Ruth Abbey. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 34, Issue 2. April 1996.
When read literally, the works of Friedrich Nietzsche are usually taken to denigrate or dismiss women. Walter Kaufmann’s ubiquitous commentary on The Gay Science notes, for example, that “Nietzsche’s comments on women generally do him little credit.”’ Kaufmann’s book on Nietzsche refers to the “prejudices about women” which, he assures us, “need not greatly concern the philosopher.” Nietzsche appears to Bruce Detwiler “to have been an unabashed misogynist,” Judith Shklar “finds in him … misogyny and sexual disgust,” and Alexander Nehamas confesses that “Nietzsche’s views of women still disturb me after all these many years.” ‘Feminism’ is advised by Keith Ansell-Pearson that it “must certainly attack Nietzsche’s views on women.”
Nor is attention to Nietzsche’s putative misogyny a recent phenomenon. Explaining “Nietzsche’s attacks on the female sex,” Georg Brandes, a contemporary and correspondent of Nietzsche, writes that “he does not seem to have known many women, but those he did know, he evidently loved and hated, but above all despised.” Bertrand Russell also notes Nietzsche’s contempt for women in his History of Western Philosophy.
In response to this, some interpreters, most notably Sarah Kofman and Jacques Derrida, argue that Nietzsche’s remarks about women must be read metaphorically so that, for example, the role of woman is related to that of truth in Nietzsche’s writing. Moreover, when Nietzsche’s works are read metaphorically, it is possible to use his positive female imagery to deconstruct his overt denigrations of women.
However, while metaphorical readings might mitigate the charge of misogyny, they also risk depoliticizing Nietzsche’s work. Nietzsche was greatly concerned about the future of European civilization, fearing that it would be dominated by `the last man” but hoping that, via a transvaluation of values, Ubermenschen would sieze the cultural initiative and create a new aristocracy of spirit. The spread of the doctrine of universal equality, a doctrine which, according to Nietzsche, began with Christianity and was furthered by its modern offshoots-liberalism, democracy, and socialism-creates conditions propitious for the triumph of the last man.
Nietzsche saw feminism as extending the equality doctrine to women: as such, the implications it bore for female identity, for what femaleness was and how malleable it might be, must have been of interest to him. There are, therefore, good reasons for reading Nietzsche’s comments on women not just as metaphors but as part of his wider reflection on the developments of his time and what they augured for European civilization. In this vein, Ansell Pearson, who echoes some of the feminist critiques of Derrida’s approach, insists that
It is important that the question of woman is not reduced to being a mere figure or metaphor, possessing only the status of a rhetorical trope. To overlook, or to disregard in so confident a manner as Derrida does, Nietzsche’s sexist remarks is not simply naive, but politically dangerous … [Derrida) … simply refuses to take seriously that Nietzsche meant what he said and that he believed that women should have neither political power nor social influence.
It would seem then that one of the things Nietzsche is pondering during his middle period is whether women can be part of the aristocracy of spirit he envisages and encourages. However, Ansell-Pearson’s conclusion that Nietzsche denies women political power and social influence is too limited an account of his position. While Ansell-Pearson is correct to claim that “certain passages in his work show quite unequivocally that he regarded the whole issue of women’s emancipation as a misguided one,” certain others show quite the reverse.
There is, then, a third way of reading Nietzsche’s remarks on women, one that goes beyond misogyny and metaphor. Taking the depiction of women in the works of the middle period at face value shows that these works neither entirely demean women nor exclude them from the higher life. Nietzsche’s middle period comprises HAH (1879-80, which includes “Assorted Opinions and Maxims” and “The Wanderer and His Shadow”), D (1881) and GS (1882). The works of this period do not disqualify women from free spirithood, for some of their passages can be read as befitting some women of the future for this honour. Therefore, while Nietzsche’s free spirit is usually taken to be male, the works of the middle period repeatedly measure women by the values constitutive of free spirithood, such as autonomy in thought and action, intellectual strength and daring, desire and ability to pursue the truth, capacity for cruelty and the skills of dialogue. This suggests that women can be considered as candidates for free spirithood, even if Nietzsche assumes that most females, like most males, fail to meet its requirements.
Reading the middle period’s remarks on women literally but comprehensively also makes it possible to set Nietzsche’s different statements against one another, challenging his essentialist claims with his own historicist ones. For such an approach, some of Nietzsche’s “overt pronouncements on women” are, pace Ansell-Pearson, very “helpful.” Such an approach also shows that claims like Christine Garside Allen’s that “women are excluded from the higher ranks of existence” and Carole Diethe’s that Nietzsche’s “hohere Menschen are men” are inadequate summaries of Nietzsche’s stance.
The argument confines itself to Nietzsche’s middle period for two reasons. One is that, as Kofman notes, Nietzsche makes myriad comments on women, making a comprehensive account impossible here. The second, more substantive, reason is that D and, to a lesser extent, HAH tend to be neglected in commentary on Nietzsche. Despite this neglect, the writings of Nietzsche’s middle period are rich and fruitful, deserving of closer attention.
