by Havelock EllisApril 7th, 2023
Read on Terminal Reader
Read this story w/o Javascript
tldt arrow

Too Long; Didn't Read

We live in a world in which, as we nowadays begin to realise, we find two antagonistic streams of traditional platitude concerning the question of sexual purity, both flowing from the far past. The people who embody one of these streams of tradition, basing themselves on old-fashioned physiology, assume, though they may not always assert, that the sexual products are excretions, to be dealt with summarily like other excretions. That is an ancient view and it was accepted by such wise philosophers of old times as Montaigne and Sir Thomas More. It had, moreover, the hearty support of so eminent a theological authority as Luther, who on this ground preached early marriage to men and women alike. It is still a popular view, sometimes expressed in the crudest terms, and often by people who, not following Luther's example, use it to defend prostitution, though they generally exclude women from its operation, as a sex to whom it fails to apply and by whom it is not required.
featured image - THE MEANING OF PURITY
Havelock Ellis HackerNoon profile picture

Little Essays of Love and Virtue by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE MEANING OF PURITY



We live in a world in which, as we nowadays begin to realise, we find two antagonistic streams of traditional platitude concerning the question of sexual purity, both flowing from the far past.

The people who embody one of these streams of tradition, basing themselves on old-fashioned physiology, assume, though they may not always assert, that the sexual products are excretions, to be dealt with summarily like other excretions. That is an ancient view and it was accepted by such wise philosophers of old times as Montaigne and Sir Thomas More. It had, moreover, the hearty support of so eminent a theological authority as Luther, who on this ground preached early marriage to men and women alike. It is still a popular view, sometimes expressed in the crudest terms, and often by people who, not following Luther's example, use it to defend prostitution, though they generally exclude women from its operation, as a sex to whom it fails to apply and by whom it is not required.

But on the other hand we have another stream of platitude. On this side there is usually little attempt either to deny or to affirm the theory of the opposing party, though they would contradict its conclusions. Their theory, if they have one, would usually seem to be that sexual activity is a response to stimulation from without or from within, so that if there is no stimulation there will be no sexual manifestation. They would preach, they tell us, a strenuous ideal; they would set up a wholesome dictate of hygiene. The formula put forward on this basis usually runs: Continence is not only harmless but beneficial. It is a formula which, in one form or another, has received apparently enthusiastic approval in many quarters, even from distinguished physicians. We need not be surprised. A proposition so large and general is not easy to deny, and is still more difficult to reverse; therefore it proves welcome to the people—especially the people occupying public and professional positions—who wish to find the path of least resistance, under pressure of a vigorous section of public opinion. Yet in its vagueness the proposition is a little disingenuous; it condescends to no definitions and no qualifications; it fails even to make clear how it is to be reconciled with any enthusiastic approval of marriage, for if continence is beautiful how can marriage make it cease to be so?

Both these streams of feeling, it may be noted, sprang from a common source far back in the primitive human world. All the emanations of the human body, all the spontaneous manifestations of its activities, were mysterious and ominous to early man, pregnant with terror unless met with immense precautions and surrounded by careful ritual. The manifestations of sex were the least intelligible and the most spontaneous. Therefore the things of sex were those that most lent themselves to feelings of horror and awe, of impurity and of purity. They seemed so highly charged with magic potency that there were no things that men more sought to avoid, yet none to which they were impelled to give more thought. The manifold echoes of that primitive conception of sex, and all the violent reactions that were thus evolved and eventually bound up with the original impulse, compose the streams of tradition that feed our modern world in this matter and determine the ideas of purity that surround us.

At the present day the crude theory of the sexual impulse held on one side, and the ignorant rejection of theory altogether on the other side, are beginning to be seen as both alike unjustified. We begin to find the grounds for a sounder theory. Not indeed that the problems of sex, which go so deeply into the whole personal and social life, can ever be settled exclusively upon physiological grounds. But we have done much to prepare even the loftiest Building of Love when we have attained a clear view of its biological basis.

