Christia Mercer, ‘The Philosophical Origins of Patriarchy’, The Nation, 02.07.19
Plato, Hippocrates, and Aristotle laid the foundations on which centuries of sexism were built.
Why are Republican men so eager to subjugate women’s bodies?
Among the 25 Alabama state senators who voted on May 14 to pass the country’s most repressive restriction on women’s health care, every single one was a man, many of them joyous in protecting the sanctity of motherhood and saving women from themselves. One of the sponsors of the bill, Senator Clyde Chambliss, defended the “purity” of the law, which denies abortion to survivors of rape or incest, explaining, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” Whatever else we might say about Chambliss’s argument, it has an ancient pedigree and impeccable logic: It is the duty of those men able to discern the divine goodness in the world to protect women’s procreative powers.
The audacity of Chambliss’s pronouncements can be traced back through thousands of generations of powerful men to the earliest writings on women’s bodies. If patriarchy is the system by means of which men control women and, in the recent words of Kate Manne, sexism is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalises a patriarchal social order,” then misogyny is “the system that polices and enforces” patriarchy’s “governing norms and expectations.”
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 rationalise 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.
Plato’s account of the health of the soul and the steps required to achieve the good set the stage for millennia of discrimination against women. In the Phaedo, Socrates argues that a soul will not attain “the true moral ideal” unless it purges itself of bodily concerns and“abides in reason.” The Platonic soul appears to be genderless, from which it would seem to follow that women’s souls are identical in power and capacities to men’s. And yet women are virtually absent as interlocutors in the dialogues, even as the sacrificial victims of the Socratic method.
How might someone who endorses Plato’s views about soul, body, and the good explain the paucity of female interlocutors in the dialogues? Might there be something about a woman’s body that makes it harder for her soul to “purge” itself of bodily associations so as “to concentrate itself by itself”? A Platonist could consistently believe both that all souls are equal in capacities and that female bodies are more difficult for the genderless soul to escape. Plato suggests something like this in the Timaeus, his mythic account of how the world might have been created. There, the narrator spins a tale according to which the gods first created men and then punished those “who lived lives of cowardice or injustice” by turning them into women in their next lives. That is, the Timaeus suggests that women are a degraded state of humanity, a kind of punishment that follows from unwise behaviour. What about women’s bodies might make them so degraded?
The earliest period for which we have detailed written accounts of women’s bodies is classical Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the period when various texts, long associated with Hippocrates, were written. These multi-authored medical writings, roughly a quarter of which concern the health and diseases of women, contain the first clear differentiation of female and male bodies and were foundational in the Western medical tradition.
The Hippocratic authors agree that the bones or infrastructure of a human body are covered with flesh, which is constituted of different kinds of fluids, which themselves are more or less hot or cold and moist or dry. Before the advent of dissection, an account of the body based on fluids must have seemed eminently plausible: A human body is full of blood, guts, bile, and stuff to be vomited; and such fluids do seem fungible in that, say, food becomes other sorts of fluids which have a range of qualities. If we endorse the idea that human flesh is fundamentally a collection of fluids in various forms of “concoction,” then it is reasonable to see human health as depending on their proper balance. In the words of one Hippocratic author, a human being “enjoys the greatest health, when these [fluids] are in balance to each other in terms of mixture, power, and quantity.”
Two features of the female body convinced the Hippocratic authors of a crucial difference between female and male bodies: Women have menses and a womb (or uterus). The need for women to bleed regularly was taken to prove female flesh to be moist, porous, spongy, and cold, in contradistinction to men’s dry, firm, hard, and warm flesh. Because of their cold sponginess, women’s bodies absorb more fluids, must shed blood regularly, and so are naturally imbalanced. Because the heat and dryness of men’s bodies absorbs excess liquid, they do not need to menstruate and semen is the only excess fluid they emit. Women’s health, then, is more tenuous than men’s, in that it depends on their bodies’ powers either to use up or expel excess fluids.
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. But when the pathways are not working properly and the fluids are out of balance, she will not be fertile, and illness will occur: “Now when, in a woman who has not given birth, the menses fail to appear and cannot find their way out, a disease arises.” An imbalance in fluids can have a tragic impact on mental health. For example, sometimes at the onset of puberty, a girl will be bleeding “copiously,” but the blood will “have no means of egress” so that it “leaps up…to the diaphragm.” The results of this are symptoms that include aggression and the tendency for girls “to leap around, to fall down into wells and to hang themselves,” and to “take on a desire for death, as if it were a good thing.”
