Sunday, January 01, 2006

Aristotle and Women I

When I attended university I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Richard Longenecker, one of the translators of the NIV and TNIV, speak to our Christian group. Many of my friends, and my husband, attended his NT course. He was high energy, enthusiastic, and funny.

My girlfriend, who grew up in the Brethren with me, reported that his opinion on women in the NT was that the position of women was similar to slaves. God intended for the condition of women to be transformed, and that history has taken time to work out the different inequalities. Slavery and inequality of race are no longer considered legitimate, and women, too, should be considered and treated as equals. As far as I know, he meant what he said, truly equal.

Why would the condition of women be linked with slaves? Mainly because Greek philosophy had set up the relationships of the household and the state. The position of barabarians, women, children and slaves was described by Aristotle. Those who are by nature not equal must be ruled by others. Here is a selection of Aristotle from my bookshelf.

Aristotle's Politics I 5

Is there a slave by nature?

But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule, and others be ruled is a thing, not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule....

And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals as well as of men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved.

Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind. Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.

For he who can be, and therefore is another’s, and he who participates in reason enough to apprehend, but not to have, reason, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend reason; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life. ...

And if there is a difference in the body, how much more in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.


Luke 22:24 - 26 ESV

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

For Aristotle, the rule of the male over the female is the rule of soul, the rational mind or intellect, over the body, the appetite, the passionate impulse. In this way Aristotle justifies the rule of one human over another. We need to understand that this is man's philosophy, based on male deductive reasoning and male intuitive sense. It is not the teaching of Christ.

Do we really believe, as Aristotle did, that women are different in nature, less rational, more impulsive, that man is mind and woman appetite. Many women today believe the exact opposite. God teaches a mutual and respectful relationship.

However, in Christ there is neither male nor female. We are of the same nature, we both come from God. So should one rule the other? Christ says that it should not be for us as it is among the Gentiles.*

I have the notion, the idea, that Christians should put a little more distance between themselves and Aristotle. Most people don't know how engrained these ideas still are in our culture. They do not come from the Bible.

* Reality check. Is Gentiles a word that most people would understand today? It reads ethné in Greek. What happened to 'nations' or 'other nations'? If the translators were to add this extra word 'other', to clarify the meaning of 'nations', would that downgrade the translation to a paraphrase? Hmm.

"Gentile" ("gentiles") comes from the Latin word gentili (gentilis) which meant "of the nations". The Catholic Vulgate version translated the Hebrew goyim ("nations") and the Greek ethnoi ("nations") as gentili. Bible Pages

13 comments:

Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, I was a little surprised to find these sentences (deliberately abbreviated here) in your posting:

We need to understand that this is man's philosophy, ... It is not the teaching of Christ.

Here we seem to have the classic distinction between "man" in the generic sense and Christ, who although (in orthodox teaching) himself both man and God, is presumed in this kind of context to be teaching God's ways. So, did you here intend to be contrasting human philosophy with God's teaching? And were you using "man" in a generic sense?

Well, this seems less likely when we look at the sentences in full:

We need to understand that this is man's philosophy, based on male deductive reasoning and male intuitive sense. It is not the teaching of Christ.

The use of "male" here strongly suggests that "man" is being used in a quite different sense, to contrast with "women". So much so that it comes as quite a shock to find at the end here "Christ" rather than "women"!

So what was your intention, to contrast human and divine philosophy, or to contrast the teaching of men and women? Or are you arguing that in this case what women teach is closer to God's teaching, with Christ being something of a traitor (like me!) to his biological gender?

I think we need to recognise, as you may be meaning to say in your next paragraph, that women's philosophy, especially radical feminism, may be just as much opposed to God's teaching as are Aristotle's views, which are of course totally unacceptable today. (By the way, I was surprised not to see any racism there - I would have expected him to believe that "barbarians" are naturally intended to be slaves to Greeks.) God's teaching, as brought to us by Christ, is in many ways a middle way, and a way which affirms the essential equality of races, of slaves and free, and of men and women, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11.

Kenny said...

Suzannne, thank you for posting this passage. I have seen it before and am aware of its unfortunate impact on the history of human thought. I want to stress that while I may indeed have said some things that reminded you of this passage, I do not in fact agree with any of the things Aristotle says here.

