Feminist Interpretation of Aristotle
Aristotle and Women’s Position in the World
In “The Virtue of Care: Aristotelian Ethics and Contemporary Ethics of Care,” Ruth Groenhout states “hierarchies should be evaluated on their own merits.” This interpretation of Aristotelian hierarchy stands in stark contrast to a literal interpretation of Aristotle’s view of the man/wife dichotomy where there is no evaluation, the woman is mostly subservient to her husband. Instead, Groenhout claims, when people are denied a place in a hierarchy because of their gender, or race, it is not Aristotle’s hierarchy that is objectionable, it is the criteria which gives the positions to certain individuals (Freeland p. 177). Therefore it can be surmised that while Aristotelian ethics exist, they can, indeed, also be valued; it is more important to regard women in positions of power today as a progression in positive thought pertaining to women. Hirshman insists that it is not freedom but utility that justifies women’s right to take part in the labor market, because the increased competition those women will add will create great effects for society as a whole (Freeland p. 239). Aristotelian ethics can support equal representation for women as he too had an ethics of care. The original form of Aristotelian ethics as well as the modern form of virtue ethics shows a propensity toward essentialist hierarchies, unfair treatment, and a justification of oppression in regard to women (Freeland p. 187) thus ethics of care developed as a more equal and optimistic approach; however Aristotle’s position is that by looking at a person’s inner qualities, one can decide if those qualities would uphold the morality in a community, which does relate to care ethics. Aristotle’s ethics and politics are so entwined because of it. Women today, especially those in positions of great power, struggle with contradictions in the system. The question of how they can exist in a world where personal needs seem unprogressive when it comes to their feminist views, is often a question left without a solution. But ethics of care does offer s solution and Aristotle was, perhaps, the first to illustrate this.
Aristotle sought out knowledge of the way the world is and, most importantly, sought to explain why the world is the way it is. Hegel’s definition of philosophy was that it is “its own time apprehended in thoughts” (Okin 73). For years, feminists often disregarded Aristotle’s work because of his overtly misogynistic views of woman, for instance, claiming that the men provide the actual life in procreation and women merely supplied the shelter for that life to grow. There is also the Aristotelian assertion that women have a “defective capacity for rationality” (Freeland; Groenhout p. 171). If we can tell anything about our world today by our apprehension in thoughts, it would be that the world has largely changed in its thought from the days of Aristotle. Today, the U.S. has a record number of women in Congress, 17 women in the U.S. Senate and 74 women in the U.S. House of Representatives, a statistic that shows progress, although it is still far off from equal political representation of women. Aristotle’s ethical theory, such as virtue ethics today, are often reproached by feminist thinkers because Aristotle seems to suggest that women are best left to roles that are either under men’s governance, or roles that are more domestic or service-related in nature. Aristotle seems to think that those who are “more human,” or in his interpretation men, are put into positions of power and control, yet hierarchical theory should not be disregarded and his philesis theory should not be disregarded either. By rejecting Aristotle’s hierarchical theory on the claims that it is anti-feminist, means to negate social structures as a whole. Without social structure, powerful and influential women, such as our Congresswomen, would not have a ladder to climb, so to speak. Thus, we must not reject Aristotle’s theories simply because his ideas about gender equality are not representational of the modern woman today. It is better to reject the time in which Aristotle lived and focus on what he did say about care and the profound desire for the well-being of another person.
Aristotle’s concept of care was the Greek term philesis or philein which translates today into “love” or “friendly affection” and he uses it in the same way that Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings use “care” in ethics of care (Curzer 2007). Aristotle defines philein as so:
We may describe to philein towards anyone as wishing for him what you believe to be good things, not for your own sake but for his, and being inclined, so far as you can, to bring these things about.
He goes on to suggest that goodwill “does not involve intensity or desire, whereas these accompany philesis; and philesis implies intimacy while goodwill may arise of a sudden” (Curzer 2007).
The word anthropos is Aristotle’s Greek term meaning “human being,” however it becomes very apparent when reading Aristotle’s work that a very small minority of one sex of the human race shares what, Aristotle characterizes, as the human virtues and man’s highest good and happiness. Because “man” does not just need reason, he also needs certain external goods in order for him to achieve happiness and live a good life. Aristotle insists that a man cannot be happy without such things as friends, wealth, good children, spare time, fine breeding, and beauty (Okin 77). In order to obtain these things, other people will need to be involved in more of a service capacity to ensure there availability. Aristotle theorizes that the “entire animal kingdom” as well as the “vast majority of humans, are intended by nature to be instruments which supply to the few the necessities and comforts that will enable them to be happy in their contemplative activity” (Okin 77). Therefore, he is asserting that women, as well as slaves, are all auxiliary devices for use so that the man can achieve his greatest potential and ascend the hierarchy until he reaches the top. Aristotle believes that women are inferior by contemplating the duties she undertakes and the qualities she manifests in Athenian society. One must remember, however, that this was a society dominated by men, where men in society dictated women’s roles as well as the qualities valued in her. Aristotle, it appears, is not very interested in women aside from this context.
