… about my graduate course at St. John’s College here in Santa Fe.
Fifteen years ago, when I first encountered Plato’s teachings at St. John’s College here, I railed against them. My mother used to call this, “Kicking against the pricks,” no pun intended.
Today I’m beginning to realize that this curriculum, based on the Great Books, a system devised in the 1940’s to encompass the whole of a gentleman’s essential library, reveals the base—the stones—on which we all stand.
Like the base of one of Euclid’s equilateral quadrangles (we get into this next), the Great Books share a common base with much of western thought.
So, no railing, this time, but an earnest attempt to learn.
The railing didn’t lead anywhere. When I mentioned all those years ago to a pleasant librarian at St. John’s the absence of books by women in that beautiful building, she graciously suggested that I give her a list. A while later, I noticed a short shelf set up by the entrance, holding perhaps twelve titles, labeled BOOKS BY WOMEN.
Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
Wiser, if sadder, now, I will dive in and see what these stones are made of, what layers of intellectualization, habit, custom and just plain fear harden them even as we walk thoughtlessly across them by day by day.
These stones lead in certain directions.
Today, in our blessed little capitol city, our state legislature is debating a bill that would further restrict access to abortion. For years I’ve been puzzled by the stony persistence of this effort, across the country, Logical arguments, such as Plato might have devised—our state has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the nation—fall on deaf ears; the new answer is to provide state money for classes for “Young Parents”—the often absent fathers perhaps included.
A persistent, hallowed notion, an article of faith, one of the Eternal Verities, is at stake here: the superiority of males depends on their control of females. Otherwise, the whole edifice cracks and begins to crumble.
I don’t think pious reminders about the sacredness of all life really figure in this fight, other than as window dressing. After all, no one who is opposed to choice seems to care about the fate of the fetuses they want to preserve.
Aside from control of women, another deeply buried belief, rooted in Plato, figures here: the innate superiority of men. All aspects of this being are sacred, certainly including his sperm. Refusing to allow his sperm to develop into what might well be his likeness deprives him of power, which passes to the innately inferior female, whose judgement in this matter is suspect. And so the eternal fight against choice.
I don’t mean to imply that only men assert their threatened power here. Women who feel their power flows from men—and in terms of this culture, it does—are sometimes the most vigorous crusaders against choice.
All these arguments are ancient, out of date, like Plato’s bodiless heads, and dubious for that reason, yet silent, bone-deep belief in female inferiority still cements the stones under our feet.
Plato would be amazed, and delighted, if he knew how long his lessons have survived, and in what hallowed halls they are still taught.