MIA: Library: Mary Beard, Woman as a Force in History, 1946
Woman as a Force in History. Mary Beard 1946
Woman As Force in Long History
THOUGH THE modern age and the middle ages of Western history are but brief periods in universal history, the temptation to generalize about the whole of human time and universal history merely on the basis of that limited experience of human beings is almost irresistible. Publicists, popularizers, egoists confident of their knowledge, propagandists, patriots, revolutionists, feminists, antifeminists, explosivists of all kinds are wont to declare that “all history proves” this or, that generalization about men and women or about man or woman.
“Universal history,” asserted Thomas Carlyle, “is the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here.” If this be the truth of the matter, then, as the sage of Chelsea might remark, women are shot into the lumber room of the past.
“The history of the world,” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel avowed, “is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature [the progressive revelation of the spirit of God] it is our business to investigate.” If so, then both men and women are pawns in the hands of God who planned it all and is all; and women go into the determinism which governs both women and men.
“The history of all hitherto existing society (alle die bisherige Geschichte),” Karl Marx proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, “is the history of class struggles.” In that case, class fights make all history; they have determined life and its events; man and woman, men and women, have been, or were up to 1848, in essence or substance victims of their stomachs’ mandates, of the passion for material possessions and power, of greed and hatred, of oppression, revolt, oppression, revolt, ad infinitum. Mind has been only a reflection of economic interest. Since the rise of capitalism, capitalism has been the great oppressor. The revolt is to be the uprising of the proletariat. Agriculture and the political power of great landed families have made no history. But history can come to an end – that is, to an end of class fights – as a “spring into freedom” under the final dictatorship of the “working class.”
In justice to the “great men” whose asseverations have just been quoted, it should be added that all of them did not in fact confine their thought of history wholly to these dogmatic statements. Elsewhere in his writings Carlyle, for instance, maintained: “You will find fibrous roots of this day’s occurrences among the dust of Cadmus and Trismegistus; of Tubalcain and Triptolemus; the tap-roots of them are with Father Adam himself and the cinders of Eve’s first fire.” On another occasion in another mood he had another idea: “The time is approaching when History will be attempted on quite other principles; when the Court, the Senate, and the Battlefield, receding more and more into the background, the Temple, the Workshop, and the Social Hearth will advance more and more into the foreground.” Yet the dictum of history as the work of a few masculine human beings had gone forth to the comers of the earth and there given vitality to a doctrine of history as all man-made in a “ man’s world.”
Another view of long history interprets it as a movement of energy in ever-recurring cycles from barbarism through various stages to civilization and back again, with men and women carried irresistibly with the current. Although a limited theory of cycles was entertained among the ancients, it was an Italian scholar of the eighteenth century, Giambattista Vico, who gave it the modern verve. It was revitalized by an American, Brooks Adams, at the end of the nineteenth century, and again several years later by a German, Oswald Spengler. By Vico, all human beings are treated as abstractions; for Adams, women are persons, sharing with men the making of history both in the age of warriors and in the age of decay and degeneration – degeneration conceived as “effeminacy,” or the loss of martial vigor. According to Spengler, woman is history, but man makes history.
A more optimistic and popular theory of history represents it as moving upward in a spiral, with progress rising higher and higher, while carrying a load of barbarism.
Another conception of history makes the everyday life of mankind unhistorical: “Happy are the people who have no history.” Only the unique, the striking, the great crises in human affairs are deemed worthy of notice: such as the rise and fall of empires, the upthrusts of powerful religions – Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism, the revolutions that have shaken societies to their foundations, from the collapse of the Roman Empire, through the American and French revolutions, to the rise of Bolshevism and Fascism in our day.
Less speculative, less controversial, disclaiming philosophy, is the type of historical research and writing generally followed by scholars of the academic profession; it is usually concentrated on some particular aspect or phase of history: political, military, economic, religious, artistic, scientific, or intellectual.
To pass over minor theories of historical construction and deal with another large generalization, history has been conceived – and with high justification in the records – as the human struggle for civilization against barbarism in different ages and places, from the beginning of human societies. To Condorcet and Guizot ‘ in France, the systematic formulation of this interpretation must be ascribed.
This history of civilization so defined may be divided into two aspects, according to the scheme of Guizot: the external or outward aspects of civilization – visible expressions in institutions, habits, things, and agencies; and the interior – the intellectual and moral qualities of human beings which make for civilization, preserve its gains, and advance it. While it is generally agreed that the visible expressions and agencies are necessary instruments, civilization seems to depend far more fundamentally upon the moral and intellectual qualities of human beings – upon the spirit that animates mankind.
Trained scholars disciplined in the quest for truth contend that only such generalizations as historic documents warrant are permissible. But, being men as a rule, they tend to confine their search for the truth to their own sex in history. This is in accord no doubt with the caution of their professional training. Yet the caution which eliminates the quest for truth about women in long and universal history may in fact limit the ideas of such scholars about long and universal history or any of its features, as they fasten their minds on males in history. While exaggerating the force of men in the making of history, they miss the force of women which entered into the making of history and gave it important directions.
Certainly the original sources, which scholars use for the study of men in long and universal history, often mention and even recount stories or give elaborate data of many kinds about women. For example, Herodotus, whom historians of the modern age have called “the father of history,” deliberately included women in his history. Tacitus, the Roman, also observed and commented on the women of his time. Indeed ancient writers in various societies often thought it necessary to consider women and among their works are to be found statements respecting women’s force of character, learning, physical energy, military and political power, and creative intelligence – statements made by the contemporaries of such women.
Up to this point the evidence marshaled in preceding chapters from authoritative sources has certainly indicated that, from modern times running back into and through the mediaeval ages of Western feudalism and Christian contests with barbarism, the force of woman was a powerful factor in all the infamies, tyrannies, liberties, activities, and aspirations that constituted the history of this stage of humanity’s self-expression. This is true, whatever plan of historical research may be devised for the study of these ages, whatever descriptions of modern or mediaeval life may be composed, whatever popular writers may declare about human beings in this span of time and this sector of the human habitat.
But as the human experiences of the modern age were linked to those of the mediaeval period, so the human experiences of that period were connected with those of previous history. In a few dramatic words, Pollock and Maitland tell us that “the oldest utterance of English law has Greek words in it... . If we would search out the origins of Roman law, we must study Babylon: this at least was the opinion of the greatest Romanist of our own day [Ihering].” Unquestionably there has been a high degree of continuity in history. There have also been cataclysm, change, reversion, change. But what change?
When an effort is made to answer this question by a serious study of historical documents, woman is discovered as a force so constant and general that forty volumes, if any number, would hardly suffice to give the record which sustains this generalization about women – the record found in excavated artifacts of a preliterate age, in folklore, in myths, in religious literature, in printed and unprinted manuscripts, in some general histories, in particular studies of women conducted by careful modern scholarship in universal history. Indeed it is hard to miss woman as force if one keeps one’s eyes open and seeks, in the scientific spirit, the truth about woman as revealed in a documentation as diverse as it is ponderous, if one is not afraid to know her, if one really wants to know her.
Where did human history begin? Long after the literate age opened, myths and speculations more or less lurid offered the only answers. After the triumph of Christianity and during the middle ages, the commonly accepted answer was that provided by the book of Genesis in the Bible. Indeed for centuries it was the fashion of chroniclers to start their histories with references to the Biblical account. That in truth Genesis presented two totally different accounts did not worry the answer-givers.
But with the spread of commerce, particularly after the discovery of the New World in 1492, sea captains, travelers, merchants, and missionaries began to bring back to Europe stories of primitive peoples found on distant islands and continents. By the middle of the seventeenth century the literature of travels and accounts of primitive societies had grown to an immense size. Then Europeans who were curious about how the human family started its career on the earth began to draw heavily on this literature and to construct images of human beginnings in “savagery,” and peoples rising from savagery into civilization. French and English philosophers of a secular bent, in particular, gradually rejected the Biblical account and applied the spirit of natural science to their search for social origins.
As the nineteenth century matured, anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, and other types of searchers explored the whole world for light on social origins. As a result of excavations in the Mediterranean regions even the archaic history of Greek and Roman societies was opened up, exposing primitive stages of culture utterly unknown to the oldest Greek and Roman poets, historians, and philosophers who had spun webs of theories about the “first” people. This knowledge, combined with the knowledge of other early societies unearthed or collected in other quarters of the globe, including the Occident, at length provided a substantial basis for drawing important conclusions respecting the prehistoric forms of human association and human work.
Two of these conclusions are stated by Robert Briffault in his monumental study of social origins, entitled The Mothers (1927): “One has reference to the form of primitive social organization, in which the most fundamental unit is not the state or the family, but a group of kinsmen having generally an animal or a plant for its badge. The other was the discovery that the part played in primitive society by women and their influence differed markedly from that which their place in civilized societies during historical times has assigned to them..”
With regard to the part played by woman in primitive society, anthropologists of high standing, notably Mason, Briffault, Keller, Peake, and Dorsey, reached a verdict of fundamental significance: to woman must be assigned all or the main credit for having effected the first sharp distinction between the ways of human beings and the ways of great beasts of prey.
Of what did this sharp distinction first consist? Of cooking, making cloth, devising hand-made shelter, manufacturing domestic utensils of pottery and baskets for garnering seeds and grain, extending the diet and making meals attractive, budgeting the food supply, learning essentials about doctoring and nursing, making animals serve human beings, enlarging the communication of feelings or ideas by speech, song, and dance, and tilling the soil. When the discovery that crops could be produced by labor was made, nomads could settle on the soil, infancy could be prolonged, family life could evolve, the training of youth could be advanced, and the conception of happiness find its place in the human consciousness. Instead of operating by rote, humanity could make progress in realizing its potentialities for a good and secure life.
Woman’s success in lifting men out of their way of life nearly resembling that of the beasts – who merely hunted and fished for food, who found shelter where they could in jungles, in trees, and caves – was a civilizing triumph. It involved infinite experimentation with natural resources, infinite patience, especial responsibility for offspring, peculiar taste, a sense of esthetics, extraordinary manual skill, and the highest quality of creative intelligence. Early woman had to start from scratch. She had no instruction from the past when she began her researches and invented the domestic arts.
Origins of Magic
Given their origins and circumstances, early human beings had good grounds for thinking of woman as a goddess. Lacking knowledge about procreation and thus unable to understand how women brought babies into the world, especially mystified by woman’s accomplishments with her digging stick in the earth, enchanted by her uses of fire and manufacture of useful commodities, appreciative of her arts of healing – in short, of her domestic science – her companions regarded her as a favorite of the unseen world. Everything she did was thought magical. She was worshiped, indeed, as magician. The deep regard for her leadership in all the amazing processes of creativeness expressed itself in efforts to appease her, if need be, to win her aid and comfort, in erecting temples for her honor and appointing priestesses and priests to serve her, to sing hymns, and praise her with harps and other instruments.
The goddess reigned far and wide in the distant past. Nor is her empire completely ended today; most Japanese still attribute their origin to the Sun Goddess who in one of her aspects is an agricultural deity, and in another aspect the ancestress of the race and patron of the ruling family. Woman was worshiped everywhere as Mother Earth, given various names such as Demeter, Ceres, and Isis, and symbolized in many ways, by mounds of earth or by stones for instance, until the age of image-making arrived when, as in the case
of Athena, patron of the Greeks, she was given human form. When images were made, symbols of her handicrafts, especially the distaff,
were commonly placed in her hands. She was thought to have the power of hypnotizing wild animals, even the king of beasts, and to the tamer of lions men sometimes went to pray for protection on the eve of their journeys through forests and jungles. In their reverence for maternity, early peoples frequently tucked infants into the arms of their goddesses, Isis holding her son Horus being one of the most famous examples.
Priestcraft developed in and around the temples dedicated to goddesses, and women sometimes made it a big business. High priestesses were customarily queens or princesses. Priestesses of a subordinate position were the musicians. They kept the books in which were registered gifts to the goddess and forms of revenue derived from the taxation of her adorers, received important worshipers with particular grace, handled the rites and ceremonies of the goddess cult. Priestesses of the lowest rank in the hierarchy, according to modern ideas of rank at least, were temple prostitutes who symbolized the worship of a sex while enlarging the income of the temples.
Men, however, were not obtuse to the values of priestcraft and men made their way into the profession. Eventually they proved exceedingly adept in emphasizing the importance of males elevated to the status of gods. But except for the ancient Hebrews, who finally reduced “idolatry” and made monotheism their ideal, with Jahweh (Jehovah) superseding Baal and Ishtar together as their supreme deity, men were seldom able with all their skill in priestcraft to eliminate the goddess completely. They did not try to do this in every case. They first made adjustments, compromises, and at the great temple of Delphi in Greece, for instance, both Mother Earth and Apollo the Sun God were worshiped. There the Oracle was a woman. But the persons who interpreted her sayings were male priests. In Egypt and in the days of the Roman Empire, goddesses and gods, it seems, had equal adoration.
The trend to masculine priestcraft was strengthened by priestly literature largely composed by men. In this writing men put women in places which they deemed most appropriate for them to fill or adorn. But the writing was writing and not a perfect picture-making of the lives which women actually always lived. In Christendom priests labored with might and main to uphold the authority of the Father God and His Son as against the long tradition of Mother and Son. But the strength of the mother-tradition was so tenacious that it could not be crushed. While the papacy forbade women to participate officially in the highest rites of the Church, the people-at-large and many priests insisted on paying their tribute of worship to Mary, the Mother of God.
