed not only in the personal sense to enable the spouses to become closer to each other, but also in the scientific sense to deepen one's awareness of reproductive physiology. Love is needed to fulfill and make fruitful the spousal relationship. Courage is needed to possess the strength to follow the path of knowledge and love, however unpopular or "politically incorrect" it may be in the eyes of the world.
The very expression, Natural Family Planning, may be seen as an integration of Knowledge, Love, and Courage. The Natural is the object of our Knowledge, the Family is formed in Love, and fidelity to the Planning requires no end of Courage.
Harmony of the parts characterizes Natural Family Planning, a harmony that commences with personal wholeness and progresses through marital intimacy and family unity as it moves toward community solidarity. NFP, then, is evolutionary because it encourages its practitioners to attain higher forms of integration, while remaining faithful to their identities as persons. According to an ancient maxim, a serpent must devour another serpent in order to become a dragon (Serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco).
The serpent becomes a dragon not by mating with the other but by devouring it. Such a maneuver must be regarded as regressive, for its direction is from more to less, from plurality to isolated singularity. It represents not the generous procreation of new life, but the compulsive absorption of the other in the interest of intensifying one's individuality. A more inspirational saying, on the other hand, one consistent with the integrative and evolutionary tendencies of NFP reads: "As individuals, we are subject to the stars. As persons, we rule them."13
1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Irwin Edman (ed.), The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (New York: The Modern Library, 1928), p. 113.
2. Plato, Symposium 189E-191E.
3. Quoted in Nona Aguilar, The New No-Pill No-Risk Birth Control (New York: Rawson Associates, 1986), p. 3.
4. Ellen Peck, The Baby Trap (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1971), p. 14.
5. Ibid., p. 56.
6. Gore Vidal, "Gore Vidal: Beyond Politics and Gender," Viva, Nov. 1973, p. 135.
7. G. K. Chesterton, G. K's Weekly, Jan. 29, 1927.
8. Jose Ortega y Gasset, Mission of the University (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), p. 37.
9. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Apart: An address given at the Harvard Commencement Exercises, June 8, 1978 (St. Paul, MN: Wanderer Press, 1978), p. 4.
10. Plato, Republic, 4. 435-42.
11. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 34.
12. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos, The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Washington Square Press, 1983), pp. 7-8.
13. Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1970), p. 21.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is an associate professor of Philosophy at St. Jerome's College of the University of Waterloo. He studied Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John's University in New York. His most recent books are: How to Survive as a Catholic in a Parochial World (St. Martin de Porres, New Hope, KY.) and The Incarnation in a Divided World (Christendom). Dr. DeMarco resides in Kitchener, Ontario, with his family and is a frequent contributor to HPR.
© Catholic Polls, Inc. 1993.
© Catholic Polls, Inc. 1993.
This item 4202 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org