An objective analysis of history shows that the linguistic meaning of terms is subject to change over time especially in regard to context. In all eras, language is either used or utilized by interest groups to propel ideological perspectives. The distinction between the above terms is significant: the former applies context through the etymological roots of the word whereas the latter is applied in distorted form for ideological purposes.
In contemporary times terms such as “natural law” and “traditional” have been and continue to be utilized in debates regarding the rights of women and of the LGBTQ community. Opponents of equal rights for the LGBTQ community argue that homosexuality and transgenderism exist in violation of “natural law.” Yet from an objective historical perspective the concept of “natural law” is fluid. Throughout the Classical Era in Greece, Rome and in most Western societies, homosexuality was not considered unnatural. In fact there is a long list of significant historic figures that were homosexual or bi-sexual. King Leonidas who led the Greeks at Thermopylae had a male lover in fighting in the ranks. His later successor Cleombrotus who died at Leuctra, the same. Philip II of the Macedon had seven wives and three boyfriends. There is significant evidence indicating that his son Alexander the Great was bi-sexual. The Roman Emperor Hadrian, (who gives his name to Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland) built a gazebo in honour of his boyfriend Antoninus. Earlier figures in Roman Republic such as Marius, Sulla and Marcus Licinius Crassus all engaged in homosexual behaviour without public opprobrium.
Suetonius writing in the Twelve Caesars points out that Julius Caesar was accused of having a homosexual relationship with a provincial governor and that the accusation threatened Caesar’s early political career. However, Caesar’s opponents in the Roman Senate weren’t interested in the alleged behaviour on grounds of it being “unnatural.” Rather, these senators were concerned that Caesar had used said alleged sexual favours in order to obtain political power.
Where discrimination against gays and lesbians existed in the Ancient World, it occurred in minority cultures such as Judea, a state that throughout its history (shortly after its inception to its destruction at the hands of the Romans) was dominated by neighbouring and more pluralistic societies. More about this in the conclusion.
The term “natural law” began to be utilized against homosexuals and lesbians during the medieval period. Thomas Aquinas (like Aristotle) equated “natural law” with the divine but determined that homosexuality was sinful and thus inherently unnatural – sins being offenses against the divine and thus “unnatural”. Aquinas and other Christian theologians based these arguments, not on the Gospels, but on earlier pre-Christian Hebrew texts by Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In doing so the medieval Church distorted the earlier Greco-Roman concept of “natural law” (as espoused by Aristotle) to suit its interests.
By the late Medieval and Early Modern periods, such clerical concerns with “natural law” were being utilized by secular authorities in order to centralize power at the expense of the commons. It was during this period that the modern concepts of “traditional femininity” and gender roles were invented.
There are numerous Old Testament passages relating to concepts of gender roles. But perhaps the most significant Biblical passage for the modern era can be taken from William Tyndale’s vernacular translation of the Bible in 1530: The hewers of wood and the drawers of water. Tyndale, an English theologian would be executed on charges of heresy in 1536, however the Old Testament phrase he translated ( and it’s Biblical context) would be utilized to justify land expropriation, transportation and capital punishment throughout the seventeenth century and eighteen centuries.
One of the biblical contexts of the phrase “hewers of wood and drawers of water” refers to Hebrew conquests in the wake of the Exodus from Egypt. That context was readily applied to the dispossessed agrarian population of rural England.
“And the princes said unto them [the Gibeonites] Let them Live; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation.” Joshua 9:21
“Now therefore are ye cursed, and shall none of you be freed from being bondmen and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” Joshua 9:23
Tyndale’s translation appeared as land enclosures across Europe were increasing. The result for agrarian populations was upheaval and dispossession. As landless labourers flooded into Europe’s cities carrying with them problems of overpopulation, poverty and crime, secular authorities enacted new laws intended to cow the population through terror. It is no surprise that the rate of capital punishment increased dramatically during the Early Modern Era. According to the Victorian legal historian James FitzJames Stephen in all forty English counties some eight hundred people were executed every year of the seventeenth century. Elsewhere, rates of capital punishment and witch-hunting sky-rocketed. Notable examples include Bavaria under Ferdinand I where the largest concentration of witch-burnings occurred and Scotland where more than two thousand men and women were burned at the stake.
Much has been written about capital punishment and witch-burning, nor are these phenomena the focus of this article. However, it is impossible to understand the invention of the modern concept of “traditional femininity” without reference to these brutal practices. A closer examination of the phrase “hewers of wood and drawers of water” is also required.
