Helen Keller and Plato’s ‘Women’s Rights Interlude’
I might ‘carbon copy’ (whatever that means) Sarah in this letter to you, but she seems to skimp on her homework, and it might take too long to explain the Prerequisite cognitive linguistics to her in a way what would not make this absolutely exhausting to me. In all honest truth she has not been sharing much in class lately and really come to think of it I haven’t seen that spirit here since 1969.
(Oh, crap, I accidentally started this ‘dear Sarah’, I’m changing it!)
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Scott likes chocolate so much he’s probably gonna die and if I had been born in another time and place I might have ended up marrying Helen Heller. Well, we probably would have agreed that the ‘institution’ was meaningless and we already knew what we were to each other, but it seems to go beyond just having a crush on her words to kind of seeming to be able to feel the pure Form of her being.
I had to take a break from writing already because I could feel her presence so strongly and I almost don’t want to feel her as real. If there is anyone whose energy for me matches the way I love and have crush on Helen Keller’s words and ideas and energy and philosophy and imagination it is Lily. I think Lily could immediately convince me with no argument at all that she was Helen Keller in a different form; Socrates would derive great pleasure in defending against opponents of that one.
Helen’s experience of the magic of a word, water, spelled into her hand! The way she wrote about that experience, one wonders if anyone else has actually read her! The world she was opened up to with the spelling of the word was the world of Form, not the mundane world that so many people think she was deprived of because she could not see and hear, suddenly accessible. The world was suddenly more than just more ‘accessible’ and it was not such an experience of awakening to her just because she might then stand a chance of accomplishing as much as an able bodied girl of reasonable means; it was a sudden and brilliantly beautiful gift of access to the world of Forms. She was, for the first time, unrelinquishingly thirst-quenchingly *alive*, and it is like she had a sudden recognition of chaos coalescing into form.
She lived years experiencing all sorts of sensory input as confusion and she must have had an inner Platonic war going on inside herself: the moment had not yet occurred that made her life take some kind of shape or meaningful structure that was finally harmonious to the unity of her whole being. Annie spelling ‘water’ woke Helen up to magic and learning and a a world of love and wonder. It was like the first delightful spark of awareness in her life of pure Platonic Form and in that water and that moment of connection was every virtue, everything Good, all at once.
The world that had been so chaotic to her, so lonely, almost all at once, took Form: there was suddenly a rhyme to the lack of any reason at all, an experience of being a *social* being for the first time, of connecting but like of suddenly realizing there were others to connect *with*, not that she did not know just as well as every other child in the world ‘knows’ it in some sense of ‘knowing’ that there are others in the world to interact with, but she was deprived, not of a fully Formed sensual world of a child in the sense of it containing, implicitly, the same full access to meaning as other children. The spark for putting it all together had not been lit yet and she threw tantrums and was a really ‘bad’ kid but that sudden spark that always makesbme melt was the experience ofvAnnie spelling water through which she had a sudden spiritual awakening to her own existence, to a recognition that things mean things, that meaning has meaning and the world has some kind of form or order but not some sort of artificial order (of which there are many forms), Form as gloriously sensusl and abstract at once: she also takes FORM in the sense of being EMBODIED and she delights in it.
I mean, her fist experience of MEANING and CONNECTION and of DELIGHTFULLY LEARNING but also of some intuition of Divinity and immortality and Beauty and Justice and Goodness and it really seems all the virtues/forms all at once. Things had form and you can play with them. I feel like she molded her life like Art and embodied the pure Form of Genius.
How do we perceive form through words? Plato uses the word Form to mean that one pure form of goodness or beauty or whatever but also uses the word more ‘loosely’ and poetically and metaphorically in all sorts of ways, maybe even more creatively and in more ways than it is used in English, so when I use the word form or Form you can take it to have the meaning that most resonates for you in light of what is being ‘formed’ in you by the words as you ‘form’ your own philosophy. How does a philosophy or a song or work of art or a culture take ‘form’ and how is it related to what Plato is saying about these pure forms of virtues. There are many forms of bad and many instances of chairs but there is only one Mariah and there is only one Form of good.
