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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lesson One: The Ancients and their World, 750 BC - AD 250

Jamming 1000 years of Greek philosophizing into a two and a half hour time slot is no mean feat. We did it. We sped-dialed our way through the-world-and-its-make-up-obsessed pre-Socratics, through the BC's Big Three - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - and then, at a gallop, through the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Stoics, and those eminently earthy Epicureans. Sliding over the AD line, we picked up the pieces of the once glorious, now crumbling, Greek 'Golden Era' and observed how the Empire-building Romans drew on those shards of Hellenistic wisdom to counter the early stirrings of Christianity. We wanted to linger longer with some of those bright young things now known as The Ancients, but there was no time. This, after all, was the launch of our 1-800-BIG-IDEA tour of Western Philosophy, and we were on a tight schedule.  
That that schedule also included a survey of the place occupied by women within that first millennium of Western philosophical thinking made the feat that much meaner. Mean, here, as in sparse, as in meager. For though women are still feeling the impact of the societal role and sphere of influence assigned them by those lofty male Greek thinkers, the degree to which they participated in the sealing of their fate was close to nil. Fact is, apart from the odd Aspasia the Hetaera or Hipparchia the Cynic, there were no women out there busily laying down the foundations of Western so-called Civilization. Though even to  speak of 'facts' in relation to this early period is a bit of a stretch, given that very little in the way of written evidence exists of what the Who's Whos of 6th and 5th and 4th Century BC philosophy - the Anaximanders and Anaximenes of Miletus, the Parmenides of Elea and Empedocles of Mount Etna fame - actually believed. A case of drawing what you can from the few - notably, Plato and Aristotle - who did manage to jot down their own ideas and those of their learned predecessors on something more durable than a flowerpot, it's a safe bet that a certain selective process was at work here, not to mention a good dose of poetic licence. It is also safe to assume that women's ideas about themselves and the world around them did not come top of the 'must-preserve-for-posterity-so-get-it-down-on-papyrus' list. All to say that we were relying on a good deal of speculation when it came to charting not only the BIGGEST of the BIG IDEAS to emerge from this epoch, but equally the lives as lived and the contributions as made by that 50 % of the population traditionally written out of history. 
But no matter. We carried on regardless: making the most of what scraps we could garner about the 'true nature' of our Athenian sisters - for indeed, until Socrates came along and Athens became the hub of philosophical activity, not much attention had been paid to human nature of any kind, much less to female nature; granting the pre-Socratics their moment in the Aegean sun to ponder the workings of the material universe and the nature of actual nature before moving on to those philosophers who were interested in their own raisin d'ĂȘtre - and with it, the question of how we ought to live. What became clear from the get-go is that when folks like Plato and Aristotle said "we", what they were referring to was a fairly select little band of privileged white men in togas. Similarly, when they spoke of living, it wasn't the get-up-and-go-to-work-come-home-and-cook-the-dinner kind of life they had in mind, but something much more, well, mindful. Enter the realm of universals - of Truths with a capital T. A realm where pursuing those Truths - What is Justice? What is Courage? What is Beauty? - with the dogged determination of a cave person chasing down a woolly mammoth becomes not only the way we ought to live but equally, the very definition of what it is to live well. 
 In other words, the question of how we ought to live was neither being asked of, nor on behalf of, those men bringing home the bacon or women (confined to the private sphere and, regardless of their status, denied citizenship within the wider polis) and slaves tout court. Rather, it was a question designed for men of means who also, coincidentally, had the time to read a book or two and also, coincidentally, were the only people deemed capable of engaging with a how we ought to live kind of question, and by extension, of living well. Granted, that old gadfly of a questioner, Socrates, who instigated the whole dialectic process and in so doing, got men out there on the streets of Athens poking holes in what they had taken to be knowledge and peeling away the layers upon layers of assumptions upon which that knowledge rested was, as far as we know, a fairly egalitarian type - less concerned with who got to ask the questions than with getting at those Truths. But for women, this new fad of questioning and with it, the flourishing of rational thought based on logical argument, didn't herald in much in the way of emancipation. If anything, it plunged them into a reproductive ghetto: reducing them to their ability to produce and raise kids; seeing them as predominantly body in a decidedly mind over matter epoch.

In Plato's case, it wasn't so much that women weren't biologically capable of rational thought, hence of living well. Rather, it was a case of them being stuck with a damaged soul - that of a former man who had squandered his time on earth, who had failed to live well, and whose soul, when he died and was done with it, had been reincarnated into a lower form of human life, ie. a woman. If that latter part of the equation was, for Plato, just the timeless given - man was the perfect form of a human being, woman was a kind of default of that ideal form - there was at least some give-and-take where the souls were concerned. Just as souls could be shuffled on down the food chain, they could also be upwardly mobile. Which meant that for Plato the Meta-physicist there was nothing physically stopping a woman from taking that botched soul of hers and whipping it into better shape through the begetting of some good old fashioned wisdom. 

Not so for Aristotle the Empiricist, however, whose view that woman was "a misbegotten man" - an aberrant "monstrosity'"- and hence incapable of rational thought was largely rooted in the 'fact' of her physical inferiority (man is "hot"; woman is "cold"). This in turn was supported by observable evidence (man's semen is white, "cooked" to perfection; woman's menstrual fluid is red, not quite "done") which was subsequently solidified into Knowledge through the application of scientific reasoning ("hot" is fully developed, measured, rational; "cold" is flighty, emotional, prone to hysteria) and oh dear...So begins the centuries-old Western project of pathologizing women's bodies and finding them forever lacking. Better too, then, given their weakened constitution and their unreliable nature, that they stick to the home-front, keep their noses out of public affairs, get just enough education to see their boys through their early years and their girls through to producing the next generation - or so, at least, spoke Aristotle, the man credited with inventing not only logic, but a good portion of the arts- and science-based disciplines we study today. 

As for us, we had a little logical conundrum of our own with which to contend. Could a discipline which had, from the outset, so excluded us, undermined us, negated us, offer us anything of value with which to better understand our lives? We had our doubts, and will no doubt continue to ask ourselves that question as we move on through the next 2000 years of (largely male) philosophical thought. In spite of our reservations, however, we did tick off the requisite boxes: Plato's theory of Forms; Aristotle's Golden Mean; the pitting of true values versus false values of the contemptuous Cynics; the relativism of the Sceptics; the stiff-upper-lipism of the Stoics; and the peculiar brand of moderation-in-all-things hedonism of the Epicureans (who did, as it happens, welcome the odd woman and slave into the al fresco school, The Garden, where they studied, forged friendships, and broke bread together). Not a bad note to end on, those somewhat more pleasure-oriented and down-to-earth Epicureans, as we head into the bleak mid-winter of the Middle Ages and wrap our heads around the stark realities of Medieval Philosophy.