Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle



Other Books by F. A. WRIGHT

  • THE LOVER'S HANDBOOK (in preparation)




New York: E. P. DUTTON & CO.

Printed in Great Britain by Mackays Ltd., Chatham.



Introduction 1
I. The Early Epic 7
II. The Ionians and Hesiod 16
III. The Lyric Poets 28
IV. The Milesian Tales 43
V. Athens in the Fifth Century 57
VI. schylus and Sophocles 70
VII. Euripides 86
VIII. Euripides: The Four Feminist Plays 113
IX. The Socratic Circle 135
X. Aristophanes 150
XI. Plato 168
XII. The Attic Orators 183
XIII. Aristotle 202



There is a question sometimes put to scholars, a doubt often latent in scholars' minds---How was it that Greek civilisation, with all its high ideals and achievements, fell so easily before what seems at first sight an altogether inferior culture? The difficulty is not solved by a reference to military resources or administrative skill, for moral strength is the only thing that matters in history, and a nation has never yet succeeded merely by pure intellect or by brute force. The fact is---and it is as well to state it plainly---that the Greek world perished from one main cause, a low ideal of womanhood and a degradation of women which found expression both in literature and in social life. The position of women and the position of slaves---for the two classes went together---were the canker-spots which, left unhealed, brought about the decay first of Athens and then of Greece.

For many centuries in Ionia and Athens there was an almost open state of sex-war. At Miletus a woman never sat at table with her husband, for he was the enemy with whom bread must not be broken;[2] at Athens, while all the men went free, women were kept as slaves, and a stranger in the harem might be killed at sight. The sexes were sharply separated: men and women had but few opportunities for mutual esteem and affection, and domestic life---the life of the home, the wife and the children---was poisoned at its source.

The causes and results of this war, far worse than any faction or civil strife, are lamentable enough: its manifestations in ancient literature are perhaps even more important, for it is hard to say how far current opinions of feminine disabilities are not unconsciously due to the long line of writers, Greek and Latin, from Simonides of Amorgos, in the seventh century before Christ, to Juvenal in the second century of our era, who used all their powers of rhetoric and literary skill to disparage and depreciate womankind. In the whole deplorable business men were in the wrong, and they therefore took the aggressive. They applied to women the comforting doctrine of Aristotle, that some people were slaves because they were made by nature to be slaves: women were men's moral inferiors, and therefore it was men's duty to keep them down.

At Sparta certainly, and perhaps in North Greece, women occupied a very different place. Spartan women were regarded as free human beings, and the relations between the sexes were inestimably better[3] than at Athens. But Sparta, Thessaly, Macedonia, have no direct representation in Greek literature; we get their point of view only in the writings of some Athenians, such as Plato and Xenophon, who rebelled against the current institutions of their state, and in the Alexandrian poets, Apollonius and Theocritus, who, even in the midst of the luxurious city, kept some of the freshness of their native hills. Most of the great writers came from Ionia or from Athens: the Ionians are nearly all misogynists, and have succeeded in colouring many parts of the Homeric poems with their perverse immorality: the typical Athenian, and those foreigners who found their ideal in Athens---Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, the Orators---usually treat women as a negligible quantity.

schylus was an original thinker, and in this, as in many ways, took a different view from most of his countrymen. But it is not until we come to Euripides that we get the woman's side of the case definitely stated. Euripides ventured to doubt man's infallibility: he put the doctrine of the nobility of man, as he put the other doctrines of the nobility of race and the nobility of war, to the touchstone of a really critical intelligence, and he came to a conclusion very different from that which is expressed by the great majority of his predecessors.

Upon his own generation Euripides had a profound[4] effect. Socrates, Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon are all feminists in varying degrees, and a fairly full statement of feminist doctrine may be found in their works. But the idealist did not win the day. It is true that women were never so degraded---in European civilisation at least---after Euripides' time as they had been before; but his teaching did not bear its full fruit. Aristotle---the supreme type of the practical mind---threw all the weight of his unexampled influence into the other scale, and the Aristotelian view of the natural inferiority of women prevailed: so that the poets of Ionia, libertines and profligates as most of them were, find their work completed by the philosopher of Stagirus.

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