Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DWMs (Dead White Males)

The original post
She said:
and Aristotle and Tommy were misogynist fools, which means that you really have to take what they say with a mountain of salt
He said:
Thomas Aquinas also supported the Inquisition. Nietzsche was a misogynist too. Aristotle did not oppose slavery. All horribly deplorable characteristics, of course. Of course. But it does not negate the overwhelming body of philosophic truth that these people discovered.
She said:
and it is not because they are DWMs that I disparage Ari & Tommy – their systems are useful to figure out how not to do things

So the DWM:
The players: Aristotle and Aquinas; St. Augustine makes the Trifecta and Plato makes the Superfecta (in proper order, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Aquinas bringing up the rear)

The problem, as I see it, is that there is a major problem when you pick and choose. This I can accept, but that isn't so good. Then I can just disregard the stuff that I don't like. And misogyny isn't some little tweek to the system. Misogyny is about the hatred of half (actually, usually a little more than half) of the human race by those in power. The minute that you have a system that dismisses half of the human race as not really human, you set up a massive system of inequality that is rife with abuse. Therefore you must call into question every aspect of the system that these men have set up, because in the end, their systems are dependant on the subjugation of half of humanity - and the half of humanity that gives birth to those in power.

Now we don't really understand how this happened. Greek philosophy and Greek life was one of the most misogynist in the ancient world. One argument for why this was so might be that it was extrememly difficult in Greek society to dethrone the worship of the goddesses as critical to human existence. Gerda Lerner's book, The Creation of Patriarchy does not focus on the Greeks, but focusses on the process of the dethroning of the goddesses in Mesopotamian and Hebrew cultures. We do not have the same written information on early Greek society that we do for the early semitic cultures.

What we have of Greek philosophy is predominantly Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelean. There are a few interesting pre-Socratics, but we have very little of what they wrote and they weren't the "winners" in the hearts and minds of Greek men. These philosophies are dualistic, particularly Plato's philosophy. There is a focus on reason over emotion, which has haunted western civilization in all of its structures. It is argued that Plato has a place for women in his ideal state, The Republic. That is true, but only if they behave like men. His society is also oligarchic and communal (for example, with respect to child-rearing, which I suppose allowed women to then act like men). Aristotle, while disagreeing with Plato in a number of areas, made women even more subhuman by insisting that they were deformed males - conceived when the north wind blew. (I wonder what Aristotle would make of the x and y chromosones - in the fun heydey of the 70s & early 80s in the feminist resurgence, women were want to talk about how the "y chromosone" was actually the deformed one, with only a touch of irony). All of this means that when they set up their ideals, be it the family, the state or their class systems, they did not take into consideration the insights of half of their populations. The women were only really good for breeding and keeping the "home fires burning". Since few women were educated in the literate arts, they didn't actually leave their feelings about the subject to posterity. One of the few plays to show how women might have felt is Euripides' Medea, a heartwrenching portrayal of a woman betrayed by her husband, the father of her children and the norms of the society in which they lived.

Platonic dualism (and more clearly, its child, neo-platonism) is characterized primarily by the split between the mind and the body. The mind/soul is good but it is trapped in the body, and thus, the body is something that one must escape from at all costs. Platonic dualism had a major impact on the development of Christianity. It is already evident in the Gospel of John, some of the NT letters and extra-canonical New Testament writings. However, it reaches its zenith in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, the man who had so many problems with sex, that he embedded Christianity with the theological justification for its hatred of sexuality, and he did this by blaming Eve for the introduction of original sin into humanity. Everything would have just been perfect if only Eve had behaved herself and obeyed Yahweh. The focus on celibacy and the cult of the Virgin Mary are logical outcomes of this distaste of sex. The one thing to be said for the Augustinian position was that, since he based, as much as possible, his theology on the biblical books, he believed that women were equally capable of salvation as men - after all, Paul said so in Galatian 3:28.

That was the state of affairs until Thomas Aquinas decided to embed Aristotle into Christian theology. Where women were concerned, there was absolutely no redeeming value in this shift. Women were now deformed males, and they were less capable of salvation. Read Question 92: The Production of the Woman in his Summa Theologica. Enough said!

