Man, Revisited

When I went to college, many years ago, we all had to take a course known as “Man Viewed in the Light of History and Religion” otherwise known as “Man” (quite aptly, as I came later to understand). It was a survey of western civilization, specifically the writings of Western men (those old dead white males you hear so much about); and the opinings of these great men were reverently presented as the highest wisdom – and in some cases as ultimate truth. And I, like Maria von Herbert (see below) and as most women students have done over the years, read these men and believed that they were speaking to me and to my condition. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong and obviously I was in complete denial, refusing to believe the words that my eyes were taking in. However, at some level, my mind was processing this information, with the result that I was deeply conflicted about what it meant to me to be a women vs. what being a woman meant in terms of value in my own culture. What a relief to finally get all that sorted out.

For many years I have so longed for the opportunity to return and teach “Man” from a female perspective, clearly pointing out what these men thought about women and calling into question their false assumptions about women which even today we unconsciously (and consciously) accept as foundational to our cultural values. But in lieu of that, I had the chance to expose these guys and their profound misogyny in a series of short papers I did for a course on Ethics which I took at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2000. I had fun talking back to Plato, etc., and I hope you enjoy my irreverence.

The readings which these papers were written in response to can be found in Ethics: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives, James P. Sterba, ed., Oxford University Press, 2000.


Plato: On the Natural Inferiority of Women and Women’s Work

Response to selections from –
Plato, The Republic, Books II, IV, V, tr. B. Jowett
Julia Annas, Plato’s Republic and Feminism, Cambridge University Press

For Plato, a just state would be a place where everyone does the work they are best suited to do creating a harmonious and just society: those best suited to cobbling should be allowed to cobble; those best suited to war should be allowed to join the army, intellectuals should be allowed to sit around and shoot the breeze, and so forth. He extends this concept to include women, going so far as to suggest that women suited to governing should be allowed to join the “Guardians” (Plato’s term for the rulers of the State).

Up to this point it all sounds very enlightened, but unfortunately, from my perspective, there are several serious flaws in Plato’s utopian vision. For although each one of the pursuits catalogued by Plato is deemed necessary for the existence and functioning of the state, by no means is each necessary pursuit equally valued. For example, Plato makes it clear that physical labor is by definition inferior to intellectual pursuits. And, although Plato extends the privilege of being a Guardian to women, he makes it clear that, because women are categorically inferior to men in every way, female Guardians would inevitably be inferior to male Guardians. Twenty-four hundred years later, I don’t find that social values in regard to women and physical labor have changed much. Julia Annas more or less proves my point.

In Plato’s Republic and Feminism, Annas takes Plato to task because although he admits women to the Guardian class, he does it for the benefit of the state rather than for the benefit of women. As she points out, Plato has no interest in bettering the lives of women who Annas sees as needing relief from their intellectually starved lives as household drudges. (To be fair to Plato, he is not focused on bettering the individual lives of cobblers either, his focus is the republic, after all.) But In offering this criticism, Annas seems to be unwittingly accepting Plato’s assignment of value – e.g., that intellectual activities are superior to physical labor and men’s work is superior to women’s work. What I would like to know is “Are these values a true reflection of what is valuable or are they a distortion of reality?”

It seems to me that a just and harmonious society is achieved by providing a system which values work based on the necessity of the work, how well it is done, and the pleasure it provides. I am not comfortable with a system of values which assigns value based on who is doing the work rather than the work itself – e.g., men’s work (work traditionally associated with men) is more valuable than women’s work (work traditionally associated with women) or proceeds from the questionable assumption that physical labor is of lesser value than intellectual labor.

But before we can reassign values, we need to understand where the values espoused by Plato and Annas come from: Why, then and now, are women and everything associated with women seen and accepted as inferior? If female inferiority is not based in reality, in what is it based? Upon what basis have we been judged inferior and why? Plato seemed to have no doubt that the inferiority of women was a given. If that is not the case, if it is a false assumption, then the validity and values of Plato – and other major Western thinkers – are called into serious question.

Aristotle: Known Facts?

Response to selections from
Nicomachean Ethics, Books I-II

I find myself in such disagreement with Aristotle that it’s hard to know where to begin a discussion. First, I find Aristotle to be screamingly self-serving; he, the male philosopher, assumes a hierarchy of values in which “goods of the mind” are “good in the most important sense and in the highest degree.” In other words, in Aristotle’s world (the world Aristotle helped construct), the man of intellect (the philosopher) is perceived to represent the highest form of life. He is so taken with himself and his ilk that he seems to perceive the philosopher as a different order of being from “ordinary men” – whatever that is supposed to mean (people who lead useful lives, I presume).

Aristotle maintains that in argument one must argue toward or argue from first principles or known facts, yet what he understands as “known facts” appear to me to be nothing more than opinions. For example, Aristotle claims the following to be “known facts:” philosophers are superior to ordinary mortals, intellectual work is superior to physical work, humans are superior to animals, free people are superior to slaves, men are superior to women, and the reason is superior to the emotions,

Clearly, this is not a list of facts, but a list of opinions reflecting the collectively held system of values which constructed the reality of 4th Century BCE Athens — and which, I would point out — continues to construct the realty of 21st century United States. Yet although these “known facts” are not “unknown” to me, i.e., I am only too well acquainted with them, none of these “known facts” is known to me to be true. And although Aristotle provides no evidence to support the validity of these known facts, they have become the foundation of our value system.

