Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 3 (Ideas Have Consequences)

It is reported that William Temple, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, once asked his father, who was then the Archbishop, “Daddy, why don’t the philosophers rule the world?” His father looked down at the boy and replied, “Of course they do, silly—two hundred years after they’re dead!”

The more one studies history, the more apparent it becomes that William Temple’s father had a point.  In fact, we could state the matter in even stronger terms: there has never been a more powerful influence, a greater agency of change or a stronger force for good or ill in this world than that of human ideas.

Such a statement may seem out of place in a society that has long since relegated philosophy (the science of correct thinking) to a specialists’ discipline. Reflection on ideas has little or no relevance to the world of everyday affairs, many people think. We have come a long way from the time when philosophy was considered to be the backbone of all the disciplines, including the sciences (indeed, the early scientists called themselves “Natural Philosophers”).
One’s philosophy of the world, or worldview, is still the backbone for how we view everything else, whether we realize it or not.  This is even true for those who have never given much thought to questions of worldview. As John Byl puts it in his book The Divine Challenge:

Many people hold their worldviews implicitly, without having deeply reflected on what they believe and why they believe it. They may not even realize that they have a worldview. Consequently, they may unwittingly hold beliefs that are mutually contradictory.

A person’s life, motivations, priorities, agendas, conversation and assumptions are just some of the areas that are affected by one’s worldview.

This is brought out in Proverbs 4.  Here we are shown that correct thinking, in the form of wisdom, protects us from the path of evil, while false thinking, in the form of folly, takes us down the road leading to destruction.

The apostle Paul picked up this same theme when he wrote his letter to the Romans.  Paul told his readers in Rome to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom. 12:2; see also Eph. 4:23) Paul understood the link between correct thinking (what is sometimes called “orthodoxy”) and correct behavior (what is sometimes called “orthopraxy”). In his letter to the Corinthians Paul again shows that much of our spiritual warfare is intellectual:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ . . . (2 Cor. 10:4–5)

As this and other passages make clear, correct thinking is central to the life of the Christian. But just as correct thinking is fundamental to an individual Christian’s life, Paul also maintains that society as a whole will be affected by ideas.  In Romans 1:18–32 Paul describes abominations that occur in ungodly societies.  What is interesting is that these abominations proceed out of the wrong ideas that society collectively adopts over time.  It is because they suppress the truth of what may be known about God, rejecting what can be understood, that they knew Him not, became futile in their thoughts, became fools, were given over to a debased mind (Romans 1:18–32).

Similarly, in our society, the rejection of God has proceeded out of wrong ideas. Some of these wrong ideas owe their shape to certain unconscious philosophical assumptions about life, mankind and the world that we have inherited from a period known as “the Enlightenment”. Because these assumptions are rarely analyzed, they easily slip past us unnoticed, unexamined and unchallenged.  Consequently, it is easy to be influenced and ruled by philosophers from the past without even realizing it.  The Christian’s job is to ferret out these unconscious influences and expose them to the light of God’s Word. This is a process which John Byl has called “the first task in inter-worldview dialogue.”
The first task in inter-worldview dialogue is to challenge opponents to reflect on where they stand on the major issues. What are their priorities in life? What are their worldview presuppositions? Once worldview presuppositions have been made explicit, their implications can be examined.

This series of blog posts is an attempt to engage in just such inter-worldview dialogue. I am endeavoring to uncover many of the implicit ideas that have since undergirded non-Christian approaches to morality and gender since the Enlightenment. And because philosophies should never be considered in a vacuum, I am trying to place the changing ideas about gender, morality and modesty in their historical context to underscore the fact that ideas have consequences.

In the first post of this series we saw that the triad of ideas surrounding materialism, determinism and nature had direct relevance for sexual morality in 18th century Europe. The second post carried on this theme, looking at utilitarian models of sexual morality that began to reemerge at the time of the European Enlightenment. This present post will carry on the discussion, but will be considering the closely related issue of gender.

I’d like to begin by observing that there are many ways that men and women are different.  Although the physical differences between the sexes are perhaps the most striking, men and women have different natures.  Indeed, there is a whole network of tangible and intangible differences associated with masculinity and femininity which go beyond mere biological distinctives.

At least, that is what people generally thought prior to the Enlightenment and it is also the view taught in the Bible. (A good resource for Biblical teaching on this subject is Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper.)  However, just as the materialist account of the universe made it impossible to ascribe to sexuality any transcendent significance, so it was equally difficult to ascribe to gender differences any significance beyond the purely biological.

As the “metaphysical drapery” was removed from the universe and from mankind, it became necessary to think through traditional assumptions about gender. If, as materialism taught, the human person is nothing more than a collection of physical particulars, then are there any real differences between men and women beyond the purely physical? Is it still rational to speak of men and women possessing different natures?

