Philobiblon: Women and the ancient Greeks

Friday, February 11, 2005

Women and the ancient Greeks

As promised, if slightly delayed ...

Aristotle, having spent considerable time and philosophical ingenuity on trying to justify slavery by saying slaves were "naturally" inferior, goes on in the Politics to sum up the position of women in a few words: "A slave does not have the deliberative faculty at all, while a woman has it, but it lacks authority." As Williams has it (see reference below) "the argument is of basically the same shape as that about slaves: there is a need for the division of roles, and nature provides the casting."(p. 135)

And that's about it really - doesn't take you very far, except that it seems there's nothing new about the resurgent claim that women just HAVE to have babies - it is their role in life to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. (Haven't you noticed how empty the world is getting?)

The other main element running through the book is a discussion of shame versus guilt cultures - something I feel I should have come across before but haven't. Williams says: "The basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition. It is straightforwardly connected with nakedness, particularly in sexual connections. The word aidoia, a derivative of aidos, shame, is a standard Greek word for the genitals, and similar terms are found in other languages." (p. 78)

(Fascinating this - Williams doesn't say if this means related European languages, or across the world. I'd imagine most cultures have the word - that would be a fascinating cross-cultural study of where it has come from within them.)

So, Williams says, shame involves an internalised figure of a watcher or a witness. (They don't have to be actually present.) Guilt, however, involves an internalised figure that is victim or enforcer. "In guilt-centred, autonomous moralities the point is supposedly reached where there is no distance at all between subject and internalised figure, and guilt is pictured as an emotion experienced in the face of an abstraction, the moral law, which has become part of the subject itself."

This usefully explains the whole Asian idea of "face", and many of my difficulties in interacting with workmates when I was in Thailand. They were only concerned with a barely internalised other looking on - as long as what they had done looked OK; whether it was actually really OK, which my internalised guilt character worried about, was utterly irrelevant to them. A comment that was made to me several times was: "Don't think so much - that's a bad thing to do."

Other snippets:

* Heracleitus said: "a man's character is his fate". (p. 136)

* In the Freud "would have had fun" category: Plato was fundamentally concerned with inner freedom of the soul. "In the tripartite soul that he introduced, the requirement was that its highest, reasoning part should not be tyrannized by its other parts, in particular by its desire. These desires present themselves as exigent, as making demands and imposing constraints.

He typically speaks of this as erotikai anangkai, sexual necessities. ... a writer of the 2nd century AD tells us that the penis was then known as 'the Necessity'." (p. 154) (The reference says Artemidorus Oneirocriticon I 79) Somehow I suspect that's a male rather than a female perspective!

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