• Email
  • Print

The Closing of the American Mind’

In response to:

Undemocratic Vistas from the November 5, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

In her admirable review of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind Martha Nussbaum draws attention to the praise given to the philosopher Pyrrho for his helping his sister “with the dusting and marketing.” This is misleading. What our source, Diogenes Laertius, tells us is that Pyrrho took farm produce to the market and sold it, an activity not all that usual for philosophers. There would not be anything worthy of comment in a man in antiquity doing what you call “marketing” and we, on this side of the Atlantic, “shopping” or if we have been brought up in North Britain, “the messages.” The seclusion of women and the restrictions placed upon their public appearance in the Greek world is notorious. This task was undertaken by slaves or, on occasions, by the master of the house.

David Bain

University of Manchester

Manchester, England

Martha Nussbaum replies:

Barry Gross is right in saying that I have little experience in teaching students from deprived backgrounds. I am impressed by his account of his experience. But I never said, nor do I believe, that the “great books” are irrelevant to such students. I am not at all surprised to hear that in his teaching they have proven valuable. I myself have devoted most of my career to teaching and writing on some of those books precisely because I believe that they address, with unusual depth, clarity, and subtlety, problems that most human beings face in trying to live well. What I argued is that each college or university, in asking how to develop in its students the Socratic abilities of active practical reasoning and self-examination, must consider their particular backgrounds and needs, and that it was unlikely that a single curricular solution, of whatever sort, would be appropriate for all college students in this diverse country.

Great Books” courses have advantages, some of which Gross well describes. They can enliven reflection by confronting students with important ideas, powerfully expressed. But they also have disadvantages. A reliance on a list of books can, as Plato’s Phaedrus convincingly argues, induce a “false conceit of wisdom”—the idea that name-dropping is a substitute for sensitive perception and sound argument. (Bloom’s book is full of this fault.) They can also encourage students to form too narrow an idea of what the culture of their country and their world consists in. Gross appears to equate “this culture” with the tradition of Western thought embodied in “the Great Books.” Actually, of course, the culture of even this country, not to speak of the world, is far more diverse. Bloom’s disdainful ignorance concerning the contributions of Chinese and Indian thought to rational inquiry about the good (criticized in my review) is just one example of the sort of parochialism that can be fostered by the definite article in the title, “The Great Books.” Furthermore, a reliance on a list of books can lead both student and teacher to forget that (as the Phaedrus, again, argues well) the essential activity of education takes place in the human soul’s active searching, and that the aim of education, with or without great books, must be to stimulate and develop that.

David Bain omits a crucial part of the Diogenes Laertius passage. It reads:

He lived piously with his sister, who was a midwife, as Eratosthenes says in his essay on wealth and poverty. And he himself sometimes would take the poultry to market and sell them, if it happened that way, and also the pigs. And he used to dust the things around the house, indifferent to what he did. It is said that he even showed his indifference by washing a pig. [IX.66]

(I have followed Hicks in rendering ekathairen as “used to dust”; but it might also refer to cleaning more generally.) Bain’s comments, first of all, neglect the sister’s profession. It is clear that a midwife could not, even in Athens (where Pyrrho was then living), have had the same restrictions on her mobility that applied to wives of gentlemen. Second, if we look at our best evidence for the behavior of women and men in fourth century BC Athens, we discover that Pyrrho’s behavior, as described here, clearly violates conventional male norms. Since Diogenes’ life is a composite of legends that grew up around Pyrrho through centuries, it is a little difficult to know what precise period and social level is being depicted. (This is all the more true since Pyrrho is described as an honored teacher and citizen, while his sister seems to belong to a social level below that of an urban citizen wife.) But let us suppose Pyrrho to be, as Diogenes says, a distinguished urban citizen. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, our best source for male/female behavior of this period, insists that it would be extremely shameful for a well-brought-up male to occupy himself in any serious way with indoor household tasks, or with the provision of things for the inside of the house. His proper sphere is “the outdoors.” On the other hand, a good wife, Xenophon argues, will see that things are bought and sold for the house and will, above all, occupy herself with seeing that things around the house are kept clean. A gentleman’s wife would not go to the market herself, true; but she would arrange for the selling and purchasing, as a man would not. Furthermore, the lady of the house should, Xenophon argues, do light housework such as kneading, folding, and dusting (making sure, he writes, that the spaces between the pots and pans, and so forth, are kept katharon, dirt-free). She should be sure to do some of this physical work herself because housekeeping is a woman’s best source of exercise; it will, says Xenophon, make her complexion glow, so that she will have no need of makeup. Following Xenophon as our guide, we cannot avoid the conclusion that Pyrrho is performing a woman’s function in dusting or cleaning; in washing a pig, and in taking the animals to market, he is performing functions that would probably be executed by servants under the supervision of the lady of the house. In both cases, by concerning himself with these domestic matters at all, he is playing a womanly role, and one thought shameful for the sort of man he was. This is, furthermore, clearly the point of Diogenes’ anecdote. Diogenes stresses that his behavior was thought worthy of comment, a display of skeptical “indifference” to ordinary norms and expectations.

I would like to clarify one further point that has been raised in my correspondence. In connecting the Stoic idea that each human being ought to receive an education in practical reason with American democratic reforms in education, I did not mean to imply that the Stoics themselves thought democracy the best regime. Endorsing their educational goal does not imply, without further argument, endorsement of democracy as the regime best suited to promote that goal. Roman Stoics differed on this point: Stoic political dissidents in the reign of Nero, like Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus, seem to have favored the institutions of the Roman Republic, while Seneca and Marcus Aurelius support a form of kingship, urging that a single wise ruler will be best equipped to attend to the needs of everyone. Of the political thought of the Greek Stoics, little survives. But there is some evidence that Zeno and Chrysippus favored a mixed constitution, “a combination of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy” (Diogenes Laertius VII.131), based upon an idea of universal citizenship and requiring the abolition of local and national boundaries. They clearly favored the equal citizenship of women and the abolition of the conventional family. In fact, Zeno proposed a scheme of unisex clothing, apparently as a device to promote women to an equal position in the state. He also required the abolition of money, as a barrier to community. Though Bloom’s book is silent about these aspects of ancient political thought, we can infer from his arguments that they would not meet with his approval.

  • Email
  • Print