In essence, the landless labourers (both men and women) of the seventeenth century were put to work continuing the process of expropriating common lands. Forests were cleared to make way for farm-land by dispossessed male labourers (the hewers of wood) and women were put to work almost exclusively in the home. There they became the “drawers of water” – responsible for cooking and cleaning, both of which involved fetching considerable quantities of water from wells and reservoirs. As John Taylor wrote in 1639:
“Women are nothing but your drudges and your slaves…A woman’s work is never done.”
A drudge is term for someone who fetched water carried out slops from the house-hold.
In 1605 the fens and waterways of England became a battleground between land-owners and commoners. Traditional communing practice allowed men and women access to fens and bogs in order to draw water and to hunt and fish. Between 1605 and 1649, land-owners employing dispossessed labourers worked to drain fens and build canals to facilitate commerce. In a pattern predating the bread riots of 1789 in France and Russia in 1917, physical force movements in opposition to the expropriation of waterways were often led by women. The violence ranged from sabotage to murder and in some cases village burning.
The impact of these efforts led by women was not lost on the authoritarian philosophers of the day. Francis Bacon writing in An Advertisement Touching An Holy War (1622) listed “Amazons” among other “multitudes” that he believed deserving of destruction. It is no coincidence that James VII of Scotland, later James I of England asserted in his Daemonologie the need for capital punishment and witch-hunting.All of which requires an honest re-appraisal of the contemporary term of “traditional femininity.”
In reality, before the Enclosure Acts and European witch-hunts, western women had considerable powers in commons society both through labouring alongside men and in the areas of medicine and midwifery. This power and influence was broken and subordinated to the needs of modern mercantilism through witch-hunting and dispossession.
To enforce that status quo, the idea of the nuclear family was created and promoted both by secular and ecclesiastical authority. The biggest opponent of the doomed Mother and Child Scheme in Ireland was the Catholic Church. Similarly in the post-World War II era, public policy elsewhere was geared towards maintaining women’s “traditional” place in the home while their spouse went to work. That that “traditional” role was an invention of the modern era is a wilfully overlooked concept in contemporary times.
In Greece during the fifth century teachers wandered the countryside selling their skills to whoever would hire them. Usually their benefactors were kings or wealthy landowners. The Greeks called these men “sophists” meaning “wise men”. Nonetheless the Greeks understood that sophists weren’t interested in truth or ethics. They made a living creating and perpetuating illusions so that their paymasters could get what they wanted.
When it comes to gender issues and opposition to women’s rights Jordan Peterson is the epitome of a sophist, especially when it comes to promoting illusions. As a paid consultant for the Conservative Party of Canada, Peterson has done much to gloss over history. Peterson has gone on record stating his considered opinion that:
“The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.”
The historic record contradicts that statement. Nevertheless, Peterson and his followers continue to promote the myth of a “traditional femininity” that is the construction of the modern era. In a deconstructive sophistry that Jacques Derrida would comprehend, Peterson is advocating something that is neither traditional nor of benefit to the society.
Many of his followers compare Peterson to Friedrich Nietzsche and in a recent event that echoed the latter Peterson unwittingly displayed a comical weakness. In an interview with Camille Paglia, Peterson claimed he was “defenseless” against “female insanity.”
“Here’s the problem, I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women and so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. I really don’t believe it.”
The comment reminded me of Nietzsche’s line from Thus Spake Zarathustra:
“Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip!”
An amused Bertrand Russell later quipped of Nietzsche:
“Nine women out of ten would have got the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women …”
There’s something pathetic about a grown man being so afraid of a woman that he cannot communicate with her without resort to physical force. Comparing Peterson to Nietzsche is unfair to the German philosopher since the latter’s monumental critique of Kant and Hegel did much to challenge philosophical stagnation brought on by the former. Peterson’s brilliance isn’t in original thinking but in the way he allows himself to be used to distract the public from meaningful discourse. In that sense he is a brilliant sophist.
Peterson’s other gift is the ability to promote fear in service to the status quo. In an interview with Joe Rogan when discussing Women’s Studies, there are echoes not of Nietzsche but of another diminutive figure named Heinrich Kramer – a fearful, unrequited ideologue in service to a hierarchy built upon abstract thinking. Peterson’s shrill comments about feminists are delivered with the same hysteria in which Kramer spoke of medieval women.
Yet much more significant than Peterson is the current US Vice-President Mike Pence, an opportunistic fundamentalist with a bizarre attitude towards women. Pence speaks as a proponent for “traditional” values yet like Peterson he is beholden to a political movement intent on delivering political power into the hands of corporations. Like Peterson, Pence bases his perspective on illusion in order to maintain power and influence.
