Ch 2 The Greek Inheritance

Chapter 2 of Motherhood Mythology

by Glenys Livingstone

Long before the first philosophers arrived on the scene in Greece, a brutal transition was being made. There was a confrontation “for earthly domination between successive waves of patriarchal invaders and the indigenous goddess worshippers of Greece.”[i] The Dorians went a long way toward destroying much of the old, “apparently refusing to accept the comfort of the goddess’ tomb and instead proudly burning their dead before burying their ashes … the Goddess of the earth must herself have felt as threatening and dark. Nature could now be conceived of as hostile to human desires … a new tension between men and the natural order thus arose.”[ii] The Dorians attempted to “subjugate the mother to their own lordly Zeus.”[iii]

It is hard now to know for sure of other reasons affecting this confrontation and change. Bly suggests the possibility that “Kali energy”, though a valid energy, may have begun to outdistance all the other Mother energies, noting that The Golden Ass describes how this occurred in Thessaly, the entire north area of Greece. Perhaps, he says, “the energy of the matriarchy went the way of the Pentagon.”[iv] In any case, the transition was made. The male began to accrue more power and glory. Aeschylus has Apollo proclaim in the Oresteian Trilogy, in defence of Orestes who has killed his mother that the “father without mother may beget.”[v]

Over a period of time then, the Greek philosophers concretised this transition intellectually, peaking with Aristotle.

Aristotle has been indicted with teaching “2000 years of teachers that woman is a misbegotten male, that the male seed alone provides the form of the child, that woman is only the passive receptacle for his active power, impressing on her passive matter.”[vi] Man’s body was seen by Aristotle as significant by itself, making sense in itself, apart from that of woman. In the West a theology developed from his ideas that presented the woman as subordinate, limited to the auxiliary and instrumental role of sexual procreation, “hedged about with fear and loathing as an embodiment of sensuality that threatens the purity of male mind and spirit.”[vii]

This, despite the fact that there were other biological theories available upon which to base a theology. Hippocrates, for instance, by tracing the process of development of eggs into chickens had come to believe that the seed of woman and man mixed together to form the child.[viii]

The Aristotelian doctrine held sway, most likely because consciousness was doing a pendulum swing. Where once υλŋ was revered as the foundation of the world, as source, a patriarchal consciousness now strove to deny its “lowly” lineage, its dependency on the matrix of nature.[ix] The birth that women gave, being a bodily/material reality, was coming to have less and less significance.

According to Guthrie, philosophy started in the faith that there is a hidden permanence and unity to be found beneath the apparent change, variety and randomness of creation … “hence the search for an underlying identity, a persistent stuff, a substance that is conserved in spite of qualitative changes and in terms of which these changes can be explained.”[x] Metaphysicians and mathematical philosophers have distinguished two aspects of things –the tangible and the intangible, the material and the formal. The material –matter– has been “placed in opposition to life and mind, soul and spirit; and a preoccupation with worldly pleasures and bodily comforts, as opposed to the higher ‘pleasures of the mind’[xi]” has been judged materialistic and unworthy of spiritual beings. The development of this issue proceeded thus.

For the Ionians, the idea of a constituent or material ingredient (hyle) common to all things was a central concept. They disagreed as to its nature … whether it was water, air of fire … but they agreed on the question.[xii] Anaximenes would have it that the first state of matter or the primal matrix was an undifferentiated mass of enormous extent … a complete fusion of antagonistic elements, called “apeiron”, meaning without boundaries. The everlasting motion of this primal mass caused the separation of opposite qualities, and indeed he described an evolutionary process that Darwin would have admired. Anaximenes had it that air was the ultimate world substance … the purest and rarest form of the stuff of life … it was ‘soul’. And “man’s soul is a ‘small part of the god’, the god being the universe.” [xiii] These early Greek philosophies still understood the world as a whole being, a living creature, even though they no longer referred to it as Gaia. The Ionians did not have a concept of the universal material as dead and inert, it “was far from being brute, inorganic, passive, mindless stuff intrinsically devoid of all higher properties and capabilities.”[xiv] … For example, water for them was not a sterile, inorganic chemical, but it was a fertilising fluid. Unlike later philosophers, they did not need to question as to the motive cause … their primary material explained its own movement, was eternally alive. (Aristotle later criticised these Ionian notions, noting that none of them made earth the primary substance.) And the Ionians could not be called materialists in the sense of a materialist as “one who has made a choice between the known alternatives of matter and spirit as the ultimate causes of things, and consciously denied any originating power to the spiritual.”[xv] In their minds, matter and spirit had not been distinguished, so that matter could be the sole point of existence, and in itself be endowed with spirit and life. But as time went on, early Greek philosophies increasingly strained the bonds of matter and spirit.

