The question of the sexes
Many people today want to get rid of the issue of sex differences by saying those differences are unreal or invented, or that men and women are the same except that women are better. How, then, do we respond?
Women find men puzzling, and men say they don’t understand women. So the relation between the sexes is evidently a part of human life in which clear understanding is hard to come by.
Academic expertise isn’t helpful. On human questions it usually tells us only what is obvious, or else what the loudest voices insist must be true because of some theory.
Social stereotypes are more useful. Sex differences have been around for a very long time, and people deal with them from cradle to grave, so views that have become broadly accepted on something so basic without anyone specially trying to promote them are probably more reliable than most.
But people today don’t like traditional wisdom. They’re transfixed by the image of a rationalized society that bears the same relation to traditional society that agribusiness bears to peasant farming. Such a society needs interchangeable human resources, so it can’t tolerate anything as opaque and unmanageable as sex differences.
For that and other reasons a lot of people want to get rid of the issue by saying the differences between the sexes are unreal or invented, or that men and women are the same except that women are better.
So what to do? Life must go on, sex is part of life, and we need to discuss the world in which we live so we can act in ways that make sense. All we can do is forge onward and do our best.
Tact, insight, and a light touch are needed, but also boldness. We need to speak in a vivid way without claiming to explain everything. That should give proverbs and aphorisms, the usual repositories of traditional wisdom and striking insights, an advantage.
But today everything’s an issue, and people get crabby if you doubt their social dogma. So to present an independent view we need a whole system of answers. In other words, we’re stuck with theories.
But which theories? Most can tell us something, so the more the merrier, but we might as well start with Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks were clear-sighted and unsentimental, and a view from afar is always helpful, so it’s likely there’s something useful there.
Plato was a rationalist who designed an ideal republic. That makes him seem modern in some basic ways, although the goals of his republic—stability, human excellence, the common good—were quite different from the modern liberal ideal.
He thought his idealized institutions should run everything. For that reason his republic has no place for natural institutions and distinctions like family and sex. Formal institutions are everything, and since women have the same kinds of abilities as men they should have the same occupations. They might be less likely to excel at the studies he prescribed for his future rulers—mathematics, metaphysics, the physical training useful in war—but some would excel, and where they are placed should depend on their talents.
Aristotle, in contrast, was a biologist who learned by observing living systems and how they work. Instead of inventing an ideal constitution he studied politics by collecting and analyzing scores of actual constitutions. That approach gave him far greater respect for how people actually did things, and thus for distinctions and arrangements that appear universal.
As to the sexes, he agreed with Plato that women had the same kinds of abilities as men. But he noted that they differed in other respects, and the differences had social consequences. He puts one aspect of the matter, men’s domination of public affairs, this way: “The slave [that is, someone who today would be found incompetent to manage his own affairs] is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority.”
So it’s not ability but other qualities that for Aristotle define the relations between the sexes. If you look at his biology, it seems that he would trace this “lack of authority” to lesser steadiness and spiritedness—along, no doubt, with lesser physical forcefulness. Females of all species, he says, are “more soft” and “less violent in their passions,” while males are “more straightforward” and “more passionate and fierce.” Human females in particular, he says, are more compassionate, credulous, subject to depression, given to tears, likely to shade the truth, and likely to complain and get caught up in personal disputes. None of these qualities, except for a moderate degree of compassion, goes well with leadership or authority.
What do we do with any of this? There seems to be a lot of agreement on the facts, between Plato and Aristotle and even between them and most people today. Men and women do have the same kinds of abilities, but the top performers in any field (as Plato noted) are more often men. That’s true even in predominantly feminine areas of interest like fashion. In Plato’s favored pursuits of mathematics, metaphysics, and physical training, male dominance at the top levels is lopsided.
As to Aristotle’s comment on “lack of authority,” it’s substantively the same as feminist complaints that men don’t take women seriously, women’s voices get ignored in meetings, people (even women) prefer male bosses, it’s the macho guys who get themselves put in charge, and so on.
On qualities that might lead to that situation, it seems most people would agree with Aristotle that women are usually more compassionate, less physically forceful, and more likely to cry and feel depressed. We are told they are more often victimized, so they may, as he says, be more credulous—or more trusting, if that sounds better. People will no doubt disagree on whether they are less straightforward or more likely to get involved in personal disputes than men.
For the most part, then, it seems that the qualities Plato and Aristotle comment on are typical human tendencies. The question is what to do about them. Plato and modern liberals say, “Even if there are differences in average tendency [today’s liberals mostly deny that] individual differences are more important. Here’s a new way of doing things that will get rid of these unjust and irrational distinctions.”
Aristotle would rather say politics is an art, and if you force theory on it you can’t expect success. You work with what you have, and find out what you can do with it by looking at what’s been done and what’s worked. In particular, yanking large pieces out of the body politic is going to have bad effects. For example, traditional family life depends on something like traditional sex roles, and it fosters important goods, like dependable love for children, that have no evident footing in the markets, expert bureaucracies, and optional non-binding relationships today’s liberals prefer to rely on.
But times do change. Aristotle says men are more passionate. Today, at least in the West, it doesn’t look that way. Since his time they have evidently been tamed—become “men without chests”—or, if you prefer, become more sensitive. That changes things, and undoubtedly helps explain the triumph of feminism.
But it’s not clear that it makes things better even from women’s standpoint. For example, Aristotle tells us that societies without free citizens treat women as slaves. If people lack habits of mutual respect women will get the worst of it. However, a society of free citizens is impossible if men lack spirit and simply do what they’re told and what’s easiest.
From that perspective it seems that women would do better in a society with widely distributed power than in a liberal technocracy that features comprehensive top-down control for the sake of abstract freedom and equality. Regardless of its stated goals, the latter type of society involves radical subordination of the many to the few, a situation unlikely to work out well, and likely to be especially hard on the sex that (we are told) is more often abused when there are radical power differentials.
On this line of thought, then, the best society for women would be one that features subsidiarity and distinct ideals of masculine and female excellence that lead each sex to rely on the other. Add the Christian conception of love, which accepts social distinctions while relativizing them to a higher unity, and it seems an ideal well worth considering.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
About James Kalb 121 ArticlesJames Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).