Also, you mention that "Christians should put a little more distance between themselves and Aristotle." I absolutely agree, but I had not thought of this in the context of ethics or power relationships in the past, simply because I don't work on ethics very much, I mostly work on metaphysics. As early as the Chalcedonian Declaration (451) there were people in the Christian church who had started formulating Christian doctrine and statements of orthodoxy in ways that were incoherent outside of Aristotle's metaphysics. I think this is absurd, and it would be equally absurd to force the Bible or Christian doctrine into an Aristotelian ethical pattern. To this day, most Christian philosophers hold to an essentially Aristotelian metaphysics, and I see no good reason why. It frusrates me to no end. I would hope that I myself am not forcing the Bible into an Aristotelian ethical understanding in the same way!

Suzanne McCarthy said...

By the way, I was surprised not to see any racism there - I would have expected him to believe that "barbarians" are naturally intended to be slaves to Greeks

Hi Peter,

Aristotle's main point was the inequality of races, I simply hadn't gotten that far. More on the other later.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Kenny,

I was trying to dissect your use of 'írrational impulse' with relation to women. Is there any suggestion in the Bible that women are more impulsive and less rational than men? If you want to think that the irrational impulse is the perfection of woman, as you infered, then you may do so, but it doesn't relate to Christian thinking.

I would think that Aristotelian thinking has greatly influenced the church from very early days until now. The only antidote to me is to study and analyse Aristotle himself. Unfortunately, it doens't seem that popular to simply sit down and read the Politics, but it sure is an eyeopener.

I want to stress that while I may indeed have said some things that reminded you of this passage, I do not in fact agree with any of the things Aristotle says here.

If you want to know what I really think about what you have said, it is simply this. I enjoy having found someone who is interested in talking about Greek philosphy.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Peter,

The use of "male" here strongly suggests that "man" is being used in a quite different sense, to contrast with "women". So much so that it comes as quite a shock to find at the end here "Christ" rather than "women"!

Very good question! I meant to imply that what has been understood as human philosophy, what stands for human philosophy, in contrast to the teaching of Christ, was, in fact, written by a man, a male human being.

Or are you arguing that in this case what women teach is closer to God's teaching, with Christ being something of a traitor (like me!) to his biological gender?

I emphatically do not believe that what women teach is closer to God's teaching. Never. I do not believe that women are more peaceful, nurturing, cooperative, blah, blah, blah, than men. I grew up believing that a girl could do mentally what her brother, in the flesh, could do with their mind. I believe that a man can nurture as well as a woman, even a baby, with some physical limitations.

I think we need to recognise, as you may be meaning to say in your next paragraph, that women's philosophy, especially radical feminism, may be just as much opposed to God's teaching as are Aristotle's views, which are of course totally unacceptable today

Absolutely, I wouldn't find any friends among feminists. Any suggestion that I was a feminist would get a choking sort of gagging sound from those who know me.

Thanks for following my argument so closely.

As far as egalitarian men being a traitor to their sex, complementarians put an unnecessary burden on men, so much so that I am shocked really. At our stage of life, past the child-bearing years for women, and in our economy, it is no longer appropriate to think of women being at home while men single-handed carry the financial burden or make the tough decisions. How stressful that must be for all but the wealthy! Surely God has intended companionship and mutual support.

Kenny said...

Suzanne, I never intended to say that women were less rational or more impulsive than men, and I hoped to have clarified that previously. What I did intend to say is that there exists a thing in human nature which I have termed "the irrational impulse," but might better have called non-rational or pre-rational rather than irrational (since it is not opposed to reason, but merely independent of it). I don't see how the rational faculty can determine ultimate ends: it works only with means. Therefore I conclude that there must exist in humans (and, as well, in God since God acts toward ends) something distinct from the rational faculty which does determine the ultimate ends. In the unregenerate human being, this faculty, what I called the irrational impulse, is in rebellion against the rational faculty, and the rational faculty is also in rebellion against God. Now, this irrational impulse is a good thing. It consists of the instincts which God placed in human beings so that they would pursue the good. In fact, most of the fundamental drives we have can be traced to God's initial instructions to man in Genesis 1:28-30. However, when the irrational impulse rebels against the rational faculty, it leads us to pursue the lesser immediate good at the expense of the ultimately greater good, or even to pursue minor goods in ways that create great evils. The desires of the irrational impulse then become misdirected and ultimately it is this disorder of the soul that causes us to sin, and this is in my view one of the primary effects of the Fall of Man. The regeneration of the Holy Spirit which occurs in the believer's life, in my view, consists primarily in the re-ordering of the soul to bring the rational faculty back into submission to God and the irrational impulse back into submission to the rational faculty. Note the similarity of my concept of regeneration with Plato's concept of salvation.

