Feminist Interpretation of Aristotle and Term Paper

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Aristotle believed that human flourishing (NE: 12) is the definition of good. The mere presence of women in Congress suggests that voters rejected a man, but it is better to look at this not as the rejection of one (male or not), but as the result of human flourishing. This increased competition of more women pursuing what they feel is their own responsibility will result in more unemployment for men, a notion bolstered by Mill's belief that, "Whoever succeeds in an overcrowded profession or in a competitive examination…reaps benefits from the loss of others" (Mill; Hirshman p. 239). This could be viewed as human flourishing, which is good, but it connotes competition and struggle and doesn't make the pursuit seem virtuous. Aristotle, if following his own ethics in the world today, would have to believe that women are where they are because of human flourishing and their pursuit of what is their responsibilities to themselves and to society as a whole.

Okin, however, suggests that if women were to be given equal rights and status to men within Aristotle's society, the foundation of Aristotle's functionalism would crumble (Okin p. 276). Perhaps it is this foundation of Western political thought that resulted in women's exclusion of nearly everything considered "political" until much more recent history. Many viewed the steps necessary in order to include women in politics as cumbersome. In essence, politics would undoubtedly have to change tremendously in order to include women. Elshtain writes:

Women were silenced in part because that which defines them and to which they are inescapably linked -- sexuality, natality, the human body…- was omitted from political speech. Why? Because politics is in part an elaborate defense against the tug of the private, against the lure of the familial, against evocations of female power. The question…is not just what politics is for but what politics has served to defend against (Elshtain; Okin 312).

Society often labels women as the "caretakers" and, thus it creates a society that allowed women, who busy in their daily tasks, to ignore political uses created from their work. Caretaking is hard work and caretakers, such as mothers, often have to use anger, punishment and other forms of tough love -- to do their jobs, yet caretakers are often expected to "defer to the opinions of the 'reasonable' and powerful on whose support they in fact depend" (Elshtain p. 249). Groenhout argues that feminists need to stop thinking about "ethics of care" as some kind of Victorian representation of women, but rather, think about how they can incorporate a more Aristotelian ethical framework. This could mitigate any of the criticisms that go along with the ethics of care such as the erroneous assumption that care ethics glorifies traditionally traits of women in a more domestic sphere and that ethics of care cannot help anyone outside of the "circle of care" (Groenhout p.173).

Yet while Groenhout is trying to forge a new path for "ethics of care," there are other theorists, like John Stuart Mill, who assert that most women will not enter the workforce but, rather, will choose the career of wife and mother.

Like a man when he chooses a profession, so, when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes choice of the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family, as the first call upon her exertions (Mill 523).

However, Hirshman notes that Mill is not merely foreseeing what will happen in terms of this choice and how it is made, but he clearly favors it and recommends it for women.

The common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labor between two persons…in an otherwise just state of things, it is not…I think, a desirable custom, that the wife should contribute be her labor to the income of the family (Mill 522).

Mill was predicting women's liberation and attempting to eliminate it before it came to fruition. Hirshman retaliates that just because women are better than men overall at being caretakers and nurturing individuals, it's no reason for men to treat women as inferior or stop them from helping with caretaking duties (Hirschman p. 240). Many women who work outside the home and have children would probably insist that they have
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two full time jobs, yet how many working fathers would say that? Somewhere in history, perhaps started by Aristotle or continued by him, it was decided that being a caretaker, a mother or a nurturer was somehow undesirable and unworthy. It cannot be ignored that Aristotle goes so far as to insist that women will never be as good of mothers as men will be as good of fathers, because women are just overall inferior to men (Hirshman 165). What most feminists seem to cite as their complaint with their identities as caretakers is, that because they are of female form, many expect them to make sacrifices for men and for their children. While this was definitely the way women were supposed to act in Aristotle's time, one would think that after such a great passage of time, the view of women in society and the expectation of sacrificing themselves, for anyone, would have diminished somewhat. However, the fact of the matter is that this idea is still prevalent and pervasive in modern times. Perhaps this is the reason why so many feminists have difficulty considering many of Aristotle's theories without becoming enraged that times simply have not changed as much as they hoped. Women are, by and large, viewed as nurturers, a beautiful word, yet a word nonetheless that has been tainted by years of subjugation.

It is extremely difficult for modern women to look at Aristotle's theories and not disregard them as complete rubbish because he was so blatantly sexist. This is obvious. However, Aristotle states that virtue can only be achieved at the social level and we have to understand that women were not viewed as being on the same social level as men. Today that is a different story and his idea that human beings can act virtuously only in relation to others is so correct in its thinking.

In Hirshman's book, the Book of a, she argues that the ethics and politics offered by Aristotle, regardless of their apparent sexism, can be quite a worthy resource for contemporary feminists. There are three areas she suggests that women can learn something from Aristotle. The first is that Aristotle's ethical theory has certain elements that are not completely different from feminist moral epistemologies (Freeland p. 9). She states that feminists who are very concerned with consciousness-raising in terms of feminism are employing two of Aristotelian methods: "canvassing the appearances and conversing about justice with people who speak the same language about justice as the questioner does" (Freeland p. 9). The second method is that Aristotle sees the human condition as being intrinsically political. Lastly, the vision that Aristotle has regarding what the ideal life is for people (Freeland p. 9). In the article entitled "Aristotle, Feminism, and Needs for Functioning," Martha C. Nussbaum states that aside from the obvious misogyny and the wrongness of his hierarchical theories, she agrees with Hirshman that, "Aristotle does have a good deal to offer to a feminism that is struggling to surmount the limitations it perceives in contemporary liberalism" (Freeland 248).

Groenhout blames Aristotle's ethics for its concentration on the production of an intellectual life, and she blames the ethics of care for not having a complete political foundation. As mentioned earlier, this helps the "ethics of care position" agree with the two typical points of criticism, that it emphasizes characteristics that have led to the subservience of women in general, and that it cannot concern itself outside of the "circle of care" (Freeland 9). This artificial method can add the ethics of care a bigger worry for personal excellence and political contribution, while balancing Aristotelian ethics so as to make it less hierarchical and repressive (Freeland p. 9).

Philosophy does not appear gender free, as some may believe; the history of philosophy has pretty much excluded women from the canon, both as writers and in misogynist representations. Aristotle did suggest that the place for women was under the governance of man. However, while that seems very simplistic in rationale, Aristotle's depiction of his own rationale should not be considered as so simplistic (Freeland p. 174). Aristotle genuinely believed that women were not men's equals, however, it has to be noted that Aristotle did not believe that every woman was inferior to man (Freeland p. 174). In his work the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle noted that the relationship between man and wife is a relationship where the man "rules in accordance with his worth and in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters which befit a woman he hands over to her" (Freeland p. 175).


Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Curzer, Howard J. "Aristotle: Founder of the Ethics of Care." The Journal of Value Inquiry.

2007. 41:221-243.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women, Militarism, and War: Essays in History, Politics, and Social

Theory. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1990.

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