What is it that we are called to be? Our body gives us some sense of our telos
, of our ends and purposes in life. If a man looks at his body he will see his muscularity; his angularity; a body shape built for strength, stamina and speed; a layering of hardness. A woman will see softness, flowing curves, elegance, delicacy, beauty. In both sexes, it is possible to see glimpses of nobility and dignity written into the body.
Our sexed bodies give us some sense of the truth of our created being, of what it means to fulfil our masculine and feminine natures.
Men are made to embody the "harder" virtues. The masculine virtues involve disciplining oneself consistently to a principle; striving to create a unity between thought, belief and action; acting to bring one's environment into line with a sense of right order; a willingness to submit oneself to rightful authority to achieve this; a willingness to bear a burden to achieve this. Integrity, duty, service, discipline, courage, perseverance, concentrated focus, right order, fortitude - these are significant to the male soul.
And women? It was thought until fairly recent times that women were the "weaker sex". I find it interesting, though, that the word "weak" has an extended meaning in the Germanic languages. In Old English it meant "weak, soft, pliant" and in modern German the word "weich" has the primary meaning of "soft".
And I'd like for the moment to focus rather on the idea that women embody the softer virtues. If women are beautiful and graceful on the outside, then we might wish them to be equally so on the inside. Ideally, we think of women as being warmly emotional; as giving unconditional love; of being immediately present to those around them; of being sensitive to others' needs and feelings; of being caring, nurturing and thoughtful; of being delicate in feeling and expression.
However, there is something of a paradox in all this. Women were made to embody the softer virtues, but the softness makes it difficult for women to become virtuous. Men can embody the harder virtues with will and force of character. But if a woman is softly natured, she won't have these same qualities at her disposal to direct herself toward the feminine virtues.
What seems to happen in practice is that many women instead inhabit the feelings that they happen to have at a particular time. They do not have the same drive as men to govern their feelings or emotions with their intellect or reason (this is a generalisation, not equally true of women, I will discuss the significant exceptions later).
In what particular ways does a woman's softness make it difficult for her to embody the softer virtues? It will help a man to understand this if he has an image in his mind of a woman who has feelings descend on her: she experiences them; enjoys or is discomfited by them; may act to alleviate the worst ones; but generally speaking has the sense that feelings happen to her and shape her reality. Feelings happen to her in a disconnected way, brought on by seemingly external forces.
What effects does this experience of the world have on her? We can see one negative effect when it comes to a woman's understanding of marriage. The traditional Western view of marriage is that it should be based on "caritas": on an altruistic, self-giving love that exists not only as an emotional experience, but is settled in the will as an ongoing commitment. It means being actively and deliberately oriented in a loving way to one's spouse. Marriage too was once thought to be based on a commitment to fulfil the offices of husband and wife, father and mother, with these being lifelong purposes.
But if you experience life as a series of disconnected emotional states that you passively experience, i.e. "that happen to you," then you won't understand marriage in the traditional way - you won't be able to participate in traditional marriage. Traditional marriage requires, at a minimum, that our feelings are governed by our reason.
There are many women today, even capable, well-educated women, who see marriage as contingent on feeling alone. If the feeling is right, then so too is their commitment to marriage. If it is not, then the marriage was not meant to be and is not considered valid.
It was once the case that men would note this aspect of a woman's softer nature humorously as being "fickleness" or "inconstancy". But today, in an era of easy, no-fault divorce, it has taken on a more serious dimension, in which lasting damage is done to a culture of family life.
Another weakness that can afflict women is a lack of accountability. If the softer mentality of women is that things just happen to them in a disconnected way, then what might women think when things go wrong? Women are then less likely to see themselves as being responsible for their own predicament. They will put themselves in the position of "recipient" and externalise the source of their misfortune. They might be tempted to see vague forces as determining the outcome of their life (and turn to psychics and the like to find out what is in store for them or what they should do). Or if they feel discontented in a marriage they might, in putting themselves in the "recipient" position, see their husbands as responsible for their negative feelings. They might even, when in this mindset, hold their husbands accountable for negative events that their husbands cannot possibly at a rational level have any control over, i.e. for acts of God.
If a woman is prone to an unhappy disposition, then this can end badly for her husband. His wife might then cultivate a bitter, critical, judging and unforgiving spirit, in which relatively small offences are held onto, remembered and thrown out at her husband as accusations, or internalised and expressed passive-aggressively through the withholding of love or affection.
