Friday, June 10, 2011
Pinning Down a Definition

Before the defense started, I had been an absolute nervous wreck. The whole idea of my pitiful attempt to write a work of disciplined truth after years of being humbled by giants of thought seemed absolutely absurd and presumptuous, and I was reckoning on being showed as much in a painful manner as I was to defend my thesis before three of the college's doctors.

However, my self-consciousness and butterflies shrivelled up within moments after the defense commenced. The affair became as my advisor had said it would be: a conversation with three other people, and what's more, a conversation about a topic that had interested me very much. I was having a lot of fun before I knew it, when of the doctors nailed me with this question: 'So you argue that the practice of heroism is different for men and women. Is there then such a thing as masculine virtue and feminine virtue?'

I think all four of us smiled (as well as my one fellow student attending) at a question that was by now very sentimental. The Great Books program fittingly begins with Plato, and the first thing Thomas Aquinas College students read for philosophy was his dialogue, Meno. The person of Meno, serving as the omnipresent Lestrade/Watson to the Holmesian Socrates, stated that virtue was not only different for the two genders, but also the various walks of life in society:

Meno: There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man - he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies... A woman's to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates. (Plato, Meno, 71e, translated by Benjamin Jowett)

And so, along with the questions: 'What is a sign?' 'Is the wrath of Achilles justified?' et al., the idea of virtue being different for men and women is one of the first ideas TAC's pupils struggle with as freshmen, while the tutors preside reservedly over the debate. However, Socrates's opinion on the subject is unequivocal:

Meno: I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the question as I could wish.

Socrates: When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue, or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman?

Meno: I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman.....

....Socrates: Were you not saying that the virtue of a man was to order a state, and the virtue of a woman was to order a house?

Meno: I did say so.

Socrates: And can either house or state or anything be well ordered without temperance and without justice?....Then they who order a state or a house temperately or justly order them with temperance and justice?...Then both men and women, if they are to be good men and women, must have the same virtues of temperance and justice?.....
..... (ibid., 71e-73b)

Socrates then defines virtue/virtues differently from Meno, and he more explicity names the forms in the dialogue, Protagoras, giving us what we in the Western School call the cardinal virtues: justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. Since men and women both are virtuous in so far as they participate in these forms, there would be appear to be no such thing as masculine and feminine virtues, just as there is no difference between masculine and feminine health.

Yet, one is not 'wise, brave, sober, and just' by virtue of a single act, much less an abstract one, though it may correspond to the four pillars. A drunk who makes it home in a state of sobriety for but one night of the week is not temperant. Virtue, as Aristotle showed, must be a habit, and habits vary widely due to empirical realities. Type the term 'woman's health' into an internet search engine, and you will not receive the response, 'Silly fool! Health is the same for men and women!' Rather the results will literally number millions. While health, in the sense of 'the state of being free from illness or injury' (O.E.D.), is obviously the same for men and women, what defines that state positively--rather than negatively--may indeed vary.

Blood-pressure levels, susceptibility to alchohol (regardless of weight and size), immune system strength, nutritional needs, vulnerabilitiy to cancer and sexually-transmitted diseases all vary according to gender. Not only are different health habits necessary to maintain an ideal state, but the actual ratios determining the quality of health is different. Nature may be styled feminine, but she does not hear woman's roar.

My reply to the three tutors was far more meandering and fuzzy than the one I shall present, but in all honesty, I do not remember what I said five years ago: 'I think that there are two defininitions of virtue, the first being the form that we seek, and the second being the qualities in us that are disciplined to obtain it. For example, chastity is praised in both men and women by civlized societies. For men, the habit of this virtue indicates high-mindedness and self-mastery. For women, it indicates a constancy of the heart and a sense of modesty and self-worth.'

The Duty of Men

'Is it a requirement that men teach these habits to men and women teach them to women?' the same tutor asked.