Plato talks of the gods as living in the world of pure ideas and Forms all the time while for human being it’s… a lot harder to get there as evidenced by thevtorture of our mythical cave dwellervresisting the freedom of light. All these metaphors from vision, and of sound, inundate our verbal language, and our very ways of conceptualizing and thinking about things are based in language of the senses, but Helen Keller understood Plato and philosophy better than anyone alive with the possible exceptions of Barack Obama, Billie Eilish, and you. Both can be true. If we re-imagined philosophy around Helen Keller, President Obama would not have to deal with so many footnotes, Mariah…
I just went and spend a loooong time editing a previous part of this lecture so forgive me if I am not quite the same person I was when you were so into reading the last few bits and hoped the next ones might be penned by the very same author. Sorry to disappoint you. So I guess now I will finish up around Plato studies because I have been in the bathtub so long I didn’t notice the bathtub getting cold.
I wm not going to look over the chapter on women’s rights again but we can keep in mind that Plato’s Forms, those pure conceptions of things like, Good, it is one thing and it is so easy to discern it when we see it here or there but it is all one Good so Socrates asks, ‘what is’ Good, what is Justice? Conversations happen, dialogues, dialectic. Something ‘is’ or else we would not be agreeing to have a conversation about what is good and bad ir Good and Bad and whatever else you want to do with the letters. Would you have a philosophical conversation about me about the nature of bad, Mariah? Of course you would try to run away from such a pursuit because when we see ‘bad’ arise in different parts of our experience they are different kinds of bad, it would be absurd to call them all one quintessential Badness, you know. But when we see Good here or there, we recognize them as general instances of the same archetype, like we never have intuitions of Badness, right?
The rather short ‘Womens’ Rights’ Interlude’ in the Republic as I might call it, keeping in mind that either Plato or Socrates is a satirist and humourist, and we have not yet figured out whether it was one or the other: or both! I read it last night and I am just speaking from the form it takes in my memory now. Considering that, I am going to eat something and get out of the bathtub.
(Full disclosure: I am reading and editing this letter now and yes I did consult the chapter in writing later parts of this piece.)
I am out of the bathtub now. In case anyone is following along in Plato’s Republic, let me skip ahead a little bit to his discourse on women’s rights or really as I might call it Merry Interlude on Women’s Rights because it is one of the shortest chapters in the Republic. It feels light to me, actually, like a sort of comedic interlude, and this chapter is actually the first time that I realize that Socrates kind of sounds just like Willy Wonka!
The way I see it, Socrates is waaay too *exhausted* to address the assumption that women in general are ‘weaker’ than men in various categories, so he ‘runs away from’ the question. I imagine him comically actually running away from the question, like can you imagine Socrates literally running away from a question? It is kind of funny to imagine. In this chapter Adeimantus chimes in that he thinks Socrates is cheating him out of an explanation of his previous statement that ‘friends have all things in common’. Socrates, he charges, says that everyone must *of course* see hiw this statement applies to women and children but it is not obvious to him at all; maybe he takes issue with that because he foesn’t know what Socrates is actually saying at all so Socrates decides to have a little fun at his expense.
It sounds to me like a version of Tolkien’s Speak Friend and Enter. What could Socrates, knowing Socrates, mean by a statement like this? At the very end of the chapter he says: “There will never be a finer saying than the one which declares that whatever does good should be held in honour, and the only shame is in doing harm.” To me ‘friends have all friends in common’ might mean to Socrates: there is only one Good, True, and Beautiful that we all participate in; we all have the capacity to intuit the Forms or we would not be able to communicate as friends, would not be able to trust each other to do what is good rather than harmful for each other, becausecwhen we spoke of Trust we wouldn’t know we were on the same wavelength, speaking of one Form that we can both recognize.
Apparently Socrates was expected to defend that ‘friends have all things in common’ applies to women and children because OMG right, Socrates says this is obvious and fact that this is obvious to Socrates requires an explanation, he charges.
