Tuesday, July 06, 2004
Pseudo-Mars and Pseudo-Venus
So, partly under the inspiration of Phil Gyford's Pepys Diary blog I've started up a blog version of Addison and Steele's Spectator. Originally I planned to publish this post as a comment on that blog, but on second thought (and also in emulation of Mr. Gyford's practice) I decided that I should save my editorializing for this one. The very first post headed (by me, not by A&S or any of their editors) Chastity and Courage put me in mind of how nuanced and progressive the Enlightenment view of natural human qualities was by comaprison with received opinion about these qualities in our own time. The essay (by Addison) centers around--or rather grows out of--a "Discourse upon that which passes for the chief Point of Honour among men and Women." By a "Point of Honour" Addison means a moral quality that a person feels himself or herself shamed in failing to exemplify; in men, he writes, the chief point of honor is courage, in women chastity. Addison's main aim in this essay is, in a word, to persuade the reader that each of these qualities is much overrated as a virtue--that in being given pride of place it crowds out the cultivation of more worthwhile qualities. The cause of this overrating of courage among men and of chastity among women, Addison speculates, must be "that each Sex sets the greatest Value on the Qualification which renders them the most amiable in the eyes of the contrary Sex. Had Men chosen for themselves, without Regard to the Opinions of the Fair Sex, I should believe the Choice would have fallen on Widsom or Virtue; or had Women determined their own Point of Honour, it is probable that Wit or Good-Nature would have carried it against chastity." What's fascinating and ultimately compelling about Addison's thesis here is its refusal to make a beeline from established practice to some ineluctable natural cause. The present-day reader would agree with Addison that men prize courage because they want to make a good showing in the eyes of women and that women prize chastity (or, at any rate, wish to avoid seeming promiscuous) because they want to make a good showing in the eyes of men, but he or she would take this to be a difference hard-wired into us by nature and would then adduce some dopey pseudo-scientific theory drawing on the evidence provided by the behavior of cavemen, dogs, reptiles, possibly even protozoa by way of arguing that because we could never help it anyway all of us, men and women alike, should just go on behaving as stupidly as we always have according to the models supplied to us by the current microepochal stereotypes of our sex. (Recall that most of the hack behaviorialist accounts of sex differences account not only for such historically unspecific qualities as chastity and courage but also such new arrivals on the scene as bad driving and forgetting to put the toilet seat down.) Not that Addison rejects the notion that there are biologically grounded moral differences between the sexes--quite the contrary; he simply believes that because these differences never emerge unmediated by a social setting, we should never assume that the prevailing pattern of their manifestation is either desirable or natural. According to the Addisonian dispensation, we must draw a distinction not between men and women as they are and as they would be in some adrogynous utopia, but between men and women as they are and as they would be in some realizable world in which they would remain men and women while being more attentive to the moral exigencies of a bi-sexual (as distinct from bisexual!) world. But the intermillennial reader has long since lost both the relish and the capacity for making such salutary distinctions as these; that capacity and relish have long since fallen victim to the ravages of Ockham's Airbrush, that rule of intermillennial logic that states that "the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable when and only when it reaffirms our prejudices."