I opened my mouth to agree, but closed it again (at least I hope I didn't leave it parted while I was thinking). I couldn't help but think of how modesty does not come to most girls naturally. A girl's first prerogative is to dress like her peers and in a way that makes her appear most beautiful and appealing. This is her instinct. While there is also a self-conscious instinct to veil her feminine shape
as she buds into a woman, her inability to read the minds of males and the desire for masculine attention will erode this earlier bashfulness in time.

Even mothers naturally want their daughters to look pretty and to be successful in society. Only the wisest or the most pious, or saddest of all, the most experienced of women give serious thought to how males will react to their daughters' garb. Obviously, t
he women who envy their daughters' beauty and thus try to conceal it do not serve as examples of loving mothers who are trying to protect their children. The desire to cultivate true modesty comes from selfless virtue not selfish vice. However, two of the good qualities that make the mother fit to be a judge of appropriate clothing--barring ageless piety--are inaccessible to the young daughter.

It usually results that the father's word carries the most weight with his daughter about what she should wear, and his judgement is clearer and more focused than the mother's. He cares only for his child's dignity and safety, and provided that he holds the proper place as head of his home, he is the best teacher for his girl.

I said as much in my own clumsy way to the tutors at the defense. And I received this reply: 'So is modesty a masculine virtue then?' I felt like a Meno or one of the many Platonic strawmen at that moment, for I had not seen that bolt coming at all. Physical modesty seemed something so obviously belonging to the feminine (after all, when men wear revealing clothing, it repulses the onlooker). Yet, could it even exist if it did not concern men?

In the novel and film, Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim and Mike Newell respectively, there is a memorable scene at one of the exclusively female suppers:

Mrs. Fisher: That's a beautiful dress...
Caroline: No I've had it a hundred years.
Mrs. Fisher: ...but you must be very cold in it. Its easy to catch a chill here after dark. You look as if you had nothing on underneath.
Caroline: I haven't.

The matronly Mrs. Fisher is predictably horrified, while a third woman, Lottie observes that the fact can hardly be inappropriate as no men were about.

Perhaps those reading this post are rolling their eyes at this apparent conclusion, but in an age where many of us ladies resent or even bristle at the intrusion of male voices on feminine issues, it is important to note that modesty is a habit that cannot exclude male opinion. Men throughout the ages have been overly harsh, true, but it is often only because they credit women with telepathy. To a certain extent, we do have such an intuition and are aware of the reaction we engender in the opposite gender. Many women enjoy turning heads, but while they think they are provoking admiration or a light, flattering attraction, they may be arousing something much more ugly and even dangerous.

Therefore, when I come to the more practical application of modesty, I will not always be able to proceed rationally, as modesty is subjective to the reaction of men. Before someone thus objects: 'Wait, wait, wait! Some men will think dirty thoughts no matter what. Do we have to wear burkas?' don't be so hasty! As with all things, we must find the Golden Mean, and this will entail only considering the opinions of well-balanced, well-meaning people (e.g., not the tyrannical father or the prudish cleric), and one's own common sense and logic will definitely play a part.

However, a certain element of a woman's trust in a man's word is necessary for dressing with dignity. I once saw
a skirt in a catalog I liked with a hemline stopping properly below the knee. At the bottom, there was a lovely pattern formed by holes cut out of the fabric in a lacy pattern. My mother said the skirt however was immodest, not because of actual exposure, but because of its 'peekaboo' appeal.

One of my sisters refused to accept the theory as having any weight in reality, so an argument ensued. It ended with 'wait until your father comes home,' and all agreed that his say would be the final verdict. He soon came in with bleach in one hand and laundry detergent in the other. Without giving him any background concerning the argument, my mother showed him the picture and asked him what he thought of the garment. 'Slut,' he said laconically and went back to the car to get the rest of the groceries.

What can be said? Sometimes experienced people are actually knowledgable, and men occasionally even know their own gender!


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Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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