The progress of chemico-physiological research during recent years has now brought us to new ground for our building. Indeed the image might well be changed altogether, and it might be said that science has entirely transferred the drama of reproduction to a new stage with new actors. Therewith the immense emphasis placed on excretion, and the inevitable reaction that emphasis aroused, both alike disappear. The sexual protagonists are no longer at the surface but within the most secret recesses of the organism, and they appear to science under the name of Hormones or Internal Secretions, always at work within and never themselves condescending to appear at all. Those products of the sexual glands which in both sexes are cast out of the body, and at an immature stage of knowledge appeared to be excretions, are of primary reproductive importance, but, as regards the sexual constitution of the individual, they are of far less importance than the internal secretions of these very same glands. It is, however, by no means only the specifically sexual glands which thus exert a sexual influence within the organism. Other glands in the brain, the throat, and the abdomen,—such as the thyroid and the adrenals,—are also elaborating fermentative secretions to throw into the system. Their mutual play is so elaborate that it is only beginning to be understood. Some internal secretions stimulate, others inhibit, and the same secretions may under different conditions do either. This fact is the source of many degrees and varieties of energy and formative power in the organism. Taken altogether, the internal secretions are the forces which build up the man's and woman's distinctively sexual constitution: the special disposition and growth of hair, the relative development of breasts and pelvis, the characteristic differences in motor activity, the varying emotional desires and needs. It is in the complex play of these secretions that we now seek the explanation of all the peculiarities of sexual constitution, imperfect or one-sided physical and psychic development, the various approximations of the male to female bodily and emotional disposition, of the female to the male, all the numerous gradations that occur, naturally as we now see, between the complete man and the complete woman.

When we turn the light of this new conception on to our old ideas of purity,—to the virtue or the vice, accordingly as we may have been pleased to consider it, of sexual abstinence,—we begin to see that those ideas need radical revision. They appear in a new light, their whole meaning is changed. No doubt it may be said they never had the validity they appeared to possess, even when we judge them by the crudest criterion, that of practice. Thus, while it is the rule for physicians to proclaim the advantages of sexual continence, there is no good reason to believe that they have themselves practised it in any eminent degree. A few years ago an inquiry among thirty-five distinguished physicians, chiefly German and Russian, showed that they were nearly all of opinion that continence is harmless, if not beneficial. But Meirowsky found by inquiry of eighty-six physicians, of much the same nationalities, that only one had himself been sexually abstinent before marriage. There seem to be no similar statistics for the English-speaking countries, where there exists a greater modesty—though not perhaps notably less need for it—in the making of such confessions. But if we turn to the allied profession which is strongly on the side of sexual abstinence, we find that among theological students, as has been shown in the United States, while prostitution may be infrequent, no temptation is so frequent or so potent, and in most cases so irresistible, as that to solitary sexual indulgence. Such is the actual attitude towards the two least ideal forms of sexual practice—as distinguished from mere theory—on the part of the two professions which most definitely pronounce in favour of continence.

It is necessary, however, as will now be clearer, to set our net more widely. We must take into consideration every form and degree of sexual manifestation, normal and abnormal, gross and ethereal. When we do this, even cautiously and without going far afield, sexual abstinence is found to be singularly elusive. Rohleder, a careful and conscientious investigator, has asserted that such abstinence, in the true and complete sense, is absolutely non-existent, the genuine cases in which sexual phenomena of some kind or other fail to manifest themselves being simply cases of inborn lack of sexual sensibility. He met, indeed, a few people who seemed exceptions to the general rule, but, on better knowledge, he found that he was mistaken, and that so far from being absent in these people the sexual instinct was present even in its crudest shapes. The activity of sex is an activity that on the physical side is generated by the complex mechanism of the ductless glands and displayed in the whole organism, physical and psychic, of the individual, who cannot abolish that activity, although to some extent able to regulate the forms in which it is manifested, so that purity cannot be the abolition or even the indefinite suspension of sexual manifestations; it must be the wise and beautiful control of them.

It is becoming clear that the old platitudes can no longer be maintained, and that if we wish to improve our morals we must first improve our knowledge.