Anything approaching an adequate impression of woman’s force as ancient deity can only be gained by wide reading, in such works as The Cambridge Ancient History which carries phases of her divine role up to about 1000 B.C., in Egypt, Babylonia, and the Hittite Empires for example, and in works cited in the bibliography at the end of this volume. Since goddess functions ranged from guardianship of childbirth and all the arts of living to the patronage of kings and queens in empire building, the female was a potent deity indeed.
The goddess became a war goddess whenever a ruler wished to have her sanction – and thus popular sanction – for his aggressions against other peoples and rulers. How commonly she was so transformed may be realized by a study of that attribute of her potency which is elaborated in the first volumes of The Cambridge Ancient History dealing with the rise and fortunes of great historic States.
The Intervention of War
The smooth flow and progressive development of the creative intelligence which had invented the arts of living, with domestic science as its core, was early interrupted by urges to violence and the organization of war bands.
How organized warfare started on its terrific historic career is not known, cannot be known. Malinowski, in his final work, published after his death, Freedom and Civilization (1944), expressed the opinion that war is political and that the lowest primitive peoples are not warlike. Political scientists in modern times have traced the rise of the State to the war band. Current politics certainly demonstrate the intimate relation between politics and war, between States and their foreign policies. However this may be as to the union of War and State, the union has not been solely a masculine manifestation of power and values.
A German writer, signing the name of Sir Galahad, in a work published at Munich in 1932, Mutter und Amazonen: Ein Umriss weiblicher Reiche (Mothers and Amazons: An Outline of Woman’s Kingdoms), claimed by the author as the “first feminine culture history,” described the highly explosive ways of belligerent females through long ages. And evidences of armed women have been discovered in the European excavations of ancient ruins, reinforcing the Greek contention that fighting women, the Amazons, were real women, not creatures of the imagination.
If, as often dreamed, the most remote days of humanity were idyllic, fights and wars certainly broke that harmony in very early times; and women were active in those conflicts in every way that men were, on some scale. Where they had power as rulers or in ruling families they often instigated and proclaimed wars and even marshaled their troops as they went into battle. They incited men to ferocity at the fighting fronts. They accompanied men on marauding expeditions. They fought in the ranks. They took up arms to defend their homes. They nursed men on battle fronts or kept households going while men were at battle, and they looked after the wounded on their return to civilian life.
There was not a type of war in which women did not participate. They were among the primitive hordes which went on looting expeditions against their neighbors or stood fast on their own ground in defense of their lives, herds, and fields. Old Roman records testify to the savagery of women in the Cimbrian tribes that swept down from the north into Rome. Among the Cimbrians, priestesses took charge of war captives. Standing on ladders which they carried with them to battle, they cut off the heads of prisoners, caught the blood in pots, and gave it to their men to drink, in the belief that it would double their strength.
Writing of the German tribes beyond the borders of the Empire, in the first century A.D., Tacitus devoted several passages to the “influence of women,” especially in wars. He commenced this part of his Germania by saying that squadrons or battalions of soldiers were composed of families and clans. “Close by them, too,” he went on, “are those who are dearest to them, so that they hear the shrieks of women, the cries of infants. They [women] are to every man the most sacred witnesses of his bravery – they are the most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to his mother and wife... . Tradition says that armies already wavering or giving way have been rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties and bosoms laid bare, have vividly represented the horrors of captivity... . They [Germans] even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels or make light of their answers... . They venerated Aurinia [as a divinity], and many other women, but not with servile flatteries or with sham deifications.”
One has only to go to Plutarch to discover how the Romans remembered their terrible encounters with barbarous hordes who were moving into their realm from the north. At Aquae Sextiae, 102 B.C., Plutarch stated, “the fight had been no less fierce with the women than with the men themselves... . They charged with swords and axes, and fell upon their opponents uttering a hideous outcry... . When summoned to surrender, they killed their children, slaughtered one another, and hanged themselves to trees.” Dio Cassius declared that the Romans found the bodies of women in full armor among slain Marcomanni and Quadi. Other Roman writers said that several Gothic prisoners proved to be women and among the Varangians, who attacked the Byzantines, women were found wielding arms side by side with their men.
Women were no less vigorous in the defense of their homes, or their realms if they were rulers, against Roman imperial armies bent on conquest, subjection, and exploitation – the “civilized” Romans being about as brutal as the “barbarians” in their wars on other peoples. An illustration is provided in Roman accounts of the great British revolt against Roman tyranny, lust, and avarice, led by Queen Boadicea near the close of the first century A.D. Boadicea was the wife of a British king who died about the year 60, leaving his private property to his two daughters and to Nero, in the hope that the Roman Emperor would protect his kingdom and his family against Roman rapacity and cruelty; in vain, for the greed and ferocity of Roman administrators and military officers in Britain were unbounded.
According to Tacitus in Agricola, agitators went around among the Britons declaiming against the wrongs inflicted upon them by their Roman conquerors, and at length a revolt broke out. “Rousing each other by this and like language,” Tacitus says, “under the leadership of Boadicea, a woman of kingly descent (for they admit no distinction of sex in their royal successions), they all rose in arms.” The queen had herself been beaten by Roman officers or soldiers, her two daughters had been ravished, and the relatives of her late husband had been enslaved. So she was in a mood to fight the Romans to the last ditch.
For many days the Britons’ uprising under Boadicea seemed to be on the verge of victory, but the tide turned. On the day of the last great battle, she made a flaming speech to her soldiers, reminding them of the evils inflicted on them by the Romans and urging them to defend their liberties. Her speech to the soldiers as reported by the Roman historian, Dio Cassius (epitome of John Xiphilinus), is to be found in the Monumenta Historica Britannica, pp. Iv ff. Boadicea rode in a chariot with her two daughters to the front and took charge of the fighting. When her forces were finally overwhelmed by the superior military skill of the Romans, Boadicea committed suicide, thus sparing herself a worse fate at the hands of the Romansrepresentatives of the Augustan age of civilization.
Centuries before Boadicea undertook to defend her people against Roman oppression, another widowed queen far away on the borders of Persia, Tomyris, ruler of the Massagetae, a tribe called “savage” by some historians, took up arms against Cyrus, called “the Great,” who wanted to add her patrimony to his dominions. Cyrus had proposed marriage but Tomyris suspected an ulterior motivehis hope of ruling her and her people – and she refused to marry him. Instead, she warned him that if he crossed the borders of her realm he would be slain. He ignored her warning and her army carried out her threat. Historians are not sure whether after the battle Tomyris crucified Cyrus or hunted for his body and, finding it, cut off his head and plunged it into a sack filled with human blood, so that the would-be conqueror could have enough of his own medicine, so to speak.
Women of antiquity not only went to war with marauding war bands or in defense of themselves and their people; they often initiated or inspired great military enterprises undertaken for the conquest and subjugation of others.
In the opinion of Konrad Bercovici, one of the biographers of Alexander the Great, Alexander was driven from home to become the master of the world by his militant Epirote mother, Olympia, a priestess to whom his father, Philip, had been attracted when he saw her as a maiden prancing to or from a temple with a snake, a god symbol, held high in her arms, and attended by a procession of other maidens. In Macedonia at the time of this family’s sway the halfsister of Alexander, Cyname, was given military training – a custom in other strong families for girls and boys. And some women gave it to themselves as fighters for the love of fighting.
However justifiable or unjustifiable Bercovici’s explanation of Alexander’s imperialist aggression may be must be left to a full exploration of documentary sources if there be any which can prove the “cause.” But that Macedonian women of the governing elite were disposed to violence is beyond question, for the records prove it. Nevertheless women of Macedonian ancestry who became queens during the Ptolemaic regime in Egypt often took leadership of a constructive kind in that land, particularly in relation to improvements in agriculture.
The immortal queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, “by descent half Macedonian and (apparently) half Greek,” must also be placed, in terms of power, among the defenders of a realm. Writers have made much of her “sex appeal,” but historians familiar with the documents of her history go beyond this superficial judgment of her whole personality to her role as administrator and protector of her people. They tell us that she was not “especially beautiful” but attracted masterful men by other qualities. Then they emphasize other facts. “Apart from her attractions, she was highly educated, interested in literary studies, conversant with many languages, and a skilled organizer and woman of business... . The moral code had little meaning to her; she was her own law ... . The key-note of her character was not sex at all, but ambition ... bent to the pursuit of one object, power.” And with all her mighty energies she followed that objective in her contests with Roman Caesars – to the bitter end, until the victory of Octavianus over Antony at Actium in 31 A.D. led her to take her own life, for it was then her nemesis that she could no longer hope to recover her realm.
Space does not permit even the barest review of efforts on the part of many other women in ancient times to use war as an instrument of policy in defending themselves and their realms against the overweening military power of imperial Rome. But if Cleopatra is to be singled out, so also must be Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra on the border of the Arabian desert. Zenobia admired Cleopatra but Zenobia operated more directly in actual military exploits, and was more spectacular in her flaming determination to extend her dominions. Zenobia came to the throne on the death of her husband about 266 A.D. Perhaps she expedited if she did not actually bring about his death. According to Nabia Abbott, a specialist in Arabian history, Zenobia’s Semitic name was Bath-Zabbia, as recorded in inscriptions. Like Cleopatra, she was interested in learning, commerce politics, and administration. She was familiar with Greek culture and had a broad knowledge of Egyptian letters.
Zenobia’s husband had appeased the Romans by an alliance with them for defense. But Zenobia defied them. Not content with her dominion over Palmyra, she sought to bring all Syria, Western Asia, and Egypt under her scepter and thus justify the title she claimed as Queen of the East. In so doing she brought down upon her head the wrath of the Emperor Aurelian and ultimately the full weight of Roman power. She was however not an arm-chair strategist, for she donned martial attire, joined her troops, and “shared their toils on horseback and on foot.” Besieged at last in Palmyra and refusing to make a compromise peace, Zenobia fell into Roman hands. “Loaded with costly jewels, fettered hand and foot with shackles of gold, she was led by a golden chain before the chariot of Aurelian, along the Sacred Way, while all Rome gazed, with eager curiosity, on the Arabian princess.” After she had been used in a triumphal procession to demonstrate the prowess of her imperial captor and excite Roman crowds, Zenobia was allowed to retire and live quietly in a villa near Tivoli.
Nor were all women passive observers and silent victims of the numerous wars waged under the sanction of religion in far-off times and places. The love of power and strife that motivated Zenobia likewise characterized women of Arabia in the Islamic age. With a fury that may fairly be described as tigerish, women waged holy wars for and against the faith proclaimed by Mohammed. While the Prophet was still alive, one of his fiercest foes was a woman of a great clan called Hind, Hind al-Hunud, “the Hind of Hinds.” According to Nabia Abbott, in an article on “Woman and the State on the Eve of Islam,” Hind al-Hunud lived in the kingdom of Kindah, founded in the fifth century A.D. She sprang from a people known as the Quraish, who had long been dominant at Mecca, the great city of the Prophet. Tradition depicts her “as a woman holding to the heathen practices of Arabia, a wife whose virtue was not above suspicion, a mind that was quick to decisive actions.”
One of the heathen traditions to which she adhered was the cult of the Lady of Victory. Its function was to incite patriotism and lash patriots into ferocious fighting. The Lady of Victory was a woman of high social standing about whom the feminine cult members, likewise of high rank, gathered in the pavilion sacred to the local or tribal deity, within sight of the warriors whom they stirred to martial fervor by their war songs which they accompanied on their lutes. Around the Lady of Victory and her retinue the battle raged until it was lost or won.
In an armed contest between the Quraish and the forces of Mohammed, several of Hind al-Hunud’s relatives were engaged. That battle occurred at Badr. Her father, her uncle, and a brother were slain. But her husband, Abu Sifyan, survived and, with him, she prepared to wreak vengeance. When the time for the assault was ready, she as the Lady of Victory took her position in a sacred pavilion with fourteen or fifteen aristocratic women at her side. In the presence of these women the men were expected to fight, win or die. This time the Quraish were victors. The story then runs to the effect that, standing on a rock, among the corpses of the foe, the Hind of Hinds “exultantly flaunted in the face of the fallen enemy the general victory and her personal revenge, in spontaneous satirical verse which drew answer from the women of Mohammed’s party and later from Hassan ibn Thabit.”
Despite this triumph, the Hind of Hind’s husband afterward surrendered the city of Makkah to Mohammed. For that offense she wanted to kill her mate. But her husband defended himself by appealing to his people with the cry: “O people, become Moslems and be saved!” It was not long until Hind al-Hunud had to accept the Prophet’s religion herself. And her step-daughter, Ramlah bint Abi Sufyan, married Mohammed, as did other women, to forward their political designs or his, at least in part.
After the death of Mohammed, women waged contests over the succession to power and for centuries played an active role in conflicts and wars within the Islamic world and against Christians and pagans, in the name of the faith. Take a single example from the pages of history less known in the West, that of Turkan Kahtun, daughter of Tamghaj Khan, wife of Malik Shah dauntless leader of the Seljuk Turks whose empire extended, in the eleventh century A.D., from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf and beyond.
