I have had occasion to refer to Arthur Schopenhauer in a couple of my earlier posts. His is one of the best minds to think with and I have discovered a number of important insights in his writings. In addition to his major work, The World As Will and Idea he wrote a number of essays, one of which was about women. It is full of examples of the observation I would make that no matter how good a mind is, it has its blind spots. Schopenhauer was a man of his time, the late nineteenth century, and his essay shows a deep-seated bias that I dare say he was unaware of. In addition, it shows the kind of prejudice women have had to deal with through the centuries. For example in that essay he tells us that women have diminished reasoning capacity. Worse yet:
“You need only look at the way in which [a woman] is formed to see that woman is not meant to undergo great labor, whether of the body or the mind. She pays the debt of life not by what she does, but by what she suffers; by the pains of childbearing and care for the child, and submission to her husband, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion. The keenest sorrows and joys are not for her, nor is she called upon to display a great deal of strength. The current of her life should be more gentle, peaceful, and trivial than man’s, without being essentially happier or unhappier. . . . The only business that really claims [her] earnest attention is love, making conquests, and everything connected with this — dress, dancing, and so on. . . . she should be either a housewife or a girl who hopes to become one; and she should he brought up, not to be arrogant, but to be thrifty and submissive.”
Enough of that! If we remain calm as we read these words we can see that the times in which Schopenhauer lived had a deep impact upon the man and led him to conclusions that are based on casual observations of the women he has come across in his lifetime (and read about in his books); he wasn’t able too see past the surface to the important fact that beneath that surface there was a person who was in important respects the equal of, if not superior in many ways to, any man he might also have encountered — though he does admit that there are exceptions to his generalizations. And I might note that his important conclusions about men in his major opus apply equally to women; he simply failed to draw those conclusions.
In any event, it is puzzling that a man of his intelligence was so blind to truths that we today take for granted (well, some of us do). And this is especially strange in light of the fact that one of the two philosophers he thought the greatest minds to have ever lived, Plato, regarded women as the equal of men. In fact, in his Republic, Plato has Socrates tell his audience that the person who rises to the pinnacle of his political state, whom he refers to as the “philosopher king,” might well be a woman! In his words:
“And the women too, Glaucon, said I, for you must not suppose my words apply to men more than to women who arise among them endowed with the requisite qualities.
“That is right, he said, if they are to share equally in all things with men as we laid down.”
So, what are we to make of this? It would appear that no matter how bright and well trained the intellect of a man or woman who sets pen to paper we, as thoughtful readers, ought to scrutinize what they say carefully and not be taken in by the seeming authority they muster as “great minds” (or especially as journalists or pseudo-journalists). Nothing a person say is true simply because it is written down — or shouted in a loud voice on the television. It is true, or false, because it stands up, or fails to stand up, to criticism and evidence.
Schopenhauer was a brilliant man. But he was blind when it came to women. Plato saw more deeply, but what he said was largely ignored — not only by Schopenhauer who held him and Immanuel Kant above all other thinkers, but also by Plato’s pupil Aristotle who never said a word about the equality of the sexes, but who fell back into his cultural trap and perpetuated the fiction that women are inferior to men. A fiction that many still mistake for the truth.
On the other hand, an equally tempting tendency is to reject out of hand everything a writer or speaker says simply because we know they have said something silly or downright false at some point. Even the great writers and speakers have their blind spots. The rule is, simply: Be careful what you read and listen to and the conclusions you draw from those words. We all make mistakes!
Hugh, excellent points. Context is everything. Perhaps he did not view women working their fannies off in piecemeal jobs or behind the scenes to help make ends meet for their families. If he had written this during the industrial revolution, he could not have avoided seeing women toiling quite hard and long for little income.
To your point, one of my greatest disappointments was learning John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and Muir Woods was a racist. I also recently learned Charles Lindbergh was sympathetic to some of the Nazi teachings and keeping America isolated from the war. John Glenn tells the story of flying with Lindbergh in the Pacific as he tried to make amends for his earlier comments. This came up in an interview before Glenn’s death.
Thanks for sharing this, Keith
Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century was a Nazi sympathizer! We need to keep reminding ourselves that, like us, those folks have feet of clay!
I almost suffered apoplexy as I read the excerpt about women, but fortunately I didn’t and was able to read the rest, which was well worth the read. You are right … sometimes we tend to judge based on a single facet, when the person and their philosophies are multi-faceted. I think, though, that it is human nature … referring to Keith’s example of Lindbergh … when I read his biography a year or two ago, I remember thinking that my high opinion of him, though not shattered, was somewhat diminished. Good post, Hugh … Thank you!
I thought you might have a problem with that passage. Sorry!
You know me well! 🙂 No apology needed … it made the point of your post quite neatly!
“on the OTHER hand”…you’r and ASS