We have seen that various popular beliefs and conventional assumptions concerning the sexual impulse can no longer be maintained. The sexual activities of the organism are not mere responses to stimulation, absent if we choose to apply no stimulus, never troubling us if we run away from them, harmless if we enclose them within a high wall. Nor do they constitute a mere excretion, or a mere appetite, which we can control by a crude system of hygiene and dietetics. We better understand the psycho-sexual constitution if we regard the motive power behind it as a dynamic energy, produced and maintained by a complex mechanism at certain inner foci of the body, and realise that whatever periodic explosive manifestations may take place at the surface, the primary motive source lies in the intimate recesses of the organism, while the outcome is the whole physical and spiritual energy of our being under those aspects which are most forcible and most aspiring and even most ethereal.

This conception, we find, is now receiving an admirable and beautifully adequate physical basis in the researches of distinguished physiologists in various lands concerning the parts played by the ductless glands of the body, in sensitive equilibrium with each other, pouring out into the system stimulating and inhibiting hormones, which not only confer on the man's or woman's body those specific sexual characters which we admire but at the same time impart the special tone and fibre and polarity of masculinity or femininity to the psychic disposition. Yet, even before Brown-Séquard's first epoch-making suggestion had set physiologists to search for internal secretions, the insight of certain physicians on the medico-psychological side was independently leading towards the same dynamic conception. In the middle of the last century Anstie, an acute London physician, more or less vaguely realised the transformations of sexual energy into nervous disease and into artistic energy. James Hinton, whose genius rendered him the precursor of many modern ideas, had definitely grasped the dynamic nature of sexual activity, and daringly proposed to utilise it, not only as a solution of the difficulties of the personal life but for the revolutionary transformation of morality.[5] It was the wish to group together all the far-flung manifestations of the inner irresistible process of sexual activity that underlay my own conception of auto-erotism, or the spontaneous erotic impulse which arises from the organism apart from all definite external stimulation, to be manifested, or it may be transformed, in mere solitary physical sex activity, in dreams of the night, in day-dreams, in shapes of literature and art, in symptoms of nervous disorder such as some forms of hysteria, and even in the most exalted phases of mystical devotion. Since then, a more elaborate attempt to develop a similar dynamic conception of sexual activity has been made by Freud; and the psycho-analysts who have followed him, or sometimes diverged, have with endless subtlety, and courageous thoroughness, traced the long and sinuous paths of sexual energy in personality and in life, indeed in all the main manifestations of human activity.

[5]"The man who separated the thought of chastity from Service and made it revolve round Self," wrote Hinton half a century ago in his unpublished MSS., "betrayed the human race." "The rule of Self," he wrote again, "has two forms: Self-indulgence and Self-virtue; and Nature has two weapons against it: pain and pleasure.... A restraint must always be put away when another's need can be served by putting it away; for so is restored to us the force by which Life is made.... How curious it seems! the true evil things are our good things. Our thoughts of duty and goodness and chastity, those are the things that need to be altered and put aside; these are the barriers to true goodness.... I foresee the positive denial of all positive morals, the removal of all restrictions. I feel I do not know what 'license,' as we should term it, may not truly belong to the perfect state of Man. When there is no self surely there is no restriction; as we see there is none in Nature.... May we not say of marriage as St. Augustine said of God: 'Rather would I, not finding, find Thee, than finding, not find Thee'?... 'Because we like' is the sole legitimate and perfect motive of human action.... If this is what Nature affirms then it will be what I believe." This dynamic conception of the sexual impulse, as a force that, under natural conditions, may be trusted to build up a new morality, obviously belongs to an indefinitely remote future. It is a force whose blade is two-edged, for while it strikes at unselfishness it also strikes at selfishness, and at present we cannot easily conceive a time when "there is no self"; we should be more disposed to regard it as a time when there is much humbug. Yet for the individual this conception of the constructive power of love retains much enlightenment and inspiration.

It is important for us to note about this dynamic sexual energy in the constitution that while it is very firmly and organically rooted, and quite indestructible, it assumes very various shapes. On the physical side all the characters of sexual distinction and all the beauties of sexual adornment are wrought by the power furnished by the co-operating furnaces of the glands, and so also, on the psychic side, are emotions and impulses which range from the simplest longings for sensual contact to the most exalted rapture of union with the Infinite. Moreover, there is a certain degree of correlation between the physical and the psychic manifestation of sexual energy, and, to some extent, transformation is possible in the embodiment of that energy.