Questions such as these had profound social and political implications during the eighteenth century. Such questions directly affected the ways men and women related to one another as well as their respective roles in society. The very idea that the sexes would have different roles, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, had assumed that these differences went beyond mere physical dissimilarities.  Indeed, it had assumed that men and women were different in their very natures.  However, materialism’s reduction of human beings (a topic I explore HERE) left men and women without any natures at all.  What we call our “nature” is really only billions of particles that happen to have collided in the event we call a person.

The corollary of this was that the ancient customs and notions that the eighteenth century inherited concerning relations between men and women were believed to be flawed not simply in actuality, but in very principle. In his book Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel tells us how
Several writers took up the point that if woman’s subjection to man within marriage, the family, and law, is not after all ordained by a providential God and has no basis in Revelation, then the entire system of relations between the sexes prevailing in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other societies lacks justification or basis . . .

It is true that the treatment of women in Europe during and prior to the eighteenth century left much to be desired.  Indeed, many aspects of how the sexes related to one another needed realigning with a correct understanding of Christian ethics.  The problem was that the Enlightenment radicals tended to get rid of any basis by which the roles between the sexes could be philosophically grounded.  Nor should we expect anything less from a worldview that removed from men and women any reality outside their material construction.  In this way, the unavoidable consequence of materialism turned out to be a reductionist approach to gender.

It is important to appreciate that the progression from materialism to the reduction of mankind, and from the reduction of mankind to the reduction of gender is that of grounds and consequence, not necessarily cause and effect. Ground/consequence is the mode by which we describe a chain of argument: you have certain premises which act as grounds from which the consequence follows. So if I say, “Grandfather didn’t get up this morning, therefore he must be ill,” the first part of the sentence is the ground and the next part (starting with the “therefore”) is the consequence.  The grounds precede the consequence and are the ideas or reasons from which the consequence logically follows.  Grandfather not getting up in the morning is the reason for thinking that he must be ill. Cause/effect, on the other hand, is also about one thing preceding another, but in this case the relation is between events that occur in time rather than about thoughts and ideas—i.e., “Grandfather is ill, therefore he didn’t get up this morning.”  His illness is the cause of his not getting up.  You can see from the two examples I chose (which are actually owed to C.S. Lewis in his discussion in Miracles chapter 4) that the word “therefore” can be used in both modes, as can the words “because” and “reason”.  Since there is an overlap of vocabulary, it is crucial to always identify which mode is being used and not to confuse the two.

Why is this important? Because holding to a materialist metaphysic does not cause one to also hold a reductionist view of gender in the same way that dropping an apple causes it to fall to the ground in a world governed by gravitation.  But a materialist metaphysic does cause a reductionist view of gender in the sense that adding two apples to two apples causes there to be four apples.  That is to say, the reduction of gender is a logical necessity once a materialistic worldview is affirmed, but this tells us nothing either way about whether a materialist will live consistently with this necessity.  Indeed, the process of complete gender reductionism has taken all the time from the Enlightenment until now to reach fruition (a topic to be dealt with in subsequent chapters).  The full realization of this development comes when the very idea that there are different roles for men and woman is considered severe heterodoxy.

Burke and the Wardrobe of Decent Drapery

A parallel problem to the reduction of gender occurred with questions relating to royalty: if all people are merely the product of material particulars, then is it rational to assume that the King and Queen are anything special?  This is a question Edmund Burke (one of my favourite writers) faced when he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Reflecting on the discourteous way the queen of France had been treated by the revolutionaries, Burke put the entire philosophy of the Enlightenment in a nutshell:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
    On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman, a woman is but an animal—and an animal not of the highest order.  All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. (Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Best of Burke: Selection Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Regnery Publishing, 1963), p. 551.)

A woman (to say nothing of a man) is but an animal.  Burke is not caricaturing current notions, he is extending them to their logical consequence.  Because materialism sees human beings as mere physical systems, the division between man and the animals is simply one of complexity.  Hence, all Diderot could admit (see earlier discussion) was that “Man” merely “seems to stand above the other animals . . .” (Emphasis mine.)

Though materialists often slipped into unconsciously predicating transcendent categories to man, thereby giving him the kind of dignity to which Burke refers, we must always return to the fact that, according to their own worldview, the ontology of human beings includes nothing that has not arisen from natural causation—in other words, nothing that is extra-physical.

Rousseau and the Return to Modesty

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Burke, realized some of the problems inherent in the materialistic worldview.  He believed that the materialism of the Enlightenment was not making society better, but worse.  But though he grasped something of the problem, Rousseau did not have any credible solutions.

One of the main areas that concerned Rousseau was the effect the new philosophy had in respect to modesty, particularly female modesty.  In Book V of Emile, where Rousseau sets forward his ideal for female education, modesty plays an important role.

Rousseau argued hotly that if modesty is not an imperative given by nature, but only an invention of social laws to protect the rights of fathers and husbands (recall Hume), then “modesty is nothing.”  Though Rousseau did affirm that modesty served a pragmatic function, he argued that fundamentally its basis was the God-given instincts of our nature.