The recipient mindset of women can have other negative effects. If it is held to deeply enough, then women can begin to see men instrumentally
as existing to serve their own female wants and purposes. If women see men in a depersonalised way as instruments
, they will lack empathy for the hardships or difficulties endured by men (in fact, readily dismiss these on the grounds of male disposability); they will feel entitled to the labours and achievements of men; and they will lack gratitude for the sacrifices made by men on their behalf.
The recipient mentality can also lead women toward sectionalism
. A woman might make demands on society in terms of getting things for herself as a woman, i.e. for just one section of society, rather than seeing herself as responsible for the well-being of society as a whole.
There is also the issue of softer women being frivolous. It helps here to compare the harder masculine and the softer feminine experiences of life. A man who is committed to embodying the harder masculine virtues will seek to penetrate to the truth of things, to right principle, and then to master himself and his environment so that both conform to right principle. It is a quest that makes of man a seeker after knowledge of self and reality. A softer woman will experience life in terms of feelings that she is subject to, that she receives, one after another. Her feelings will lead her to thoughts, but there is not the same drive to tie these thoughts together to have effect in the world.
This can lead to men seeing a woman's purposes as relatively shallow. Women, it can seem, just want to have fun - to experience pleasurable feelings in the moment. A husband might experience demands from his wife to entertain her, to amuse her, to alleviate her feelings of boredom. A husband knows that he is at risk if his wife is bored - he is then on thin ice in his relationship with her.
For a man, the fun side of life is there as an occasional diversion and rest from his true tasks. A life that was just about seeking pleasure would make many men feel uneasy - it would not engage the masculine soul. Men sometimes have the instinct to deliberately choose the difficult and arduous path, over the easy and pleasurable one, as a way of coming to a better sense of who they are as men.
(I should point out that I am not arguing that a woman's purposes cannot be as deep or as worthy as a man's, only that a woman might struggle, from within her own nature alone, to realise these purposes.)
Which brings me to one final observation. It is obviously true that a man can be immature. In fact, in modern life, men are sometimes put in a position that encourages immaturity. However, if we look at the workings of the harder masculine spirit and the softer feminine one, then there exist reasons for women to be more immature than men, particularly over time as life progresses. If a man seeks to fulfil himself through masculine virtues requiring qualities of fortitude, endurance, integrity, duty, service and self-knowledge, then it is likely over time that he will develop a mature, adult persona. But if a woman is left in a state in which she sees herself as acted on by forces she cannot identify and has no control over; in which she seeks only for pleasurable feeling states; in which she sees herself as responsible only for herself rather than for larger communities; and in which she turns with negative emotions toward those she holds accountable for her feeling states - then the potential exists that she will not develop as a fully mature person, even into her adult life.
Why go to the trouble of pointing out the negative aspects of a woman's softer nature? In my last post
I described the three most common approaches to the woman question. The first and dominant one, namely the liberal egalitarian approach, I criticised at length. The second one, the complementarian approach, I suggested was also flawed. I am in a better position now to explain this flaw.
The complementarian framework rests on the idea that men and women are different but equal. It is thought that the masculine and the feminine are like two pieces that together form a harmonious unity. Some complementarians, including recent popes, have concluded that women should have more power in society so that the feminine can have a wider influence.
I too was once a complementarian, but I no longer believe that it is an adequate framework. If I am correct in what I have written in this post, then it is possible still to view men and women as equal in an ontological sense (i.e. in the sense that both are made in the image of God, and in the sense that the masculine and feminine, in their essential being, are equal). However, the relationship dynamic between men and women cannot be equal.
This is because it is a woman's purpose to fulfil the softer, feminine virtues, but the logic of her softer nature does not bring her toward these virtues. To accomplish her telos
requires that men establish a frame in society that gives encouragement and direction to the feminine virtues - it is highly unlikely that this will happen unless men lead the relationship dynamic.
Nor is it easy to establish such a frame. There is no simple fitting together of the masculine and feminine to establish a harmonious unity. Complementarianism is sometimes trite and superficial in its understanding of what is required to make things work.
I intend to look in greater detail in my next post as to why this issue is so complex. In brief, the situation is made complex because the nature of women does vary. There are some women who are so well-natured and feminine that they are able to embody the feminine virtues in a relatively easy and admirable way; there are other women who are more able to govern feeling with reason and who therefore may look to a masculine role and masculine virtues rather than identifying with the feminine; there are also women who struggle to avoid the feminine vices, and within this group some may look instinctively to men for guidance whilst others may attempt to assert a feminine feelings-based frame on society. There is complexity too in the issue of how men might ally themselves with the more capable women in establishing an effective frame in society. Finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of the frame itself. What have the different traditions identified as the means by which women might be brought from the feminine vices to the feminine virtues? How can it be done? What does it take? It takes more, I believe, than most people realise.