While the mere association between women and slaves is no doubt offensive to feminists, and to society as well, if one is to take away Aristotle’s blatant sexism, there is little doubt that mankind does require money, friends, and some leisure time, (fine breeding and beauty are bonuses) in order to be happy individuals in society. Of course, there is the necessity for all types of people, however, since many need to fulfill services in order to keep society functioning thus illustrating that Aristotle was quite reasonable in his way of thinking. Yet the problem is that his “thoughts apprehended of the time” was a time when generally the entire world put women into subservient roles. Therefore, in understanding this, we need not dismiss Aristotle’s theories about society entirely. In fact, it is not just important to remember that there is a massive cultural difference between Aristotle’s culture and our culture, but it is important to remember that cultural differences still exist and women are still considered second-class citizens in different parts of the world. Thus it is important to remember that there are truths that are held that are merely matters of perception. By looking at our world today and seeing that women are put into powerful positions, we see that perception is not as it was for Aristotle.
Aristotle also argued that human beings have commitments rather than preferences. Hirshman’s theories on gender, class and politics suggest that given the lack of competent individuals to do “anything excellently” which necessitates a “considerable amount of ability to do,” increasing the number of individuals who can run for political office, enter a profession like medicine or law, become a factory worker, will thus improve the quality of politicians, lawyers, doctors and workers in general (Hirschman p. 239). Of course, this means that new and increased competition will also affect the applicant pool, “namely men — to improve themselves. Thus, women’s freedom will increase overall social utility” (Hirschman p. 239).
Aristotle believed that individuals pursued endeavors that are important in themselves – or in their extrinsic goals, rather than external preferences helpful to some kind of unclear function. Again, this means that people have responsibilities not preferences. He said:
If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must the good and the chief good (Aristotle, NE 1-2).
Aristotle believed that human flourishing (NE: 12) is the definition of good. The mere presence of women in Congress suggests that voters rejected a man, but it is better to look at this not as the rejection of one (male or not), but as the result of human flourishing. This increased competition of more women pursuing what they feel is their own responsibility will result in more unemployment for men, a notion bolstered by Mill’s belief that, “Whoever succeeds in an overcrowded profession or in a competitive examinationreaps benefits from the loss of others” (Mill; Hirshman p. 239). This could be viewed as human flourishing, which is good, but it connotes competition and struggle and doesn’t make the pursuit seem virtuous. Aristotle, if following his own ethics in the world today, would have to believe that women are where they are because of human flourishing and their pursuit of what is their responsibilities to themselves and to society as a whole.
Okin, however, suggests that if women were to be given equal rights and status to men within Aristotle’s society, the foundation of Aristotle’s functionalism would crumble (Okin p. 276). Perhaps it is this foundation of Western political thought that resulted in women’s exclusion of nearly everything considered “political” until much more recent history. Many viewed the steps necessary in order to include women in politics as cumbersome. In essence, politics would undoubtedly have to change tremendously in order to include women. Elshtain writes:
Women were silenced in part because that which defines them and to which they are inescapably linked — sexuality, natality, the human body- was omitted from political speech. Why? Because politics is in part an elaborate defense against the tug of the private, against the lure of the familial, against evocations of female power. The questionis not just what politics is for but what politics has served to defend against (Elshtain; Okin 312).
Society often labels women as the “caretakers” and, thus it creates a society that allowed women, who busy in their daily tasks, to ignore political uses created from their work. Caretaking is hard work and caretakers, such as mothers, often have to use anger, punishment and other forms of tough love — to do their jobs, yet caretakers are often expected to “defer to the opinions of the ‘reasonable’ and powerful on whose support they in fact depend” (Elshtain p. 249). Groenhout argues that feminists need to stop thinking about “ethics of care” as some kind of Victorian representation of women, but rather, think about how they can incorporate a more Aristotelian ethical framework. This could mitigate any of the criticisms that go along with the ethics of care such as the erroneous assumption that care ethics glorifies traditionally traits of women in a more domestic sphere and that ethics of care cannot help anyone outside of the “circle of care” (Groenhout p.173).
Yet while Groenhout is trying to forge a new path for “ethics of care,” there are other theorists, like John Stuart Mill, who assert that most women will not enter the workforce but, rather, will choose the career of wife and mother.
Like a man when he chooses a profession, so, when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes choice of the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family, as the first call upon her exertions (Mill 523).
However, Hirshman notes that Mill is not merely foreseeing what will happen in terms of this choice and how it is made, but he clearly favors it and recommends it for women.
The common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labor between two personsin an otherwise just state of things, it is notI think, a desirable custom, that the wife should contribute be her labor to the income of the family (Mill 522).
