Rarely have I read in so few pages a book as thought-provoking and compelling as J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex.  Budziszewski, a Yale Ph.D. and professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, has grappled for years with the sad effects of our era’s shallow understanding of sex on the lives and psyches of the young people he teaches.  This book represents his effort to convey the significance of the sexes and of sexual relationships to young people largely persuaded (but not satisfied) that sex is a momentarily intense but still casual kind of pleasure.

While the author is a confessed Christian, God’s presence discreetly occupies the background through interspersed quotations from the extraordinary verses of the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross.  In the forefront, Budziszewski presents arguments largely drawn from natural law and set out in a finely honed adaptation of the Socratic method.  Clearly this is the method he follows at the University of Texas in Austin, where his students for the most part (judging from their reactions as recorded here) have trouble thinking clearly on a topic that does not so much concern as obsess them.

Budziszewski’s book is an attempt to restore to sex what has been tragically and shortsightedly lost by our culture, and that is meaning.  Lacking any significance other than lust, animal instinct, and the desire for conquest, contemporary sexual relations inevitably produce the sorry results of abortion, addiction to internet pornography, rocketing divorce rates, so-called same-sex marriage, plunging birthrates, high levels of illegitimate births, the distribution of condoms in public schools, epidemic levels of venereal diseases, and declining fertility rates.  We may add to all this a general debasement of morals and culture that has rendered most popular entertainment almost unviewable.  What was once known as obscenity is now inescapable, whether experienced virtually or live as women walk along the hot summer streets in so little clothing that they could have been fined for public indecency only a generation ago.

Yes, sex matters, and therefore it matters if we do not get its meaning right in law and practice.  Our culture treats sex as an uncontrollable urge that must be satisfied at all costs: To do so, we need to deny or frustrate its natural purpose as a means to bring children into the world.  But previous cultures have disrupted the connection between sex, marriage, and children to their peril.  Ancient Rome, for instance, accelerated its fall with the sexual deviations and marital breakdowns of a disastrous collection of caesars.  The pattern is being replicated in our own era.

In the first chapter of On the Meaning of Sex, Budziszewski explains his reasons for writing the book:

Various motives commingle.  A great one is gratitude because the experience of love is the great redeeming experience of my life.  I am referring to all sorts of loves, the love of parents, teachers, friends.  But I am especially referring to love of my wife, which reawakened me when I was lost in a solipsistic maze and had lost what Dante calls “the intelligence of love.” . . .

Another motive for writing this book is the desire for a certain kind of beauty, the beauty of understanding. . . .

The final motive for writing such a book is that my eyes are so full of the pain I see around me that if I did not have the relief of writing, they would be full of tears instead. . . .

For the generation coming into its power I would wish the ability not to compound the mistakes that mine has made, and perhaps even the ability to discern some of the mistakes for what they are. . . .

Looking over the sexual landscape of our time I see a terrain of unutterable sweetness, despoiled by unmentionable pain.  Yet who knows?  Perhaps it is not too late to redeem the unutterable sweetness.

In Chapter Five, Budziszewski addresses “The Meaning of Sexual Love.”  Simply put, he believes (as the Sinatra song had it) that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage—i.e., that spouses must make a true commitment “till death do us part.”

[N]ot only do the lovers make various promises that spring from love, they promise love itself.  From the instant of pledging till the parting by death they vow to love and cherish.  Even more pointedly, they promise this love not only if things work out, but even if they don’t: “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

The key to all of this is the greatest of the theological virtues: charity, the only virtue from a Christian viewpoint that is eternal as it will continue in Heaven, though not expressed carnally there.

Charity is an attitude that exults in the sheer existence of the other person. . . . Moreover, because charity is not a feeling but an activity of the will, it is something that one decides to do, and it can be promised. . . . To be sure, such love costs me something, makes me spend myself, even makes me want to spend myself. . . . In its perfection, the person whom I love becomes another self to me.

In other words, love means being selfless and not selfish.  And if the marital act is intentionally closed to life, it is by definition selfish, despite the “good” in the act’s signification and expression of marital union and commitment until death.

Making copious use of the Divine Comedy, Budziszewski distinguishes four aspects of love:

Enchantment, the first, is the lovely emotional infatuation in which a particular man and a particular woman can’t get enough of each other. . . . Charity, the second, is the attitude that exults in the sheer existence of the other person, and which entails a permanent commitment of the will to the other’s true good.  Erotic charity, the third, is the mode of charity that is particularized toward a single person of the polar, corresponding sex, and consummated by the union of their bodies.  Finally, romantic love . . . is the mode of erotic charity that enchantment imitates—though enchantment is a matter of the feelings, romantic love a matter of the will.

In his antepenultimate chapter, Budzi­szewski examines “The Meaning of Sexual Beauty.”  Naturally, he concentrates on womanly beauty:

The beauty of a lovely woman has three elements.  One element is the beauty of her humanity, of that which makes her a rational being.  Another element is the beauty of her femininity or womanliness, of that which makes her a woman.  The last is the beauty of her personality, of that which makes her who she is.  The first is common, the second polaric, the third particular to herself. . . .

In turn, although womanliness is a single thing, I may admire it in two different ways.  I may exclaim, “How wonderful it is in itself, that such creatures exist!”  But as a man, I may exclaim, “How wonderful it is for such creatures as me, that such creatures exist!”  The first is delight in the beauty of women per se; the second is delight in the difference, the correspondence, the complementarity of their sex to my own.

. . . [T]he essential difference between men and women, the underlying reality that gives rise to all the other differences, is that men are in potentiality to be fathers, and women in potentiality to be mothers.  All those things about a woman that arise from this difference, such as warmth, tender-mindedness, and sensitivity to the emotions of others, are signs of this potentiality.  The more fully they are developed, the more intense and beautiful her womanhood, and the deeper its complement to manhood.

The penultimate chapter deals with “The Meaning of Sexual Purity,” today probably the most misunderstood aspect of human sexuality.  The author explains,

[T]here two modes of sexual purity—for unmarried persons, continence; for married ones, faithfulness.  If sex itself were impure, there couldn’t be a married kind of purity. . . . On the contrary, the sexual powers are good, but only when exercised by the right person, with the right person, for the right motives, in the right way, and in the right state, which is marriage. . . .

There is also a temptation to think of purity as though it were merely negative, a no or not lacking character of its own.  Again, not so. . . . By living as they do, they are pursuing goods of beauty and integrity that impurity undermines and sullies.

With this magnificent book on the most confused and misunderstood issue of our age, J. Budziszewski enters the pantheon of such living Christian writers as Anthony Esolen and Peter Kreeft (disciples of the masters C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton).  This book is a masterpiece of apologetics that convinces not through the authority of Scripture alone but more effectively, in this undoctrinaire age, through the application of reason and natural law.


[On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 162 pp., $27.95]