Classically Inclined

October 30, 2018

Gender equality and Stoicism

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:24 am
Tags: ,

This is one of a series of posts designed to support students and teachers looking at the Love and Relationships unit of the OCR Classical Civilization A-level. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking on the OCR Seneca hashtag.

We’ve established that the Stoics believe it is possible to love another human without that leading to irrational behaviour. Now I want to think a little bit about why this matters in terms of gender equality.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Stoics proto-feminist, they do hold one quite important belief – namely, that all people have the same capacity for virtue and the same ability to achieve virtue, regardless of their circumstances. In some ways, this is quite a radical proposition – contrast, for instance, Aristotle, who makes the case that those who have to work for a living will never be able to make full use of their reason (Politics 1258b and 1260b). That Epictetus, one of the most prolific Roman Stoics, was originally enslaved speaks to the way that the philosophy could occasionally transcend some rigid class boundaries.

This belief in the common human capacity for reason, the seed of the divine logos inside each and every person, meant that the Stoics held both men and women had the same capacity for achieving virtue. There was a recognition that social convention could mean women did not get the same opportunities to pursue that reason. In one particularly dry treatise, Musonius Rufus observes that we train male and female dogs and horses the same way and get the same outcomes, so if we train male and female humans differently, we have only ourselves to blame if they turn out differently (Discourse 4, ‘Should daughters receive the same education as sons?’). Equally, although the Stoics recognised that men and women had the same potential for virtue, they seem to have remained within very traditionally gendered social frameworks for how they might use and demonstrate that virtue; while in the same treatise, Musonius talks about human tasks being common to everyone, he uses examples of physical labour rather than allowing the possibility that women might go into the law or politics. Indeed, he explicitly says that being good at arguments would be pointless for women, since it won’t be any use in their lives!

We know that Seneca took the Stoics’ claim for the equal capacity of all humans to be virtuous on board. Two of his three earliest consolations are written to women, one of whom is is mother Helvia; he talks of the enjoyment he took in engaging with philosophical study with her, and urges her to return to her work as consolation for his absence in exile (Consolation to Helvia 17).

So we’re looking at a philosophy where women are seen as having the same moral potential as men – which means that the goalposts significantly shift when we are discussing marriage. We’re now not talking about the union of a superior intellectual being to an inferior one (again, a model that turns up in Aristotle), but of two equally competent individuals, who are much more likely to be Stoic disciples rather than Stoic sages.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.