In her quest for power, Turkan became an implacable foe of the Shah’s grand vizier and, when a civil war broke out, largely as a result of her intrigues on behalf of her son over the succession to the throne, she took part in the maneuvers connected with the struggle. She secured the appointment of a vizier favorable to her plan; had her son, aged four, proclaimed Sultan; seized the city of Ispahan; sought allies; and started a war against the rival claimant. She offered to marry a brother-in-law if he would come to her aid and she cast about for other assistance. In the end she came to grief; she was captured and executed by her step-son, for whom she had risked everything.
East and West, wherever wars were fought, during the following centuries – wars of conquest or defense, of crusades or of self-protection – it was rarely, if ever, that women held entirely aloof. As long as the Eastern Empire lasted, they were intrepid, often masterful, in affairs of state that eventuated in armed conflicts. As the Empire of the East crumbled and feudal wars took the place of wars for imperial expansion, women belonging to aristocratic and royal families inspired wars, frequently initiated them, and sometimes used arms themselves, to say nothing of their share in the consequences of combats, favorable or disastrous. Indeed, as we shall now see, they were highly instrumental in building up the great states of the Western world which in time to come were to transform local contests-at-arms into global wars, with the assistance of women.
Making Great States and Societies
The rise and growth of great States and great Societies, amid almost endless warfare, constitute perhaps the most elemental phase of long history. And in a measure not yet appreciated by historians, judging from their writings, the history of the State and Society, until the very edge of our living time, was the history of the family, clan, and tribe and of struggles among them for political and economic ascendancy. Class struggles were scattered all through this history; but great ruling families generally suppressed class uprisings or made use of one class against another in their contests for supremacy. These facts demand repetition and accent in every effort to get at the center of man and woman relationships connected with great social and political designs.
Casual bands of men collected from among members of a clan or tribe and directed by a chance leader, or dux as the Romans called him, did occasionally go out, conquer, and settle down upon neighboring peoples; but generally, in the building of great States and Societies, a family, clan, tribe or union of tribes extended its power by invading territories under its own chieftain and subdued other peoples to its authority.
Not only is this a fundamental datum of long history. Even the beginnings of human history, of those older aggregations of peoples over which great states were established, with which great societies were formed by consolidations, are to be found in associations of some kind – in groups of men, women, and children held together by loyalties to the groups. The most primitive association may have been, as certain anthropologists maintain, a loosely organized and wandering “pack,” living almost on the level of wild animals; even so it was not a collection of “free and equal men” struggling along individually. Man was and is born of woman and woman was and is the daughter of man; association of some kind has been from the earliest times necessary to their existence. This is obvious, as Herbert Spencer once remarked solemnly.
Nevertheless from the seventeenth century forward, political writers were fond of locating the origin of the State in a primeval gathering of men who, in order to secure protection of life and property, formed a permanent union and surrendered a part of their “original” liberty. This was the fiction which Rousseau expounded with passionate rhetoric on the eve of the French Revolution. It had hardly been discredited by scientific research when the Darwinians, forgetting the warnings of their master, Charles Darwin, made “au nature red in tooth and claw” – an everlasting combat of individual men for existence, wealth, and power. Then the economists came along and reduced individualism to a “science,” Society to a shadow, and the State to a mere policeman keeping order over individual men battling with one another about the acquisition of wealth. Except for traditionalists, however, these fictions have been exploded.
When the curtain begins to rise on history as recorded, we see the play of families, clans, and tribes begin – not a play of individuals scattered at random hither and yon on the human stage. If the Odyssey and the writings of Hesiod (8th century B.C.) give faithful pictures of early social practices among the Greeks, as they presum ably do in some respects, the primary unit of society was composed of the clan-family and the phratry. The larger political societies later formed among the Greeks were aggregations of such primary units.
Similar groupings are found in the earliest days of Roman history. The primary unit was the familia, the family, the household. As in the course of many generations the family grew in size, it became a gens, a blood union of men, women, and children united by a common name, an emblem, and common religious rites. In time families were united in a larger grouping known as the curia; curiae were joined to make a tribe; and at length three tribes were joined to form the State – Roman Society with a political head.
Although mythology and fable are mingled in the accounts from which this picture of Roman associations is derived, although it may be too simple as thus starkly presented, there is good reason for believing that it is substantially true to life as history. The constitution of the early Roman kingdom was based upon such family groups. The curiae of the people, composed mainly of plebeians, each curia a society, were combined to make the Roman assembly, known as the comitia curiata; and men from about three hundred noble families formed the Senate. After 509 B.C., in the earl days of y the republic, the people were organized for military and political purposes into classes according to property, but the Senate was retained as a body of men drawn from the aristocratic families of Roman society.
As the Roman republic extended its territorial boundaries, Roman society became more populous, the estates of great families expanded at the expense of the small farmers, or plebeians, and extremes of wealth and poverty became a sign of a new order. Then class conflicts arose in Rome – conflicts between patrician families on one side, and plebeians on the other side, while the urban proletarians often served the upper class. Concerning the leaders of the aristocrats and of the people in many of these contests, the records of history give us little information; but we know that in the most famous of all such conflicts leadership in the plebeian cause was taken by two men connected with the oldest and highest of the nobility – Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Since this momentous struggle occurred in the second century B.C., it comes within the
range of authentic history; and it is possible to obtain from documents clear if short accounts of families involved in it, of the two great leaders who espoused the popular cause, and of some of the Roman women who participated in the contest of ideas and interests that accompanied it.
Here, to borrow Carlyle’s imagery, for a brief time as if by a flash of lightning the stage is flooded and we may see the actors and the drama before our very eyes. On their father’s side the two leaders, the Gracchi, sprang from one of Rome’s most illustrious families which had originated in the plebeian Sempronian gens. On their mother’s side they belonged to the powerful aristocratic family of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, ranked by some historians as “the greatest man of his age and perhaps the greatest man of Rome, with the exception of Julius Caesar.”
Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, had married Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, Roman censor, in 169 B.C. The plebeian origin of Gracchus made her patrician father hostile to this marriage and whether it took place before his death or afterward is among the disputed points of scholarship. Anyway, Cornelia insisted on marrying the man of her choice and to this union twelve children were born.
After the early death of her husband, Cornelia devoted herself to the education of her children. When Ptolemy offered to share his crown with her, she declined and kept to her self-appointed task. Presumably she was well prepared for it. In her girlhood she had been taught classical literature and philosophy by scholars installed in the household by her father, who was one of the earliest patrons of Hellenic teachers. She was familiar with the Greek language and spoke her Latin tongue with purity and elegance. “Her letters, which were extant in the time of Cicero, were models of composition, and it was doubtless mainly owing to her judicious training that her sons became in later life such distinguished orators and statesmen.” Cicero acclaimed her, as he did his mother-in-law, for her literary talents, and Plutarch paid homage to her for her “parental affection and greatness of mind.”
It is reasonably certain that Cornelia instilled in her children the principles of the republican tradition and a high sense of the public responsibilities attached to their citizenship. Positively, the mother was a close companion of the two sons who were to lead the revolt against aristocratic greed, and their respect for her is revealed in the records of their relation. In seems certain that Tiberius was induced to propose some of his agrarian reforms at the instigation of his mother and highly probable that her other son, Gaius, was moved by her intercession to drop one of his proposals. After the cause in which her sons were so prominent as leaders was lost and they had met tragic, premature deaths, Cornelia retired to a country estate where she was visited by men of affairs and men of letters who came from near and far to pay her honor and discuss with her philosophy, letters, and the times. Not long after her death the Roman people erected a monument to her, bearing the inscription now so memorable though now too lightly interpreted: “Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi.”
The two Gracchi, who sought to regenerate the republic and effect a better distribution of wealth among the people, perished by violence at the hands of their enemies – led by scions of great aristocratic families. In 133 B.C., when his farmer friends were at home busy with their crops, Tiberius was beaten to death by a mob, after a crowd of Senators, aided by their henchmen, had dissolved and broken up the popular assembly. In 121, inflamed by Opimius – a bitter foe of the Gracchi, leader of the high aristocratic party, powerful in the Senate, a man of violent temper – a mob of Romans murdered Gaius Gracchus and more than three thousand of his supporters. This chapter of family history was closed by the suppression of the plebeian class revolt.
At last rid of the two popular leaders, the nobles, monopolizing the Senate and all the highest offices, repealed the agrarian laws and used the expedient of cheap bread for the proletariat as a means of maintaining themselves in power. Nominally the greatest families of Rome, operating through the Senate, had triumphed over plebeians and proletarians; but they could keep no solid front against their foes. In the midst of social and foreign wars, they broke apart, preyed upon one another in terrible proscriptions, and kept Rome in fear and turmoil – until all noble families and the people as well were brought under the domination of Julius Caesar, nominally a leader of the people, unquestionably the scion of a great aristocratic family. Soon the despotism of empire under the sway of strong families put a brake on class conflicts, if not an end to them.
Upon the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C., power of state passed for a time to two representatives of great families, Octavianus, nephew of Caesar, and Antony. But Antony fell victim to his own ambition and the charms of Cleopatra; after his fleet was defeated at Actium, 31 B.C., by that of Octavianus, Antony committed suicide, in the belief that Cleopatra had already taken her life. Having at last, in his own hands, all the symbols of state power, Octavianus in effect abolished the republic, reduced the senatorial families to impotence, and founded an authoritarian state on the ruins of popular institutions. Now government by anonymous masses and more or less anonymous nobles in the senate in reality drew to a close, though the republican tradition long continued as a formality. Now men and women bearing imperial titles assumed dictatorial might.
For nearly four hundred years, that is until 364 A.D., the Roman State was ruled by a long line of emperors who came to power in the competition among families, aided, abetted, or opposed by women of those families. Then the empire was divided into western and eastern parts, and each part had its own line of emperors, until 476, when the unhappy Romulus Augustulus laid down his symbols of an authority that had vanished and only the eastern empire with its capital at Constantinople survived. There, a succession of emperors, some weak, some mighty, ruled for nearly a thousand years, until 1453 A.D. when the Turks captured their imperial city.
For four hundred years in the West and for nearly ten centuries in the East, imperial power was ostensibly vested in some man at the head of some family clan. Actually, however, if not officially, his power was often shared by a woman or by several women. Frequently imperial power was exercised openly by one or more women.
With respect to the inner history of the older period when power was widely dispersed among men seated in the popular Assembly and among hundreds of family clans represented in the Senate, little was set down as its record. But after imperial centralization was effected and literacy had spread in Roman society, the documentation of politics and society became profuse and varied in its abundance. With the government of a great society concentrated in one great family after another, writing in many media – poetry, history, satire, eulogy – about Society and the State became phenomenal.
It is now possible, therefore, for modern inquirers to obtain detailed and often extensive knowledge concerning Roman families and Roman women in the imperial State – knowledge of women’s operations, methods, and objectives as a force in that State. The documentation is immense. Biographies and histories written by modems on the basis of that documentation are now available; they are positively staggering in the wealth of evidence they offer on this aspect of woman’s historic force. Among such studies of ancient Rome are the 1,124 pages of the old work by J. R. de Serviez, Roman Empresses ... Wives of the Twelve Caesars, first published in the eighteenth century – an age of despotism in Europe; and G. Ferrero’s Women of the Caesars, published in 1911 when the power of European family clans was rapidly dissolving.
Of course the whole story of the rise and decline of the Roman empire, with the women of the Caesars included, cannot be told here. It is not all known. But phases of it can be illustrated. And we may properly begin with Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, the nephew of Julius Caesar and called “founder of the empire.”
Livia was the daughter of Livius Drusus Claudianus, that is, a member of the Claudian clan, but she was later adopted into the Livian gens. Although it must be said that modern historians differ widely in their judgments of her character and activities, they are in agreement that her influence in Roman affairs was emphatic. Support for the verdict of her influence appears in the following account of her written by a scholar for William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology:
“Livia never bore Augustus any children, but she continued to have unbounded influence over him till the time of his death. The empire which she had gained by her charms she maintained by the purity of her conduct and the fascination of her manners, as well as by a perfect knowledge of the character of Augustus, whom she endeavored to please in every way. She was a consummate actress, excelled in dissimulation and intrigue, and never troubled herself or her husband by complaining of the numerous mistresses of the latter. There was only one subject which occasioned any dissension between them, and that was the succession.
“Augustus naturally wished to secure it for his own family, but Livia resolved to obtain it for her own children; and, according to the common opinion at Rome, she did not scruple to employ foul means to remove out of the way the family of her husband. Hence she was said to be [by Tacitus], ‘gravis in rempublicam mater, gravis domui Caesarum noverca. The premature death of Marcellus was attributed by many to her machinations, because he had been preferred to her sons as the husband of Julia, the daughter of Augustus. But for this there seems little ground. The opportune death both of C. Caesar and L. Caesar seems much more suspicious. These young men were the children of Julia by her marriage with Agrippa; and being the grandchildren of Augustus, they presented, as long as they lived, an insuperable obstacle to the accession of Tiberius, the son of Livia [by her former husband]. But Lucius died suddenly at Massilia in A.D. 2, and Caius in Lycia A.D. 4, of a wound, which was not considered at all dangerous. It was generally suspected that they had both been poisoned, by the secret orders of Livia and Tiberius. She was even suspected of having hastened the death of Augustus in A.D. 14
“Augustus left Livia and Tiberius as his heirs; and by his testament adopted her into the Julia gens, in consequence of which she received the name of Julia Augusta. By the accession of her son to the imperial throne, Livia had now attained the long-cherished object of her ambition, and by means of her son thought to reign over the Roman world. But this the jealous temper of Tiberius would not brook. At first all public documents were signed by her as well as by Tiberius, and letters on public business were addressed to her as well as to the emperor; and with the exception of her not appearing in person in the senate or the assemblies of the army and the people,
she acted as if she were the sovereign. She openly said that it was she who procured the empire for Tiberius, and to gratify her the senate proposed to confer upon her various extraordinary honors.
