My readers may often wonder why my philosophy/history of ideas blog and podcast are at least as devoted to the life and ideas of activists and civil rights leaders as they are to philosophers and theorists. Steinem sums up a conviction I share near the beginning of the interview: ‘To be part of any social justice movement is probably to be on the forefront of philosophy’. Social justice movements are founded on ideas that have not yet been understood and accepted widely enough to be embodied in law and social practice. Many activists, then, can be understood as philosophers in the public square, and activism as philosophy in action. They are part of the same noble tradition, forcing us to consider uncomfortable questions and raising our consciousness, as Socrates’ gadfly questions, awakening his fellow citizens from their ‘dogmatic slumbers‘. I’m also gratified to hear Steinem cite Louisa May Alcott as one of her earliest influences, as she was for me; the story of Alcott’s principled stand at Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass’ wedding is among my favorite examples of philosophy in action, a perfect demonstration of the right way to think and act towards our fellow human beings.
Steinem also challenges the way that second-wave feminism is often characterized as a middle-class white movement. She points out that polls revealed that black women, especially in the early days of the movement, shared feminist and civil rights convictions in far greater proportions than any other group, and were more likely to demonstrate their convictions through action; it’s just that they were not recognized in the media nor did they have the opportunities that white women, as well as white and black men, had to rise to leadership positions. Steinem shares an anecdote from her participation in the March on Washington, in which a black woman in the crowd angrily points out that not a single black woman was chosen to address the crowd from the stage, which illustrates this paradox.
Women are still expected to wear ‘feminine’ clothing that pushes, pulls, and presses their bodies into fashionable shapes, sometimes painfully, and to wear heavy makeup and crippling and uncomfortable shoes in order to be considered well-dressed and sexy, especially for public figures. The problem is not necessarily these fashions themselves, it’s that women are generally required to adorn themselves this way in order to achieve their goals. Photo exhibit at Women’s Rights Historical Park, Seneca Falls, NY.
I also love what Braun Levine says about being a ‘tomboy’ as a young girl; she says it shows she was on the ‘wrong path’. She wasn’t saying that she was wrong to want to play with the boys and wear pants, to the contrary. I interpret her statement as her commentary on how we’ve long divided healthy, active pursuits such as sports and wanting to wear clothing that permits bodily freedom into the category ‘boy’, and daintiness constrained in clothing and shoes that limit bodily freedom into the category ‘girl’. It was only with the hindsight and wisdom made possible by her own evolving consciousness, which she, in turn, awoke in her readers, which made her realize that these ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ qualities, instincts, and preferences, are universal human ones. People of all genders, or of none depending on how you describe it, love to be very physically active or they don’t, like to wear constrictive and elaborate clothing, makeup, and shoes or don’t, and so on.
This wonderful discussion about the history and evolution of feminism, as Steinem and Braun Levine experience it, wraps up with an exchange with two budding activists, eleven-year old Faith and Adina. What a great way to show just how influential these two women are and how the young are moving their cause forward and applying it to the modern world!
Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Essais are the perfect mate to accompany anybody, throughout all stages of life. It’s always interesting to explore Michel de Montaigne‘s life and his marvelous book: the Essais. Within his lifespan, Montaigne was able to find true friendship for himself and record its effects therein. Here we propose to navigate Montaigne’s approach to friendship.
In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that friendship was “one soul in two bodies.” Montaigne, on the contrary, always thought that friendship was a free exchange between two people.
Montaigne thought that true friendship was rare. He himself acknowledges to have found only one proper friend in his life: Etienne de La Boétie. And he could enjoy this friendship only for a mere four years. They met as adults and death took Montaigne’s soulmate early. An irreplaceable loss. After La Boétie’s death (in 1563), Montaigne didn’t feel the desire to find a substitute for his dead friend. Perhaps the reason was that our French friend knew intuitively that such a profound bond could only happen once in a lifetime.
Is it possible to have many different friends at any given time? According to Montaigne, true friends are not only scarce, but they should be unique, if only for loyalty’s sake.
If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something that was useful to the other, how would you manage?
— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”
The dilemma set here finds an easy solution for Montaigne, since the balance will always incline towards one of them. A succession of these choices would lead him to the real friend. Thus, it would be proved that true friendships tend to uniqueness.
When Montaigne talks about friendship, he does so from his own feelings towards a person of flesh and blood: Etienne de La Boétie. He transferred what he felt for his kindred spirit to the Essais. He loved his friend to the point where he felt despondently lost when La Boétie died. Montaigne attempted to find solace in his writing about La Boétie, even though he failed to portray the true nature of their relationship.
We can find a good deal of mystery in a friendship like these two men had. That strange and powerful empathy that Montaigne tried to describe is difficult to understand. Montaigne concludes that: “They are unimaginable facts for those who have not tried them.”
Montaigne distinguished true friendship from ordinary friendship. Ordinary friendships have, in a way or another, self-interest behind their development. It’s an investment made not with money, but with affection. On the other hand, true friendship is described by the author with the following words:
For the rest, which we commonly call friends, and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance, and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which, there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls: but in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoyn’d.
— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”
In an attempt to describe the nature of his friendship with La Boétie, Montaigne concludes with his famous expression: “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I lov’d him; I find it could no otherwise be exprest, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”
We can only add here that in the example of Bordeaux of the Essais, Montaigne wrote first “because it was he.” Later he added “because it was I.”