For the record:
Women sometimes look at Spartan society as really good for women (I have a hard time believing that women in my history classes can actually believe that this is a place where women have "made it"). Plutarch gives us some idea of the dimensions of Spartan women's lives in his Sayings of Spartan Women. The problem is that Spartan warrior society was based on institutionalized sexual abuse of its male children, and was one of the few societies that we know of that murdered male infants in a greater proportion than female children. Not a society that I would want emulated.

It is my contention that you have to look at the whole, you cannot look at little parts of things. It is imperative that we look at the presuppositions of any writer. In the case of these DWM, one has to ask one's self, how could they structure up a system that treats females this way? What is it about their belief systems about how the world works that would allow this misogyny to go unquestioned? All these writers created philosophical systems that justified sexism, racism, classism. They had an anthropology that believed that half the human race was less than human (read male). In my book, this makes their entire systems suspect.

Life should be joyful. Men and women should be able to have happy and fruitful relationships. They should be able to treat one another with care, emotion, and equality. They should have respect for one another. I see little of this in the DVMs and their philosophical, religious, or social systems; the ones that have dominated the world's thought since recorded western history began. I do not believe that they left us with an "overwhelming body of philosophic truth." We are socialized into these women-hating systems, both men and women. Why are we so surprised that the world is full of hatred; hatred of the self, and hatred of others. Misanthropy begins with the hatred and the disparaging of women that is built into the systems that we so revere.

I am not saying that it is easy to change, to find a different way to look at the world and at ourselves. The thorns of our socialization dig deep into our souls. We can only try to remove the thorns one by one. It is a struggle; a struggle that won't be completed in my lifetime. I have faith that the world will get better as we question every presupposition that we grew up with. The world is better for women today than it ever was. I would never want to go back into the past. The world that we live in is the sum total of the past. Much of it is a mess - the old philosophies, social systems, religious sytems and other "isms" haven't worked - and please don't tell me that this is because we haven't followed those prescriptions perfectly - they weren't and aren't perfect. In fact, perfection is a red herring that keeps people from changing what they can. People keep trying to find that platonic ideal. Why do we keep thinking that we fail to live up to some ideal? Give it up, it doesn't exist. Human beings are what we are - we live, we make mistakes, we move forward, we have children, we work, we play. Some of us fight for change, when we think there is injustice. Being separate, as well as collective persons means that we won't ever build a consensus, however much we would want to. There is no perfection, but lord knows, we have to stop leaning on the failed solutions of the past if we ever hope to find a better way.

Some days, life sucks; other days, it is glorious. Some days, you get up at 3 am and write for almost 3 hours. That's just the way it is.

Use stuff from the DVMs, if you must, but to reiterate, always take what they say with a mountain of salt.

As always, if you want change, prepare for the backlash!


  1. You write me such a beautiful rejoinder, but what is all this she-said-he-said business?

    Obviously, no one here disagrees that misogyny is barbaric, brutal, disgusting, and so much more. Yet to say that Aristotle did not leave us with an "overwhelming body of philosophic truth" is to deny very bedrock of civilized society: I refer, of course, to his complete codification and systematization of logic and language -- e.g. On Interpretation, Categories, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophisticated Refutations -- and I refer to his treatise on nature (Physicswhich analyzes in detail the most general features of natural phenomena: cause, change, time, place, infinity, and continuity. I refer also to his systematic treatise on psychology and the psyche -- On The Soul -- Eudomania, Entelechy. I refer to his astonishing Metaphysics, his biological works -- History of Animals, Parts of Animals, and Generation of Animals -- and of course his grounding of human morality in teleology -- i.e. secular life, which he does thoroughly in Nicomachean Ethics.

    Contained in those books (forget the ones that were lost) is a body of philosophic truth unmatched in all of human history. To say nothing of Poetics.

    It is this alone -- Aristotle's philosophy of reason and logic and reality, a reality that is intelligible and knowable -- that's made possible all the progress, technology, and science, including medical science, we have today.

    Abandonment of Aristotelianism in favor of faith and the Platonic realm is what led to the Dark Ages.

