Before Misogyny Contaminated Theology by Stuart Dean


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Compared to many issues related to ancient history, it is relatively easy to identify not just where and when misogyny began to contaminate theology, but  the person primarily responsible for it: Plato, who lived in Athens in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Although today Plato is not thought of as a theologian, in antiquity theology was not just one discipline among many, but rather was synonymous with philosophy as an overarching system of thought to which all else was subordinated. Conceived of in this way theology was comprised of a variety of interrelated theories that today ostensibly appear to be discrete disciplines, including biology and psychology.

There is thus little question but that the exclusion of women not just from theology but from literate culture generally up until the 20th century can to a great degree be attributed to Plato. In one dialogue he categorizes women as a subaltern species of humanity that has yet to evolve to the level of being attained by men. Consistent, in an odious way, with that biological theory, is Plato’s view of female psychology as being such that it should be against the law for women to establish private religious shrines and related rituals since they derive the inspiration for doing so from dreams, apparently incapable of the ‘serious thought’ he deemed necessary for such matters. Given that context it is hardly surprising that in all his ‘dialogues’ there is not one female participant.

Much can and should be said about the influence of Plato’s misogynistic theology on what followed, including Judaic, Christian and Islamic theology. Yet, precisely because it is so clear that the contamination of theology by misogyny begins with Plato, it is worth taking note of what theology was like in the century or two before Plato, particularly for those Greeks who lived in, or visited for an extended period of time, Sicily or Southern Italy (collectively, “Southern Italy”). It will be useful in doing so to examine separately each of the two components of the word theology and what each meant to these Greeks.

Although goddesses of various types and names populate all ancient Greek literature, Aphrodite was especially important to the Greeks of Southern Italy. There is evidence of a widespread belief there that people were born with Aphrodite within them, guiding their thoughts and actions throughout their life. In addition to this psychological dimension, there was a cosmological one, for Aphrodite also was believed to be at the center of the cosmos, governing the entire universe. Because of the way in which this tradition was both appropriated and imitated (by pagans and Christians) it would appear that the Aphrodite ‘within’ underlies the belief in an individual soul (psyche–feminine gender in Greek) as well as in a world soul, most familiar in the West due to Latin translations as the anima mundi.

It would be unfair, however, to characterize the theology of such Greeks simply as goddess worship, for they were profoundly skeptical of what actually could be known of the theos with which theology is concerned. In this regard they were, several centuries later, greatly admired by Cicero and some other Italians of his day that he knew personally, perhaps in part because although they were Greeks, they were at least from Southern Italy. By contrast, the skepticism of some of these Greeks was disparaged by Plato as mere sophistry. Yet, some modern scholars see implicit in it the contours of a sophisticated theory of language. This relates to the logos of theology: the way such Greeks not only spoke about ‘god’, but spoke to ‘god’ in prayer, and conceptualized speaking itself as the revelation of ‘god’ as the speaker.

This helps explain why these Greeks expressed their theology exclusively in poetry, provided it is understood what poetry meant to them. At issue is the underlying meaning of the verb from which ‘poetry’ derives: poiein, meaning ‘to do’ or ‘to make.’ Speaking itself was seen to be the last step in a three part process. That process starts with experience–it might be in a dream or a trance–but it is an experience charged with spiritual energy. That leads to thinking. Only after that thinking is there the motivation to speak–to ‘do’ something about it or ‘make’ something of it (that is, to poetize). In this sense poetry might not necessarily be in a particular meter or have regular rhythmic patterns: the point was to speak with or from inspiration in order to cause something to happen.

Though the evidence for such a theory is quite fragmentary for the time when these Greeks lived, the evidence for how it influenced Cicero and his friends is abundant and of considerable interest because of the way in which it came to be absorbed into Latin theology. To begin with, the sequence of experience, thinking and then poetizing by itself has profound implications. Construed in this way theology is not only grounded in experience, but quite literally evolves from experience (Cicero uses the Latin verb from which ‘evolves’ derives in describing one aspect of this theory). The irony today, of course, is that evolution, as a theory of how all experience is understood and communicated, thus appears to derive from the theological tradition.

Another important aspect of the theology of this mode of thinking relates to gender issues. For at its most basic level experience, as pure existence, has no gender. Furthermore, there is no basis for excluding in advance the experience of any one person (regardless of gender) in preference to another. Indeed, because experience purely as existence has no characteristics whatsoever some mistakenly refer to such a theology as ‘negative,’ even though it quite obviously could not be more positive because of its basis in actual experience.

What is thus most ironic of all about the theology of the Greeks of Southern Italy is that it appears to have been so far ahead of where theology is today.

Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Christianity, Gender and Power, General

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19 replies

  1. I agree with you that Plato’s wiorld and body-denying philosophy in the form of Neo-Platonism was one of the main sources of misogyny in later western philosophy and theology. As I have written, Plato thought that birth into this world through the body of a woman just isn’t good enough–thereby rejecting all world-affirming spiritual views and rejecting the metaphor of birth through a female body as one of the ways of speaking of the Source of Life as Great Mother.

    However, patriarchy and war were firmly entrenched in the midsets of Homer and Hesiod and in their versions of Greek mythology long before Plato. In addition, they were poets, so I don’t think poetry vs theology is the only issue.

