Our society, and many others around the world, are fighting a war on concupiscence, and they are losing. Of course, it should not be a surprise that our society is fighting such a war and losing, as this is a regular occurrence. Since the 1960’s, we have been fighting a war on poverty, mistakenly believing that by throwing money at poverty that one will solve the problem without recognizing that eradicating poverty by pouring money into it is a lot like trying to fill a bucket with water that has a whole in it. And fixing the whole in the bucket has proved as difficult for our society as it did for poor Liza and Henry in the old song. Nor has our war on drugs gone particularly well, with so great a demand for drugs and so great a profit that it brings for kingpens and middlemen that efforts at interdicting the trade have largely been futile. Nor has our society’s war on terrorism been a stunning success, for terrorism is so elusive a concept, and from so many diverse causes that a great many people are unwilling to speak the evil that we are fighting against.
And it is precisely that last sort of problem that we have in the war on concupiscence. At this point, if they have not stopped reading and looked up the word for themselves, a great many of the people who read this are probably wondering what exactly concupiscence is and how it is that we are fighting an losing a war against it. Looking up the meaning of concupiscence does not always give a complete picture of what the word means. Miriam Webster defines it as an intense longing. The default dictionary for my internet browser views it as especially referring to lust or some other form of sexual desire. The Catholic Dictionary views it as the desire of the lower sort that is contrary to reason. The marginal notes in the KJV-based version of the Bible that I often use at present in services views it as evil desire. These various meanings give us some sense of what is meant but most are not very precise nor very expansive. Nevertheless, if we understand it to be some sort of evil or improper desire that is contrary to the ways of God, we will understand why declaring war on it has been so difficult, the issue to which we now turn.
How have we declared war on concupiscence in our contemporary society and others like it around the world? In many ways, we have declared war on the concept itself. For those whose desires and intense longings are their own laws, there can properly be no such thing as concupiscence, for whatever is intensely desired must in and of itself be right. In many societies at present it is considered a hate crime to label something accurately as an evil desire, because people are unwilling to accept that these desires are in fact evil. To be sure, no one has ever wanted to be thought of as evil, but our contemporary generation has shown itself particularly hostile to being labeled as evil and particularly inclined to view any standard that speaks against us or that calls us to repentance and a chance of our ways as being irrelevant and obsolete as well as being particularly illegitimate. Moreover, the success of some evil desires at delegitimizing those who would call them what they are has led other evil desires which are, at present, less widespread and less popular to receive the same treatment on the same grounds. It is easy to see that this represents a clear war on concupiscence by attacking the concept itself, so that it is not one that is widely known in our own times.
This is not the only way that our society has declared war on concupiscence, though. A great many people themselves have surrendered to concupiscence without being aware of it. The politics of envy are pretty intense in our day and age around the world. Populist leaders have been able to gain power in many areas of the world by appealing to the desire of large parts of the population that they are being left behind and denied the fruits of development. Sometimes they are even right about it. Still others stir up resentment about privileges and entitlements and seek to maintain political power through defending the entitlement and privileges of large classes of society that are unwilling to see those entitlements reduced or eliminated. Still others are unwilling to see others succeed on their own merits or may be so cynical that they believe that any success must have been corrupt in some fashion. All of this amounts to an imputation of concupiscence on others where it in fact resides with our own evil desires to seek to punish others for success or deny others the sorts of privilege that we seek for ourselves. When we deny concupiscence and use that as the driving force of our political ideologies, we are obviously not going to make a great deal of headway in a war against it.
Nor does this exhaust the sort of approach that our society has towards evil desires. A great many of our societal attempts at stigmatizing others and their problems in life touch upon the problem of evil desires. For example, when someone is overweight, it is viewed that one has an evil desire when it comes to food, whether that involves a poor choice of diet, a lack of exercise, or an improper attitude towards food that leads people to self-medicate and use food for emotional comfort. Similar concerns for self-medication and the desire to escape from unpleasant lives are often judged to be at the base of drug and alcohol use. The desire to escape pain often encourages addiction to prescription pain killers. Male heterosexual lust in our contemporary society has been stigmatized in a variety of ways, through the classification of a great many behaviors as being criminal sexual harassment, through hostility shown to the male gaze, and through the pervasive ridicule and abuse of men in general by substantial parts of the population. Naturally, these attempts to declare war on concupiscence fail because the hostility to concupiscence is selective (and viewed therefore as illegitimate and hypocritical) and because it is hard to declare war on intense longings in general, especially when there is no widespread agreement on what desires are in fact evil ones. Where there is no consensus on good and evil, there can be no concerted action against evil. What consistent standard should we have? It is to that question we will turn next.