You can already see Scott rolling his eyes a bit. I believe the chapter after this ine is largely a continuation of the same joke: Socrates teases that he was considering literally running away and hiding from a potential objection. There he talks about how among the rulers, who he has said can naturally be either men or women (duh), husbands will have wives and children ‘in common.’ Meaning none if that one husband to one wife business, but if you think about it… if you were to take literally the idea of the husbands among the rulers having all the women and children in common… would that mean the women and children would have the husbands in common, too, that marriage would perhaps mo longer be an economic arrangement, and why would it be necessary to speak of husbands and wives at all?
What could it mean for them all to have each other in common because surely not every man wants every woman for a wife and vice versa, but if they had them all in common, what would that mean? I don’t know if anyobe else thinks this but I’m pretty sure the whole literal idea of having wives and children in common is a joke and a spin off of Adeimantus’ reinterpretation of a statement he really did not mean at all like Adeimantus was taking it: friends have all things in common was meant as a maxim like the one he says is his favourite: “There will never be a finer saying than the one which declares that whatever does good should be held in honour, and the only shame is in doing harm.” I think this is kind of the implicit reason Socrates ends the women’s rights chaptercwith a maxim: he was trying to tell him, dude, it was just a maxim! Adeimantus takes him literally, and he demands to hear Socrates say something about his whole plan of having wives and children held in common.
So I think what happens is… Socrates makes one up! He sounds just like Willy Wonka to me when he says, “you don’t know what you are doing inholding me up like this.” In such a society how will the children be brought up in their younger years and Socrates is like, addressing your objections may not be as easy as you think, Adeimantus. “These arrangements are even more open to doubt than any we have so far discussed,” he says, and has some hesitation touching on what may seem to be an idle dream.” LOL Socrates.
Then he turns Adeimantus’ original gripe around completely. Adeimantus was annoyed that Socrates includes women and children in his saying about friends having all things in common and Socrates pretty much acts like the world will end if he addresses it but then he is finally like oh all right, Adeimantus, “after all, it may be suitable that the women should have their turn on the stage when the men have quite finished their performance, especially since you are so insistent!”
He goes in to address under what conditions the rulers in this society will ‘possess’ women and children and how they will be treated (but to me everyone having all good things in common would mean no one possessing anyone at all, what do you think, Mariah)?
Socrates says that in a pack of dogs, to go back to an earlier analogy of the warrior Guardians now called auxiliaries, the females hunt with the males and take part in all they do (I might argue they *have all things in common*) and how can you employ one creature for the same work as another, he says, if you do not give them the same upbringing and education in body, mind, and the art of war?
“Possibly, if these proposals were carried out, they might be ridiculed as involving a good many breaches of custom,” Socrates says, as though this were the first time that objection might be raised! The most ridiculous being the notion of women exercising naked right beside men in wrestling schools! After all, it was not long ago that Greeks thought it “ridiculous and shameful” for men to be seen naked like it was in other nations; but Plato says, not long ago, the humourists had a go at them, “but when experience had shown that nakedness was better unmuffled than covered up, the practice ceased to look so strange to the eye of reason. “This shows how idle it is to think anything ludicrous except what is base.”
So back to the question of work: is the ‘feminine nature’ *capable* of participating with men in none of, some of, or all of the occupations, and of course, under which of these headings would military service fall? Here Socrates here is imagining what objections an opponent might raise to him and Glaucon. Suppose there is a great natural difference between men and women: would not that imply a natural difference in the work to be given to each? Socrates says to that objection simply: yes. But then you are surely contradicting yourself to suggest men annd can do the should do the same things! “What do you say to that, my ingenius friend?” Socrates here is putting words in tbhe mouth of his imaginary intellectual adversary.
Glaucon does not know how to respond to that and Socrates is like, see, this is why didn’t wanna go there but we have gone there and whether one “tumbles into a swimming pool or an ocean, [he] has to swim all the same.” The question they have to find their way out of is why, if we do assume the feminine nature to be different, even in certain respects ‘weaker’, than the masculine nature, but we are saying they are to share the same education and upbringing including training for war.