A vague belief in the transformation of sexual energy has long been widespread. It is apparently shown in the idea that continence, as an economy in the expenditure of sexual force, may be practised to aid the physical and mental development, while folklore reveals various sayings in regard to the supposed influence of sexual abstinence in the causation of insanity. There is a certain underlying basis of reason in such beliefs, though in an unqualified form they cannot be accepted, for they take no account of the complexity of the factors involved, of the difficulty and often impossibility of effecting any complete transformation, either in a desirable or undesirable direction, and of the serious conflict which the process often involves. The psycho-analysts have helped us here. Whether or not we accept their elaborate and often shifting conceptions, they have emphasised and developed a psychological conception of sexual energy and its transformations, before only vaguely apprehended, which is now seen to harmonise with the modern physiological view.

The old notion that sexual activity is merely a matter of the voluntary exercise, or abstinence from exercise, of the reproductive functions of adult persons has too long obstructed any clear vision of the fact that sexuality, in the wide and deep sense, is independent of the developments of puberty. This has long been accepted as an occasional and therefore abnormal fact, but we have to recognise that it is true, almost or quite normally, even of early childhood. No doubt we must here extend the word "sexuality"[6]—in what may well be considered an illegitimate way—to cover manifestations which in the usual sense are not sexual or are at most called "sexual perversions." But this extension has a certain justification in view of the fact that these manifestations can be seen to be definitely related to the ordinary adult forms of sexuality. However we define it, we have to recognise that the child takes the same kind of pleasure in those functions which are natural to his age as the adult is capable of taking in localised sexual functions, that he may weave ideas around such functions, sometimes cultivate their exercise from love of luxury, make them the basis of day-dreams which at puberty, when the ideals of adult life are ready to capture his sexual energy, he begins to grow ashamed of.

[6]Perhaps, as applied to the period below puberty, it would be more exact to say "pseudo-sexuality." Matsumato has lately pointed out the significance of the fact that the interstitial testicular tissue, essential to the hormonic function of the testes, only becomes active at puberty.

At this stage, indeed, we reach a crucial point, though it has usually been overlooked, in the lives of boys and girls, more especially those whose heredity may have been a little tainted or their upbringing a little twisted. For it is here that the transformation of energy and the resulting possibilities of conflict are wont to enter. In the harmoniously developing organism, one may say, there is at this period a gradual and easy transmutation of the childish pleasurable activities into adult activities, accompanied perhaps by a feeling of shame for the earlier feelings, though this quickly passes into a forgetfulness which often leads the adult far astray when he attempts to understand the psychic life of the child. The childish manifestations, it must be remarked, are not necessarily unwholesome; they probably perform a valuable function and develop budding sexual emotions, just as the petals of flowers are developed in pale and contorted shapes beneath the enveloping sheaths.

But in our human life the transmutation is often not so easy as in flowers. Normally, indeed, the adolescent transformations of sex are so urgent and so manifold—now definite sensual desire, now muscular impulses of adventure, now emotional aspirations in the sphere of art or religion—that they easily overwhelm and absorb all its vaguer and more twisted manifestations in childhood. Yet it may happen that by some aberration of internal development or of external influence this conversion of energy may at one point or another fail to be completely effected. Then some fragment of infantile sexuality survives, in rare cases to turn all the adult faculties to its service and become reckless and triumphant, in minor and more frequent cases to be subordinated and more or less repressed into the subconscious sphere by voluntary or even involuntary and unconscious effort. Then we may have conflict, which, when it works happily, exerts a fortifying and ennobling influence on character, when more unhappily a disturbing influence which may even lead to conditions of definite nervous disorder.