    Thomas Aquinas resurrected logic and reason in his corpus of philosophic (as opposed to theologic) works, like On Being and Essence; On the Principles of Nature; On the Eternity of the World; The Book of Causes.

    Of course, I don't say we should forgive or even forget their misogyny and numerous other faults and flaws. But to reject the absolutely overwhelming body of philosophic truth they uncovered -- truths that most people take for complete granted without ever knowing who codified them -- is tantamount to reinventing the wheel.

  2. Thanks for the compliment. This will take a longer post to address. Some preliminary thoughts. I, of course, believe as well, that these DWMs structured the world that we live in. This is so much the case that we have an almost impossible time conceiving that there might be another way to conceive of knowledge. This is what has been called the Conceptual Trap of patriarchy.

    If you can find a little tome by Elisabeth Dodson Gray, called Conceptual Traps, it's worth a read. It is out of print but there are plenty of used copies around. There is a lot to question in there, but the basic idea that we don't even see the presuppositions that drive us to think and act the way we do is valid. Mind you, it is in the 70s stream of "the sky is falling" category. Everything has its drawbacks.

    Aquinas may have brought back Aristotle but he never truly left behind Platonic dualism. It is at the core of the Christian and western worldview.

    My main point is that most thinkers don't question all of what you said above. It is almost a circular argument. We use Aristotle's way of looking at the world to argue that Aristotle's way of looking at the world is "philosophical truth". Of course he is going to look good when one accepts his basic premises as the criteria for evaluation. And that is what western thought does.

    I am not talking about reinventing the wheel. I doubt that will ever be completely possible. However, we have to stop taking it as "gospel" that we have to think within the limited boundaries of Aristotle and Plato - another accepted dualism presupposed in most thinkers - whether they are aware of it or not. The nature of the conceptual trap is that they seldom seem to be aware of it.

    I don't think that we need another "philosophical system" to structure everything. That is, itself, fallacious thinking that we accept as a "truth".

    You are making me clarify my thinking on some of these subjects, something I haven't done at length for a few years now. (Life gets in the way!!) Thanks

    G. K. Chesterton said that "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around." This is a book parts of which you will appreciate, I suspect. If you haven't read it, it is well worth the time. Here is the link from

  3. The "he said, she said" was just a cutesy rhetorical structure to set the context. Maybe people will go to your site (I did add the link)

    I have my moments of frivolity, after all. What would life be without them?

  4. By the way, the G. K. Chesterton book is called Orthodoxy.

  5. It's been said that every human being who lives or has ever lived is, in essence, either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.

    The Aristotelian believes in a reality that exists independently of any consciousness, and that consciousness is nothing more (or less) than the faculty of awareness that apprehends this independently existing reality. In short, the Aristotelian is the person who believes in common sense and an intelligible universe. The Aristotelian believes in science and the efficacy of the human mind.

    The Platonist, on the other hand, believes that reality is not real but an illusion, like a shadow cast upon a cave wall. The Platonist is the mystic. The Platonist is religious. The Platonist does not believe we can ever truly know reality, and that when we stick our hand in a fire and our hand gets burned, it is only an illusion.

    There is not a number of ways that humans can know. There is only one: through reason. Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates reality, and reality operates by means of specific laws. So that to reject Aristotelian philosophy is to reject reason. Aristotle, like Issac Newton, CODIFIED these fundamental laws. He (also like Newton) did not invent them but discovered them. These laws are inescapable. If a person says, for example: "I reject Aristotelian logic" but still wishes to live and learn, this person will inevitably come back to these same rules of logic that she's rejected, whether she calls them "Aristotelian" or not. Two plus two, in other words, equals four. The reason this is so cannot be denied or jettisoned in favor of something else that says two plus two equals five. The law of non-contradiction (Aristotle's definition of logic) cannot be subverted.

    Aristotle's philosophy contained many errors in its specifics, and Aristotle himself, like many many others, was flawed. But his fundamentals are bedrock. Aquinas revivified these premises and elaborated them. Even the attempt to refute the Aristotelian axiom of existence (or consciousness, or identity) must employ those very axioms in trying to refute them.