Like Anaximenes, the Pythagoreans saw the universe as a whole living creature. The cosmos for them was surrounded by air or breath which permeates and gives life to the whole and to individual living creatures. “The breath of life of man and the breath of life of the infinite and divine Universe was essentially the same. The universe was one, eternal and divine.”[xvi] Pythagoras called it “kosmos”. But for Pythagoras, the soul of the individual was seen as a spark of the divine that was cut off and imprisoned in a mortal body. While the soul was immortal and progressed through reincarnations as either animal or human, thus still allowing a notion of kinship with nature; the aim of life became to shake off the weight of the body and become pure spirit, so as to rejoin the universal spirit. The philosopher studied the “kosmius” and became “kosmies” (orderly) in his own soul.[xvii] Here there was an important change taking place –a shift from a philosophy of matter to a philosophy of form and they were adding notions of order, proportion, measure, stressing quantitative differences.[xviii] It is interesting that Guthrie appraises Pythagoras as “the foremost apostle of the Hellenic spirit”, and as marked by a preference for “the intelligible, determinate, measurable as opposed to the fantastic, vague and shapeless”, then immediately goes on to note the moral dualism of him and his followers in which there is a column of good things –namely light, unity, the male and limit (order); and a column of bad things –namely darkness, plurality, the female and the unlimited (disorder).[xix] Guthrie was not disturbed by the indication that now the female was incapable of being a “kosmos” in miniature –that in this cosmology she is now cut off from the life of the spirit wherein is considered life unless she denies her femaleness.

Anaxagoras and Empedocles both proclaim a need for a moving cause apart from the matter. Anaxagoras said that whatever was not matter must be mind (nous), that mind initiated the process of cosmic development, ruled the world and brought order into it out of confusion.[xx] While the Atomists, materialists in the true sense, reduced all substance to “material substance and all sensation ultimately to the sensation of touch,”[xxi] since even souls were, for them, made of atoms, spherical ones. This was later developed into a complete philosophical system … aiming “to attack any belief in external interference by divine agencies in the affairs of the natural world.”[xxii]

By the time of Socrates, the average Athenian thought of the soul/psyche “as an airy insubstantial wraith or double of his body, a shadow that, at the moment of death might flit away”[xxiii] or dissipate. The soul animated the body, but was dependent on the body too for its efficacy. The “self” meant the body –the seat of consciousness. According to Cornford, the achievement of Socrates was the discovery of the soul.[xxiv] For Socrates the true self was not the body but the soul and “by the soul he meant the seat of that faculty of insight which can know good from evil and infallibly choose the good.”[xxv] It was a new thing for Athenians to be told to tend their soul and that it was more important than the body.

In the Phaedo, Plato had Socrates say that philosophers are practising dying, by not indulging the body and thus setting the soul free from the body, since death is nothing but the complete detachment of the soul from the body –“the deliverance of divine spirit in man from the prison house of the flesh.”[xxvi]; that the soul reasons best when none of the body’s senses disturb it; that the soul is deceived by the body, that the soul is reality independent of its bodily habitation.[xxvii] (a fine thing for the gentlemen to be discussing while their wives washed their clothes, prepared their food, took care of their children). But Cornford is convinced that Socrates did not teach the doctrine of immortality developed in the Phaedo. Socrates’ attitude there was agnostic.

It was Plato, then, who, giving the name “nous” to Socrates’ “true self”, sharply distinguished it from the body, saying that it could exist before and after its residence in the body.[xxviii] In Plato’s theory of Reminiscence “our knowledge of the perfect concepts and truths… is linked with the belief in a perfectible mortal soul.”[xxix] Because we have already had a direct vision of the true realities, the earthly realities simply remind us of them –and it is the “material dross of the body” that has contaminated the soul and made it forgetful. For Plato, there is a real world (of forms) beyond the flow of transitory things and temporal events, to which the soul belongs. Matter for him is illusory like the shadows on a wall cast by firelight.

What is real is outside the cave of matter “in alight brighter than we can imagine.”[xxx] The idea of matter existed before matter and is more perfect. In the Phaedrus, the bad horse brings the winged chariot down and immerses it in a world of matter and change. With Plato most clearly, does the spirit become primal, primary and the efficient cause of everything.

While Aristotle had no use for Plato’s separate specific forms which seemed to him like replicas of perceptible things, he distinguished sharply between the material substances of an object and the form impressed on it – “Each kind of object existing in nature had properties determined by its own special form or essence, so that any universal primary stuff (hyle) must be devoid of any particular distinguishing characteristics.”[xxxi] At this point I find Aristotle’s philosophy somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, he seems to affirm matter, marking as he does an apparently inseparable synthesis of matter and spirit/soul, but on the other hand, he makes it very clear that matter in itself is almost devoid of value.