The process by which this fundamental sexual energy is elevated from elementary and primitive forms into complex and developed forms is termed sublimation, a term, originally used for the process of raising by heat a solid substance to the state of vapour, which was applied even by such early writers as Drayton and Davies in a metaphorical and spiritual sense.[7] In the sexual sphere sublimation is of vital importance because it comes into question throughout the whole of life, and our relation to it must intimately affect our conception of morality. The element of athletic asceticism which is a part of all virility, and is found even—indeed often in a high degree—among savages, has its main moral justification as one aid to sublimation. Throughout life sublimation acts by transforming some part at all events of the creative sexual energy from its elementary animal manifestations into more highly individual and social manifestations, or at all events into finer forms of sexual activity, forms that seem to us more beautiful and satisfy us more widely. Purity, we thus come to see is, in one aspect, the action of sublimation, not abolishing sexual activity, but lifting it into forms of which our best judgment may approve.

[7]We may gather the history of the term from the Oxford Dictionary. Bodies, said Davies, are transformed to spirit "by sublimation strange," and Ben Jonson in Cynthia's Revels spoke of a being "sublimated and refined"; Purchas and Jackson, early in the same seventeenth century, referred to religion as "sublimating" human nature, and Jeremy Taylor, a little later, to "subliming" marriage into a sacrament; Shaftesbury, early in the eighteenth century, spoke of human nature being "sublimated by a sort of spiritual chemists" and Welton, a little later, of "a love sublimate and refined," while, finally, and altogether in our modern sense, Peacock in 1816 in his Headlong Hall referred to "that enthusiastic sublimation which is the source of greatness and energy."

We must not suppose—as is too often assumed—that sublimation can be carried out easily, completely, or even with unmixed advantage. If it were so, certainly the old-fashioned moralist would be confronted by few difficulties, but we have ample reason to believe that it is not so. It is with sexual energy, well observes Freud, who yet attaches great importance to sublimation, as it is with heat in our machines: only a certain proportion can be transformed into work. Or, as it is put by Löwenfeld, who is not a constructive philosopher but a careful and cautious medical investigator, the advantages of sublimation are not received in specially high degree by those who permanently deny to their sexual impulse every natural direct relief. The celibate Catholic clergy, notwithstanding their heroic achievements in individual cases, can scarcely be said to display a conspicuous excess of intellectual energy, on the whole, over the non-celibate Protestant clergy; or, if we compare the English clergy before and after the Protestant Reformation, though the earlier period may reveal more daring and brilliant personages, the whole intellectual output of the later Church may claim comparison with that of the earlier Church. There are clearly other factors at work besides sublimation, and even sublimation may act most potently, not when the sexual activities sink or are driven into a tame and monotonous subordination, but rather when they assume a splendid energy which surges into many channels. Yet sublimation is a very real influence, not only in its more unconscious and profound operations, but in its more immediate and temporary applications, as part of an athletic discipline, acting best perhaps when it acts most automatically, to utilise the motor energy of the organism in the attainment of any high physical or psychic achievement.

We have to realise, however, that these transmutations do not only take place by way of a sublimation of sexual energy, but also by way of a degradation of that energy. The new form of energy produced, that is to say, may not be of a beneficial kind; it may be of a mischievous kind, a form of perversion or disease. Sexual self-denial, instead of leading to sublimation, may lead to nervous disorder when the erotic tension, failing to find a natural outlet and not sublimated to higher erotic or non-erotic ends in the real world, is transmuted into an unreal dreamland, thus undergoing what Jung terms introversion; while there are also the people already referred to, in whom immature childish sexuality persists into an adult stage of development it is no longer altogether in accord with, so that conflict, with various possible trains of nervous symptoms, may result. Disturbances and conflicts in the emotional sexual field may, we know, in these and similar ways become transformed into physical symptoms of disorder which can be seen to have a precise symbolic relationship to definite events in the patient's emotional history, while fits of nervous terror, or anxiety-neurosis, may frequently be regarded as a degradation of thwarted or disturbed sexual energy, manifesting its origin by presenting a picture of sexual excitation transposed into a non-sexual shape of an entirely useless or mischievous character.

Thus, to sum up, we may say that the sexual energy of the organism is a mighty force, automatically generated throughout life. Under healthy conditions that force is transmuted in more or less degree, but never entirely, into forms that further the development of the individual and the general ends of life. These transformations are to some extent automatic, to some extent within the control of personal guidance. But there are limits to such guidance, for the primitive human personality can never be altogether rendered an artificial creature of civilisation. When these limits are reached the transmutation of sexual energy may become useless or even dangerous, and we fail to attain the exquisite flower of Purity.