Francis Bacon would have approved.
To be fair, some aspects associated with “traditional” gender roles in a modern society have a lot to recommend them. For starters, the ability of a parent to stay home and raise children is something that many parents would aspire to if the economic circumstances allowed. Studies have shown that the consistent presence of parents particularly during the early stages of a child’s development have many positive outcomes.
However, the assigning of such a parenting role should be the decision of both parents, made on the grounds of personal preference and not out of economic necessity and certainly not on the basis of ideology. As it stands, men earn proportionally more than women despite doing the same work. Some Scandinavian countries such as Norway have made significant attempts to address that imbalance; however developments across the Western World have been slow to materialize.
The major stumbling blocks towards an equitable society are political and moral ideologies that feed economic disparities. When it comes to the latter, it is the forces of reaction who most loudly trumpet the virtues of morality and tradition.
Finally, while by no means a purely academic point on which to conclude this article, I am struck by an interesting trend demonstrated by both my readers and by friends and associates whenever discussion of feminism or gender issues is raised. First, the overwhelming number of commenters in favour or “traditional femininity” and gender roles are men in my age group. Second, the driving force behind the views of these men is centred around both a need to be a provider and out of a desire to wield power within their relationships with women.
Third, those women with whom I have discussed these matters, particularly in relation to roles within family life have all emphasized a desire for choice in terms of who should be the breadwinner. Some women have complained that they have been made to feel bad by radical feminists for wanting the choice of being a stay-at-home mom.
In my view the critical thing here is the ability to choose what course of life you wish to follow. As it stands, the income inequality between men and women does much to militate against choice.
I have little time for extremists of any variety including radical feminists and men’s rights activists. However neither of these groups pose an existential threat to the status qup: Indeed the indirectly help prop up the status quo by stymying debate. These movements are a reaction to social change and they serve the forces of reaction.
But furthermore as a man I do not feel that I have the inherent right to comment on any aspect of feminism simply because I have no understanding of what life as a woman is like. I do not know what it is like to fear sexual assault, nor have I ever had to worry about being sexually harassed in the work-place or on the street. Mugged yes, but never sexual assault.
My story isn’t universal to all men, however I think it is fair to say that mine is similar to most men in these regards. In truth I don’t really feel the need to understand those fears – but then no one should have to either.
On a last final note, I’d like to draw the reader back to my earlier comments about minority cultures in the Ancient Mediterranean world. Historic Judea was dominated by larger, pluralistic neighbours including the Egyptian and Assyrian Empires and later the Persians and Romans. All societies experience crises at various points. However the societies that are most inclusive tend to survive and overcome those crises better than those that are less inclusive. Those that are less inclusive are more often than not destroyed.
The only medieval power to successfully resist the Mongol Horde was Egypt, a society, that though hierarchical, displayed considerable tolerance towards the different peoples that lived within its borders. That diversity helped Egypt to crush the Mongols at Ain Jalut.
Similarly, the Ottoman Empire dominated Europe for three hundred years and would have continued to thrive if not for the rise of ethno-nationalism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The heterogeneous Allied forces that defeated homogeneous Nazi Germany, while segregated, were less so than their opponents and prevailed.
Admittedly there are no perfect societies and all societies do eventually collapse but those that succeed the longest are those that are inclusive. Thanks to a combination of technology, ideology and climate change, western society faces economic, social and environmental crises. In order to survive these crises, we need to harness every ounce of energy. To do that we need to be inclusive.
Our continued existence depends on it.
WITCHCRAFT IN EUROPE 1100-1700: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY BY ALAN C. KORS & EDWARD PETERS
THE MALLEUS MALLIFARICUM BY HEINRICH KRAMER
DAEMONLOGIE BY JAMES I
THE MANY HEADED HYDRA: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE REVOLUTIONARY ATLANTIC BY PETER LINEBAUGH AND MARCUS REDIKER
A PEOPLES TRAGEDY BY ORLANDO FIGES
A HISTORY OF THE ARAB PEOPLES BY ALBERT HOURANI
WITCHCRAZE BY ANNE L. BARSTOW
THE TWELVE CAESARS BY SUETONIUS
THERMOPYLAE BY PAUL CARTLEDGE
THE SPARTANS BY PAUL CARTLEDGE
THE WARS OF THE ANCIENT GREEKS BY VICTOR DAVIS HANSON