Rousseau and Gender Differences

Central to Rousseau’s teaching on modesty was the notion that men and women are made differently.  In reaction to the growing view that all gender differences were the result of custom rather than creation, Rousseau argued that men and woman are born with different natures.  As he writes, "where sex [gender] is concerned man and woman are unlike; each is the complement of the other." (Emile, Book V, (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 384.)

Rousseau’s representation of gender falls down the line of the typical polarities, with man being active and woman being passive; man being strong, woman being weak; man being bold, woman being bashful and reserved, etc.  He believed that these differences necessitated that each sex will have a different function in society, which in turn necessitates that the education given to each will be significantly different.

History has ascribed to Rousseau a derogatory attitude towards females.  Even where this may have been partly true, the basis of the contemporary critique has rested on the assumption that merely to predicate gender differences necessarily entails a pejorative attitude towards women.  But Rousseau’s approach was not derogatory; indeed, by the standards of his day, his views on female education were comparatively advanced (i.e., contrary to the status quo, he believed women should have physical exercise and religious education.)  He was keen that we should not think that one sex was inferior to the other, “as if each sex, pursuing the path marked out for it by nature, were not more perfect in that very divergence than if it more closely resembled the other.” 

While Rousseau’s position would seem to present a solution to the Enlightenment’s reduction of gender, it actually raised more questions than it solved.  Since Rousseau’s “natural religion” gave no criteria for determining in practice whether one set of gender codes or sexual ethics is preferable to any other, the difference between his approach and that of the materialists was purely theoretical.  Though Rousseau did try to show the practical outworking of his philosophy, we have no reason, on the basis of his worldview, to accept his suggestions over any other set.  This is because Rousseau’s system, like so much eighteenth-century thinking, simply referred everything to a vacuous “nature” for legitimization.

It is true that Rousseau went further than most in trying to show why nature could be appealed to as an authority.  Rousseau makes it clear that the authority of nature rests in the higher authority of God, whom he calls “the Author of Nature.”  But in Book IV of Emile, Rousseau argues that God is unknowable.  Rousseau calls God “the Incomprehensible” (Emile, 1911 ed, p. 218) and writes that “he evades the efforts of our senses; we behold the work, but the workman is hidden from our eyes.”  (Ibid) It might be urged that Rousseau holds the position that Hume has Philo criticize in his Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion, namely, a belief in God which, because it emphasizes God’s infinity and unfathomability, is only semantically separated from scepticism and agnosticism.
Although he believed that God was unknowable, Rousseau seems to have bypassed these epistemological limitations by claiming that God had certain designs and intentions with the created order—an assumption on which his whole ethical theory hinged. Having dispensed with the Christian scriptures, Rousseau offered no alternative criteria for knowing what God’s intended order for the sexes was. His argument for female modesty was therefore left vulnerable to one of his harshest critics: Mary Wollstonecraft.

Wollstonecraft and the De-Sexualizing of Modesty

A contemporary of Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) is considered one of the forerunners of feminism.  Her most famous work, Vindication of the Rights of Women, set forth an androgynous agenda (“androgyny” is a term that refers to the homogenizing or doing away of gender distinctions) that would later become commonplace among the feminist movement.  She disapproves, for example, of women who “remind [men] that they were women” through what she terms “mock modesty” , arguing that women should be allowed to acquire more understanding in order that they might not “always remember that they are women.”

Naturally, if women were to strive to be the same as men, as Wollstonecraft desired, then sexual modesty would have to be one of the first things to go.  This is because modesty acts as a signal that women are different from men (in an environment of only women, there is not the same need for modesty, just as in an environment of only men, there is not the same need for male modesty).  Hence, the revealing heading for chapter 7 of her book “Modesty.—Comprehensively considered, and not as a sexual virtue” (“sexual” here means pertaining to gender).

In her critique of Wollstonecraft, Wendy Shalit points out how Wollstonecraft considered modesty from many different standpoints: delicacy of mind, moderate estimation of one’s talents, a kind of polite reserve, and so on.  What she carefully avoids, however, is any acknowledgement of modesty as Rousseau understood it: a sexual (gender-related) virtue for women.  The only kind of modesty which Wollstonecraft’s androgyny allowed her to take seriously are those forms which are the same between men and women, such as delicacy of mind, polite reserve, etc.  She is clear that “the reserve I mean, has nothing sexual in it, and that I think it equally necessary in both sexes.”

Why was Wollstonecraft keen to eliminate the sexual modesty that Rousseau advocated for women?  Shalit has suggested that the reason lies in the fact that a gender/sexual related modesty gives men and women an abiding awareness that women are women, the very thing Wollstonecraft was keen to avoid.  This reduction of modesty to a sexually neutral virtue was an unavoidable consequence of Wollstonecraft's androgyny.

Since that time, men and women have continued to quest after an ideal of gender neutrality, with some very unexpected results.  In my next post, we will look at how the dispute between Rousseau and Wollstonecraft has played out in our present age and how contemporary culture has attempted to come to terms with these same problems.

Entire series on Gender, Morality and Modesty

The Sexualization of Britain's Youth


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