“Thereupon Tiberius, perceiving that he was becoming a mere cypher in the state, forbade all these honors, and commanded her to retire altogether from public affairs; but she had gained such an ascendancy over him, that he did not feel himself his own master as long as he was in her neighborhood, and accordingly removed his residence from Rome to Capreae. Such was the return she was destined to receive for all the toil she had sustained and the crimes she had probably committed in order to secure the empire for her son. Tiberius no longer disguised the hatred he felt for his mother, and for the space of three years he only spoke to her once. When she was on her death-bed he even refused to visit her. She died in A.D. 29 ... at a very advanced age, eighty-two according to Pliny, eighty-six according to Dion Cassius.
“Tiberius took no part in the funeral rites and forbade her consecration, which had been proposed by the senate, on the ground that she had not wished it herself. Her funeral oration was delivered by her great-grandson, C. Caesar, subsequently the emperor Caligula; but Tiberius would not allow her testament to be carried into effect. The legacies which she had left were not fully paid till the accession of Caligula; and her consecration did not take place till the reign of Claudius.”
Contrary to this vision of Livia as consumed with personal ambition is Ferrero’s view that she was a defender of republican virtues against the luxury-loving, indolent, or power-hungry aristocrats of her day.
Between the time of Livia and the last days of the Roman Empire, many families and dynasties had their turns at the exercise of State power. Among these families were all kinds of empresses and ambitious women who sought to make emperors, therewith influencing or directing the course of public affairs. Often women in this long list were highly praised by historians, poets, and philosophers. Lucian, of the second century, who enchanted many Roman audiences with witty and wise comments on various aspects of Roman life, wrote a panegyric to an unknown woman, supposed to be an empress, which for centuries served as a model for thousands of men who eulogized women. Other writers represented many women of the Caesars and women contestants for Caesar’s power as vixens, murderers, and moral degenerates. Hence modern students are frequently baffled in trying to reach fair judgments. Undoubtedly, struggling for power, or merely holding it, was not soft business and the women engaged in it were tough.
Whether any of those women was or was not a viper cannot be determined alone from a study of Tacitus’ writings. modern scholarship has begun to check his works with reference to the writings of other Romans and their sources of data. Tacitus had at hand the Memoirs of Agrippina I, wife of Germanicus, to consult in his treatment of the Roman campaign in Gaul and also the Memoirs of her daughter Agrippina II in his treatment of later events in Rome. But Tacitus is now suspected of having a special cause of his own to serve by his manner of relating events, reporting observations, and making judgments. Hence modern historians who rely on his accounts of the women of his time are likewise subject to questioning.
On the other hand Plutarch with his penchant for drawing morals from Roman history pictured many Roman women as models of virtue. G. Ferrero of the modern age, in building up the Roman background for Italian glory, also glorified certain Roman empresses whom Tacitus represented as amoral or deliberately vicious. Where does the truth lie as between Tacitus’ account of Agrippina II, for example, and the recent account by Ferrero of this same empress?
Agrippina II was the daughter of Agrippina I and Germanicus and the mother of Nero. Through her influence, it seems to be agreed, Claudius was induced to dispose of his irresponsible, lewd, and corrupt spouse, Messalina, for whom no historians attempt seriously to apologize. When Messalina was slain, it also seems to be agreed, Agrippina II induced Claudius to marry her. In a little while. after their wedding, Claudius was murdered and his death was attributed to her, the deed being ascribed by some writers to her resolve to get rid of him before he got rid of her. Upon the death of Claudius, Agrippina II, who had plotted to put Nero, her son by a former marriage, on the throne, succeeded in doing it and acted as regent for him. But what had been her purpose in having Messalina removed from the palace and in removing Claudius from the throne if she was responsible for that too? What did she do when power came into her possession with the accession of Nero as emperor?
Ferrero claims that the “zenith of her power” was reached when Nero, on her advice, restored the republic. “Most historians,” he says, “hallucinated by Tacitus, have not noticed this [that Nero’s power was severely limited], and they have consequently not recognized that in carrying out this plan Agrippina is neither more nor less than the last continuator of the great political tradition founded by Augustus. In the minds both of Augustus and Tiberius [Livia’s son whom she seated on the throne] the empire was to be governed by the aristocracy. The emperor was merely the depositary of certain powers of the nobility conceded to him for reasons of state. If these reasons of state should disappear, the powers would naturally revert to the nobles. It was therefore expedient at this time to make the senate forget, in the presence of a seventeen-year-old emperor, the pressure brought to bear upon it by the cohorts, and to wipe out the rancor against the imperial power which was still dormant in the aristocracy. This restoration was not, therefore, a sheer renunciation of privileges and powers inherent in the sovereign authority, but an act of political sagacity planned by a woman whose knowledge of the art of government had been received in the school of Augustus.”
Agrippina II recalled Seneca from exile and made him her own main councilor. She also appointed him as tutor to Nero. She drew about her several statesmen, such as Afranius Burrhus, and together she and they framed an economic and political program for the empire, which Nero placed before the senate with a preliminary oration in its support. The program embraced imperial free trade, a better administration of the corn supply, recognition of the senate as an important factor in a secure government, and measures for general welfare. Nero was not yet twenty-one years old at that time.
But what began so auspiciously ended disastrously for mother and son. Agrippina was soon opposed by a court party led by Seneca and Burrhus. Seneca’s influence over Nero was not entirely wholesome; and Nero came under the spell of courtesans. At length he decided to throw off bondage to his mother, and when he discovered that she was plotting to oust him in favor of Britannicus, son of Claudius, Nero had his mother murdered.
In short, Ferrero gives these explanations of Agrippina’s objectives: she was really laboring to reestablish the old patrician line, the Claudian clan; to restore political integrity; to get rid of the freedmen whom Messalina had used for the promotion of her conspiracies; to recover the loyalty of the praetorian guards and the Roman legions for a limited rule by a responsible government; to reinstate Seneca and thus eliminate the terrorism which Messalina had turned against the Stoics, leading Paetus and his wife, Arria, to plunge a dagger into their own hearts before it was thrust there by Messalina’s agents; and generally to save ‘the ruling family from destruction.
In the strife for supremacy among great Roman families, the poisoning or assassination of men, time and again, threw the management of a ruling or competing family into the hands of women. Some women became regents for sons too young to wear the crown. Some of them gave up the governing task to their sons when they had attained their majority. Others kept a tight hold of it until death carried them off.
Imperial power required the backing of physical force and actual or potential warfare. Among the women who did not shrink from war when their power was at stake was Julia Maesa, aunt of Caracalla. He was murdered and he left no adult male heir to the throne. For a moment Julia Maesa took charge of the family’s fortunes and governed the State. But, knowing that a male must wear the crown, she proceeded to get one for it. In 217 A.D. a challenger, Macrinus, seized the throne for himself. But Julia Maesa refused to let him keep it. She belonged to a different clan – a Syrian family. Though beset by bitter rivals at Rome, she went to Syria for her army, taking with her a huge sum, “the fruit of twenty years’ favor,” to aid in mustering her soldiers. She also took along her two widowed daughters, Julia Soemis and Julia Mamaea, each of whom bore with her a young son who could be acclaimed a proper successor to Caracalla the Syrian.
Julia Maesa knew how to procure her army and how to hold the soldiers together and make them fight successfully if attacked by the troops of Macrinus. When her men seemed to be wavering in their allegiance to her, Maesa inflamed their loyalty by ordering one of her daughters, Soemis, to hold aloft in their presence her little lad, Varius Avitus, while the grandmother pronounced the child the son of Caracalla and thus the lawful heir to the throne. Objectors were overcome by bribes and finally even they saw in the face of this boy the features of Caracalla. This helped in the winning of the battle with the soldiers of Macrinus, which had to be fought if Julia Maesa was to make her way to Rome. At a crucial point in its course, Julia Maesa and her daughters left their chariots and lashed their troops into a hotter tempo, if only by their tongues and frantically waving arms. At the end the day was won for Julia Maesa. Her grandson, Varius Avitus, was seated on the throne in place of Macrinus, who had held it for about fourteen months. Then the young man’s mother, Julia Soemis, came to power as regent for her son.
In fact, Julia Soemis was now Augusta. She took a seat in the Senate at Rome and was the president of a woman’s parliament which held sessions in the Quirinal and drafted codes of etiquette. But mother and son met terrible dooms. Varius Avitus, officially known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, preferred the name of the Syrian god, Elagabalus, whom he served as high priest. Moreover he spent so much time in this service and, with his mother, indulged in such gross religious rites in this connection that angry Romans killed the two and threw the mother’s body into the sewer.
Meanwhile, Julia Maesa, fearing trouble, had a new candidate ready for the throne, Alexander Severus, the son of her other daughter, Julia Mamaea. After a brief contest, he was duly seated and his mother became his regent. Having turned to the Christian religion, Julia Mamaea had her son instructed in its tenets as well as in poetry, history, and pre-Christian philosophy. So eclectic did Alexander become in his intellectual interests as he grew up that, according to Gibbon, he made room in his chapel for all the religions of the wide Roman Empire, Christ thus mingling with Orpheus in the palace, while the Jews were granted broad liberties in life beyond its portals.
Julia Mamaea was thrifty and she apparently preferred peace to war. She withheld from the army sums of money which it craved and this was to plague her when she accompanied her son, Alexander, on a campaign against the Germans in Gaul. There she advised him to make peace. He had been all along so amenable to her advice that he was ready to take it again on this occasion. This infuriated the soldiers and in their resentment a small band of them slew Mamaea and killed her son. With his last breath, it is said, Alexander fumed against his mother as his evil genius.
Far away in space from the palace of the Caesars on the banks of the Tiber and across the centuries from the age of the first Augustus, another Roman empress, even more powerful in admitted fact than Livia, wife of Octavianus, seized and exercised sovereign power in her own right. She was Pulcheria, daughter of Arcadius, emperor of the East. In 408 A.D. Arcadius died, leaving a seven-year-old son, Theodosius, and three or four daughters. For a few years imperial affairs were in the hands of male regents, but in 414 one of the daughters, Pulcheria, aged fifteen, just two years older than Theodosius, took over the regency, was proclaimed Augusta, and until her death nearly forty years later was masterful in the direction of state affairs in the East.
In the pages of fifth-century documents and in scholarly monographs of the modern age, Pulcheria stands out with a distinctness given to few other women of that time. Even Hypatia, the great Neo-platonist teacher at Alexandria, a contemporary of Pulcheria, is more obscure in the pages of history though something about her is known – in part through letters in which her pupils paid her high compliments. Hypatia was a pagan and Egypt was officially Christian. Hypatia was thus out of order especially in her defiance of the Christian theology and her teaching of pagan philosophy. She paid an awful price for her temerity: death by assassination at the hands of a mob. Pulcheria, on the contrary, was a Christian by birth and Eastern Christendom has remembered her well on account of her services to the Christian Church. She was, however, neither responsible for the assassination of Hypatia nor pleased over it. She regretted it.
Pulcheria had been educated in pagan learning. She read and spoke Greek and Latin fluently. She was deeply interested in medicine and natural science. Though she had young Theodosius taught horsemanship and the use of arms, she instructed him in broader subjects and rhetoric. The charge was made that, in order to keep him like clay in her hands, she deliberately refrained from disciplining him in public matters which would have better prepared him for his role as emperor.
Pulcheria avoided such marital entanglements in politics as marriage might occasion. She took a vow of perpetual virginity and throughout the rest of her life made much of religious devotions. Meanwhile she was ever watchful and active in public affairs. When the time came for Theodosius to marry, she chose a wife for him, Eudoxia, the daughter of an Athenian sophist. After Theodosius became of age and publicly assumed imperial authority, Pulcheria maintained her vigilance.
When in 450 he died as the result of a fall from his horse while hunting, Pulcheria again took over the reins and appointed his successor, Marcian, chief of staff for the army. Before the Senate, she placed the crown on Marcian’s head, and then to assure her grip on things she made him her husband, at least formally. Not until death cut her down three years later was her firm grasp on the government broken. By will she left all her vast estate to the poor, thus demonstrating the sincerity of her religious faith, and Marcian was careful to fulfill her final injunction. Later she was canonized and her career was long celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Before the death of Pulcheria in the East, the Roman Empire of the West had begun to disintegrate. In 476 it nominally came to an end. From the banks of the Tiber to the borders of Scotland, it was invaded and overrun by barbarians from the north and east. In Italy, Gaul, Spain, and Britain, Roman power dissolved; anarchy took the place of law and order; and these once solid divisions of the Empire split into fragments – cities, duchies, principalities, and petty feudal estates. The great Roman families who had for so long ruled in the Empire disappeared nearly everywhere, or were merged with the barbarian invaders. In vain did Popes at Rome seek to stem the tide of disintegration by substituting the authority and law of the Church for the power and law of the old Roman State.
Once more darkness settled down on political history. For centuries the chief historians were monks hidden away from public life in their monasteries; they were cloistered dreamers, not men of public affairs, such as Tacitus, the Roman, had been; and the so-called histories written by the monks were made up principally of stories about the good or wicked deeds of kings and princes, which they knew mainly or entirely from hearsay, interspersed with tales of miracles and such curiosities of nature as a meteor shooting through the sky. As far as the minor personalities, communities of people, and social events of their times are concerned, their “histories” are of little aid in the search by modern scholars for knowledge of their age.
But in the relatively scanty documentation of the early middle ages is carried a good deal of information about the doings and sayings of many great warlords who tore the Roman Empire to pieces and of the Christian missionaries, monks, and nuns who labored to keep the faith alive and spread it to the ends of the still barbarian world. From the fragmentary records, chronicles, laws, lives of saints, and other sources, something can be gleaned about the labors, trials, and conditions of the anonymous multitudes that toiled at maintaining life and economy. By piecing fragments together, historians are able to describe today with some accuracy and fullness the general course of political and related events from the break-up of the Roman Empire to the rise of modern states and societies in Italy, France, Spain, England, and other parts of Western Europe.
In the general course of political events, in this large theater of history-making, one feature was continuous and clinching everywhere: the renewed competition of great families for power over territories large and small, each inhabited mainly by families of serfs. As the curtain of history rises higher and higher on the scenes of those endless conflicts, the names of the more powerful families – and of men and women who composed them – were entered in the records in ever-increasing numbers. Although hundreds, thousands, of the lesser families are lost forever in the oblivion of namelessness, modern scholarship in history has supplied evidence for the proposition that the political history of the West for centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire was again the history of strife among feuding landed families for supremacy. The final triumph of the strongest families marked the creation of the modern states. Again women of ambitious families displayed their ambitions for power, for themselves and their clans.
In England this process culminated first. After about six centuries of feudal turmoil in this former province of the Roman Empire, William the Norman conquered England, centralized authority in a monarchy, and blazed the way for his successors to extend it over Wales and the rest of Great Britain. Never again after the Norman conquest in 1066 did England fall back into the kind of feudal anarchy that had filled the Anglo-Saxon period with tumult. There were, to be sure, many struggles among English aristocratic families for power, but this ceased to assume the form of open and dangerous violence after the Wars of the Roses – the contests between the Yorkist and Lancastrian families, which were brought to a dose on the field of Bosworth in 1485. There Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant, under the banner of the Red Rose, slew Richard III, the Yorkist; and to seal the triumph Henry, as he had promised some of his supporters to do, married Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Edward IV, the tragic woman whose two brothers had been murdered by Richard III.
The Tudor victor at Bosworth, duly crowned Henry VII, with the aid of his queen, Elizabeth, set about the work of strengthening the monarchy against grumbling malcontents and two pretenders. Lambert Simnel, impersonating the Earl of Warwick, aided by Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV, and then Perkin Warbeck, impersonating Richard, Duke of York, also aided by Margaret, tried to raise revolts; but they were quickly suppressed.
In accordance with the customary method for building up family power by influential marriages, the eldest son of Henry and Elizabeth, Arthur, was married to Catherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and, after Arthur’s death a few months later, their second son Henry was married to Catherine. Meanwhile, with a view to a union with Scotland, they negotiated a marriage between their eldest daughter, Margaret, and James IV, king of Scotland; and out of this matrimonial union came at length, about two centuries later, the political union of England and Scotland.
It was under a succession of five great feudal families that the anarchy of France which followed the dissolution of Rome was overcome, and that the numerous provinces, duchies, principalities, and other feudal subdivisions were finally fused into one great society under a monarchy. These great families were the Merovingians, the Carolingians, the Capetians, the Valois, and the Bourbons.
From first to last, women were associated with men in this process of State and Society building. Clovis, first of the Merovingians, was undoubtedly a valiant warrior, but his wife, Clotilde, was no less valiant in her way. As a modern scholar says: “For his part Clovis well understood that he never would bring Gaul beneath his scepter without the support of the Church and the Catholic Gallo-Romans who were tired of anarchy. Clovis laid the foundations of the French state by his conversion to Christianity, due to his wife, Clotilde, and to Remigius [archbishop of Reims] rather than by his victory over the Alemanni at Tolbiac.” And when, after the lapse of twelve centuries, the French monarchy under the Bourbon Louis XVI was shattered, it was the vigorous if mistaken efforts of the queen, Marie Antoinette, daughter of the watchful Austrian empress, Maria Theresa, to save the throne, rather than the frailties and follies of Louis himself, that brought the revolution to its fateful climax in 1793.
The course of feudal anarchy in Spain after the disappearance of Roman government resembled that in England and France, until at length in 1469 the union of two great landed families, followed by the expulsion of the robust Moors’ brought long-warring provinces under one crown and into one society. This union was the marriage of Ferdinand, crown prince of Aragon, and Isabella, heiress to the throne of Castile. The political relations of Ferdinand and Isabella were established by the terms of their marriage contract, later amplified by special regulations.
These regulations “created a kind of dyarchy, in which justice was to be exercised conjointly when they happened to be together in the same place, or by either of them separately if they happened to be separated. Royal charters were signed by both, and the coinage bore both heads upon it, while the seals also contained the arms of both kingdoms. Apart from this the administration of Castile was reserved to Isabella in her own right. Ferdinand raised some difficulties about accepting this arrangement, but eventually he gave way. The principle of equality between the two spouses which resulted from this system is expressed in the well-known formula, Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando,’ which is found so often on contemporary monuments... . On the other hand, Isabella was not recognized to have any rights in the government of Aragon; she never interfered in the concerns of her husband’s kingdom.” A more perfect “liberty and equality” would be difficult to imagine; moreover, the terms of the bond were observed by both till death separated them.
As fate would have it, the unity of Spain, the close bond between Castile and Aragon, was severed on the death of Isabella in 1504, and the rupture plagued Spanish politics on through the centuries despite the nominal authority exercised by Spanish rulers over the whole kingdom. But Ferdinand and Isabella had set the plan for centralization in the peninsula, Isabella being the more energetic of the two in this enterprise. Moreover, by arranging marriages for their children, they affected to a high degree the course of European history in general. The marriage of their daughter, Catherine, to Henry VIII of England with the subsequent divorce was a leading factor in the Protestant revolt in England and in many a quarrel and war that followed. Even more fateful for Spain, perhaps, was the marriage of their daughter, Joanna, to Philip of Austria, son and heir of the Emperor Maximilian. By this marriage Spain was taken into the stormy conflicts of continental Europe, with results little short of disastrous for the Spanish people.
In the work of constructing and consolidating all the other independent states and societies that came into being in Europe, within and outside the borders of the old Roman Empire, feudal, princely, and royal families were likewise instrumental – until the very dawn of our own times. In Italy, Germany, Russia, and other parts of Europe, the process started later and was slow in coming to fruition. In Italy unification was not effected until 1870, under the house of Savoy; in Prussia and Germany consolidation came to its climax in 1871, under the Hohenzollern family; and in Austria-Hungary it was the Hapsburg family that directed the methods of centralization, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Building on the work of previous dukes and princes, the Romanoffs carried forward in Russia the expansion and coalescence of the older states and societies to form the vast Russian Empire, inherited by the Bolsheviki in 1917. The Romanoffs descended in the female line from the Russian Michael Romanoff, elected Tsar in 1613, and in the male line from a branch of the Holstein-Gottorp family in Germany.
If one strikes into periods of the tortuous diplomacy and wars as recorded in the first ten volumes of the Cambridge Modern History covering the time from the Renaissance to the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, what does one learn about the force and work of women? Let us take three examples beginning, arbitrarily, with Henry IV of France. His second wife was Maria de’ Medici, whom he married in order to win over to his side, as against the Hapsburgs, the grand duke of Tuscany, her uncle. After Henry’s assassination in 1610, Maria seized power as regent for their son, Louis XIII, and ran affairs with a high hand. Resolved on a diplomatic union with Austria and Spain, she married the young king to Anne of Austria, daughter of Philip, king of Spain. Determined to have no interference with her plans, she dissolved the Estates General in 1614 and sent the parliamentarians home, on the ground, she alleged, that she needed their halls for a dance. Although her son grew weary of her autocratic ways and eventually pushed her aside, her matrimonial adventure on his behalf proved to be almost ruinous for France.
Without pausing to deal with the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession, let us review two fateful family “deals” in which women were matchless actors. The first was the “diplomatic revolution” in which fortunes of the Austrian Hapsburgs and those of the French Bourbons were united by a firm alliance in 1756. This startling reversal of foreign policy for France and Austria was effected under the direction of Maria Theresa:, Empress of Austria, with the aid of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV; while Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, looked on benevolently, with an eye to her interests as against Frederick the Great of Prussia. The union brought about by the diplomatic revolution was scaled several years later by the marriage of the French dauphin, Louis, to Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa. The second of the great diplomatic deals, known as the “Family Compact,” brought about a close alliance between the Bourbon states of France, Spain, and the two Sicilies in 1761 – an arrangement that drew Spain into the Seven Years War then raging in the Americas and Asia as well as in Europe.
Students of history differ as to the exact part played by women in these two diplomatic maneuvers. Did the Empress Maria Theresa initiate the diplomatic revolution and control her ministers in the negotiations that eventuated in the overturn? Was it the influence of Madame de Pompadour that finally led the King of France to the point of accepting it? Some documents support affirmative answers; others ascribe the achievement, if such it was, mainly to the ministers and other men who acted as agents in effecting the bargain.
At all events the two women were deeply involved in the intricate transactions; and “comprehensive and balanced” history – any history that purports to “explain” how the deal was made – must reckon with all the evidence in the case. While any decisions of these matters of feminine “influence” – one way or the other – could have made little difference to the thousands of men killed and wounded in the battles that followed the diplomatic revolution, there is no doubt that women were entangled in the business of diplomacy and that it was family, not merely men’s, interests which were at stake.
Although in some countries of Europe, even in the middle ages, the power of the royal families was often checked more or less by parliaments or estates-general of one kind or another, it was on the other hand often strengthened by these legislative and taxing bodies.
Such parliaments represented estates, rather than individuals counted by heads. The English Parliament, for example, consisted of the House of Lords – the great lay and clerical barons of the realm; and the House of Commons – made up of representatives of the county gentry and the burgesses in towns. But , by the middle of the eighteenth century, all the great States of continental Europe were unhampered, as a rule despotic, monarchies.
In fact, for more than a century before the eve of the French Revolution, despotism had been increasing rather than diminishing in strength. Great Britain was then actually governed by the king and a few hundred great families represented by the peers in the House of Lords. The House of Commons, it is true, still existed and its members were elected by men; but out of about eight million people only 160,000 men were qualified to vote; and elections to the House were largely controlled by the king and the members of the aristocracy.
Not without good reason was the period preceding the French Revolution known as “the age of despots”; and at that time Catherine the Great of Russia was among the harshest of despots.
In other words, Europe was dominated by royal families in which women wielded immense power even when they did not reign in their own right as Catherine did.
And it must be remembered that royal and aristocratic families were landed families. Occasionally, as in England, a great lord of land married the daughter of a rich merchant. Yet, generally speaking, marriages among royal families were confined to that circle and the same rule was applied among the families of the aristocracies.
Kings and queens, of course, had large revenues from taxes, as well as incomes from their landed property, and they spent much of their time in the cities looking after affairs of state. But aristocratic families, while they often went to the capital for a season if they were rich enough to afford it, depended principally, if not entirely, upon their country estates for their livelihood and devoted a great deal of thought and energy to the management of their properties.
The relations and activities of men and women on the land – the prime source of economic support from the dissolution of the Roman Empire until the rise of modern commerce and industry – differed in many respects from the relations of men and women engaged in crafts and commerce in the towns. This is a fact usually neglected by the writers of letters, polite and serious, in our age.
In the first place, rural families – aristocratic, servile, and freehold – survived, often intact, through the centuries, while craft and mercantile families appeared and disappeared with the fluctuating fortunes of commerce.
In the second place, in the rural families the men and women lived and worked together in almost uninterrupted association from season to season, from year to year. There the husband and wife each had heavy obligations connected with the economy of household and field; and when the man was away in wars, so often the case, the woman assumed responsibilities for keeping the family going by managing its land and household economy.
All in all, this is to say: In the royal and the aristocratic families which governed most of Europe for centuries, women displayed great force, directly and indirectly, in the affairs of state and in the management of the underlying economy which sustained the monarchy.
Not until the commercial and political revolutions, accumulating full force in the eighteenth century, actually disrupted the solidarity of royal and aristocratic families founded on a landed wealth did women alike with the great families to which they belonged lose most of the power which they had so long exercised in the affairs of State and Society. Not until then did the state pass to the control of parliaments composed of men and elected by men.
The date, 1789, when the French Revolution opened, dramatizes this transfer of power. Yet the acquisition of political power by men-at-large came slowly and tediously in the opinion of men seeking enfranchisement, that is, the right to help make laws and hold offices of government. Nearly a hundred years elapsed before all the adult men of France definitely won full parliamentary suffrage. It was not until 1871 that all adult males in Germany were granted the suffrage for members of the new imperial Reichstag; and this right amounted to little, owing to the power retained by the imperial and royal families of that country up to the debacle in 1918. The extension of manhood suffrage in Great Britain, begun by the reform bill of 1832, was not completed until the close of the first world war. Even in the United States the struggle of white men for the vote was long and hard; the general victory did not come until more than fifty years after the Declaration of Independence had asserted that “all men are created equal” – and not full victory, at that, in view of poll tax and other qualifications then or later imposed in parts of the United States.