Mill was predicting women’s liberation and attempting to eliminate it before it came to fruition. Hirshman retaliates that just because women are better than men overall at being caretakers and nurturing individuals, it’s no reason for men to treat women as inferior or stop them from helping with caretaking duties (Hirschman p. 240). Many women who work outside the home and have children would probably insist that they have two full time jobs, yet how many working fathers would say that? Somewhere in history, perhaps started by Aristotle or continued by him, it was decided that being a caretaker, a mother or a nurturer was somehow undesirable and unworthy. It cannot be ignored that Aristotle goes so far as to insist that women will never be as good of mothers as men will be as good of fathers, because women are just overall inferior to men (Hirshman 165). What most feminists seem to cite as their complaint with their identities as caretakers is, that because they are of female form, many expect them to make sacrifices for men and for their children. While this was definitely the way women were supposed to act in Aristotle’s time, one would think that after such a great passage of time, the view of women in society and the expectation of sacrificing themselves, for anyone, would have diminished somewhat. However, the fact of the matter is that this idea is still prevalent and pervasive in modern times. Perhaps this is the reason why so many feminists have difficulty considering many of Aristotle’s theories without becoming enraged that times simply have not changed as much as they hoped. Women are, by and large, viewed as nurturers, a beautiful word, yet a word nonetheless that has been tainted by years of subjugation.
It is extremely difficult for modern women to look at Aristotle’s theories and not disregard them as complete rubbish because he was so blatantly sexist. This is obvious. However, Aristotle states that virtue can only be achieved at the social level and we have to understand that women were not viewed as being on the same social level as men. Today that is a different story and his idea that human beings can act virtuously only in relation to others is so correct in its thinking.
In Hirshman’s book, the Book of a, she argues that the ethics and politics offered by Aristotle, regardless of their apparent sexism, can be quite a worthy resource for contemporary feminists. There are three areas she suggests that women can learn something from Aristotle. The first is that Aristotle’s ethical theory has certain elements that are not completely different from feminist moral epistemologies (Freeland p. 9). She states that feminists who are very concerned with consciousness-raising in terms of feminism are employing two of Aristotelian methods: “canvassing the appearances and conversing about justice with people who speak the same language about justice as the questioner does” (Freeland p. 9). The second method is that Aristotle sees the human condition as being intrinsically political. Lastly, the vision that Aristotle has regarding what the ideal life is for people (Freeland p. 9). In the article entitled “Aristotle, Feminism, and Needs for Functioning,” Martha C. Nussbaum states that aside from the obvious misogyny and the wrongness of his hierarchical theories, she agrees with Hirshman that, “Aristotle does have a good deal to offer to a feminism that is struggling to surmount the limitations it perceives in contemporary liberalism” (Freeland 248).
Groenhout blames Aristotle’s ethics for its concentration on the production of an intellectual life, and she blames the ethics of care for not having a complete political foundation. As mentioned earlier, this helps the “ethics of care position” agree with the two typical points of criticism, that it emphasizes characteristics that have led to the subservience of women in general, and that it cannot concern itself outside of the “circle of care” (Freeland 9). This artificial method can add the ethics of care a bigger worry for personal excellence and political contribution, while balancing Aristotelian ethics so as to make it less hierarchical and repressive (Freeland p. 9).
Philosophy does not appear gender free, as some may believe; the history of philosophy has pretty much excluded women from the canon, both as writers and in misogynist representations. Aristotle did suggest that the place for women was under the governance of man. However, while that seems very simplistic in rationale, Aristotle’s depiction of his own rationale should not be considered as so simplistic (Freeland p. 174). Aristotle genuinely believed that women were not men’s equals, however, it has to be noted that Aristotle did not believe that every woman was inferior to man (Freeland p. 174). In his work the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle noted that the relationship between man and wife is a relationship where the man “rules in accordance with his worth and in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters which befit a woman he hands over to her” (Freeland p. 175).
The problem for many women today is discovering how to live in a world where there are such ineradicable contradictions in the “system” because women are largely expected to be career women and be caretakers — mothers and wives as well. While women now strive to hold important positions that only men once held, it does not make them men, and women still long to be mothers and wives, but the problem is that the women’s personal lives somehow seem political. Some socialist feminists insist that the “personal is political has raised the possibility of liberating women through a total transformation of social relations” (Jaggar p. 345). While this may seem like a good prospect, the personal being political can also be a big burden to carry. Many feminists as well as many of the women holding high power positions are mothers and wives and they do not want to give up those roles, so the question becomes how women can live in the present day where her needs for emotional and sexual intimacy are met and where she can also be empowered in her career life?
Groenhout (p. 180) admits that there is a sense in which the proponent of an Aristotelian theory will have to recognize some amount of essentialism with regards to human nature. She insists that a theory that depends on an idea of human flourishing for its progress is reliant on some explanation of what humans must try to become if it is to have any substance at all. Though Aristotle’s virtue ethics did not sufficiently recognize the practices of caring by women, his virtue ethics are closely related to the ethics of care and thus supports the equal representation of women.
Curzer, Howard J. “Aristotle: Founder of the Ethics of Care.” The Journal of Value Inquiry.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women, Militarism, and War: Essays in History, Politics, and Social
Theory. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1990.
Freeland, Cynthia a. Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle. The Pennsylvania State
University Press. 1998.
Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford University
Hirshman, Nancy J. The Book of a.
Hirshman, Nancy J. Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory. Princeton University Press. 2007
Jaggar, Alison M. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Krooks, Mona., Childs, Sarah. Women, Gender, and Politics: A Reader. Oxford Press. 2010.
Okin, Susan Moller. Women in Western Political Thought. Princeton University Press.
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