The Spirit Is Willing, and So Is the Flesh

At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Cephalus, a wealthy older metic—that’s what they called a resident alien in Athens—announces to Socrates that he’s happy about his loss of libido and heightened appreciation of philosophy. “When the appetites relax and cease to importune us,” explains Cephalus, “we escape from many mad masters.”

The Roman philosopher Seneca also praised the diminution of male desire and some of its mechanical  consequences: “How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!”

Maybe that’s why they call these characters “ancients.”

In the age of Viagra, most folks look at what used to be called “impotence”—now retooled as “erectile dysfunction”—and figure, “bad problem, good solution.” Even Osama bin Laden—rechristened “Mr. Softee” by the New York Post—agreed. And in an era when publishers of academic philosophy pump out an anthology of footnoted essays on any cultural spasm that excites the public for more than eight seconds, it was only a matter of time before scholars would bone-up on modern pharmaceutical culture and give us The Philosophy of Viagra: Bioethical Responses to the Viagrification of the Modern World, edited by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (Rodopi).

The surprise is that Rodopi, a fine Dutch scholarly press whose books often cost more than a fistful of the little blue pills, beat the usual publishing impresarios to the agora. The Philosophy of Viagra appears not in the kind of “Philosophy and Popular Culture” series that usually offers such a volume but in Rodopi’s “Philosophy of Sex and Love” line, part of its general “Value Inquiry Book Series.” That may account for the high seriousness of many of its essays, free of the arch joking that assistant professors increasingly toss into their pop-culture excursions.

In his introduction, Botz-Bornstein, an assistant professor of philosophy at Kuwait’s Gulf University for Science and Technology (one wonders if he’s teaching this stuff there) gives his topic an appropriate big-picture lift-off: “Viagra has become the symbol of modernity, concentrating in itself a sort of achieved utopia in which everything promptly materializes if we only manage to exclude existential complications from our lives.”

No doubt about it—he places Viagra in an overarching philosophical context. Noting that much discussion of Viagra so far has criticized its maker, Pfizer, “for its profit-oriented negation of any psychological, social, emotional, or relational components involved in impotency,” Botz-Bornstein chimes in, observing that “Viagra appears as the drug of a capitalist society convinced that any efficient medication approved by the state signifies progress and higher levels of happiness.”

Yet the 15 essays he’s brought together—including two of his own—offer smart, wide-ranging perspectives on how Viagra gives rise to classic philosophical concerns, and why it shouldn’t be allowed to “render masculinity as a mere problem of chemical engineering, plumbing and hydraulics.” How does Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae relate to Viagra? The answer is here, courtesy of Anthony Okeregbe, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. Does Viagra and its ilk shift the goals of medicine? Dónal O’Mathúna, a senior lecturer at Dublin City University, provides a crystal-clear view.

Sophie Bourgault, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, contributes a sharp essay on how Plato and company might have reacted to “Big Pharma” and its magic bullet. While she nicely remembers that Socrates himself might not have opted for the blue pill—the Charmides begins with his trying to “fight off a serious case of erection” when he catches “a glimpse of Charmides’ genitals”—she thinks Cephalus “would have been the first to rush to his doctor to ask for a prescription” (read her essay and see why). As for Plato, Bourgault argues in fine detail that while he would have lacked “enthusiasm for lifestyle drugs,” he  probably would not “have banned them.”

Several essays ponder how major philosophers would have reacted to Viagra. Thomas Kapper, a philosophy Ph.D. who founded the Peregrine Aesthetics Group, thinks no “true Stoic” would use Viagra, but believes that, with Aristotle, “curiosity would win out.” Independent scholar Robert Vuckovich analyzes the likely position of Diogenes, ancient Greece’s most notorious public masturbator (when he wasn’t looking for an honest man). Vuckovich concludes that Diogenes plainly supported “the freedom of physical expression.”

Of course, it’s hard to tell with a wiseguy like Diogenes. Asked about the appropriate time for a man to marry, the stylish barrel-wearer replied, “For a young man, not yet. For an old man, never at all.”

Almost all the essays, including the historical ones, examine fundamental conceptual issues provoked by Viagra and similar drugs such as Levitra and Cialis.

Does Viagra facilitate desire (the view of Pfizer’s scientists), or create it? What is “natural” in sexual life? If, before the discovery of Viagra, it was “nature’s course to diminish sexual power in men once their peak reproductive fitness had passed”—as  Sylvanus Stall wrote in a 1901 book—is it “unnatural” to change that aspect of senior-citizen life through drugs?

Or is drug-assisted virility simply better living through chemistry—like raising life expectancies from 45 to 75? Is the appropriate meaning of “natural” not what existed in the past, but anything that can be achieved through physical means at any time? How does one integrate the complaints of older women, documented by studies, about the frequency of desire in Viagra-fueled mates, and the lengthened duration of lovemaking itself?

Not every essay in the volume equals the high standard of clarity set by the editor and, to take just two examples—Bourgault and O’Mathuna. There may be a pill that helps one understand French scholar Claude-Raphaël Samama’s “Desire and Its Mysteries: Erectile Stimulators Between Thighs and Selves,” but I didn’t have it. So I’m not sure if I agree that “A mass of abounding and infinitely variegated imaginary reconstructions, cultural functions, or simply, individual idiosyncrasies have been added to the dimension of the Eros and its potentially transgressive energy.” Believe it or not, a burgeoning world of Viagra scholarship awaits us out there. Botz-Bernstein mentions the attempt by Vincent Del Casino “to develop a `flaccid theory’ as a form of weak theory that works against the logics of hardness.” Good old Slavoj Zizek is also on the case. “For Zizek,” the editor informs us, “the man who takes Viagra has a penis, but no phallus.”

So here it is: the first book of philosophical essays in years with a shot at being advertised on the evening’s network news shows.

A final caveat to keep on the safe side. If this book stays in your mind for more than four hours, consult your partner.

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