Furthermore, the period between the dissolution of woman’s political power in royal and aristocratic families and the general enfranchisement of women was relatively short as measured against the long centuries of royal and aristocratic rule. When the movement for woman suffrage was formally launched near the middle of the nineteenth century, millions of men were still striving for enfranchisement throughout the continent of Europe. Women were winning the suffrage in the more progressive societies years before manhood suffrage had been won in other societies.
All things considered, men’s monopoly over politics under systems of manhood suffrage, never complete, was brief, compared with the ages in which royal and aristocratic women exercised power in affairs of State and Society. Moreover, when women’s campaigns for enfranchisement are contrasted with the violent and often bloody contests which masses of men had to wage for their enfranchisement, it is patent that women won the right to vote by men’s consent with relative ease, including as ease a smaller span of time. To the women who spent their adult years in agitating for the ballot, the contest seemed so severe and so prolonged as to try their souls to the uttermost. Nevertheless man, the “tyrant” and “usurper” of 1848, yielded the suffrage to women quicker and with more grace than women of royal and aristocratic families had bowed to the tempest of rising democracy, with its cry of “votes for men.”
Beginnings of Western Social Philosophy
Older than the State was Society, though not the Great Society. Underlying and necessary to the process of state-building through the centuries were societies. Long before state-building families started their large-scale operations, ancient and simpler societies existed – associations of men and women held together by personal loyalties, common ties, and the requirements of mutual aid – all indispensable to human existence. Furthermore, throughout history such personal loyalties, common ties, and mutual aid perdured, serving everywhere among the forces which kept society going and developing, if it did develop, and providing forces of opposition to sheer power, to tyranny, in the state.
A search for the origins and nature of the moral and intellectual qualities that animate and sustain societies leads far back behind recorded history into the very beginnings of association in the preliterate time. But, if we take the records that furnish information about early societies in which mother-right, or mother-law, was the binding social force and infer that this was the original social datum, then woman was the veritable center and principal director or administrator of the primitive social organization. On the other hand, if we accept patriarchy as the primitive social datum or the datum of early recorded history, nevertheless woman, as wife, mother, daughter, was at the center of and a force in the social organization so constituted – in practice whatever may have been the alleged power of the husband and father as set forth in the extant fragments of early law.
Eventually in the course of social development, social emotions, moral sentiments, and ethical views came to expression in formulated ideas, and such ideas were employed by reflective thinkers in the creation of thought-systems to which the term, “philosophy,” became applied.
For the Western world it was in particular the Greeks who first enclosed the social emotions, sentiments, and ethical ideas in well-rounded systems of conceptual thought. It is true, certainly, that the Greeks borrowed ideas from other peoples, that conceptions from such sources were later fused with Greek conceptions. Still, Greek thought provided the main principles from which the social philosophies of the West stemmed, whatever metaphysical constructs were added to them. Did not Socrates and Plato provide the West with the first well-defined social Utopia – The Republic? Did not Aristotle, the critic of Plato’s communism, declare that “man is a political animal” – meaning in fact a man within society, or a social animal – and start with the family “constitution” as the primary datum of “politics"? Was it not Greek Stoicism that later evolved the doctrine of universal humanity – the kinship of all human beings?
The systems of speculation and logic – manipulation constructed in subsequent times, insofar as they had meaning and use for life, were based on or took into serious account the social content of philosophy. It was only after thinking became professionalized that “the original practical purpose” of thought was gradually lost to sight and “practised for its own sake as theoretical thought” – as though unrelated to life as it is and must be lived, in society.
It was the “professional” thinkers who became the strange creatures of the earth described by Erasmus in his In Praise of Folly – “the rhetoricians,” “the scribbling fops ... .. the lawyers [who] will cite you six hundred several precedents ... .. the logicians and sophisters” who will “wrangle bloodily over the least trifle,” “the philosophers in their long beards and short cloaks who esteem themselves the only favorites of wisdom,” and at last the petty “divines” who inquire “whether God, who took our nature upon him in form of a man, could as well have become a woman, a devil, a beast, an herb, or a stone.”
But, all along, those thinkers who have been “practical” and kept close to the idea of thought as related realistically to the experiences and purposes of life have sought to carry forward and develop the social content inherent in the oldest and the final philosophies of the ancient Greeks.
One of the earliest – and perhaps the first – rivals of the hymnology of war, hatred, and revenge made immortal by Homer was the poetry of an Aeolian woman called Sappha by her people but uniformly known to later times as Sappho. Exactly when she lived is a matter of literary debate but there is considerable agreement that she belonged to the sixth century B.C. and this puts her after Homer. Sappho wrote poetry to be sung to the harp and some Greek writers said that she invented a species of harp.
Much of Sappho’s poetry was of a plaintive tenderness but she had a fervid feeling for love as a saving grace. Several of her feminine disciples also sang of the beauty and healing force of love. Solon the law-giver and Plato the philosopher were deeply affected by her hymns to the great idea of a social power unrecognized by “the Bible of the Greeks”: Homer. Though Attic poets and playwrights tried to destroy her by attacking her as a courtesan or “Lesbian” pervert, the German classical scholar, Welcker, in his Kleine Schriften, declares that such attacks were sheer calumny. Nor did they succeed in their aim. More than twenty centuries have honored the “sweet singer” of Aeolia.
To Pythagoras a legend attributes the invention of the word “philosophy” (philosophia in its Greek form) and the use of it “in its original and widest sense” is defined as “the love, study, or pursuit of wisdom, or of knowledge of things and the causes, whether theoretical or practical.” Now under the title “Pythagoras,” *in encyclopaedias and biographical dictionaries, the whole case of Pythagoreanism is commonly set forth.
After investigating some of the original sources, the “expert” author of the article captioned “Pythagoras” in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology remarked: “That there were several women among the adherents of Pythagoras is pretty certain. That any were members of the club of 300 [at Crotona] is not so probable. Krische considers that these female Pythagoreans were only the wives and relations of members of the brotherhood, who were instructed in some of the Pythagorean doctrines. These would doubtless be mainly with the religious part of his system.” This admission that women were anywhere near the “brotherhood” goes beyond other articles in later and broader compendia which call the whole Pythagorean Order a “brotherhood,” without so much as mentioning wives and other relatives “instructed” in its cult.
But after the foregoing statement in this compendium of knowledge is the note: “Comp. Ménage, Hist. de Mul. Philos.” This refers to the work on the history of women philosophers by Gilles Ménage, written in Latin and published in 1765. And if one consults Ménage as advised, what does one discover? The names of twenty-eight women philosophers classified as Pythagoreans. And if one hunts for those names in this Dictionary, one gets clues to more than their instruction mainly in the religious part of “his” (Pythagoras’) system. Pushing the inquiry back into ancient Greek sources brings those women to life as participants in the making of this philosophy. There one meets Theano, assumed from the weight of evidence to be the wife of Pythagoras. Who and what was she?
Theano was beautiful, devoted to medicine, hygiene, the arts of ethical living, physics and mathematics, a commentator on the art of healing, and a writer on virtue in its large Greek meaning, such as Socrates later associated with it when he spoke of virtue. There were daughters of this “love match,” which captivated the imagination of the Greeks, and they too were philosophers who helped to spread the system of thought which was developed within this family and given to the Pythagorean Order.
The Dictionary sketch of Theano runs as follows: “The most celebrated of the female philosophers of the Pythagorean school appears to have been the wife of Pythagoras, and the mother by him of Telauges, Mnesarchus, Myia, and Arignote; but the accounts respecting her were various... . Her traditional fame for wisdom and virtue was of the highest order, and some interesting sayings are ascribed to her by Diogenes Laertius, and by Clemens Alexandrinus. Diogenes also informs us that she left some writings, but he does not mention their titles... . Several interesting letters are still extant under her name; and, though it is now universally admitted that they cannot be genuine, they are valuable remains of a period of considerable antiquity. They were first edited in the Aldine collection of Greek Epistles [at Venice in 1499, almost as soon as the printing press had been invented] ; then in the similar collection of Cujacius, Aurel. Allob. 16o6, fol.; then in Gale’s Opuscula Mythologica... . Cantab. 1671, Amst. 1688; then, far more accurately in Wolf’s Mulierum Graecarum Fragmenta, 1739 ... ; and lastly in Io. Conrad Orelli’s Socratis et Socraticorum, Pythagorae et Pythagoreorum, quae ferunter Epistolae ... Lips. 1815 ... ; the Greek text is also printed with Wieland’s admirable translation of the letters, Leipz. 1791. Wieland’s translation is reprinted at the end of Orelli’s work ... . Suidas mentions another Theano... . also a Pythagorean ... who wrote works on Pythagoras, on Virtue addressed to Hippodamus of Thuriurn... . It is pretty clear, however, that this is only another account, somewhat more confused, of the celebrated Theano.”
Elsewhere one learns that Theano corresponded with Callisto, on child psychology and the best way to bring up a family; that her treatise on Virtue contained the doctrine of the “golden mean,” renowned as a major contribution of Greek thought to the evolution of social philosophy. After the death of Pythagoras, which occurred at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the fifth century B.C., Theano, carried on the central school of the Order. just how many daughters she and Pythagoras had is a matter of guessing but some of them seem to be well established in the records – women who, as teachers, writers, and missionaries, disseminated the philosophy of their parents.
Concerning the belief that Pythagoras himself, alone, formulated the entire system of philosophy known as Pythagoreanism, F. M. Cornford, writing on “Mystery Religions and Pre-Socratic Philosophy” in Volume IV of The Cambridge Ancient History, makes this important statement: “Any reconstruction” of his system “is largely conjectural.” At the same time Cornford refers to “the pious tradition whereby the school [of Pythagoreans] ascribed all discoveries to the founder.” Indeed this is true. Pythagoras left no writing of his own for judging his leadership, but his personality must have been commanding to have given him the character almost of a god.
The Pythagoreans were in the beginning a society of families ‘ and at the heart of their thinking was society. In time, as the Order expanded in numbers and in centers, an ascetic faction took form and it has become a common habit today among writers on this philosophy to call the whole Order a “brotherhood.” But this is to miss its original tenets. This oversight may be due to the intense interest in the mathematical system evolved by the Order – mathematics developed into a cult by the Order. Aristotle said in one comment on the Pythagoreans that, having been brought up in mathematical science, the Pythagoreans “thought that its principles must be the principles of all existing things.” And the distinguished modern philosopher and mathematician, Alfred Whitehead, in the chapter of his Science and the Modern World headed “Mathematics,” pays high tribute to “Pythagoras” as the first to grasp the fundamental principles of modern philosophic thought.
Since philosophic thought transcends or embodies the idea of order inherent in mathematics, if Pythagoreans “thought that its principles must be the principles of all existing things,” then more than their mathematics must be studied if one would try to comprehend their system of philosophy in its fullness. The larger study requires attention to the social elements which played so essential a part in it and this really requires a close consideration of the women of the Order in its early career.
With their interests and impulses as wives and mothers, an ideal of harmonious family living was evolved and related to interfamily unity in their society. Simple living was a basic principle but it was not to be dull living. Health was to be cultivated by a hygienic diet; the rhythms of music, dancing, and song were to promote it; and apparel was to be suited to the satisfaction of esthetic taste rather than display, as a means of happiness. The Pythagoreans were at first Orphics and as such regarded themselves as companions of gods and goddesses, not frightened inferiors of the deities.
On this point Cornford. says: “Pythagoreanism ... begins, not with the elimination of factors that once had a religious significance, but actually with a reconstruction of the religious life. To Pythagoras ... the love of wisdom was a way of life. He heralded and inspired all those systems – Socratic, Stoic, Neoplatonic – in which knowledge, no longer the child of wonder and of the unacknowledged desire for power over nature, became, if not a mere means to virtuous living, at least identified with the well-being and well-doing of the human soul... . The earliest form of Pythagoreanism must have been a construction of the ‘seen order’ capable of providing for the needs of the unseen.”
Eventually within the Pythagorean Order an ascetic strain, other-worldliness, became manifest, as the membership enlarged and more types of persons were included in it. On the other hand, exuberance of spirit occasionally went as far as extravagant license among some members and Dionysus became their cult god. For various reasons the Order encountered the antagonism of outsiders, at its center in Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and in Grecia Magna where branches were founded. By the middle of the fifth century B.C. it was generally stamped out as an organization, but several of its most effective exponents escaped from hostile mobs and carried on their teaching in Thebes and other places where they could be fairly safe from enemies. For example, Lysis found his way to Egypt and became the instructor of Epaminondas.
According to tradition, Philolaus was the first to write on the Pythagorean system and he lived at Thebes at the end of the fifth century. But he returned later with companions to Italy and refounded a school at Taras (Tarentum). At Taras lived Archytas, a friend of Plato, and Plato observed Pythagorean societies in Italy when he went there to visit his friend.
If Plato’s story of Diotima, the priestess of Mantinea, is to be accepted as authentic and later writers are right in their assumption that she was a Pythagorean, this woman was an instructor of Socrates whom Plato says he called his teacher. Plato is somewhat specific as to what she imparted in philosophic thought. He says in his Symposium that she expressed “opinions on the nature, origin, and objects of life,” and these opinions are the core of that dialogue. It is meaningful for the history of social thought that Plato represented a woman as worthy and competent to teach his own master initial elements of social philosophy.