This self-serving, socially constructed hierarchy of values has produced an ethic and a reality which to my mind is profoundly unethical – and increasingly unreal. It’s time to construct a new reality based on a new set of “known facts.”

Rosemary Radford Reuther on Augustine

Response to selections from –
Rosemary Radford Reuther, “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church”

Christian concepts of the supreme value of a transcendent spirituality, such as those reflected in Augustine’s theological writings have in Western society drained the material world – especially nature and women – of value. Ecofeminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Reuther, have traced gender injustice to this value system and are offering ways to resacralize creation in an attempt to rectify the problem. But does nature need to be resacralized? Perhaps the fault, dear Rosemary, lies in our wannabe transcendent selves.

According to Reuther –

Perhaps the task of Christians today, as they take stock of this tradition {the doctrine of transcendence} and its defects, is not merely to vilify its inhumanity but rather to cherish the hard-won fruits of transcendence and spiritual personhood, won at such a terrible price of the natural affections of men and the natural humanity of women. Without discarding these achievements, we must rather find out how to pour them back into a full-bodied Hebrew sense of creation and incarnation, as male and female.

Reflecting on this statement, I began to wonder if “pouring the fruits of transcendence (an image which suggests the commingling and integration of spirit and matter), etc. back into “a full-bodied Hebrew sense of creation and incarnation” would constitute a logical, if not theological impossibility, and if, in trying to reconcile these two ideas – transcendence and a “full-bodied sense of creation” – Reuther is trying to have her cake and eat it, too.

Spiritual transendence within a Christian context implies and assumes a position outside of or beyond nature and the body and understands the transcendent as superior in value to that which is transcended. Logic dictates, therefore, that one cannot pour the transcendent back into the transcended without losing the very essence and the meaning of transcendence – and its associated superiority — something Reuther does not want to do. Theologically speaking, although the incarnate Christ does provide an example of matter and spirit combined, he is seen as having two natures – divine and human – not one commingled nature. And traditional Christian beliefs about the incarnate Christ never question the supremacy of the “God part” in relation to the “Man part.” In other words, it is Christ’s transcendent divinity which gives him his value, not his immanent humanity.

Therefore, given these understandings of the relationship of transcendent spirit to matter and the associated value judgments, it appears that as long as we contine to think in these terms, we will never be able to achieve a “full-bodied” sense of creation, within which men’s natural affections are not distorted and women’s natural humanity is not devalued. Continuing to assume that the material world needs “the fruits of transcendence” in order to be resacralized seems counterproductive.

Is appears to be impossible for Christians to view the material world as sacred in itself. Therefore, to remain Christian is to distort our natural affections and to devalue women. The answer lies not in going through some convoluted mental exercise of pouring the fruits of transcendence back where they came from, but in seeing a transcendence-obsessed Christianity for what it is – as essentially anti-woman and anti-nature .

Aquinas: The Law That’s Written on the Brain

Response to selections from –
Summa Theologica

Aquinas states that “Every act of reason and will in us is based on that which is according to nature…Accordingly, the first direction of our acts to their end must needs be in virtue of natural law.” In addition, Aquinas says that “all things to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by reason as being good…”

This understanding of the reason and the will as acting in consonance with our natures and not in opposition to our natural inclinations and the “affirmation” of the goodness of nature seems to be a radical departure from the more commonly held view “that the directing of human acts… is not a function of nature, but a function of the reason and the will (as if man’s reason and will were somehow separate from nature). Aquinas appears to understand human beings to be more closely related to the rest of nature – to be on more of a continuum – than earlier and later philosophers and theologians were – and have been – willing to admit.

The more traditional – and later, Protestant – view sees a dramatic difference between Man and Nature, a difference that leads us to believe that we are not part of nature at all – but some kind of being which transcends nature and the natural world, specifically through the agency of our intellect. Aquinas, however, seems to hold the much more reasonable and realistic view that human beings are a part of nature, and that, as such, anything that pertains to us is also a part of nature, including especially our intellects which define our nature. Therefore, the intellect is not seen as something which operates in opposition to nature, not something which is hostile to our nature, but something which naturally promotes our survival and our well-being.

Although Aquinas understands the intellect and reason as natural insofar as they serve the end of nature, i.e., the good, I wonder if he would understand the reason and intellect from an organic perspective. That is, although he equates natural law with the law written on the heart (“the natural law in the abstract can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts”), would he find offensive the notion that reason and intellect and natural law in the abstract are “written on the human brain?” Given modern understandings – limited as they are – about the human brain, would he be comfortable with the idea that the
metaphorical heart is the organic brain?

Kant: False to Women, But True to His Words

Response to selections from –
Immanuel Kant, “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals”
Kant, On the Sublime and the Beautiful
Rae Langton, “Maria Von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant

In “Fundamental Principles of Metaphysical Morals,” Kant says that “all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as a means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”

In “On the Sublime and the Beautiful,” Kant says that “The philosophy of women is not to reason, but to feel.”

