“We tend to equate lust with physicality—with the flesh. But it’s actually mental as well. That is, sexual vice harms the intellect. After all, humans are composite creatures: an irreducible unity of body and soul. Therefore the bad choices we make will damage them both.
The impact of lust upon the mind is something Shakespeare captures with typical genius in a poem known as “Sonnet 129.” What the speaker of this poem offers is a sustained reflection on the experience of submitting to unruly sexual passion:
Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,
Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Essentially the speaker here is contrasting the anticipated pleasure of lustful desire, which compels him to pursue it, with the emotional and moral havoc it wreaks. As soon as it is enjoyed, it is despised.
Depictions of this dynamic can be found in plenty of other literary works. But in this poem there is something more going on. Shakespeare just gets it. For he is showing how lust is actually all about irrationality. Lust is “past reason.” That is, lustful deeds are,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated…
There’s the desire before and the dejection afterwards, all because one allows passion to overrule one’s better rational judgment. Lust is frustrating and demoralizing because it robs your reason of its proper role in ordering the passions. Passion wins, and therefore I lose. It’s a flummoxing paradox. Having enjoyed what you thought you wanted so badly, you just sit there, befuddled intellectually and feeling empty emotionally. Why did I do that? It’s supremely regrettable to succumb to passion in this way. As an ancient Latin maxim puts it: “Post coitum omne animalium triste est”—After sex, all animals are sad. If it’s not real sex—that is, virtuous sex—then yes.
Lust makes one sad. Until it doesn’t anymore.
Indulged in long enough, lust instead leaves one stupid, as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it. Recall what reason does for us: it affords us the power to understand reality. To understand truth and goodness. Drawing on Aquinas, Feser explains that if you take pleasure in something that’s actually unhealthy or a false good (“Past reason hunted”), this dulls the mind’s capacity to recognize what is authentically good and true. To habitually indulge one’s lustful appetite, Feser explains, “will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that [this indulgence is] disordered.” Lust makes you impervious to what’s really going on. You’re absorbed in a false good (one that delivers intense pleasure), refusing to admit any problem, blind to reality.
Lust has the power, in other words, to stop making you feel sad. So it is no longer “past reason hated.” It’s not hated but rather embraced, wholeheartedly and unthinkingly.
The speaker in “Sonnet 129” claims “the world knows well” the phenomenon he’s describing (even if people still struggle to resist lustful urges). But does that seem accurate for us today? It would seem that plenty of people don’t know what Shakespeare is describing. Many are self-satisfied slaves to lust. Hey, do whatever feels right!
The situation was more or less the same in Shakespeare’s time. (You don’t need to read a whole lot from the English Renaissance before realizing that.) And that phenomenon of shamelessly embracing lust is in fact at the heart of Shakespeare’s moral project in “Sonnet 129.” This poem gives marvelous voice to the sense of shame that ought to be there. It is seeking to make lust identifiable and intelligible as such. It is a light cast on lustful blindness of mind. The reader finds himself going along with the self-admonishment and disgust right from the first line of the poem.
A crucial step in the process of developing the virtue of chastity is developing a revulsion to the idea of enjoying false sexual pleasure, since you begin to see it for what it really is. When you realize how stupid you’ve been, you’re already getting smarter, Shakespeare is saying.”
Love & continence,