… about my graduate course at St. John’s College here in Santa Fe.
I’m trying, with a good deal of anxiety, to put together what I know and believe with the suppositions and proofs of the ancient Greek philosophers. They use a language and a way of thinking, totally abstract—almost—that is as foreign to me as the abstruse calculations each member of my class must write, from memory, on the blackboard.
After an initial collapse of confidence, I am determined; these same ancient Greeks formed my mother’s thinking and attitudes, which profoundly influenced my growing up. So in coming to terms with these ideas, I am, again, coming to terms with the complex woman who to a great extent formed me.
Now, as I launch with trepidation into my third semester in the graduate institute at St. John’s College here in Santa Fe—it will produce, at the end of another semester, a Masters in Liberal Studies—I begin to sense, beyond and through my frustration, the looming presence of my mother and her mother and grandmother, all of whom believed in what they called THE ETERNAL VERITIES.
What exactly these were, they never explained. But I know from many references that the Greeks were at the root.
First, we read Plato’s dialogue, or rather, monologue, Timaeus; this invented man gives a long account, unchecked by the listening Socrates, of the creation of the universe, centuries before the invention of scientific tools or of Biblical representations.
Timaeus’ elaborate preamble seems to prove that, for some men and perhaps now some women, the way things are dims in importance compared to a theory of how they came to be. His analysis, assumed to be objective, trumps subjective observation.
Timaeus’ Athens depended on slaves, as did my grandmother’s genteel antebellum Richmond. In both cases, women, slaves or not, were deemed to be inferior; so a thinking man must find a theory to explain what his own observation might have taught him was not women’s innate inferiority but their lack of education and opportunity.
Before such a conflict can erupt, here comes Timaeus, conveniently, explaining that the demiurge, a sort of god, announced when he molded clay into human beings that “The superior kind was that which subsequently would come to be called “male”.
(A footnote adds comfortingly, “It was usual in ancient Greece for the male to be considered superior.”)
Furthermore, a male who led an immoral life would return in his next incarnation as a woman. If she did no better, she could expect to come back as an animal, perhaps a dog.
Now remember: these teachings have formed the basis for what we consider advanced education here in the west for the past two thousand years.
To my astonishment, none of the bright women, young and older, in my class raised the issue of Timaeus’ assumption. Nor did I. To comfort myself, I tried to believe that we all knew his assumption fell into the same absurd category as his theory of why the world has no hands or feet—because it doesn’t need to grasp anything or walk anywhere—or of human beings, who sport bodies so their heads won’t roll into ditches and get stuck there.
But even if I assume that now, I have no reason to assume that for the past two thousand years, all readers or hearers of these sentiments have dismissed them as absurd, especially since during most of those centuries, Timaeus’ assumption would have been simply a commonplace (maybe not the rolling heads.)
To be continued…