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.