The Philosophical Origins of Patriarchy
July 9, 2019 11:18 AM   Subscribe

The Philosophical Origins of Patriarchy. This is an excellent piece by Christia Mercer (@christiamercer8): "Ancient intellectual greats like Plato, Hippocrates, and Aristotle laid the foundations on which centuries of sexism were built. Although these Greek authors did not invent sexism, their writings contained ideas and arguments that were used to rationalize a particularly virulent form of misogyny. Once these ancient trend-setters devised arguments for female subjugation in the name of a divine good, it became self-confirming in the sense that women were taken to be naturally inferior to men, treated differently from birth, and trained to subjugate themselves, which itself further supported views about female imperfection and the disempowerment that entailed..."
...To be sure, at every stage of Western thought, there were women who were resourceful and rebellious within the restrictions forced upon them. In almost every era, there were moments when the tide might have turned away from ardent sexism. But it never did. The proponents of female inferiority were always victorious. The ancient Greek arguments for sexism both reflected and supported patriarchy, and gave powerful men what they considered to be excellent reasons to control women’s bodies in the name of the good. However resilient women were, misogynistic enforcement of divine order always won out.

The notion of teleology—and its relation to female procreative powers—helps to cast the history of misogyny into sharp focus. The simplest version of teleology is that some things happen, or exist, for the sake of other things. If I read The Nation for the sake of political and social insight, then the latter can be identified as the end or goal of the former. From Plato and Aristotle to Chambliss and Mike Pence, powerful men have believed in a divinely created natural order in which human beings should act for the sake of the good. For many such thinkers, women’s procreative powers were their only means to contribute to the good, from which it followed that those powers must be properly controlled by men with insight into divine intentions.

Related piece by Elizabeth Winkler (@ElizWinkler): Denying Women’s Ability to Know: How a long history of sidelining women has made us less likely to believe their experiences (previously.)
posted by homunculus (13 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
The details....
The Hippocratic texts seem to imagine a woman’s anatomy as a central tube with mouths at either end. Both mouths have a neck (cervix) and lips (labia), which are connected by a subsystem of tubes and containers. When the tubes and pathways are working properly, there is a clear passageway between the two mouths. A neat experiment to detect if a woman is fertile involves putting garlic in her vagina at night and then examining her breath the next morning. If her breath smells of garlic, her tubes are clear and she is open for business, that is to say, for conception.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:00 PM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

At first I was like "well maybe it's not all the philosophers' fault, maybe they were accidentally perpetuating what already existed" but then I was like "well fuck those guys for not seeing through bullshit that happened to benefit them" and .. that's all I got.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 1:19 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

the antecedent of that pronoun: "At first I was like "well maybe it's not all the philosophers' fault,"

posted by signal at 3:05 PM on July 9, 2019

A lot of things Plato believed have not stuck. But this idea just hangs around. I have a hard time with the plays of George Bernard Shaw because he thought that men had ideas and women had the LIFE FORCE.
posted by acrasis at 3:39 PM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

At first I was like "well maybe it's not all the philosophers' fault, maybe they were accidentally perpetuating what already existed"

Aren't philosophers supposed to be the ones wise enough to see through baked-in cultural assumptions to grasp the Truth? If anyone can be blamed for perpetuating what already existed, philosophers can.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 4:50 PM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think it's weird to insist we have the power structure because of the philosophers and not that those particular philosophers were elevated and canonized and cited because it served the interest of the power structure.
posted by Reyturner at 4:56 PM on July 9, 2019 [17 favorites]

Y'all know my disdain for Plato, he was the archetypal Bro-losipher, casually declaiming his various odd and sometimes idiotic speculations with an air of total arrogant self-confidence. He'd be right at home & a big media star here in the internets era if he were alive today.
posted by ovvl at 4:56 PM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know if anyone here has read Theogony by Hesiod, but it's as close as you can get to the origins of misogyny and its hatred of women is extreme. Hesiod was a contemporary of Homer, and held in as high regard. He basically believed women were created by the Gods as a device to torture men as punishment for their having stolen fire. He didn't even think women were human. Theogony is the cornerstone of ancient Greek thought.
posted by xammerboy at 9:58 PM on July 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is pretty thin stuff. In the Republic Plato has his ruling class of guardians composed of men and women equally, with female guardians given the same education and freed from the shackles of marriage. It’s a complex subject, but you need to at least address that stuff properly if you want to condemn him as the original sexist.
posted by Segundus at 10:50 PM on July 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

The practical influence of the ancient Greeks is greatly overstated anyway, imo. We are the heirs of Roman society, not Greek, and the Romans were rather less sexist (not saying a lot, granted) as well as much less racist.
posted by Segundus at 10:56 PM on July 9, 2019

I think this is a better grounded view.
posted by Segundus at 11:08 PM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Plato is not the only one charged in this. Ms. Mercer is correct in mentioning Plato's problematic statements, as well as Aristotle, the Hippocratic corpus, etc...while also discussing that it is the problematic pieces that got more focus during the education of men with power and the potential for power in Western Civilization.

I agree that she is right in that these are the excuses used historically and contemporaneously by men who have worked to, "put women in their place". That this place is conveniently as unpaid housekeeper, unquestioningly obedient helpmate, and compliant sex partner is just coincident with being, 'placed,' on a pedestal of emotional caregiver and moral paragon. Inconvenient women, those who by choosing a path outside of the one layed for them could never be put on a pedestal.

Of course the Chinese, the Indians of the sub-continent, and the pre-Hellenic Persians managed to do the same things without the benefit of the Greek philosophers. As far as the Romans being better than the Greeks, I might agree to them being better than the Athenians but the Roman familia where everyone was the property of the autocratic pater familias is the gold-standard of patriarchy. Compared to the Romans of the Imperial Era the Spartans of the Classical Age look like activists for NOW.

I would argue that the point is not how sexist the philosophers and philosophies of the Ancient and Antique Mediterranean were in themselves, but rather that there are those who still use some of the ideas therein to justify repugnant behavior now. Like being a pagan or an atheist who becomes more familiar with the Christian Bible and attendant theology than many Christians, it becomes a thing to become more aware of the underlying ideas and ideologies of pro-patriarchal thinkers so that they may be better anticipated and fought.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 11:47 PM on July 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

eponythankyou ignorantsavage
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 6:12 AM on July 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

« Older Kids On The Farm   |   Zofia Rydet and the "Sociological Record" Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments