Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Translating Aristotle's Sexism: Part 2

Aristotle wrote the bible on rhetoric for elite Greek males.  One of his main books on the subject is what we call the Rhetoric. 

At first glance, it seems that Aristotle is not particularly hard on females in the Rhetoric as he is in his other treatises.  Rhetoric historian Cheryl Glenn says he gives the female poet Sappho a “nod” in his book but otherwise makes “no provision for the intellectual woman” (Rhetoric Retold 49).  George A. Kennedy, whose translation of the Rhetoric is the most widely used among rhetoricians, says “Aristotle usually envisions only males as speaking in public, but he clearly did not think that rhetoric was a phenomenon limited to males, for he draws examples of rhetoric from Sappho (a woman poet of the early sixth century B.C.E.) and from female characters in epic and drama” (On Rhetoric ix).  Rhetorician Carol Poster suggests that because he authored so many other misogynistic works, we don’t even need to read Aristotle’s Rhetoric for rhetorical theory, especially when considering feminist rhetorics; Poster’s implication is that the sexism in the treatise is due only to the author’s gynophobic intentions elsewhere (“(Re)Positioning Pedagogy: A Feminist Historiography of Aristotle's Rhetorica”).

Feminist literary historian F. A. Wright, likewise, seems to struggle initially with the absence of blatant hatred of women and girls in the Rhetoric.  In fact, when surveying Aristotle’s copious claims “of the deficiencies in women” (204) in his extant texts, Wright suggests that “[w]e have to go to the Rhetoric to get Aristotle’s idea of their [i.e., women’s] merits” (Feminism in Greek Literature 204).  The scholar pinpoints this paragraph from the Rhetoric below, saying “This passage is significant” (204):

θηλειων δὲ αρετὴ σώματος μὲν κάλλος καὶ μέγεθος, ψυχης δὲ σωφροσύνη καὶ φιλεργία ανευ ανελευθερίας.

--Aristotle Rhetoric 1361a

The excellence of females is (a) physical, a large and beautiful body; (b) mental, virtuous moderation and love—but not a sordid love—of work.

--traditional phallogocentric translation

In the case of female children, excellence of body means beauty and stature, [excellence] of mind [means] temperance and industry, without servility.

--Kennedy’s traditional phallogocentric translation

A female’s good character really comes from a body with a good large figure, but also from a personality with "wise submissiveness" and affection for work without preoccupation from freedoms.

--a feminist rhetorical translating

Wright quickly follows up the passage with an aptly sarcastic commentary on Aristotle’s phallic intentions.  Wright correctly claims here that women were viewed by Aristotle, even in his Rhetoric, as passive prostitutes, as slaves working for the pleasures of men.  Wright notes:

First, it will be seen, comes physical attractiveness.  The excellent woman must be good-looking, and by ‘good-looking’ we mean tall and stout, for ethereal grace does not suit the harem-master’s taste.  Secondly, she will be temperate in her desires; the word ‘Sophrosyne,’ ‘virtuous moderation,’ is the chief virtue in a woman:  it is the faculty of ‘doing without’—love, food, pleasure, consideration, etc.—and the Greeks, unlike the Romans, really did admire this passive merit even in men.  Thirdly comes industry, with the restriction that a woman must not be a slave to work:  she has other even more important duties—her master’s pleasure, for example—and work must not be allowed to interfere unduly.  In his conception of female virtue Aristotle has advanced somewhat from Pericles’ negative ideal, but he has not got very far.  (204-05)

Wright’s sarcasm rightly recognizes Aristotle’s prejudices against women.  On Wright’s second point, classics scholar Anne Carson concurs:

The celebrated Greek virtue of self-control (sophrosyne) has to be defined differently for men and for women, Aristotle maintains.  Masculine sophrosyne is rational self-control and resistance to excess, but for the woman sophrosyne means obedience and consists in submitting herself to the control of others. (Men in the Off Hours 142). 

When Aristotle uses the word σωφροσύνη (or sophrosyne) in the Rhetoric, as in the excerpt above, the traditional phallogocentric translator renders the phrase “virtuous moderation.”  Aristotle has not bothered to comment in the passage about how the term applies differently to females.  Thus, traditional, phallogocentric translator either does not feel obligated to note that Aristotle intends the word to be disparaging of females, or he does not recognize that Aristotle is biased against women.  Since neither the original Greek context nor the traditional English translation convey the sexism of Aristotle overtly, commentators such as Wright and Carson must make explicit the masculinism that is otherwise left implicit. 

The commentary of Wright and Carson show Aristotle’s low view of females around his term σωφροσύνη and his other descriptive qualities of women.  The traditional translator completely misses Aristotle’s bias against females.  Nonetheless, a feminist rhetorical translating of this Greek sentence explicitly demonstrates the phallic in the Rhetoric in the way the traditional translator does not.  Aristotle, to her, is saying in sarcastic tones that females with "good character" are, for example, "wisely submissive" to males.

No comments: