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Before the Greek physicians and philosophers of the Classical Age took up the question of the nature of women, the Greeks had serious attitudes toward women as revealed in their literature (Whaley 2003, p. 1). Generally, women were to be kept down, or some disaster would occur.
Ancient Greek society was fundamentally patriarchal in nature and women were always under the control of men. Women were never expected to be in charge of their own lives and were viewed essentially as evil creatures.
According to Whaley (2003, p. 1), this perception can be traced back to the writings of the eighth century poet Hesiod. In one of his poems, Hesiod described human misfortunes as beginning from a woman’s curiosity.
Ordinarily, the ancient Greeks tended to view women as being passive and weak. There were, however, differences in view points and the extent to which they believed such allegations.
The question of whether or not women are capable of taking on certain responsibilities in society is related to the nature of the female. As such, Aristotle is of primary importance, for it is his views on the nature of women that have dominated Western civilization.
With his ideologies, Aristotle thought he had provided a scientific basis for the traditional Greek belief in female inferiority (Harding & Hintikka 2003).
He was the first to dominate the western mind with a single theory of the concept of woman and provided a new or original definition of what it meant to be male or female. His views on women superseded those of earlier thinkers and persisted well into the early modern era.
Before Aristotle, there were philosophers who wrote on the subject of women and the female contribution to the reproductive process and his debate with his predecessors focused on the role of male and female in the reproductive process.
Some scholars, however, held that both sexes were responsible for reproduction, a view that was the basis of their belief in some form of equality between the sexes.
Aristotle’s View on Women
Aristotle was the most influential non Christian source for ideas in many fields up to the seventeenth century. This had very unfortunate effects for women in general (Wiesner 2000, p. 18). Although he was Plato’s most brilliant student, he disagreed with many of his master’s theories.
To Aristotle, women were imperfect men, the result of something wrong with the conception that created them. According to Aristotle, their parents were too young or too old, or too diverse in age, or one of them was not healthy.
Nature always aimed at perfection, and Aristotle termed monstrous, anything less than perfect. A woman was thus a deformity, but one which occurred in the ordinary course of nature.
Aristotle’s remarks on women are generally regarded as the all-time low of his philosophy and science (Mayhew 2010, p. 1). The problem is not simply that he is wrong, nor is it simply that there are gaps in his reasoning.
The problem, many believe, is that his views about women are the product of an ideological bias and not of honest science.
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Besides his remarks on women representing gender prejudice, they are also dangerous and the source of many of the standard western arguments for the inferiority of womankind and political subordination of women to men at home and in society.
In the same spirit, it is evidently the case that Aristotle’s account of women in particular and of the female gender in general both provide some kind of rationalization or accommodation of widespread Greek social attitudes (Marshall 2004, p. 25).
According to Wiesner (2000, p. 10), Aristotle’s conception of women is, in general and in many details, false. Frequently, however, too little care is taken over rigorous scholarship on the part of some of his fiercest critics. Often, there is little concern for what precisely his views are on a particular issue.
Nor is there much of concern with presenting support for the claim that his arguments about women are more than rationalization.
There is a great deal of confusion over what Aristotle says in his biological writings about women and whether what he says about them is ideological (Green & Mews 2011).
This may in part be a result of the fact that, until fairly recently, scholars of ancient philosophy have tended to neglect Aristotle’s biological works including the history of animals, parts of animals, and generation of animals.
Beginning in the twelfth century, theologians and religious writers, generally called scholastics, attempted to bring together the teachings of Aristotle and those of early Christian writers, into one grand philosophical system.
Thomas Aquinas, the most brilliant and thorough of the scholastics, synthesized classical and Christian ideas about women, stating that women’s inferiority was not simply the result of Eve’s actions, but was inherent in her original creation (Green & Mews 2011).
Based on Aristotle’s ideologies, Aquinas argued that even in procreation, the role of women was quite minimal, since the mother simply provided the material substance in the child while the father supplied the active force (Wiesner 2000, p. 18).
Women needed male assistance in everything because of their physical and intellectual weakness, though they did have souls and so were responsible for their own salvation (Nussbaum 2001, p. 49).
In Aristotle’s view, women are who they are because of their inability to produce semen (Warren 2008, p. 204). He considers men to be separate from women since they are better and more divine in that they are the principle of movement for generated things, while women serve as their matter.
While still within the mother, a woman takes longer to develop than a man does. However, because women are weaker than men, everything reaches its perfection sooner in women than in men once birth has taken place (Warren 2008, p. 204). We should, therefore, look upon a woman’s state as though it were a deformity.
Ethically, Aristotle considers man to be the master with many responsibilities such as being the head of the house. Whatever can be suitably performed by the woman is, however, handed to her by the husband. Politically, a husband rules over his wife as a constitutional requirement.
Aristotle also says that the friendship of husband and wife “may even be a friendship of virtue, if they are good, for there is a virtue appropriate to each, and they can rejoice in this” (Harding & Hintikka 2003).
In Aristotle’s view, the virtues of women differ in kind and not in freedom from those of men. He thus quotes the popular view that “silence brings glory to women” (Krikos & Ingold 2004)
Culture and Perceptions on Women
It is not true that every thinker is guilty of rationalization. In fact, everyone is capable of objectivity. This does not, however, imply that a scientist works in a cultural vacuum, under no influence from his intellectual, historical, and social context (Green & Mews 2011).
There are numerous ways in which a cultural context limits or tends to limit a scientist. The nature of the debate and the key issues inherited by a scientist will tend to affect how he approaches an issue as will the state of the evidence and the period of scientific development in which a scientist works.
Furthermore, the nature of society and social roles such as the status of women can create obstacles for the scientist. In Aristotle’s case, take for example the discussion of women’s role in generation.
Because of how the issue was treated by scientists and non scientists, Aristotle discussed generation partly in terms of whether the woman contributed seed to generation (Nussbaum 2001, p. 53).
Moreover, without a microscope, it was simply the case that there were certain conclusions about the nature of generation that he could not reach.
Given the ancient conception of the woman as inferior to the male, there may well have been pressures on Aristotle o view the issue in a certain way, pressures not exerted on a geneticist working in the twenty first century.
Cultural context sets limits to what a scientist can do and creates certain obstacles that may be difficult or even impossible to overcome. An important observation, however, is that a scientist is not trapped in this context (Krikos & Ingold 2004).
The context of his scientific theories is not determined or set in advance by the cultural context. One’s cultural context does not make objectivity impossible, at least not for those who are not ideologically biased.
As a matter of fact, a scientist is quite capable of radically reassessing the views of his predecessors and of his culture (Warren 2008, p. 206). A lack of objectivity is not an inevitable consequence of working in a certain cultural context. It is the result of evasion, dishonesty, or other human failures.
As noted by Mayhew (2010, p. 5), being influenced by one’s cultural context is not automatically evidence of ideological rationalization.
For example, while almost all educated people today accept the view that women can philosophize, most people living around the Mediterranean in the fourth century B.C. were of a contrary opinion. This is, however, associated with the fact that they had few examples of women philosophizing (Green & Mews 2011).
Certainly, if this enormous lack of evidence for some belief is included in the meaning of social causation, then it provides no evidence of rationalization. As such, an ancient Greek denying the possibility of female philosophers would not necessarily involve any such false consciousness.
A further investigation can lead to the conclusion that a particular thinker who holds an obnoxious belief is excused of the charge of bias because of the cultural context within which he was working (Allen 2006, p. 115).
Of course, if a thinker is cleared of such a charge, it does not mean that his ideas were formed or even deformed without any inclusion from the cultural context within which he was working.
Although some people might hold that any negative view of women is acceptable, it may be necessary to consider whether a given negative claim in fact supports the interests of men at the expense of the interests of women (Foley 2009, p. 19).
For example, one might posit that Aristotle’s claim that women contribute less to generation than men would affect how women are viewed and treated.
In the present era, if a philosopher or scientist down played the role of women in generation, we would immediately reject the assumption as baseless and assume some kind of bias with a great deal of justification.
It may, however, be wrong to immediately assume bias on the part of an ancient Greek thinker who made such claims considering that an ancient Greek biologist lacked a microscope and a long history of biological research to build on (Landau 2010, p. 22).
It may very well be the case that, in ancient Mediterranean cultures around the time of Aristotle, women neither philosophized nor ruled.
Aristotle’s portrait of women is of tremendous importance in Western thought. It became a guide for attitudes to women in general, and because of his influence as a person, it became entrenched in Western culture.
It should be noted, however, that there are other important and interesting accounts of Aristotle’s ideologies that make his views on women to appear very complex. For example, his understanding of women in the political world leads to a vision of hierarchy, but not submission on all levels.
Although Aristotle does think that women are by nature inferior to men, he also thinks that there are many cases where nature does not fulfill itself, and in these, women may be superior to men (Wiesner 2000, p. 55). Thus, although men are superior to women by nature, not all men are better than all women.
Moreover, Aristotle notes that men are rendered superior to women also by convention, but as in his discussion of slaves, he thinks that convention can be problematic.
In the modern society, however, arguments presented by Aristotle to advance his ideologies can not be easily accepted. Numerous examples exist to show that women can actually perform better than men in a number of ways. Whether in politics, education, or at work, negative attitudes about women are quickly fading away.
Allen, P 2006, The Concept of Woman: The Early Humanist Reformation, 1250-1500, Part 2, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Cambridge, UK.
Foley, HP 2009, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Green, K & Mews CJ 2011, Virtue Ethics for Women 12501500, Springer Publishing, New York.
Harding, SG & Hintikka, MB 2003, Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, Springer Publishing, New York.
Krikos, LA & Ingold, C 2004, Women’s Studies: A Recommended Bibliography, Libraries Unlimited, Westport, CT.
Landau, I 2010, Is Philosophy Androcentric?, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA.
Marshall, T 2004, Aristotle’s Theory of Conduct, Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, MT.
Mayhew, R 2010, The Female in Aristotle’s Biology: Reason or Rationalization, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Nussbaum, MC 2001, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Part 2, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.
Warren, KJ 2008, An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversations Between Men and Women Philosophers, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MA.
Whaley, LA 2003, Women’s History as Scientists: A Guide to the Debates, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California.
Wiesner, ME 2000, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europa, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.