It may seem that in setting forth the nature of the sexual impulse in the light of modern biology and psychology, I have said but little of purity and less of morality. Yet that is as it should be. We must first be content to see how the machine works and watch the wheels go round. We must understand before we can pretend to control; in the natural world, as Bacon long ago said, we can only command by obeying. Moreover, in this field Nature's order is far older and more firmly established than our civilised human morality. In our arrogance we often assume that Morality is the master of Nature. Yet except when it is so elementary or fundamental as to be part of Nature, it is but a guide, and a guide that is only a child, so young, so capricious, that in every age its wayward hand has sought to pull Nature in a different direction. Even only in order to guide we must first see and know.

We realise that never more than when we observe the distinction which conventional sex-morals so often makes between men and women. Failing to find in women exactly the same kind of sexual emotions, as they find in themselves, men have concluded that there are none there at all. So man has regarded himself as the sexual animal, and woman as either the passive object of his adoring love or the helpless victim of his degrading lust, in either case as a being who, unlike man, possessed an innocent "purity" by nature, without any need for the trouble of acquiring it. Of woman as a real human being, with sexual needs and sexual responsibilities, morality has often known nothing. It has been content to preach restraint to man, an abstract and meaningless restraint even if it were possible. But when we have regard to the actual facts of life, we can no longer place virtue in a vacuum. Women are just as apt as men to be afflicted by the petty jealousies and narrownesses of the crude sexual impulse; women just as much as men need the perpetual sublimation of erotic desire into forms of more sincere purity, of larger harmony, in gaining which ends all the essential ends of morality are alone gained. The delicate adjustment of the needs of each sex to the needs of the other sex to the end of what Chaucer called fine loving, the adjustment of the needs of both sexes to the larger ends of fine living, may well furnish a perpetual moral discipline which extends its fortifying influence to men and women alike.

It is this universality of sexual emotion, blending in its own mighty stream, as is now realised, many other currents of emotion, even the parental and the filial, and traceable even in childhood,—the wide efflorescence of an energy constantly generated by a vital internal mechanism,—which renders vain all attempts either to suppress or to ignore the problem of sex, however immensely urgent we might foolishly imagine such attempts to be. Even the history of the early Christian ascetics in Egypt, as recorded in the contemporary Paradise of Palladius, illustrates the futility of seeking to quench the unquenchable, the flame of fire which is life itself. These "athletes of the Lord" were under the best possible conditions for the conquest of lust; they had been driven into the solitude of the desert by a genuine deeply-felt impulse, they could regulate their lives as they would, and they possessed an almost inconceivable energy of resolution. They were prepared to live on herbs, even to eat grass, and to undertake any labour of self-denial. They were so scrupulous that we hear of a holy man who would even efface a woman's footprints in the sand lest a brother might thereby be led into thoughts of evil. Yet they were perpetually tempted to seductive visions and desires, even after a monastic life of forty years, and the women seem to have been not less liable to yield to temptation than the men.

It may be noted that in the most perfect saints there has not always been a complete suppression of the sexual impulse even on the normal plane, nor even, in some cases, the attempt at such complete suppression. In the early days of Christianity the exercise of chastity was frequently combined with a close and romantic intimacy of affection between the sexes which shocked austere moralists. Even in the eleventh century we find that the charming and saintly Robert of Arbrissel, founder of the order of Fontevrault, would often sleep with his nuns, notwithstanding the remonstrances of pious friends who thought he was displaying too heroic a manifestation of continence, failing to understand that he was effecting a sweet compromise with continence. If, moreover, we consider the rarest and finest of the saints we usually find that in their early lives there was a period of full expansion of the organic activities in which all the natural impulses had full play. This was the case with the two greatest and most influential saints of the Christian Church, St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi, absolutely unlike as they were in most other respects. Sublimation, we see again and again, is limited, and the best developments of the spiritual life are not likely to come about by the rigid attempt to obtain a complete transmutation of sexual energy.

The old notion that any strict attempt to adhere to sexual abstinence is beset by terrible risks, insanity and so forth, has no foundation, at all events where we are concerned with reasonably sound and healthy people. But it is a very serious error to suppose that the effort to achieve complete and prolonged sexual abstinence is without any bad results at all, physical or psychic, either in men or women who are normal and healthy. This is now generally recognised everywhere, except in the English-speaking countries, where the supposed interests of a prudish morality often lead to a refusal to look facts in the face. As Professor Näcke, a careful and cautious physician, stated shortly before his death, a few years ago, the opinion that sexual abstinence has no bad effects is not to-day held by a single authority on questions of sex; the fight is only concerned with the nature and degree of the bad effects which, in Näcke's belief—and he was doubtless right—are never of a gravely serious character.

Yet we have also to remember that not only, as we have seen, is the effort to achieve complete abstinence—which we ignorantly term "purity"—futile, since we are concerned with a force which is being constantly generated within the organism, but in the effort to achieve it we are abusing a great source of beneficent energy. We lose more than half of what we might gain when we cover it up, and try to push it back, to produce, it may be, not harmonious activity in the world, but merely internal confusion and distortion, and perhaps the paralysis of half the soul's energy. The sexual activities of the organism, we cannot too often repeat, constitute a mighty source of energy which we can never altogether repress though by wise guidance we may render it an aid not only to personal development and well-being but to the moral betterment of the world. The attraction of sex, according to a superstition which reaches far back into antiquity, is a baleful comet pointing to destruction, rather than a mighty star to which we may harness our chariot. It may certainly be either, and which it is likely to become depends largely on our knowledge and our power of self-guidance.

In old days when, as we have seen, tradition, aided by the most fantastic superstitions, insisted on the baleful aspects of sex, the whole emphasis was placed against passion. Since knowledge and self-guidance, without which passion is likely to be in fact pernicious, were then usually absent, the emphasis was needed, and when Böhme, the old mystic, declared that the art of living is to "harness our fiery energies to the service of the light," it has recently been even maintained that he was the solitary pioneer of our modern doctrines. But the ages in which ill-regulated passion exceeded—ages at least full of vitality and energy—gave place to a more anæmic society. To-day the conditions are changed, even reversed. Moral maxims that were wholesome in feudal days are deadly now. We are in no danger of suffering from too much vitality, from too much energy in the explosive splendour of our social life. We possess, moreover, knowledge in plenty and self-restraint in plenty, even in excess, however wrongly they may sometimes be applied. It is passion, more passion and fuller, that we need. The moralist who bans passion is not of our time; his place these many years is with the dead. For we know what happens in a world when those who ban passion have triumphed. When Love is suppressed Hate takes its place. The least regulated orgies of Love grow innocent beside the orgies of Hate. When nations that might well worship one another cut one another's throats, when Cruelty and Self-righteousness and Lying and Injustice and all the Powers of Destruction rule the human heart, the world is devastated, the fibre of the whole organism, of society grows flaccid, and all the ideals of civilisation are debased. If the world is not now sick of Hate we may be sure it never will be; so whatever may happen to the world let us remember that the individual is still left, to carry on the tasks of Love, to do good even in an evil world.

It is more passion and ever more that we need if we are to undo the work of Hate, if we are to add to the gaiety and splendour of life, to the sum of human achievement, to the aspiration of human ecstasy. The things that fill men and women with beauty and exhilaration, and spur them to actions beyond themselves, are the things that are now needed. The entire intrinsic purification of the soul, it was held by the great Spanish Jesuit theologian, Suarez, takes place at the moment when, provided the soul is of good disposition, it sees God; he meant after death, but for us the saying is symbolic of the living truth. It is only in the passion of facing the naked beauty of the world and its naked truth that we can win intrinsic purity. Not all, indeed, who look upon the face of God can live. It is not well that they should live. It is only the metals that can be welded in the fire of passion to finer services that the world needs. It would be well that the rest should be lost in those flames. That indeed were a world fit to perish, wherein the moralist had set up the ignoble maxim: Safety first.

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books.

This book is part of the public domain. Havelock Ellis (2005). Little Essays of Love and Virtue. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at, located at