Do not confuse a lust for sex with lust for life

Sexual hooliganism does not, by its nature, make a person interesting, funny or even unusual
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With impeccable timing, an eminent philosopher and one of our great university presses have chosen this moment, early in the Chinese Year of the Monkey and during the week when the BBC celebrates the randy life and loves of Alan Clark, to make an important announcement. Sexual desire, apparently, is a good thing. Lust, after spending 16 centuries down among the Seven Deadly Sins, should now be promoted as a contemporary virtue.

I know, it's a shock for us all. Something which obsesses the media, the church and a large part of the population, need no longer be regarded as a cause for guilt. What an intellectual journey it must have been for Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge to reach this conclusion; how nervous the Oxford University Press, who commissioned him to dabble in lust, must have been at the idea of publishing it.

At first glance, it all seems no more that a bit of winter silly season nonsense. Newspapers have obediently reported on Professor Blackburn's discovery, using it as an excuse to put a sexy picture on their pages.

"Desiring Liz Hurley is perfectly healthy, on of the country's leading philosophers has decided," one newspaper caption read.

I imagine that the reaction of most people will be to wonder what on earth an allegedly serious publisher is doing sponsoring the kind of report which Durex might consider commissioning for self-promotional purposes. Did OUP's poetry list, dumped not so long ago for cheese-paring fiscal reasons, die for this?

But, startlingly, I find myself wondering whether the professor is right when he argues that lust - the objective desire of one person for another, uncomplicated by emotion or reason - is necessarily such a wonderful, virtuous thing.

An image floats across the mind's eye of an acquaintance of mine, a legendary shagger in his time, at a recent party. The hair had gone, he was rather stout and, if not actually old then distinctly post-middle-age. Yet the glazed, predatory look was still there - the habit of glancing over the shoulder of the person to whom he was speaking just in case a potential prey might appear. He had become one of those ageing ex-studs who tend to stay late at parties in the hope of scooping up someone too drunk or lonely to reject a randy oldster on the pull.

When Professor Blackburn argues that a moral climate originally created by St Augustine, St Jerome and St Thomas Aquinas - "the old men of the desert", as he calls them - has left society with residual feelings of sexual guilt, one is entitled to wonder on what planet and in what century he resides.

It is surely evident that lust became a modern virtue years ago. Once a politician who found it virtually impossible to keep himself buttoned up was viewed as being too temperamentally weak to be taken seriously as a public figure. Now a reputation for lustiness is often a career advantage, a sign of someone who is healthily in touch with his own vulnerability. The image of figures as disparate as Stephen Norris and Bill Clinton has been done no harm at all by revelations about their private lives.

Similarly, there was a time when an author who clammily revealed a history of indiscriminate rutting - Frank Harris, say - would be generally regarded as insecure and seedy. Today, as the French nympho Catherine Millet has discovered with her bestselling memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M, sexual adventurousness is seen to represent a freedom of spirit, unrestricted by petty convention. Hard on the heels of a TV series celebrating the priapic life of Samuel Pepys, we can soon look forward to the life of another jolly libertine, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, being filmed with Johnny Depp in the title role.

Before that, a dramatisation of the diaries of that patron saint of male randiness, Alan Clark, starring John Hurt, will be on our screens, and already the woman who was his sweet and sexily submissive wife has been sportily providing interviewers with her view of his "wanderings" and "flirtations". The thing about Clark, according to Jane, is that he was brilliantly clever, a super father and, above all, enormous fun.

From here, it is but a small step to associate randiness with wit, to confuse a lust for sex with lust for life. But sexual hooliganism does not, by its nature, make a person interesting, funny or even unusual, as endless TV documentaries about bonking holidaymakers so depressingly confirm.

Lust is a beautiful thing, pure in its hard, icy simplicity, but perhaps, in this Year of the Monkey, we should recognise that what differentiates humans from, say, the shockingly-behaved Bonobo pygmy chimps, is that what Professor Blackburn describes as "the enthusiastic desire for sexual activity and its pleasures for its own sake" is enticingly shrouded by guilt and an awareness of sin.