So I wandered in Brattle Bookshop a few weeks ago, one of the oldest antiquarian book stores in America (and a few blocks from my work), and picked up three or four books. This book caught my eye because of the title and age. I hate to admit that despite my History and English degrees, I’m useless on philosophy and although the name “Arthur Schopenhauer” sounded familiar I couldn’t place it.
Well, Arthur Schopenhauer is one of the great philosophers of “modern” times, an influence on Nietzsche and many other thinkers. He died in 1860, so this little book published in 1931 was a little beyond the time of his prime. Which made me think, why was this published at all? But I get a head of myself.
Now of course I am no expert on Schopenhauer and this overall theories and philosophies but scholars have argued that “On Women” (its in the public domain now, read away) his forty-page essay that starts with “One need only look at a woman’s shape to discover that she is not intended for either too much mental or too much physical work” doesn’t really fit with the rest of his work, so it isn’t really covered by most serious scholars of his philosophy. Thomas Grinwood, a Schopenhauer scholar wrote that there are “seemingly limitless range of approaches to the “problem of woman”in Nietzsche’s writing, it is somewhat surprising that his oft-cited philosophical mentor, Arthur Schopenhauer, has largely escaped the same scrupulous attention.
That does seem strange. Let’s just ignore a supposedly brilliant man’s blatant misogyny because it does not fit in with what we do want to talk about. In fact, if you just do a simple Google search most of the times this essay comes up is not in any scholarly sense but on the websites of MRAs and anti-feminists. Perhaps the scholarly world sees it as too ridiculous to bother with but I think we must since it being cited on places like the MRA subreddit The Red Pill as proof of women’s failings. People see that this is written by a smart, globally praised historical figure and finding nothing to dispute this part of his writings latch on to it to enforce their own prejudices.
How ridiculous are the claims in this book? This essay was written over a hundred years ago, no one was particularly kind to women at the time but for a highly-esteemed philosopher some of Schopenhauer’s claims seem pretty idiotic. I guess we can never know how much environment stifles really great minds.
Schopenhauer’s main argument seems to be that the Romantic view of women is folly. Schopenhauer was very against the Romantic movement in all areas so some apologists see this essay as just another variation on that theme and not pointedly misogynistic. But IMHO, the text speaks for itself. The very first page sets out the premise that women are not equipped for any physical labor. Their only duty is to be a mother. (Kind of ironic, since becoming a mother is literally labor). He places his proof that they are not equipped for labor by their physical appearance alone. Did 18th/19th century Germany have no skinny males or hefty females?
“Women are directly adapted to act as the nurses and educators of our early childhood, for the simple reason that they themselves are childish, foolish, and short-sighted” If this were true, how is that they managed to raise male children that supposedly surpassed them? Yes, male tutors taught young boys the scholastic fundamentals but why would you place your trust in a child to raise a child? Obviously they didn’t really believe that fully. Schopenhauer’s own mother, Johanna ran a successful salon, but he seems to forget that since he was at odds with his mother over his father’s death by suicide.
His personal experience with his mother and other women may have tainted his views. He once proposed in middle age to a 17 year old who turned him down. Schopenhauer calls all women liars, whether they do so consciously or not, and says that is why they cannot testify in court. “Women exist solely for the propogations of the species and are not destined for anything else.” Yet somehow, since this is all they have to worry about, he believes they go through life with “levity”. Nevermind the dangers of childbirth at the time.
But yet, the next page or so he seems to change his mind and say that men on the whole are much more satisfied with life because they are much more disinterested in competing with other men. Since Schopenhauer has left women only one purpose, he seems them constantly in competition with each other causing them to hate every other member of their sex, whereas men only compete with those that are in the same line of business as themselves.
Yet if this is truth, then it’s men like Schopenhauer that are causing this dissatisfaction and competition because they have barred all other professions from women. Four pages later he proclaims that women should not be let into the theater. Why? Because ” the most eminent of the whole sex have never accomplished anything in the fine arts that is really great, genuine, and original, or given to the world any kind of work of permanent value”. Well that’s kind of hard to do if you haven’t been let in the door….
Another interesting point is that Nature who made man and woman the way that they are, is consistently referred to as a female. It is a macrocosm of humanity really. Nature seems to have created men to be higher than herself, just a woman give birth to men. If Nature has the capacity to endow men with all this greatness as Schopenhauer says, shouldn’t it follow that she posses it herself as a female? If it is only so because she is a deity, then why are the deity of all powerful men, female? Schopenhauer says that the romanticized ideal of women who should be worshiped is folly because he believes they are not equal to men so certainly cannot be put on a pedestal yet his romantic ideas of Nature are feminine.
Schopenhauer had interesting ideas on polygamy for his time period. He believed it was a good thing. But only because “every man needs many women”. Even though that would create more children and women cannot love their children, they do not have enough reason and logic to do so. They can only care for them by instinct and once the child is grown it is only the father than can really love them. So that’s a lot of work for one guy.
The last line of essay sums up Schopenhauer’s outdated views, ” That woman is by nature intended to obey is shown by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of absolute independence at once attaches herself to some kind of man, by whom she is controlled and governed; this is because she requires a master. If she, is young, the man is a lover; if she is old, a priest.”
Yet despite being outdated, just as Schopenhauer grabs onto “evidence” from a Spanish psychologist that was written 300 years before and claims it is only still known now because it is right, so say the MRAs of Schopenhauer. Being a great man, does not make everything one says great.
In fact, I was wondering why, this essay, so rarely published alone (if at all) was published in New York in 1931. The answer? I don’t know. The publisher, Felshin Publishing Co. does not really turn up any other books except a Prohibition era cocktail recipe book…