    Plato can be accused of codifying a world denying view but he cannot be accused of originating the views that celebrated patriarchy and its partners, war and domination.

    What sources in Italy are you referring to? Your assertions remain cryptic to the average reader of your blog.

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  2. Good ol’ Plato–maybe he should have stayed in that cave! Thanks for writing this. It’s good to remember that Aphrodite was more than just a love and/or sex goddess but a true Great Creatrix. We also need to remember, of course, that the Old Testament god and his prophets (and kings) were also misogynists.

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  3. Thank you. If you get a chance you might be interested in the comparison of this I make in my Notes and References (footnote 12) to Hua-Yen Buddhism, including a link to a comparison of a Greek sculpture of a goddess (Tyche/Aphrodite) and a Buddhist sculpture of Quan Yin.

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  4. “There is evidence of a widespread belief there that people were born with Aphrodite within them, guiding their thoughts and actions throughout their life.” This I find most interesting. The whole idea of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit based in a truth which was once expressed differently.

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  5. Thanks for posting the direct link to the Notes and References: regarding indwelling spirit–that is based largely on some lines of Empedocles (Greek and translation in the Notes); also, if you have not already, check out the links in the Notes to the translation and analysis of 3 lines of Nazianzus’s poetry and the piece on ‘Falling into a Coma.’

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  6. Thank you for your post. I enjoyed your thoughts and all the comments as well, especially the joke about Plato, though I’m glad he didn’t stay in his cave, for despite his intense fears and judgement of the body I have to admit how much I enjoy his dialogues. That being said, I also spent some time processing the experience of being female in a world that doesn’t acknowledge the divine feminine. In doing so, a poem did emerge and I offer it here as part of the conversation.

    http://emergeinnerlifecoaching.com/2014/05/20/ode-to-god/

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  7. The ancient Sumerians/Babylonians had numerous images of their major goddess, Inanna/Ishtar, depicting her as bearded, standing on her lion, surrounded by stars (indicating her precedence over the heavenly heirarchy), and holding her bow and arrows. The concept of a dual gendered deity predated the formation of the Mycenian states into what would become Greece. S/he was the deity of love and procreation, but also of war.

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  8. Hi Stuart, I enjoyed your sharing on Plato and of course learning a more ancient tradition around Aphrodite. I am delighted to learn this, thank you so much. As Ms. Christ and Ms. Ardinger indicated it seems Plato was more a product and reflection of the negative attitudes and projections toward women already well entrenched in the ancient world. The Counsel of Nicea removed the Gospel of Mary Magdelene in I believe 325 AD (along with other Gospels such as Thomas) so that is another undermining of the role of the Divine Feminine in Christian tradition being completely stripped out of that tradition even before Plato’s commentaries. I find the Counsel of Nicea’s actions so damaging to the western psyche, i.e. denying the evidence of Jesus’s spiritual partner/consort/twin flame, thereby leveraging that to concentrate designate, associate spiritual power and authority with the Divine Masculine figure via Jesus exclusively. Scholarship says that Rabbi’s could only be official once married, so Jesus had to have been very likely married to the Magdelene and the apostle’s probably followed suit. There are only vague, confused, cryptic references to Mary Magdelene in the New Testament. Margaret Starbird has been a great help to me personally in framing a better understanding of Mary Magdelene as a representative of the Divine Feminine through her scholarly works. Thanks to all of you for this interesting dialogue.

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  9. BEFORE MISOGYNY CONTAMINATED THEOLOGY was an interesting article and expressed some ideas that triggered and answered questions I have contemplated for many years. This particular quote,”There is evidence of a widespread belief there that people were born with Aphrodite within them, guiding their thoughts and actions throughout their life. In addition to this psychological dimension, there was a cosmological one, for Aphrodite also was believed to be at the center of the cosmos, governing the entire universe. Aphrodite ‘within’ underlies the belief in an individual soul (psyche–feminine gender in Greek) as well as in a world soul, most familiar in the West due to Latin translations as the anima mundi.”

    The Goddess has been expressed in many ways throughout history, however this explains what the ancients tried to communicate with their stories. The Goddess is within. If we understand that Aphrodite was equated with Hathor in Egypt from pre-dynastic times and in the Sumerian culture with Ninhursag we find the same ideas expressed in their writings.

    Misogyny began in Prehistoric times, going back perhaps before the ice age and written records. Nevertheless, the Mother of All remains in the psyche and continues to be expressed by whatever name she is known by, whether it be Aphrodite, Hathor, Mary Magdalene, or the Madonna.

    Thank you for your contribution and the enlightenment on a subject of current contemplation.

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    • Thank you. The primary evidence for what you quote derives from some lines of the poetry of Empedocles. In the Greek the lines are ‘tears in the eye, jaw dropping’ beautiful. I provide the text and translation in my Notes and References (under the ‘Feminism & Religion tab on my blog: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/). When misogyny began no one knows, but everyone will know when it ends.

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  10. There is evidence of a widespread belief there that people were born with Aphrodite within them, guiding their thoughts and actions throughout their life. In addition to this psychological dimension, there was a cosmological one, for Aphrodite also was believed to be at the center of the cosmos, governing the entire universe. Aphrodite ‘within’ underlies the belief in an individual soul (psyche–feminine gender in Greek) as well as in a world soul, most familiar in the West due to Latin translations as the anima mundi.

    Like

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