On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
By Edith Wharton
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Chapter Eight of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well examines the virtue of Chastity with examples drawn from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. In this the first of the Heavenly Virtues, we encounter the least popular if not the most revered. Purity comes with a price.
As Karen wrote
Of all the virtues, chastity is one of the most misunderstood. It tends to be idealized—both negatively and positively, either abhorred or idolized. The high esteem in which chastity was held in ancient pagan and Christian cultures, for example, evolved into reverence for perpetual virginity, epitomized by Mary, whose virginity was imitated by those in the church taking vows of celibacy. Such idealization for chastity would not last, however. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the atheistic Romantic poet, gave chastity a backhanded compliment in book 9 of his poem Queen Mab, an epic-length poem setting forth Shelley’s revolutionary philosophy. Calling chastity “dull and selfish,” the poem goes on to describe it dismissively as that “virtue of the cheaply virtuous / Who pride themselves in senselessness and frost.” In his novel Eyeless in Gaza, Aldous Huxley refers to chastity as “the most unnatural of all the sexual perversions.”
Sex is, of course, quite natural, as is sexual desire. Human vitality is characterized by our natural desires for self-preservation, reproduction, pleasure, and community. Just as individuals need food to live, the human race depends on human vitality, or the creational impulse, in order to continue. Sexual desire is good because it is part of how God designed human beings. God made the continuation of the human race dependent on communion with and desire for one another.