On the other hand, Aristotle affirms that the whole living creature is a unity, soul and body together –“the question whether soul and body are one is no more legitimate than the question whether the wax and the impression of the seal upon it are one or in general whether the matter of a thing is one with the thing of which it is a matter.”[xxxii] But on the other hand, he makes a clear distinction between “the sublunary” whose objects are composed of the four terrestrial elements –earth, air, fire and water- which can be created or destroyed; and the “superlunary or the celestial world of the outer heavens,” whose inhabitants are composed of the quintessence and exempted from change and decay. And it is only the souls of rational beings that share in the immutability of this world.[xxxiii]

The catch seems to be in his notion of the psyche/soul having a highest and perfect manifestation in the pure mind, which is of a different order “and might in fact be a separate substance in its own right which could survive the dissolution of the body.”[xxxiv] “Nous” for Aristotle is thereby capable of separate existence, is independent of the perishable. In his “Ethics”, he teaches that “the end of man is the perfect exercise of the highest function essential to our nature,”[xxxv] that is, the activity of “nous” the divine rational self. Aristotle exalts theoretical activity above practical activity … the free exercise of the intellect for its own sake is true happiness … this is what distinguishes the human from the animal for Aristotle and also manifests the divine.

It is at this point in Aristotle’s thought that the extreme end of consistent patriarchal thought is reached. God comes to be perceived as pure mind which “can contemplate in a singe instant, and does so eternally, the whole realm of true being.”[xxxvi] The God of Aristotle is all perfect and known to be immaterial by his including of all potentiality, since “knowledge is proportional to the degree of immateriality and a being is intelligent to the degree that its being is pure. God, the Pure Spirit, therefore possesses supreme and absolute knowledge.”[xxxvii] Thus God understands itself perfectly, he is Thought Thinking Itself … he is totally egotistical, since in this state, he cannot care for the world, indeed he is not even aware of it, though the world itself continuously desires him. Guthrie describes how in “natural” generation the most important aspects of a parent’s causations are the formal and the final … how after an initial act of begetting/causing, no further notice need theoretically be taken of the young, “whose internal dynamics will ensure their continued development provided the perfect members of the species only exist to furnish the model.”[xxxviii] Obviously he is not reflecting upon the experience of the mother parent, but is describing the well non-participatory behaviour of the father parent in this culture. And Aristotle’s God has the same relation to the world, with one more “perfection” … no initial act of creation was needed, since the world is coeval with time itself. The divorce of matter and spirit is complete in this theology … as Cornford says, the extravagance of the intellect seems to have overreacted itself. [xxxix] And it is in this tradition that later dominant philosophers and theologians of the West followed… Thomas Aquinas in particular.

For Aquinas, woman’s getting and bearing of children are “poignant and painful symbols of her status as the daughter of Eve and of the inferior nature of her body”, but also he emphasises that it is up to the father to educate the children as godly Christians. In the case of separation, the children should be sent to the father from the age of three years “unless there is a weighty reason for leaving them with the mother.”[xl] In the procreation and education of children, the man functioned as dominant, biologically and morally. Although Aquinas did admit at the same time, to the greater importance of the mother in the life of the children, this did not modify her subordinate position nor accord her any honour.[xli]

As for the Great Mother, (Mater-Matrix-Matter), by this point she has had the life choked from her. She is gone. Or is she?

(c) Glenys Livingstone 1984


[i] Shinell, To Hell and Back Again, p. 15.

[ii] Vincent Scully, The Earth the Temple and the Gods (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.41.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Robert Bly, ‘On the Great Mother and the New Father,’ East West Journal, September 1978, 9. 44.

[v] Aeschylus, The Oresteian Trilogy, trans. Phillip Delacott (Penguin Classics, 1966), p. 170.

[vi] Rosemary Radford Reuther, ‘Woman/Body/Nature.’ Center for Women in Religion Newsletter 6, No. 3, p/ 3.

[vii] Eleanor Commo McLaughlin, ‘Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology.’ In Religion and Sexism. Ed. Rosemary Reuther, p. 256.

[viii] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p. 2007.

[ix] Neumann, The Great Mother, p. 49.

[x] W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers, p. 24.

[xi] Paul Edwards (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5, p. 213.

[xii] Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 30.

[xiii] Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 30.

[xiv] Edwards, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 214.

[xv] Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 33.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 34.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 37.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 40.

[xix] Ibid., p. 36.

[xx] Ibid., p, 55. Would they still say this today as the cast their eyes about the state of the Earth? The continued disregard of mind for matter, will, it appears, kill us all (and then will the mind exist without the matter?). Could it not be said today that it is the spirit/mind that needs to be informed by matter.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 59.

[xxii] Edwards, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 214

[xxiii] F.M. Cornford, Before and After Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), p. 50.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 50.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 77.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 75.

[xxviii] Edwards, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 336.

[xxix] Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 74.

[xxx] Quoted by Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature, p. 5.

[xxxi] Edwards, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 214.

[xxxii] Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 145.

[xxxiii] Edwards, Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 214.

[xxxiv] Guthrie, Greek Philosophy, p. 145.

[xxxv] Cornford, Before and After Socrates, p. 102.

[xxxvi] Guthrie, Greek Philosophy, p. 139.

[xxxvii] William Wallace, O.P., The Elements of Philosophy, p. 136.

[xxxviii] Guthrie, Greek Philosophy, p. 141.

[xxxix] Cornford, Before and After Socrates, p. 109.

[xl] McLaughin, ‘Equality of Souls,’ p. 223.

[xli] Ibid., p. 224.

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