Sunday, December 28, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Lacan on Desire and Sin

It seems that Lacan is saying in psychoanalytical language precisely what Aquinas showed was the source of sin: an apparent good that isn't truly in accord with reason. When we see things under right reason, we look at them, in Lacan's terms, straight on, directly, for what they really are. An object becomes desirable when seen "anamorphically," distorted by a subtle projection of our subjectivity into the object, a mistake in the intellect's judgment; this is the subtle relation between beings in nature (substances) and beings of reason, as Aquinas puts it, and their very close intermingling in concrete experience; the separation of the two requires a lot of reflexivity usually. It would be interesting to see a semiotic synthesis between these two thinkers because the experience is clearly rooted in the semiosic process.

First, St. Thomas, then Lacan as interpreted by Zizek.


Objection 1. It would seem that the will is not of good only. For the same power regards opposites; for instance, sight regards white and black. But good and evil are opposites. Therefore the will is not only of good, but also of evil.

Objection 2. Further, rational powers can be directed to opposite purposes, according to the Philosopher (Metaph. ix, 2). But the will is a rational power, since it is "in the reason," as is stated in De Anima iii, 9. Therefore the will can be directed to opposites; and consequently its volition is not confined to good, but extends to evil.

Objection 3. Further, good and being are convertible. But volition is directed not only to beings, but also to non-beings. For sometimes we wish "not to walk," or "not to speak"; and again at times we wish for future things, which are not actual beings. Therefore the will is not of good only.

On the contrary, Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that "evil is outside the scope of the will," and that "all things desire good."

I answer that, The will is a rational appetite. Now every appetite is only of something good. The reason of this is that the appetite is nothing else than an inclination of a person desirous of a thing towards that thing. Now every inclination is to something like and suitable to the thing inclined. Since, therefore, everything, inasmuch as it is being and substance, is a good, it must needs be that every inclination is to something good. And hence it is that the Philosopher says (Ethic. i, 1) that "the good is that which all desire."

But it must be noted that, since every inclination results from a form, the natural appetite results from a form existing in the nature of things: while the sensitive appetite, as also the intellective or rational appetite, which we call the will, follows from an apprehended form. Therefore, just as the natural appetite tends to good existing in a thing; so the animal or voluntary appetite tends to a good which is apprehended. Consequently, in order that the will tend to anything, it is requisite, not that this be good in very truth, but that it be apprehended as good. Wherefore the Philosopher says (Phys. ii, 3) that "the end is a good, or an apparent good."

Reply to Objection 1. The same power regards opposites, but it is not referred to them in the same way. Accordingly, the will is referred both to good and evil: but to good by desiring it: to evil, by shunning it. Wherefore the actual desire of good is called "volition" [In Latin, 'voluntas'. To avoid confusion with "voluntas" (the will) St. Thomas adds a word of explanation, which in the translation may appear superfluous], meaning thereby the act of the will; for it is in this sense that we are now speaking of the will. On the other hand, the shunning of evil is better described as "nolition": wherefore, just as volition is of good, so nolition is of evil.

Reply to Objection 2. A rational power is not to be directed to all opposite purposes, but to those which are contained under its proper object; for no power seeks other than its proper object. Now, the object of the will is good. Wherefore the will can be directed to such opposite purposes as are contained under good, such as to be moved or to be at rest, to speak or to be silent, and such like: for the will can be directed to either under the aspect of good.

Reply to Objection 3. That which is not a being in nature, is considered as a being in the reason, wherefore negations and privations are said to be "beings of reason." In this way, too, future things, in so far as they are apprehended, are beings. Accordingly, in so far as such like are beings, they are apprehended under the aspect of good; and it is thus that the will is directed to them. Wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1) that "to lack evil is considered as a good."


Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, 1a2æ.8.1,


[392] [T]he Lacanian objet a whose status is that of an anamorphosis: a part of a picture which, when the picture is viewed in a direct frontal way, appears as a meaningless stain, but which acquires the contours of a known object when we change our position and look at the picture from the side. Lacan’s point is even more radical: the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void— it acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways. [...]

This is the objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself “nothing but confusion,” and which acquires a definite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject’s desires and fears— as such, as a mere “shadow of what it is not.” As such, the objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire.1 [...]

[403] The objet a is the point at which the subject encounters itself, its own impossible objectal counterpoint, among objects—“ impossible” means here that a is the obverse of the subject, they can never encounter each other in a direct opposition or mirroring, i.e., there is no relationship between $ and a, they are like the two sides of the same spot on a Möbius band. What this means is that the objet a stands for the “object as such,” the frame of a variable; it is in this sense (Lacan’s version of) the transcendental object, a mark of the “pure” faculty of desire: it has no substantial consistency of its own, it is just a spectral materialization of a certain cut or inadequacy— or, as Lacan put it concisely: “The object a is a cut” (“l’objet a est une coupure”).

[404] [...] the objet a is not the inaccessible ideal object to which no empirical object is adequate—“the object a is this inadequacy itself.” In this sense, the objet a is “the presupposed void in a demand,” the void that sustains the experience of “this is never that”: the universal (“object as such”) comes to exists as a pure gap.


Source: Slavoj Zizek, Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso Books, 2014), 392, 403–404.

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