Allan Bloom, the famed educator, with no religious agenda whatsoever, once suggested that lack of chastity is, singularly, the biggest reason why there isn’t a stronger passion for life among people, especially the young, in the Western world. In his view, our “eros has gone lame”, flat. We are without high ideals, our horizons are narrow, cynicism has replaced passion (even about sex), nothing is sublime any more, and we relate to each other under a rather paltry symbolic hedge. He stated the issue in a graphic way: “Plato’s students talked about their `immortal longings’, our own children talk about `being horny'”. That speaks volumes about a difference in ideals and passion. The problem, he suspects, is not that we are post-modern but that we are post-chaste.
It’s interesting to see chastity so defended by a purely secular analyst because today, in Western culture, chastity is for the most part denigrated and vilified in the arts, in education, in intellectual circles, and in the popular culture. There are degrees to this: First, chastity is commonly seen as a timidity. To be chaste is to be frigid, uptight, asexual, lacking in nerve. Chastity then is seen as something which is backwards, anti-erotic and anti-delight, an unhealthy hangover from our religious past. This is common in the popular mind. However, lots of critics go further: In their view, the defensive of chastity is not only wrong because it’s an abusive moralizing intrusion into people’s private lives, but, more importantly, it’s bad because it continues to inject unhealthy guilt about sexuality into the collective unconscious: How wonderful the world could be if fundamentalists didn’t forever perpetuate hangups about sex! Among many of the novelists, critics, and even religious people that I read, preaching chastity isn’t just backwards and naive, it’s evil, a kind of reverse pornography.
So what’s to be said in its defense? First of all, that any chastity worth defending has to be a healthy one. So much of what is said against it does in fact make a valid point, given that chastity is often presented precisely as anti-eros, anti-sex, and anti-life. A chastity that would make sex bad or unimportant is a reverse pornography. Chastity is not frigidity. To be frigid is to denigrate sex, to fear it, and see it as being less than fully wholesome and grace-giving. A healthy chastity radiates the opposite. It believes so much in the goodness and sublimity of sex that it refuses to short-circuit any of its boundaries so as to diminish it and make it anything less what it is meant to be, sublime.
To surround sex with chastity is like surrounding anything of importance with its proper reverence. Generally we understand this more with our hearts than with our heads. For instance, the classical symbols that surround a wedding ceremony – a church, sacred vows, rings, a white dress, maids and gentlemen of honour, a minister of church and state presiding, a banquet and toasts afterwards – heighten the sublimity of the event and make it special. We feel this. Weddings that cheat on the symbols don’t evoke the same measure of honest tears. Proper symbols raise the mundane and make it sublime. And all of our major rituals around the ceremony of marriage are in fact symbols that, in that context, are predicated on chastity. They celebrate initial sexual union and highlight its importance both for the couple marrying and for society at large. The bride’s white dress, for example, is a symbol of chastity and its task (which it does well) is to heighten, not lessen, the passion for sex. A bride’s dress speaks of the sublime. So too does chastity. It’s task is to assure that what is sublime is not seen to be mundane, to assure that eros doesn’t go lame. You can get married in old blue jeans and a torn t-shirt and the ceremony can be over in two minutes, but such a ceremony will be a fault in chastity because it will do little to heighten your passion, highlight the sublimity of sex, or mark this exchange of vows as a pivotal moment within your life. Sleeping with the bride before marriage is akin to getting married in old blue jeans and a torn t-shirt … and it’s no accident that, not occasionally, the two in fact go together.
Chastity is, in the end, about waiting, about patience, about reverence, about respect, about trying to carry things, all things, not just sex, at a more sublime level. To surround anything with proper reverence is to say that it’s important. The reverse is also true. For anything to be sublime there must first be some sublimation. Nobody creates a masterpiece or writes a great thesis in a day. Achieving anything great, including a great relationship, requires patience, hard work, and especially the willingness to carry great tension so that what is sublime does not become mundane.