Here is where Plato seems to back off from his insistence on a regimented society where different natures perform different occupations according to what they are best suited for and Socrates says here we have been “strenuously insisting on the letter of [that] principle like we were scoring points in a debate, but really, we didn’t clarify what kind of ‘sameness’ or ‘difference’ we meant’, and we didn’t clarify “in what respect these natures and professions were to be defined as different or the same.” He says we might as well be suggesting there is some opposition in nature between bald and long-haired men! If some ‘opposition of nature’ *were* discovered between bald and long-haired men, even *then*, would. it make any sense to ban bald men from practicing shoemaking if long-haired men were already practicing it, or to ban long-haired men from some profession, because bald men were already practicing it? What would be the point of imposing such a ban even if a fundamental opposition in nature between men and women were to be admitted?
If we find that one sex or another is specially suited to any particular ‘form’ of occupation, then we should assign that occupation to one sex or the other. If, though, the difference is simply that men ‘beget’ and women ‘bring forth’, we have found no relevant difference related to anything that concerns us here!
Now, Socrates asks, can we think of an occupation “for the purposes of which” women’s nature is different than man’s? They agree it might be hard to cone up with one on the ‘spur’ of the moment. So Socrates says, okay, let us ask our imaginary opponent a question: when you say a man has a natural talent for something, don’t we mean he learns easily and is good at learning on his own after a little instruction, and his body powers are in service to, not a hindrance, to his mind? Can you, Glaucon, think of any occupation in which the male is not superior to the female in all of these respects? “Need I waste time over exceptions like weaving and watching over saucepans and batches of cake, though women are supposed to be good at such things and get laughed at when a man does it better?”
Glaucon says what Socrates says is true and “in almost everything ine sex is easily beaten by the other. No doubt many women are better at many things than many men; but taking the sexescas a whole, it is as you say.” On the surface this might seem to be a defeat of women’s rights but if Plato is not doatic certainly he is not dogmatic about this and Socrates is making a point: even if we admit that for all purposes women as a general category are weaker, should it be shown that long-haired men were generally ‘weaker’ than short-haired men at cobblery, is that any reason to make laws that prohibit short-haired men from practicing the profession?! Likewise, even if women in general *were* weaker* in every respect, natural gifts are to found in both sexes, and there is no reason to bar any individual feom reaching their full pitential mo matter what we believe about the general category of ‘long-haired men’ or ‘women’.
We all have different natural gifts regardless of our sex or the length of our hair and is it not best that all should be given the opportunity to cultivate their natural gifts? Even if there wereca natural tendency toward ‘weskness’ it would be absurd to legislate on that and so bar gifted people from fulfilling their natural function in society just because they fall into a certain arbitrary category like being women or having ling hair. And so we come to the conclusion: since men and women are to have tge same training of body and mind, the wives of the Guardians must strip for exercise!
(Whether it is the translation I am reading or Plato himself, and whether or not it is intentional on Plato’s part, I don’t know, but Plato seems to kind of confuse ‘wives’ of the guardians with ‘female guardians’ here (at the very end if the chapter) since the ‘wives of the guardians’ and the ‘female guardians’ are not equated as far as I know; but what does any of this mean in a wofld where “frirnds have sll things in common” and that applies to women and children, too?
So we come back to the the essential idea that of course women must exercise naked; his favourite maxim, or the one he says is his favourite in this instance, that ‘whatever’ (and whoever does good shall be held in honour and the only shame in doing harm. He applied this statement men who laugh at women for exercising naked: “he does not know what he is laughing at or what he is doing and is like one who “gathers unripe fruit.”
As Socrates said earlier in the chapter, it is “idle to think anything ludicrous except what is base. One who trues to raiseca laugh at any soectacle save that of baseness and folly will also, in his serious moments, set before [himself] some other standard than goodness of what deserves to be held in honour.”
And that is Plato and Socrates around 400 BC on the rights of women. I never know what time it is, anymore, Mariah, or even if it is even daytime or nighttime, because I’m always writing to you!
I’ll be back when the day is new and I’ll have Forms and Ideas for you. We might have things we’ll want to think about and I love you.