Now, I observed in passing that the irrational impulse may be stronger in women than in men. All that I meant to say was this: I suggest (not "I know", but "I suggest") that the strongest impulse which we encounter in everyday life may be the maternal instinct which, I further suggest, is significantly stronger than the paternal instinct. I did acknowledge that sex drive may in fact be stronger than either, which is one reason that I put this forward as merely a suggestion. I think the example of the maternal instinct shows how the irrational impulse, though clearly good in itself, sometimes becomes the cause of bad things as, for instance, the mother who refuses to believe that her child did anything wrong when the child is disciplined by a teacher (or even by his father). I do not mean to say that fathers do not ever do the same thing, or that fathers are less important, or men are less capable of raising children, or men care less about their children, but simply that it seems to me that this basic drive, the drive of a mother (more so even than a father) to protect her child, is one of the strongest (if not the strongest) impulses in human psychology, and this leads me to suspect that the irrational impulse may be stronger in women than men overall. But you see the number of inferences, suggestions, and suspicions in the above, and you also see that this is far from suggesting that women are inherently irrational, or even less rational than men. Perhaps women (at least in God's ideal for them, if not in the Fall) have a correspondingly greater capacity to hold the irrational impulse in subjection to the rational faculty. On the other hand, it seems to me that Paul's discussion in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 implies that Eve sinned through the rebellion of the irrational impulse against the rational faculty, whereas Adam sinned through the rebellion of the rational faculty against God (if either of these is worse, I would say it is probably the latter, since it involves more intentionality). Furthermore, Paul seems to apply this distinction to men and women in general (as a statistical generalization that women more often sin in the one way, men more often in the other, not as an absolute law that it always occurs this way), otherwise it wouldn't be relevant to the context.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Kenny,

From my point of view, after a brief discussion with my husband, I would say that the paternal instinct is as powerful as the maternal. The father feels the same intense feelings towards his children as the mother. How this plays out in the individual varies greatly and we all experience it differently. It may be that the man feels less able culturally to identify or express this emotion. The man has been historically required to put the greater social good before family on occasion. This does not mean he does not feel the same instinct.

About Genesis, Eve was tricked or fooled, defrauded, according to the Bible. She was reasoned or argued into believing that the fruit was a good thing. She was intellectually persuaded through reason. Adam impulsively followed the example of his wife and through non-rational decision-making, ate the fruit without thinking it through.

That is one possible interpretation. I don't know what it means really. However, I don't find any teaching in the Bible that women are less rational or more non-rational. Although, I do believe that God honours the nonrational. But I see men and women on common ground in relation to God.

We shortchange men by trying to divvy up faculties in any way. To say that women, as a sex, have the slightest, tiniest, bit of a stronger parental impulse, would seriously disadvantage men.

My husband has been reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen. It portrays the immense grief that men felt knowing younger men of their acquaintance were going to war in WWI. Some men denied that grief, masked it and sent young men to war. Other men were broken by this experience.

The movie about WIlfred Owen is called Regeneration . It is one of the most emotional and powerful movies I have ever seen, and is entirely about the grief of men.

Another powerful image that springs to mind is an interview I saw recently with a Swedish man who let one of his children out of his hand during the Tsunami. There was no question in my mind that that man experienced the loss of his child in the same way that a mother would have.

To intimate that a mother might have had a stronger grip is only wishful thinking not connected to reality.

Kenny said...

