Beauty, Eros, and Why Pornography Is So Hard to Overcome

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In his writings, Saint Thomas Aquinas describes sight to be the principal and primary of all the senses. His reasoning is that when we open our eyes and look at something, we are immediately abstracting—taking into our minds—what we see and rearranging it in an understandable way. To him, the eyes were the quickest way to the intellect. So, we can say quite literally that the eyes are the windows to the soul. For it is through the eyes that we take in all things that are around us and discern what they are as well as recognize the good of their existence. 

It is for this reason that people like me who struggle with the habitual use of pornography need to exercise custody of the eyes. It is a detriment to our very being when we view explicit sexual material. What we see never really leaves us. But what exactly is it about pornographic material that is enthralling to those of us who struggle with it?

In short, beauty.

There has been and still is a debate amongst theologians and philosophers as to what the nature of beauty is. It is important to understand beauty and how it relates to pornography as well as why it can be so difficult to stop engaging in this vice. One of the most common complaints I hear is that sex is everywhere or that companies have saturated the culture with sex to sell products. I also hear that everything on television revolves around sex. While I agree with these lines of thought to an extent, I think the problem is deeper than just too much exposure to sex. 

What it comes down to is our heart’s longing to have contact with the beautiful. Most addicts I have met and have treated tell me in some way, “I have a void in my heart that needs to be filled.” We are drawn to the beautiful because it points to a reality that is supernatural and beyond reason. When we experience beauty, we experience the desire for a specific good and seek to know it better. A person’s beauty becomes more apparent to us the more we know him or her and, as a result, we desire that person more. What is this desire that is stirred up by beauty? It is eros, a term coined by the ancient Greeks. Our word erotic derives from this word. 

Today, the erotic has more to do with the sexual rather than the beautiful. However, in its original meaning, the erotic is a type of love that brings out a desire to seek and understand something greater than ourselves. It is a love that searches for its beloved. Benedict XVI referred to eros as an “ascending love,” one that takes flight and brings us to a higher truth. Erotic love is integral to experiencing love in its totality. It is this desire that draws us to pornography, which is a perversion of that capacity for desire.

When I was a child, I was diagnosed with keratoconus, which is a rare degenerative corneal disease. I had such bad astigmatism that no prescription glasses could correct my vision. However, there was a breakthrough. I will never forget putting on special contact lenses and being able to finally see. Prior to that moment, I was legally blind. My eye doctor, whom I am eternally indebted to, took me outside the office, pointed to the mountains, and asked, “What do you see?”

For the first time, I saw trees on the mountains. On that day, I experienced the beauty of nature in a way I had never done before. With this came a desire to experience beauty everywhere I went, be they mountain-scapes or sunsets. When we are capable of seeing beauty, be that in a person or landscape, we desire more of that particular good.

The human body is a work of divine artistry, and the Church firmly attests to the beauty and sacredness of our bodies. It is this exposure to the sacredness of the body that stirs up the flame of eros because it brings us to the threshold of the divine. Porn corrupts eros. Pornography takes the human body and reduces it to something that is merely usable and disposable. When the desire for the body is present but only with regard to the physical aspect of the person and not the spiritual, then eros is no longer geared outward but inward. The desire is no longer to know another person but to covet and possess him or her.

This is why pornography is no easy addiction to overcome. I struggle with it, and so do millions of others. Yet, as with all things, there is always hope. Our Lord tells us, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Being “pure of heart” means seeing God in all things, especially in people. If we begin to see God in all things and people then we can begin to experience the eros that causes our hearts to ascend to the heights of God, rather than the type that debases and destroys us and others. 

So, for the love of beauty, let us ask daily for the grace to see God’s beauty in every person we encounter.


Ambrose is a convert to Catholicism and has struggled with sexaholism and mental illness. He has undergraduate degrees in Catholic theology and philosophy and enjoys learning and reading about the lives of the saints.