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“Aristotle Over/Against Plato”

Notes on:
Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.

Because of his conscious neglect of sexual difference and the natural patterns of generation, indeed his distaste for them, Plato is sometimes seen as modern. Aristotle’s political world, in contrast, seems structured by and founded on a family consisting of man, woman, and children. Better patriarchal than altogether heterocosmic, Agacinski seems to say.

Plato’s “nonmixed conception of man” leads to a “ultratotalitarianism”. It seeks to remove the act of generation from the individual family to an impersonal institution designed to break familial bonds in the interest of cultivating a highly organized and efficient but, as Agacinski implies, inhumane society. She addresses The Republic and The Banquet (The Symposium), especially; and she speaks of Plato’s homosexual metaphysics and its fear of mixity. The resulting program conduces to an inorganic “passive herd.”

[“Passive herds” also arise from non-totalitarian states. That is, those that elect representatives of the herd to effect the will of the herd. I think “passive” is the normal condition of any herd. To cease being members of one, individuals need being—or made—scarce.]

Clearly, Aristotle’s conception of the state and family is hierarchical, but at least it acknowledges the critical nature of congress, sexual and otherwise, between men and women and does not wash out any semblance of individual, organic connection.

We could regard this abolition of the family as a radical way of freeing women from masculine domination, since it is within the family that the power of each man is exercised over his wife.

Agacinski adds,

We will have to await John Stuart Mill for a philosopher to again dare to allow women a chance to demonstrate their talents individually.

[Mill, however, denied any significant moral differences between men and women. He really thought, for example, that liberty ranked as highly for her as for him. Ultimately, his acknowledgement of women is based on a highly generic utility and not any deep understanding or appreciation of sexual differences. Quite the contrary, for utility to function it must be assumed that pain and pleasure have essentially the same phenomenology across the species, more specifically, that a single idea of freedom exhilarates all hearts sufficiently to found a state centrally based upon it.]

…by banning the establishment of conjugal and familial ties, it is sexual difference itself that loses all meaning, and the social structure based upon kinship that finds itself excluded.

She calls Plato’s scheme an “inhuman organization”.

…beings who couple according to a lottery and make children with whom they have no relation are regarded as mere cattle.

But the reduction of difference to its biological function cannot be passed off as the price to be paid for true equality between men and women, because equality cannot have meaning where freedom has none, as is the case here. It is, rather, the sacrifice of individuals to the order of the city-state that explains why their desires and sexual identities have no importance.

Plato: “…the fecundity of souls not of bodies.”

…contempt for procreation and women, made explicit in The Banquet

Woman’s link to man is to a possible companion and a father for her children. Man’s link to woman is to a possible partner and a mother for his children. It is above all in relation to this third, to which they can only give birth together, that man and woman are defined as sexually differentiated beings. If we forget about this relationship to descendants, if we base no social ties upon it—such as marriage and filiation—the difference between men and women no longer has a great deal of meaning and sexual identity itself becomes unimportant.

[But there is a difference in emphasis between the things cited as linking women and men together. For men the “partnership” ranks slightly higher than any progeny. The reverse is the case for her. The slight difference in a precarious emotional economy of relationship not infrequently has catastrophic consequences.]

…the Aristotelian hierarchy of the sexes leaves the relation between men and women more open to history than the Platonic utopia with its neutralization of the sexes. Beyond the questions of the family and the city-state, we must propose an ethics of sexual difference. It has rarely been approached philosophically, perhaps only by Emmanuel Lévinas.

(See Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.)

[But history is what men flee whenever possible. Look at it this way: Plato knew in his heart that men could never see past sexual differences to any semblance of genuine respect for women, therefore this, the semblance, would have to be enforced from without by an artificial infrastructure that militated against his instincts. Aristotle, on the other hand, chose to live within the instincts (moderated, of course): women would just have to accept a secondary status. Only in this way might she purchase love, if never total respect, from him.

The idea of development here below, in the grip of history, is something he cannot bear to think while maintaining his authenticity. Thus his flight into the heterocosmos. Only there where he no longer sees differences, where the form of her body ceases to have meaning, does he envision success at doing right by her.

Plato and Aristotle represent the two horns of his dilemma.

Plato’s homosexuality only helped him see more clearly what is true for all men. It provided him sufficient respite from the draw of her flesh—if not quite from all flesh—to see past it.]

Becoming a father, or mother, is not the fact of a desire or will but the acceptance of an event that moves beyond any mastered decision.

[Being a parent is inherently a violation of one’s own autonomy, a forfeit of it, the biggest one we make. We have qualms with slavery even when it bears some of the trappings of having been voluntary. We will bend over backwards not to call it what it is. Or perhaps slavery itself is not all as bad as we have gotten ourselves to believe?

Indeed, the closest thing to a woman’s experience of rape a man will ever feel is upon learning he is a father. He has been compromised in a way that he can never undo. That which to him means what her inviolate body means to her, an uneclipsed, unfettered view of destiny, has been irretrievably taken away.

A man may accommodate himself to this situation (species survival ordains it) but he, especially, never totally forgives himself for having arrived here. He tries to make up for this by saying to himself that now he can flaunt power over others where before he failed at power over himself. He fancies himself more or less benevolent tyrant. He will stake out a claim, then, here in the material world (since this is where he met humiliation)—a space more properly hers—and she and her children will be made to pay. She plays the game and, for these and reasons of her own, defers to him. The rest is literally history.]

Fecundity is that event that transcends me and opens me to the alterity of that life that comes (that comes from me and from another and with which a free existence begins absolutely). This is why fecundity is a privileged existence of the other.

…. It is knowing what man and woman are responsible for, the one in front of the other, and what surpasses them both, the one and the other.

[Fecundity, when and if she comes to embrace it as her fate and given role, becomes her banner. Morbidity for him performs a similar function. It will be a hurdle that will tease him into manhood—or kill him and perhaps others.]

Posted by luno in political philosophy, parity, sex differences (Thursday August 3, 2006 at 11:47 am)

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