Suzanne, as you are no doubt aware, I do not have the amount of life experience necessary to disagree with you on this point meaningfully, and this is one of the many reasons that I say only "I suspect." I also acknowledge the possibility of your interpretation of the temptation of Eve. This has been a very interesting discussion, and I believe we now properly understand one another's positions. You have also given me a lot of interesting things to think about. I continue to find it impossible to believe that ALL of the psychological differences we observe between men and women are purely the result of cultural norms, but I think it is important (a) to acknowledge that we are often wrong about which differences are imposed by culture and which are designed by God, and (b) to recognize that whatever generalizations we draw, since every individual is unique, there will always be excptions.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Kenny,

I don't want to overdo the idea that I think there are no differences, the physical and social/cultural differences are significant, for some more than others. My son has just returned from a few months working in the oilfields for his gap year, and um, he could talk about this better than I. My husband plays hockey 3 nights a week and so on. (I don't play hockey or have any interest in it, although some women do)

However, when you use the term non-rational impulse you will recall in the listener the association with Aristotle, and the necessary corollary that the one with greater rational faculty must *rule* the one with less rational faculty. This means that by nature, man must rule woman, and so on. Of course, don't forget that in order to do this comfortably the Greeks were obliged to chose a wife who was 15 to 20 years younger than themselves. However, I am sure that you will figure many of these things out on your own.

I will continue to post about Aristotle on and off. It is interesting to examine how he uses the terms λογος and σωτηρια among other things.

About Adam and Eve, I was only trying out an alternative hyposthesis. I don't really know what it all means. I am no theologian. You must form your own opinions.

I was interested in what you said about Aristotelian metaphysics. I have only a vague idea what that would be but I will check in on your blog regularly to follow your posts in general. I notice that I have quite a bit of Aristotle's writings on my (real life) bookshelf, so I may read the Metaphysics yet.

Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, I think we more or less agree here. What I wrote about "egalitarian men being a traitor to their sex" was intended very much tongue in cheek!

You asked, "Is there any suggestion in the Bible that women are more impulsive and less rational than men?" Well, 1 Timothy 2:14 has certainly been interpreted in that way, as in part by Kenny. But that interpretation in fact doesn't make sense, for the woman was deceived, and to be decieved one needs to be rational. There is nothing in the text to support Kenny's suggestion that "Eve sinned through the rebellion of the irrational impulse against the rational faculty". In fact if we look back to Genesis 3:1-6, the one who has a rational discussion about eating the fruit is Eve, whereas Adam seems to eat impulsively at Eve's suggestion.

Meanwhile I have been fascinated to read this philosophical discussion, although sadly I am out of my depth on Aristotle. While I can understand that the maternal instinct may be stronger than the paternal, I suspect that the male sex drive is stronger than the female, and so the gender balance is restored - and in any case vary between individuals perhaps as much as between genders. Both these drives of course derive from Genesis 1:28, as Kenny pointed out.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks. I don't want to get into too much detail but I would say that men and women have very different biological agendas. This entirely makes sense to me. However, I still think that we can overstate the case. It is not particluarly important to me whether men and women are culturally the same or not. I think the interests, hobbies, skills, knowledge etc. of male and female culture are worth passing on.

About maternal instinct, I am not quite sure what that is or if such a thing exists. On kephale, I am about to capitulate ;) That is, I don't think that one can prove what it means. I have just done a quick survey of the internet on this which I had not done before, and I don't think I can add much to the 'battle of the lexicons.' I don't find hard and fast evidence for any particlular definition. I may just post a survey of relevant links and then go back to something more interesting.

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Suzanne. I have yet to go into the details of kephale, but I am glad that you have!

On my point about the male sex drive, I chanced on an interesting posting on Ben Witherington's blog. But the blogger software won't let me put the URL for it in a link, perhaps because it is so long: http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2005/12/men-behaving-badly-sad-but-true-story.html.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Peter,

When I want to post a long link, I open my create post page in blogger, then put in the link there, switch to edit html, copy and paste the link from my create post page into the blogger comment page I am writing in. Sounds laborious but especially if I want to post more than one link, it works.

I went to Ben's post, read it and left a comment. Thanks.

I have decided to leave kephale alone for a bit. Short of reading the entire writings of Philo of Alexandria, it would be hard to add anything substantive to the discussion.