Other women classified as Pythagoreans include Perictione, who may have been the mother or sister of Plato, a philosopher who wrote on the harmony of women and on wisdom. Aristotle spoke well of her. Aesara of Lucania was deemed so important that Alexander the Sophist made her the theme of lectures and the Roman poets Catullus and Horace, having discovered her in their time, sang her praises as a woman of letters.
From the Pythagorean philosophy many schools of philosophy sprang to emphasize one or more of its tenets, to reject some and expand others. For example, Parmenides, founder of the Eleatic School in the time of Socrates and now described as “the first philosopher who argues,” had been trained in Pythagoreanism, but he detected what he believed to be contradictions within it. Troubled over the dilemma, he reported in a long narrative poem, he sought advice from a goddess whom he visited in the underworld where she dwelt. This advice she gave him: : judge by reasoning the muchdisputed proof. Pursue the Ways of Truth and the Ways of Untruth.” This he decided to do.
In his account of “The Athenian Philosophical Schools,” Cambridge Ancient History, Volume VI, F. M. Cornford says, with reference to Plato’s Academy, that Plato founded it “on lines partly suggested by the Pythagorean societies Plato had seen in South Italy. He also found in Pythagoreanism the clue to the problem of knowledge.” Elaborating that problem as one that bothered Plato, the author of this article goes on to say: “The possibility of knowledge had become a problem when Parmenides condemned as false the manifold world which ‘seems’ to the senses, and Protagoras had asserted, on the contrary side, that what seems to every man is real or true for him.... To a follower of Socrates the problem of knowledge presents a different aspect; it is, in the first place, the problem of that knowledge which is goodness.” Then Cornford, turning to the Metaphysics of I Aristotle, says: “Platonism, as Aristotle saw, is a form of Pythagoreanism, modified by Socratic influence.” The vitality in the philosophy of the Pythagoreans (not Pythagoras himself alone, who left no published writing and became a kind of vague god with the passage of time) becomes clear as it is traced from their thinking in the sixth century B.C. through the thinking of Plato and Aristotle into the thinking of the Hellenic and following ages.
In succeeding schools, offshoots of Pythagoreanism, women continued to be active as thinkers, writers, and teachers. Ménage names sixty-three women philosophers of the Hellenic age and classifies them by schools. Some became heads of philosophic schools, notably Arete of Cyrene who had urged her father Aristippus to set up a school at Cyrene and who conducted it after his death. She was interested in natural science and ethics and like her father she was concerned with a “world in which there would be neither masters nor slaves and all would be as free from worry as Socrates.”
What a richness of ideas the Greek philosophic speculations evolved! They embraced inquiries about such problems as these: the function of religion and the role of the goddesses and gods; war and peace and ways of attaining peace; religious and even scientific bigotry; naturalism and humanism; the dualisms of good and evil; family and social well-being; wealth and poverty; mind and matter; pantheism; the elevation of reason to supremacy in the mind; intellectual snobbery; contradictions within the formulated systems of philosophy; efforts to overcome the contradictions; whether the psychology of emotions explained conduct and mentality better than concern with conceptual thought; the place of virtue, pleasure, righteousness, and politics in the shaping of destiny; rhetoric versus fundamental knowledge; the laws of logic and their inadequacies; physics and its limitations; rules of oratory, playwriting, and poetry; citizenship and free opinion; simple living and restraint as opposed to ostentation and extravagance; sex and its significance; skepticism, cynicism, pessimism, sophistry, stoicism; mechanism; intuition; judgment based solely on the senses and its superficiality; traditional as inferior to investigatory, factual, and creative intelligence; educational theory and practice involving such questions as whether virtue can be taught, whether inspiration can spring out of ignorance, how aspiration can be promoted, what aspiration is. The Greeks pursued Truth in its fullest sense. They pushed scientific inquiries to considerable lengths. They sought after what is called culture; they analyzed it; some disowned it. Aristotle led the way in the encyclopaedic accumulation of exact knowledge as it existed by his time and for centuries was regarded in Christendom as “the master of them that know.”
When their intellectually creative era closed, they had to their credit the collection, classification, and analysis of all the learning upon which they could lay their hands; the framing of educational systems and textbooks for instruction; the invention of every branch of literature with stylistic devices for each, established as immortal models.
To that broad and deep current of thought called philosophy which flowed from the Greek world down through the ages of the Roman world and on into Christendom, Roman thinkers made few if any original contributions. But their chief system of philosophy, borrowed from the old Greeks and reworked in the light of Rome’s experience as “mistress of the world,” centered reflective thought on things human, on the struggle between tyranny and liberty, within the human spirit and in history. That system was Stoicism, and its preeminent expositor was Lucius Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.)
Lucius was the son of M. A. Seneca, a man of letters, and of Helvia of whose origins we know little except that her father had a low view of woman’s talents. By some method Helvia acquired a liberal education and found in letters consolation for many afflictions. Despising the pride and show of the equestrian class to which she and her husband belonged, Helvia contributed to the education of her son and gave him the affectionate upbringing revealed to us in letters which are among the precious memorials of her age. To an aunt, whom he remembered with admiration, he was indebted for help in the beginning of his career. If his wife, Marcia, had less stoicism in her make-up than his mother, Seneca nonetheless found in her character continuous inspiration until that tragic day when, ordered by Nero to commit suicide, he bade her the last farewell.
The philosophy of life which Seneca developed “embraced in the arms of equal charity all human souls, bond or free, male or female, however they might be graded by convention and accident, who have a divine parentage, and may, if they will, have a lofty, perhaps eternal future,” To ranks and classes his ethics made no
concessions; capacity for virtue was his only test of values. Women, in his view, were equals of men in culture and virtue: “Women have the same inner force, the same capacity for nobleness as men.” In his letters to Helvia and Marcia, this breadth of view was recorded.
“It was not for nothing,” wrote Samuel Dill in Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, “that Seneca had been for five years the first minister of the Roman Empire. To have stood so near the master of the world, and felt the pulse of humanity from Britain to the Euphrates, to have listened to their complaints and tried to minister to their needs, was a rare education in social sympathy... . No one outside the pale of Christianity has perhaps ever insisted so powerfully on the obligation to live for others, on the duty of love and forgiveness, as Seneca has done. We are all, bond and free, ruler or subject, members of one another, citizens of a universal commonwealth ... The social instinct is innate and original in us... . It was only by combination and mutual good offices that men were able to repel the dangers which surrounded the infancy of the race, and to conquer the forces of nature. Man is born for social union, which is cemented by concord, kindness, and love... . Forgive if you wish for forgiveness; conquer evil with good; do good even to those who have wrought you evil. Let us copy the serene example of those Eternal Powers who constantly load with their benefits even those who doubt of their existence, and bear with unruffled kindness the errors of frail souls that stumble by the way.
Such were the great philosophic systems bequeathed from the ancient world to the middle ages. They entered into the thinking of the Italian Renaissance and in spirit became connected with the lofty teachings of those Christian mystics who preached the social gospel in mediaeval times, foreshadowing the day when democratic upheavals would usher in the modern era.
Opening the Age of Enlightenment
Since the development of socialized philosophy and the relation of women to it in the mediaeval period has been treated in a previous chapter under the head, “Education and Intellectual Interests in the Middle Ages,” the intellectual transition from feudalism to the concept of civilization in our own times is now to be considered. There is a consensus that France, after borrowing heavily from Italy, which in turn borrowed from classical culture, became the pioneer in enlarging the civilization of tastes, from matters of serving and eating food to the amenities of conversation. There is likewise general agreement that France also assumed the initiative in formulating or restating the chief ideas which incited the revolt against despotism on the continent of Europe, stimulated the movement for democracy, spurred zeal for reforms ranging from the revision of criminal laws to social reconstruction, and kindled anew the hopes for universal peace, such as had sustained Stoics in antiquity and inspired Christian idealists in the middle ages.
This transition, extending over more than two centuries, passed through three broad stages. The first was marked by the introduction and establishment of standards for “civility” reaching far beyond the standards of mediaeval chivalry, formalized in the Court of Love, to embrace more kinds of persons and broader social interests. The second was characterized by a skeptical attitude toward the claims of the State justifying its right to be tyrannical and cruel, toward the dogmatism and intolerance insisted upon by the Church with the support of the State. In the third stage, becoming marked early in the eighteenth century, constructive thinking emerged in efforts to evolve and give form and force to ideas pertinent to the release of thought and action in the interest of human happiness and general welfare.
These stages were not separated by sharp divisions. In some circles of the aristocracy, stress continued to be placed on civility and the refinement of social intercourse among the upper classes during the periods of skepticism and constructive philosophizing. Skepticism did not become a force until the new constructive ideas had been well delineated, for skepticism was itself the fruition of a search for better ways of conducting human affairs, and it continued after constructive proposals had become the chief topics of interest. But the variant emphases in fact led to such a revolution in thought that the three phases of the social and intellectual transition from feudalism to the modern age may be treated one by one.
At the opening of the seventeenth century, the manners and tastes of French noblemen and the bourgeois in general were still almost as crude as manners and tastes had been as a rule in the early days of feudalism. Powerful lords still kept their swords sharp, despised learning as effeminate and beneath the dignity of the strong man, spent more time with horses and dogs than with books or the arts, and looked on coarseness as a sign of strength. Like their forebears, many of them could scarcely read and write, if at all, and still fewer were interested in general ideas or arts or letters. Among the bourgeois the richest merchant families were often above the common run of nobles in degrees of gentility, more sensitive in tastes, and broader in their mental activities. But community life in French towns was marred by gross disorders and filthy habits. Dirty streets, open sewers, and epidemics bore outward witness to an inner state of disgrace. The very language spoken was a jumble of dialects, and confusion reigned in spelling, grammar, and meanings. Whatever colleges, universities, and lower schools had been trying to do for the improvement of manners, ways of living, and modes of intellectual intercourse, they had apparently made little impression on nobles, the average merchant family, and the masses of the people.
The government and the laws of France, civil and criminal, were despotic and brutal, and they grew worse rather than better as the decades passed. Under Louis XIV, despotism was regularized and glorified. After the revocation, in 1685, of the Edict of Nantes which had permitted some religious liberty, Protestants had no civil rights at law; they could not marry legally, have legitimate children, or bequeath property. By oath the successive rulers were pledged to extirpate all heresy and heretics. Books of every kind had to be submitted to censorship, and secret publication in defiance of it put guilty parties in jeopardy of harsh penalties. After 1614 the Estates General met no more – until 1789; and there were no official assemblies in which representatives could publicly and freely evolve, discuss, and promote ideas for reforming the despotic State administration and its laws or for reducing the coercive rights of the aristocracy and clergy.
In 1757 the death penalty was prescribed for persons who wrote, printed, or distributed any work in the nature of an attack on religion. Printed matter assailing or criticizing the government or its officials was forbidden and persons responsible for such publications were liable to fine and imprisonment. As some French writer has said of the old regime, only circumspect private conversations concerning such matters enjoyed considerable freedom from police interference. Practice seldom is as universally bad as repressive laws but it was bad enough in this time and place.
Under whose auspices and with what agencies was the campaign against the barbarisms and abuses of such a regime initiated and carried forward?
A struggle for civility in manners, tastes, language, and modes of association was deliberately started about 16o8 by the Marquise de Rambouillet in her salon at Paris, and was continued there until her death in 1665. To her successive assemblies through the years she invited members of the court and of the aristocracy, writers, artists, musicians, and public officials in the upper ranges of the government. Under her skillful tutelage conversation was developed into a fine art, the French language was stripped of its grammatical monstrosities, its grossness, and its awkwardness; standards of literary and spoken communication were erected; and the enthusiasm for discriminative writing was stimulated, though encouragement was not given to radicalism or impiety.
The work for civility thus begun by Madame Rambouillet was taken up by other distinguished women, by the scores, who either followed the model she set or emulated her spirit; and it was maintained from generation to generation, until France became the arbiter of “good taste” and the exemplar of clear writing throughout the Western world. If some hostesses turned refinement into pallid preciosity and made their salons ridiculous, there can scarcely be any doubt that these feminine institutions of civility were, for a long time, the greatest single influence in developing civilized social behavior, promoting lucidity of written expression, and inciting talents to flower in arts and letters.
Although salons devoted entirely or mainly to matters of taste in letters and arts continued to flourish, their monopoly was invaded before the end of the seventeenth century by newcomers especially concerned with critical thinking, while by no means neglecting questions of literary and artistic excellence or of social philosophy. These newcomers founded what may be called “salons of skepticism” and ushered in the second stage of the transition from feudalism to the modern age. If authoritarianism in State and Church was to be abolished or even mitigated, engines of criticism had to be brought against it and applied again and again and again. Yet to avoid the toils of the law, critics had to be wary in shaping and stating their views. They had to be more or less subtle. They could not be too blunt. They had too much at stake to explode impulsively. They had to think of tactics.
Before the end of the seventeenth century, men and women of critical inclinations, skeptics, began to gather at the homes of prudent but hospitable women where wits were comfortable and could exercise their ingenuity in conversation while at the same time saying what was on their minds. If they were too lugubrious, they were boring. To be boring was to be unwelcome. If they were unwelcome in the salons, the alternative was to be denied self-expression unless they wished in print to brave officers of the law.