Keeping these things in mind, please attend to the following story taken from “Maria von Herbert’s Challenge to Kant.”

In 1793, Maria von Herbert, a fervent disciple of Emmanual Kant’s, wrote to him about her mental anguish resulting from the loss of a lover because of a lie she had told him. Asking for his philosophical help in dealing with her misery, she says

Now put yourself in my place and either damn me or comfort me. I’ve read the metaphysic of morals, and the categorical imperative, and it doesn’t help a bit. My reason abandons me just when I need it. Answer me, I implore you – or you won’t be acting in accordance with your own imperative.

Kant did answer her, but his long reply held out little comfort, suggesting that “the love is deservedly lost, that misery is an appropriate response to one’s moral failure.” After receiving this missive, von Herbert fell into a deep depression, writing to Kant that “a vast emptiness extends inside me, and all around me – so that I almost find myself to be superfluous, unnecessary.”

Kant’s never replied to von Herbert, but instead betrayed her trust in the most heinous way, using the letters for the amusement and entertainment of another lady and dismissing von Herbert’s terrible emptiness as a“curious mental derangement” resulting from the “wanderings of a sublimated fantasy.”

Now, although Kant’s behavior can be criticized as ungentlemanly and caddish, it cannot be criticized as inconsistent with his own philosophy which holds that women are primarily emotional, rather than rational beings – and it is only rational beings who deserve to be dealt with as an end in themselves rather than a means to an end. Women, whose “philosophy is not to reason but to feel” are therefore not exempt from exploitation as are “rational beings” – otherwise known as men. According to his lights, Kant is dealing with two separate and unequal classes of beings to which the same laws and principles do not apply . He can thus exploit von Herbert’s misery for his own and another’s amusement. Von Herbert had clearly knocked on the wrong door when she sought the “consolation of philosophy” from great Kant. In 1803 Maria von Herbert committed suicide.

Is it any wonder that women feel emptiness and believe themselves to be worthless in this culture when every generation brings forth yet another “great white “ male thinker whose primary sharklike aim seems to be to gouge great chunks out of woman’s sense of self-worth to feed the ravenous male ego?

John Stuart Mill and Women’s Work

Response to selections from–

J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism
J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women
Harriet Taylor, The Enfranchisement of Women
Maria H. Morales,”Utility and Perfect Equality”

I find Mill’s utilitarian vision very appealing. I agree that humans are social beings and that happiness rightly understood refers to the well-being of all. This being the case, women’s work, which promotes the well-being of her husband and her children should qualify as noble and valuable – not just valued by those who are the immediate beneficiaries of her labor, but also by society – which indirectly benefits. But this is not the case – even with Mill. For although Mill clearly values women, he does not value women’s work. Nor does Harriet Taylor who refers to women’s work as – “one animal function and its consequences.” Mill’s solution to the woman problem is, like most “enlightened” solutions, to lift her out of the mire of her female animality and admit her to the status of the fully human nale.

Does Mill offer this solution because the motive for women’s work work (especially mother-work) is seen as deriving from the instincts and as such as having no human worth? Is it because wife-work is seen as deriving from enslavement to the husband, and therefore not freely given and not noble? Is it devalued because of those animal/slave associations?

Whatever the reasons behind this devaluation of women’s work, women’s work has never been valued by patriarchal society. Yet, women’s work is critical to the existence of human life and human well-being. Without the care and feeding by our mothers, none of us would be alive today. Women’s work also provides many of life’s greatest pleasures – the creation of a comfortable, safe, welcoming home, good food, a space for conviviality (pleasures which have almost disappeared from the lives of most of us). Women’s work is also an expression of love – it is motivated by a desire to benefit others – and expressing love and care for another is very pleasurable in itself. Women care for their husbands because they love them. In the most fortunate of families, women care for the sick and the elderly because they love them. Therefore, women’s work would seem to qualify as meeting all Mill’s qualifications for a valuable and moral life – and then some. But, as we all know, it doesn’t – and doing women’s work would seem to be the most satisfying work a woman can do – but we all know it isn’t.

Like Maria Morales, it is my belief that all human beings have a fundamental psychological need “for the confirmation of our own worth,” which can only be satisfied “ in the context of life-affirming relationships with others.” However, value in our society still appears to be attached to the type of work one does. As domestic work is absolutely devalued in a patriarchal society, domestic workers will also be devalued – and can never receive the confirmation of self-worth that every human being desperately needs. In fact, the reverse seems to be the case – the confirmation of no self worth. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Mill says that domestic work is a Hobson’s choice for women as they are prevented from making any other. I would say that working outside the home has now become a Hobson’s choice for most women as no one in her right mind would choose to do work (domestic work) which has no social value whatsoever. The only way women will ever have a real choice as to the type of work they want to do is when domestic work becomes valued equally with work outside the home. In the meantime, women are caught between their drive to find social confirmation of their worth and the biological drive to have a child. What a strange world we live in!

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