Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Schopenhauer on women

I have four things to say about Schopenhauer's essay (it's really a collection of remarks) "On Women."
  1. The version of the essay in the Penguin Classics Essays and Aphorisms is abridged, leaving out the last remark and the words "The Mormons' standpoint is right" at the end of the penultimate remark. In what follows, nevertheless, I will use the numbering from the Penguin edition and hope that this is not misleading
  2. It is possible, even likely, that Schopenhauer really does mean the misogynistic things he seems to be saying
  3. Even so, his remarks are not all misogynistic. His first remark says that "the right point of view for the appreciation of women" is shown by Jouy's words, "Without women the beginning of our life would be deprived of help, the midst [of our life would be deprived] of pleasures and the end [of our life would be deprived] of consolation," and by similar thoughts of Byron's. The fourth remark implies that nature equips all creatures with what they need to survive, suggesting a kind of equality of value. In the fifth he writes that, "women are more sober in their judgment than [men], and [...] they see nothing more in things than is really there." In the sixth he claims that, "they live more for the species than for the individual, and in their hearts take the affairs of the species more seriously than those of the individual." This might sound bad, but Schopenhauer argues that the species is far more important and valuable than any individual, which would make women's hearts wiser than men's, in his view. The eighth remark sounds particularly bad (it includes, for instance, the claim that "They are the sexus sequior, the second sex in every respect"), but is in part an attack on the idea of the lady, which many feminists would also reject. 
  4. I want to explore the possibility that his apparent misogyny is ironic, and that what he means is therefore not nearly as bad as what he appears to be saying. Consider this paragraph, which is the last one in the Penguin edition:
"It is useless to argue about polygamy, it must be taken as a fact existing everywhere, the mere regulation of which is the problem to be solved. Where are there, then, any real monogamists? We all live, at any rate for a time, and the majority of us always, in polygamy. Consequently, as each man needs many women, nothing is more just than to let him, nay, make it incumbent upon him to provide for many women. By this means woman will be brought back to her proper and natural place as a subordinate being, and the lady, that monster of European civilisation and Christian–Teutonic stupidity, with her ridiculous claim to respect and veneration, will no longer exist; there will still be women, but no unhappy women, of whom Europe is at present full. The Mormons’ standpoint is right."
Assuming his readers are mid-nineteenth century German men, how would they be likely to react to this argument? Not very happily, I would think. They are accused of polygamy, which is associated with Mormonism. In his MA thesis "The Mormons in Wilhelmine Germany 1870-1914: Making a place for an unwanted American religion in a changing German society", Michael Mitchell writes (p. 1) that: "Mormonism had officially come to Germany in 1850 but opposition there was ubiquitous and conversions few." So recommending the Mormon standpoint could not be expected to be popular. Nor would Schopenhauer's reference to "Christian–Teutonic stupidity". The accusation of polygamy also seems unlikely to win him friends. Especially since, as I read the essay, he is talking about men hiring prostitutes, whose lives he describes as being "as joyless as [they are] void of honour." Nor do I imagine his readers would enjoy thinking that their wives are not ladies. And, finally, I doubt they would like the suggestion that it be made "incumbent upon [them] to provide for many women." It is not especially attractive women that Schopenhauer is talking about here but, on the contrary, all the women who are not chosen to be gentlemen's wives in the current system, including "old maids," prostitutes, and other working women. All women are to be taken care of by men of means under Schopenhauer's proposal. (Which presumably also means that all other men are left with neither wives nor prostitutes.) 
It is indeed a terrible idea. But it is so terrible that I wonder whether all that comes before it should be taken not at face value but as part of a kind of joke, whose punchline is this terrible enforced polygamy policy proposal. In other words, maybe this whole essay is really a kind of reductio ad absurdum
That's what I was going to say, anyway. Then I read the last remark (excluded from the Penguin edition), which ends:
That woman is by nature intended to obey is shown by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of absolute independence at once attaches herself to some kind of man, by whom she is controlled and governed; this is because she requires a master. If she is young, the man is a lover; if she is old, a priest.
Perhaps this is some sort of joke at the expense of priests, but it hardly supports my Schopenhauer-as-feminist idea.So maybe I'm just completely wrong about that.

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