Saturday, 17 August 2013

Masculine and feminine

In his famous press conference on the plane coming back from Rio, Pope Francis called for a more profound theology of woman – he even used the word "mystical". For what he might mean, see "Sincere Gift", and also Paul Evdokimov's Woman and the Salvation of the World: A Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Women.

One of the most difficult question that arises in any such discussion is whether there is such a thing as "masculinity" and "femininity". Clearly at a physical level, male and female characteristics are not too difficult to define. There are also clusters of psychological characteristics that we commonly associate with these terms. However, in the latter case it is much harder to reach agreement. This is partly due to the fact that women rightly object to being caricatured, or imprisoned by a definition.

As with all our knowledge of the world, we can only base ourselves on what the senses reveal to us. Within those images we glimpse Forms or "archetypes" (by abstraction, according to St Thomas). These Forms are real, and without them neither our knowledge of things nor the things themselves would exist. Another
way of putting this is that we can "read" the face of nature in the light of the spiritual world, and in this way discover its meaning. As Pope John Paul II used to say, the body makes the invisible visible.

If this is the way we know things in general, it is surely reasonable to read the sexual characteristics of the body and the psyche in the same way – that is, in the light of archetypes. Evdokimov is not afraid to say that the "gifts and charisms of the Spirit determine and are normative for the psychic and the physiological. A woman is not maternal because her body is able to give birth: it is from her maternal spirit that the corresponding physiological and anatomical capabilities are derived" (p. 16).

Of course, materialists would say we are reading archetypes "into" the things we see (in other words, making them up). This is the very point at issue. Our society is so steeped in materialism that the reality of the archetypes is no longer accepted. We are left with the "nominalist" view that things have no essences, but only exist thanks to the names or descriptions we choose to give them. For the modern mentality there are no archetypes, only stereotypes. And that mentality leads to the displacement of truth by power as the ultimate value in our society. Nothing is true, nothing exists, except what we decide (or force others to accept) is true.

For that reason, archetypes are vitally important, if we are to build a society that is not based on will to power. As Evdokimov says, the "archetype alone transcends all the truisms concerning faithful spouses, pious widows, and, more generally, all women who are reduced to the one dimension of 'domesticity.' Such stereotypes present only purely historical point of reference: patriarchy, the reign of the male" (p. 23). The Book of Genesis is dealing in archetypes, and so showing us how to interpret reality. Adam and Eve are the Forms of Man and Woman (whether or not they were also historical figures, at a time when the archetypes themselves were manifested more directly.)

I don't think the way forward is to compile a list of masculine and feminine characteristics. Rather, if we believe in archetypes we will simply be more sensitive to the subtle differences that manifest themselves within individual men and woman. We will be less concerned to force both sexes into a sexless stereotype to accord with our anti-traditional prejudices. To be equal is not to be the same.

As a civilization we have abandoned our belief in the archetypes – not just of man and woman but even of good and evil. We've been trying to chart our course without them. But they haven't gone away, and an archetype spurned can be a dangerous thing. The society that denies differences based on form is a society built on sand – almost literally, if you think of sand as a heap of individual particles. The ideology of individualism, which comes from nominalism, assumes that everyone is basically the same, that each member of the human race a unit that can be packed, labelled, sorted, and organized any way we choose. The bumpy, complex, interesting diversity of real-life men and women – the fact that we fit together better in some ways than others, and that we work better in collaboration than in competition – comes from the archetypes, the forms that create this diversity. Vive la différence!

This is the second part of an article posted on 25 July. For the first part go HERE. For information on the "new feminism" or "third-wave feminism," go HERE.


  1. This is interesting, Strat, but seems to me problematic. I detect two issues. First is the idea that gender archetypes are simply given – which is a possibility, but even so they are still forms of understanding enmeshed in secular power structures (I mean this in the sense that the Church is a secular power). Furthermore, you quote Evdokimov (whose work I don't know) as stating that "gifts and charisms of the Spirit determine and are *normative* for the psychic and the physiological." I don't see how this squares with the *celebration* of difference. Doesn't this cast individual variation from the norm in a negative light? And therefore, the secular power of the Church (and state, depending on their mutual relations) is directed towards monitoring and disciplining abnormalities. So somebody born with a transgender condition is assigned a gender (which, incidentally, is based on an increasingly complicated range of factors). The only difference celebrated is the fundamental m/f distinction. (Susanna Cornwall is interesting on this stuff.)

    The second problem I have is your characterisation of the truth/power nexus in a materialist/nominalist ideology. Certainly, there are those who take the Nietzschean position you set out; but there is another way. Truth is not necessarily displaced by power, because there remains the (small 't') truth that all claims of privileged access to the (capital 'T') Truth are enmeshed in power structures. Therefore a multiplicity of narratives, interpretations and subject-positions can co-exist. The Nietzschean position (the decision is everything) is the logic of the exception (as with Carl Schmitt) – either/or logic. The latter is what Lacan called the logic of the not-all (i.e. a category that can accommodate more, but is not therefore lacking), or both/and logic. (Lacan actually characterises these as masculine and feminine logics, but I don't feel able to go into the significance of that. Also, I know that Alain Badiou has developed this through Cantorian set theory, but I'm not the person to articulate it adequately.)

    I'm aware that the problem with the not-all logic I've set forth is that it can be argued that, in a juridical context, there still must be a 'higher power' which adjudicates over the competing truth-claims of rival ideologies and subject-positions, and therefore it doesn't escape the logic of the decision. But I don't think that this undermines what I'm trying to argue about the problematic nature of secular power enforcing a normative archetype asserted as a transcendental given.

    1. You can't get away from 'norms', even if they are purely statistical. The question is what you do with them, and how you regard people who are 'abnormal' in some way. In the case of an athlete, or an artistic genius, we might celebrate the abnormal. Sexual abnormality has traditionally been treated differently. That is because sexual behaviour involves ethics in a way that athletics does not. But I am concentrating on whether the norm is caused by an archetype or not. (A bit more about this on my education blog.) As for the second question, I moved a bit too quickly from Ockham to Nietzsche, but I still think the position can be argued. Maybe not in this little box!