Of all the salons open to skeptics at that period none was more attractive to intellectuals than that of Ninon de Lenclos, patron of bold thinkers. Concerning Ninon, Madame de Sevigne exclaimed: “How dangerous is that Ninon! If you knew how she dogmatizes on religion you would be horrified!” By her personal appeal and her courage as hostess, Ninon gave such measure, yet brilliance, to the conversations at her assemblies that the redoubtable memoirist, Saint-Simon, burst out in an encomium over her receptions. Hearing of the mots d’esprit exchanged there, the king was accustomed to ask: “What is Ninon saying now?”
Merely to list the names of the distinguished persons who took part in Ninon’s causeries would be to make an honor roll of the age. High on it would be the names of Saint-Evremond, master of irony; Scarron, poet and dramatist, whose wife was Madame de Maintenon; the great Conde’, former regent of Louis XIV; dukes, professional men of war, diplomats, savants, poets, and writers of the first rank. La Fontaine, Boileau, and La Rochefoucauld enjoyed her confidence and found delight in her companies. The most acute women of the time were among her friends and guests. Indeed she made a point of selecting and inviting women of high spirit and skill in conversation – women who could be at ease with the men, participate in the play of thought, and exchange ideas for ideas. The sparkling clashes of minds made her salon far-famed.
To the end Ninon de Lenclos maintained her social independence and her skepticism. When a Jesuit priest begged her to offer to God at least her unbelief, she declined to make even that concession. Among her last visitors during her old age was a young man whose precocious intelligence so charmed her that she willed him 2,000 francs with which to buy books. He was Francois-Marie Arouet, known to posterity as Voltaire and destined to shake religious and political intolerance from center to circumference.
Skepticism implied the existence of ideals by which to test individuals, people, and institutions under review. Thus it led to the third stage, or emphasis, in the development of the salon – the recognition that formulated constructive philosophies were necessary to overcome what were deemed the barbarisms of the governing regime. In reflections on objectives and ways and means of attaining ideals, social philosophies were in time created and they furnished new directives for thought both in the later salons and in the great world beyond their halls.
Many salons continued to be primarily concerned with good taste in letters and arts. But all hostesses, even if they clung to receptions which attracted writers and artists of a conventional type, were not satisfied to be confined to those assemblies. Mme. Geoffrin had two assemblies a week in her home. She reserved Mondays for established artists and aspiring amateurs, and to her Wednesday rallies were invited only the savants, writers of the highest repute, and philosophers.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the philosophes of the Enlightenment held sway in the meetings presided over by women devoted to the discussions of the perplexing issues which were being defined on the eve of the Revolution. The names of Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, Turgot, Necker, and Condorcet led all the rest in distinction. Though Rousseau eventually flung himself out of the salon coteries and, jeering at civilization, advocated the freedom which he chose to envisage as primordial, he is to be associated, if only by his revolt, with the influence of these institutions of skeptical and philosophic civility.
Of all this movement the Goncourt brothers wrote enthusiastically in the nineteenth century, as French men and students of the records. “If one salon was closed,” they said, “another was always open for a trial of theory. For example, after the death of Mme. de Lambert, the intelligentsia who had been her especial friends moved over to the salon of Mme. de Tencin, the “bonne amie’ of Fontenelle who said to him one day as she placed her hand on his heart: ‘Vous n’avez la’ que du cerveau.’ In this salon, the first in France to receive a man at his intellectual value, the litterateur began the great role he was destined to play in the society of that age; it was from here, from the salon of Mme. de Tencin, that he made his way to other salons and rose step by step to dominate a society which at the close of a century was to grant him so large a place in the state... . This woman hastened to the amusements of the mind, enjoyed comedy, novel or witticism, with a heart, a passion and a soul that seemed to escape from her life and abandon themselves utterly to the joys of her mind. What intelIectual life, what movement, what vivacity of idea and idiom in the salon this woman collected exhaustively from among men of letters and quickened for her pleasure! Here Marivaux brought depth to subtlety; here Montesquieu awaited the passage of an argument to return it with swift or powerful hand. Here Mairan uttered an idea in a word, and Fontenelle commanded silence with one of the delicate stories he seemed to have found halfway between heaven and earth, between Paris and Badinopolis!”
Mme. de Tencin herself left a pen portrait of Louis XV which, admirers have declared, no historian will ever equal. And she was capable of criticism and fire of her own. Like Mirabeau she had a fierce combat with her father to escape burial in a convent all her life. And, like him, she was always at the center of strife. She played politics, she wrote, she served a term in jail. A product of conflict, both her turbulence and her intellect were of the French quality which was to bear the thinkers into revolutionary battles.
“Because they were continually occupied,” wrote the Goncourts, “because they were forced by the exigencies of their domination, by their place in society, by the interest of their sex, and by their very inaction to carry on an incessant and almost unconscious work of judgment, comparison, and analysis, the women of that age attained a sagacity that gave them the government of the world. It permitted them to strike straight at the heart of the passions, interests, and weaknesses of everyone. The women of the day acquired this prodigious tact so speedily and at such slight cost that it appeared almost as a natural sense in them. It might well be said that there was intuition in the experience of so many young women with this admirable contemporary gift of knowledge without study, of that knowledge which caused the savantes to know a great deal without being erudite, of that knowledge which made women of Society know everything without having learned anything. ‘Young intelligences divined far more than they learned,’ said Senac de Meilhan, in a profound epigram.
“This genius, this habit of perception and penetration, this rapidity and sureness of vision instilled in woman a rationale of conduct, a quality frequently hidden by the outward aspect of the eighteenth century, yet easily discernible in all the expressions that escaped it. This quality was the personality and property of judgment brought back to the reality of life: the practical spirit.
“What lessons this positivism of appreciation and observation, this imperturbable and apparently natural scepticism taught; how subtle it was, what terrifying depths and lengths it went to! It was this wisdom, without the illusion of God, of society, of man, of faith in anything whatever, builded of every mistrust and every disenchantment, clear and absolute as the proof of a mathematical operation, having only one principle, the recognition of fact, that placed this maxim in the mouth of a young woman: ‘It is to your lover you must never say you disbelieve in God; but to your husband it does not matter at all, because with your lover you must leave yourself a way of exit. Religious scruples and devotion cut everything short.’ “
Among the most versatile leaders of these numerous salons was Julie de Lespinasse. It was said of her that she united in her assemblies the Academy, the Encyclopaedia, the State, the Army, and the Church, conducted a veritable laboratory of opinion, encouraged free discussions of pressing issues, all in the atmosphere of liberty. In her rooms men of the Encyclopaedia tried out their theories, read drafts of their articles before publication, and were subjected to criticism. Chastellux, social philosopher, tested his ideas at her parties. Able to speak English, as well as Italian and Spanish, Lespinasse was particularly inquisitive about English institutions of liberty and government and hospitable to members of the English parliament who visited France. Aware of the political and social storms brewing in France, she dedicated her talents to a search for “the possibility of avoiding a catastrophe.”
From week to week, in some cases for twenty, thirty, or even forty years, energetic women of spirit, well educated and clever, directed these “republics of letters” under unwritten laws which they evolved through experience. They planned the intellectual strategy of the occasions, gently held discussions to the themes under consideration, raised questions for debate, encouraged young guests, courteously subdued monopolists of conversation, and drew out the interests of the shy or diffident. As Roger Picard says, the hostesses, although differing in character and talents, had certain qualities in common: good taste, urbanity, the art of leading each person to speak on the question about which he knew most or thought he knew most, or was thought by others to know most. Rival vanities were discouraged, the maladroit, offensive, and unjust word avoided, and minds firmly but graciously held to issues that had been joined. Instead of imitating the formalities and pedantry of schoolrooms, hostesses sought to promote the dearest possible thinking and forms of expression. To the influence of these women and the assemblies they directed was due in no small measure that literary grace which made French writing and conversing the admiration of the civilized world.
The spirit of the liberal and radical salons being cosmopolitan and friendly to English ideas, many Englishmen attended their assemblies by invitation from the hostesses or after having sought this privilege on their own motion. Among the English visitors were Hume, Bolingbroke, Chesterfield, Horace Walpole, Gibbon, and Adam Smith. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson from America were sometimes guests. Continental princes now and then sent agents to attend the assemblies and report on the opinions voiced there. The commingling of professional soldiers, bankers, diplomats, statesmen, and other men holding positions of prominence in public life with historians and philosophers gave to these forums intellectual brilliance and a challenge to good thinking, not to be found in the confines of the court or of an ordinary political parliament.
At a time when censorship bore down hard on freedom of speech and press, in a country that had no open forum such as the English parliament, under the protection of the salons all the institutions and projects that were to figure in the Revolution were brought under persistent and rigorous scrutiny: constitutional government and liberty, representative government, separation of State and Church, natural rights, the release of economy from the stranglehold of provincialism and mercantilism, sovereignty of the people, programs of liberty, equality, and fraternity. If, as has often been remarked, these men and women were “playing with fire,” it may be justly added that they were also seeking ways and means of grappling with the inevitable in the hope of escaping disaster.
Formulating the Idea of Civilization
In such associations of minds with minds, two revolutionary ideas – social philosophies – were developed and propagated in the eighteenth century. Their revolutionary character lay in their interpretations and evaluations of long history – past, present, and in the coming centuries. The first was the idea of progress; the second was the idea of civilization. By their nature and influence they have long separated the thought and practice of the Western world from the thought and practice of the Eastern world – one might almost say from the world east of the Rhine. Both are opposed to the static conception of the human universe, dominant in the middle ages, and to the static conception of utopian communism, so rampant in our age, as a final “spring into freedom,” good everywhere and for all time.
The first of these world views – the idea of progress – rejected that theory of the world which regarded it as a vale of tears where human beings, under a divine plan, are trained, disciplined, and tested for happiness, not here, but in heaven; or, if unrepentant and sinful, are sent into everlasting awful punishment. To this world view, the idea of progress opposed an optimistic conception of human history and opportunity – the progressive improvement of social and individual life on earth by the utilization of the natural and moral sciences in realizing lofty, but ever-advancing, ideals for human aspiration.
The idea of progress was set forth in its original form in 1737 by Abbé de Saint-Pierre in his Observations on the Continuous Progress of Human Reason. “Here,” says J. B. Bury, in his study, The Idea of Progress, “we have for the first time, expressed in definite terms, the vista of an immensely long progressive life in front of humanity. Civilization is only in its infancy. Bacon, like Pascal, had conceived it to be in its old age.... The Abbé was the first to fix his eyes on the remote destinies of the race.” By its necessary commitments this idea was dynamic, and it lent inspiration to the salons engaged in exploring the possibilities and prospects for radical, if steady, reforms in the old regime of State and Church.
Accepting the idea of progress, the Marquis de Condorcet incorporated it in a larger idea which had appeared in France near the middle of the eighteenth century – the idea of civilization – and gave the result a systematic formulation in his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de l’esprit humain, published in 1795, posthumously. Although Mme. Condorcet did not conduct a salon in the grand manner, her home was one of the most important intellectual centers of France on the eve of the Revolution. Among the friends of the Condorcets were Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. Madame Condorcet translated Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Paine’s speeches to the convention. When her husband was being hunted by the police she supported him by “painting miniatures and selling lingerie”; when he thought of writing his memoirs, she besought him to write, instead, his philosophy of history and society, which on her advice he incorporated in his Esquisse – rendering effective aid in advancing the idea of civilization on its way to a place of power in Western thought.
As the Beards show in The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States, this idea, wrought out by French thinkers in the age of, and under the influence of, the salons, became the highest synthesis of liberal thought, as distinguished from fixed utopias and ideologies, in the Western world including the United States, and it is today the idea to which leaders in education, social improvement, and statecraft most commonly turn for sanction and inspiration. In its composite formulation it embraces a conception of history as the struggle of human beings for individual and social perfection – for the good, the true, and the beautiful – against ignorance, disease, the harshness of physical nature, the forces of barbarism in individuals and in society. It transcends conservative “civility” by making civility serve a universal civilizing process. Inherent in the idea is the social principle. That is to say, the civilization of men and women occurs in society, and all the agencies used in the process – language, ideas, knowledge, institutions, property, arts, and inventions – are social products, the work of men and women indissolubly united by the very nature of life, in a struggle for a decent and wholesome existence against the forces of barbarism and pessimism wrestling for the possession of the human spirit.
With what upshot for theory, and practice, for education and for life, individual and social, in a world torn wide open by wars and revolutions today?
Despite the barbaric and power-hungry propensities and activities in long history, to which their sex was by no means immune, women were engaged in the main in the promotion of civilian interests. Hence they were in the main on the side of civil-ization in the struggle with barbarism.
If this phase of woman’s force in history is to be capitalized as against barbaric propensities and activities, then an understanding of women’s past history in both connections must be regarded as indispensable to the maintenance and promotion of civilization in the present age.
But this is no “woman question” alone, as, social philosophers – women and men – have understood from the dawn of reflective thought. It is a human problem – a problem of knowledge, intelligence, and morals – for individuals, families, communities, and states. For centuries, judges of equity in the Anglo-Saxon world and makers of enlightened legislation everywhere have recognized it as such. So have all the men and women arrayed on the side of civilization.
Upon the truth of this matter and the uses made of it will depend forevermore the power of men and women to control themselves and the instrumentalities at their hands in the struggle against disruptive forces of barbarism and for the realization of the noblest ideals in the heritage of humanity.