The second distinguishing mark of women’s bodies, the womb, is critical to her health. The infamous “wandering womb” theory is rooted in the idea that the womb is kept in place only when a woman’s fluids are properly balanced. When they become imbalanced, the womb is more likely to “turn aside” from its proper position, often in search of hydration. Doctors must keep close tabs on this most important of female parts because “when the uterus moves out of its natural position, wherever it comes to rest it provokes violent pains” and illness. Cures involve rebalancing of fluids, especially the kind resulting from heterosexual sex. The remedy for many health problems requires the woman to “have intercourse with her husband.” One author offers a simple way to cure inappropriate behaviour in adolescent girls: “My advice to young girls…is to have sexual intercourse with a man as soon as possible.” Even better is for the girl to become pregnant, so that her excess blood can be wholly emitted. That is, a woman is more likely to be healthy when she is married and has lots of sex with her husband so that her fluids are fully employed and thereby properly balanced.
It’s easy for modern readers to respond to Hippocratic theories with ridicule. But to brush them aside as bad science is to miss a crucial point about Western medicine, its construction of gendered bodies, and persistent sexism. These first gynaecologists, who seem genuinely concerned about their patients’ well-being, took the flourishing of every single woman to be bound up with her reproductive organs and related fluids, so that her health and the good of her society depended on her subjugation to procreation.Mothers, fathers, husbands, and of course young women themselves were led to believe that female health demanded regular sexual intercourse and pregnancy.
When the Hippocratic authors placed women in bondage to their procreative powers and to their husbands, they initiated a long-standing strategy in Western thought of reducing women’s health to their reproductive capacity and making men their wardens.
To return to the question provoked by the Phaedo, might there be something about women’s bodies that makes it harder for them to purge their souls of bodily associations? The answer in the Hippocratic corpus is compelling: Women’s physical and mental health requires them to engage regularly in heterosexual sex and to procreate. Were a woman to be moved by the rightness of Plato’s account of the good and its demand to reject bodily concerns, she would have to choose between the health of her soul and that of her body. And were she to choose the health of her soul, then the Hippocratic corpus suggests that her body would likely suffer illness, which would in turn diminish her mental capacities.
Robust teleology is the animating impulse of Aristotle’s philosophy. All living things seek the good, which for humans is “rational activity in accordance with virtue.” Although Aristotle’s ethical writings suggest that women might attain virtue, his biological works tell a different story. When women produce “another creature of the same kind as the former,” they contribute to the good, though that is their only significant contribution. They cannot attain full virtue and happiness, since their cold and “heavy” blood renders them less spirited and more inclined to vice. We can begin to understand what led Western philosophy’s first systematic biologist to proclaim, “the female is…a mutilated male” and must be treated accordingly. “As regards the sexes,” writes Aristotle in the Politics, “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male the ruler and the female the subject.” Aristotle’s works exemplify how easy it was for ancient thinkers to see all the parts of nature as fundamentally good and all human beings as actively contributing to the good, while comfortably accommodating female inferiority and subjugation as a part of the world’s order.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence these ancient ideas had on the history of Western thought.
Plato’s views about the soul and its need to “dwell in itself” grounded early Christian commitments to spiritual purification and celibacy, supporting centuries of misogyny. As Paul insists in the New Testament, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness,” for “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (Timothy 2:12).
Aristotle’s philosophical and biological proposals were mixed with Hippocratic ideas, found their way into medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thought, and became the centrepiece of Europe’s first universities. Whether young men studied philosophy, theology, law, or medicine, they absorbed the causes and extent of female inferiority. Medical doctors through the 19th century continued to rely on Aristotelian and Hippocratic medical ideas. One prominent Victorian doctor, referring explicitly to these ancient sources, describes the attitude physicians take toward their female patients, “We are the stronger, and they the weaker. They are obliged to believe all that we tell them. They are not in a position to dispute anything we say to them, and we, therefore, may be said to have them at our mercy.” We see the same smug pride in the pronouncements of Chambliss and his ilk: These men are the wise wardens of women’s bodies.
It’s unsettling to witness the ease with which a few men writing over two millennia ago laid the groundwork for centuries of sexism. It’s crushing to realise that so many of our contemporaries embrace the logic of those ancient arguments and happily subjugate women’s bodies in the name of the good. But I find some comfort in understanding how these sexist attitudes arose, how they maintained themselves, and how utterly contingent they are. If knowledge is power, then understanding the ancient sources of current misogyny might aid us in the ferocious fight we now face to wrench our health and our bodies out of the hands of conservative men and their false sense of the good.