Wednesday, March 30, 2016


This old post left us with the question: Is courage the same thing in a man and a woman? Aristotle's and Tocqueville's thoughts on this point:

Clearly, then, moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the
temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of
a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the
courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying. And
this holds of all other virtues, as will be more clearly seen if we
look at them in detail, for those who say generally that virtue consists
in a good disposition of the soul, or in doing rightly, or the like,
only deceive themselves. Far better than such definitions is their
mode of speaking, who, like Gorgias, enumerate the virtues. All classes
must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says
of women, 

"Silence is a woman's glory, "

but this is not equally the glory of man.

--Aristotle's Politics

They do not give to the courage of woman the same form or the same direction as to that of man, but they never doubt her courage; and if they hold that man and his partner ought not always to exercise their intellect and understanding in the same manner, they at least believe the understanding of the one to be as sound as that of the other, and her intellect to be as clear. 

--Tocqueville, How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes, Democracy in America

Since writing that post, I have given birth. After that, I'm pretty certain that at least some acts of women are as risky and courageous as men going to war. 

By the way, it is clear to me that (if you look at what he's quoting) Aristotle does not think that silence is a woman's glory. It also seems to me highly unlikely that either Aristotle or Tocqueville could really think that men run the household. 

In conclusion, Is the courage of men and women different innately or is it different where their roles are different? 


Miss Self-Important said...

Wouldn't at least Aristotle say that the difference of roles is according to nature, so both?

Some Straussians think that Aristotle is representing THE PHILOSOPHER in his depiction of Tecmessa b/c wouldn't that be wicked and delicious (sometimes I think the whole S-ian approach can be reduced to 'if we read it this way, it would be naughtier, so let's do it'). The other passage on women's natural differences and Amasis' footpan in Politics 1.12 is equally strange though.

Emily Hale said...

Representing THE PHILOSOPHER?? Tecmessa as philosopher? I mean, she's certainly reason in that situation.

Exactly, given Tecmessa and Amasis, I'm not convinced that the difference is according to nature for Aristotle, except insofar as nature inclines women to certain roles (motherhood).

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, HM says of that passage that Tecmessa represents reason against Ajax's blind passion, and also philosophy's weakness - all she can do is speak, but Ajax is physically the stronger and chooses not to listen, to his detriment. He also seems to think that female characters in philosophy often represent philosophy b/c of their constraints on action.

In the Amasis story, I think it's clear that Aristotle admits that there is an element of convention in the present subordination of women, but the question is whether he approves this, whether he thinks that in human affairs, convention is always a part of nature, since humans have so few instincts. I've come across some very liberationist readings of that passage, claiming it shows that Aristotle thinks that by nature the sexes are equal and all difference and especially hierarchy is conventional, but that sounds like a distinctly Rousseauian approach to nature rather than an Aristotelian one. For Aristotle, politics is natural, but that doesn't mean that politics or the polis is spontaneous. The natural is not the simply spontaneous since there must be choice for virtue to be possible. So nature is more like a standard against which to measure our conventions (choices), which can be more or less in accord with it. So it is possible that Aristotle can both show that, according to raw or spontaneous nature, there is no hierarchy between the sexes, but that the conventional establishment of one is still according to nature. The discussion of natural slavery is sort of similar to this: it shows that most of the people presently enslaved in Greece are so only by convention, but it also suggests that this is unavoidable in any political institution of slavery. And this does not seem to justify the abolition of the institution. Joe Sachs has a different reading of that Amasis passage though, I think.

Emily Hale said...

I think the Amasis story is that it's all convention. But convention, as you say, in Aristotle, is always (or should be) in conversation with nature (and reason).

But saying that we always need conventions is different from saying that the ones we have at this particular time are right or best cultivate nature. I think that Aristotle is saying the first, and I'm not convinced he's saying the second.

I think I have a more liberationist reading of Aristotle on slavery, too--Aristotle doesn't call for the abolition of the institution, but I think he sets his readers up to question it.

Miss Self-Important said...

What seems to stand in the way of viewing the Amasis passage as a condemnation of male supremacy is that Amasis was viewed as a good king by Herodotus (Egypt "flourished greatly" under him), which I assume is Aristotle's source here. So the position that he won through trickery he went on to use well. If he's supposed to represent the means by which men ascended to their status over women, what does it mean that his trick had good results?

Yes, to question slavery, or at least to question whether natural and conventional slavery overlap in the actual practice of slavery by the Greeks. But he also sets his position against those who claim that "it is by law that one person is slave and another free, there being no difference in nature, and hence it is not just," which is the full-throated (and modern) liberationist position. This suggests that he knows this view, and rejects it.

Emily Hale said...

Ah--so I always took Amasis to represent not men's ascendancy over women, but rather the potential for the one who is assumed not to be able to rule to rule--women or Amasis, "a mere
private person, and of a house of no great distinction," the reason why his people looked down on him and he had to pull the foot-pan stunt. The person you expect to be able to rule is a public figure or someone who had royal blood, right? (I don't know much about this point--but some people clearly thought he was too low-class to rule.)

I think he rejects that point on slavery and leaves room for natural slaves. But I think that he makes the category so small that very few people might fit it--those who have no reason to rule themselves and are benefited by having another rule them. Of what people is that true? Psychopaths?

Miss Self-Important said...

Hmm, interesting. I've never thought of it that way. I guess you could see Amasis as representing an opportunity for women to rule. But is that what you think Aristotle wants? Or does he desire that the rulers not try to "establish differences in external appearance...etc" in the first place when the rulers and ruled "tend by their nature to be on equal footing," as in the household? Is he sanctioning tricks like Amasis', or condemning them?

Another HM reading: It is true of everyone, insofar as we are all sometimes ruled by our passions instead of our reason. It need not be a permanent state of unreason to be a slavish state as long as it lasts. And some people are more often ruled by their passions than others.

I was taught something like the reading you're describing as well - that when you really consider what a natural slave is, you see that such a person would be very unproductive and a pain to rule over, ergo natural slaves are useless as slaves, while the slaves who are the most productive and can even work w/o constant supervision are for that very reason not natural slaves. But now I think that isn't right, or it's too anarchistic a conclusion for Aristotle, since it suggests that the vast majority of people are capable of self-rule and consequently would seem not to be in need of government. Now I think he's being more straightforward than that. Most people need to be closely ruled by others some of the time (at least through adolescence), and some might do better being closely ruled all the time. Maybe most people need to be ruled most of the time. The criticism of conventional slavery is more that the latter group has to be ruled in their interest rather than their masters' to be useful. That is why slavery writ large (tyranny) is not a good regime. But a regime that rules in the interest of the ruled, even a regime where law rules, still does presume that everyone or almost everyone is in need of rule.

Emily Hale said...

I don't think that Aristotle is being normative as much as descriptive--this is how power relations work and how one group establishes superiority over another, whether that "superiority" is based on class, gender, race, etc. Perhaps if women want to rule, they need to do the same thing? Or just be the exception--an heiress in a marriage is one way he notes that women get to rule.

I think for Aristotle almost all of those who are capable of self-rule are not perfect and are in need of government. The best government (at least in one sense of best) will not only rule in the people's interest, but will also include them in ruling, at least in some minor ways. This allows them to exercise their political capabilities, which are distinguish them from animals. So there is a simultaneous recognition that people for the most part need to be ruled and that people for the most part can contribute to that process.

The tyrant ignores his subjects' reason to benefit his own interest, while the master presumes that the slave doesn't have it? Or maybe what Aristotle's saying is that slavery isn't natural, just conventional, so the slaveowner, like the tyrant, is simply ignoring his subject's reason?