The middle period is not the mere intermezzo between The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra that some critics suggest. Not simply a prelude to Nietzsche’s later works, it has an integrity and value that should be acknowledged if the wealth and variety of Nietzsche’s oeuvre are to be appreciated as fully as possible. Moreover, on some axes the writings of the middle period are superior to what follows, especially in their preference for careful, rich, variegated moral analyses over cruder, more black and white moral arguments, caricatures and essentializing gestures.
The works of the middle period thus realize more fully some of the intellectual virtues Nietzsche prizes and with which he is associated, such as the free play of reason, self-reflexive criticism (HAH, 371, #249; D, 169, #370), antidogmatism, “schooling in suspicion” (HAH, 5,#1), attention to the mystery, complexity and mobility of the psyche and the unmasking of becoming in being, the made in the given, and contingency in necessity. This last point about sensitivity to contingency is especially apparent in the middle period’s historicist arguments about women.
Such general neglect of the works of the middle period could help to explain why discussions of Nietzsche often proceed as if his oeuvre were a monolith. Although there are continuities in his thought, many commentators seem impervious to the fact that he did not say quite the same thing all his life and blithely attribute what are actually the views of a specific period or text to ‘Nietzsche’ unqualified. However, as a reading of this period’s portrayal of women that does not rely on metaphors illustrates, this construction of a single, static Nietzsche is unwarranted.
An obvious and sometimes legitimate complaint about Nietzsche’s depiction of women is that it presents them in an essentialist way, denying females the possibility of self-making enjoyed by (some) men and so celebrated by Nietzsche. In this, Nietzsche, who typically prides himself on being a radical critic of the Western philosophical tradition, simply perpetuates its treatment of women. However, in his middle period, Nietzsche’s stance toward women and their essence shifts, indicating that he cannot be charged with simply continuing essentialism. Sometimes he does reproduce this, imputing characteristics such as sentiment, embodiedness, intuition, and tradition to women and making these inferior to male traits like reason, mind, calculation, prescience, and change. At others he essentializes the genders but reverses the hierarchy, so that typically feminine characteristics are valorized. At yet others he imputes different essential characteristics to women and men but continues to hold male ones superior. However, on still other occasions Nietzsche rejects essentialism, adopting a historicist and aesthetic approach to identity.
Moreover, when Nietzsche does hypostatize identity, women are not his only targets. That whole slice of humanity constituting the class of fettered spirits is also essentialized and denied the capacity for change and selfovercoming. Thus, while Nietzsche might essentialize women, many men are also treated in this way, indicating that Nietzsche’s essentialism is not exclusively related to gender. And, as indicated, Nietzsche does not always essentialize all women. The works of the middle period sometimes allow that women have become what they are via historical rather than ontological forces and that this can be changed. Nietzsche’s essentializing gestures are not, therefore, directed only at, nor at all, women. Rather, the middle period sometimes treats women in the same way as men-the superior are distinguished from the inferior and this latter group tends to be hypostatized. A key issue in his depiction of women thus becomes whether the goods Nietzsche values are within women’s reach. Can some women become part of the new ‘aristocracy of spirit’ he imagines and seeks to bring about?
Those who read Nietzsche’s work as misogynist sometimes trace this to the influence of the French moralists on his thought, for it is often charged that they also denigrate or discredit women. However, this view is also too simplistic, and Brendan Donnellan’s claim that in maligning women Nietzsche is simply absorbing the moralists’ beliefs will be contested here via a study of the way La Rochefoucauld, a major figure in the moralist tradition, portrays women. While Nietzsche does continue some of La Rochefoucauld’s attitudes toward women, this is not a legacy of unabated misogyny. This brings us to another reason for focusing on the works of the middle period, for in these works Nietzsche is most explicit and most positive about his debt to La Rochefoucauld.
In the middle period, Nietzsche’s interest in gender is most obvious in, but not confined to, the brief seventh book of HAH, “Woman and Child” (15060). A potpourri of views, this book typifies the conflicting perspectives on gender pervading this period. Its opening aphorism, “The perfect woman,” declares her to be “a higher type of human being than the perfect man: also something much rarer” (HAH, 150, #377). This could easily be a typical glorification of the feminine that elevates its essence while undermining the majority of ordinary, imperfect women. But against the background of Nietzsche’s general position it appears a little differently, for the idea of ‘higher types’ being ‘rare’ instantly evokes his image of the higher human being, who is usually interpreted to be male. Book 7’s opening statement that women can be higher humans adds that their struggle for ascendancy is greater than men’s. “[N]atural science” is invoked to demonstrate “the truth of this proposition” (HAH, 150, #377) which is suggestive of an essentialist position, but this is not developed. However, a different explanation of the difficulties women face in becoming higher beings can be reconstructed from the middle period’s remarks about women. And, on the basis of this reconstruction, the charge that women are innately ineligible for the Nietzschean higher life demands qualification. Instead, what emerges is that many of the things Nietzsche valorizes, such as autonomy in thought and action, intellectual strength and daring, capacity for cruelty and the skills of dialogue, are attainable by some women as well as some men.
This seemingly obvious distinction between superior and inferior manifestations of something, which characterizes Nietzschean analysis, is vital for understanding his views on the cluster of issues surrounding gender. This opening aphorism about superior women and their rarity indicates that even when the middle period criticizes women, not all women are thereby condemned but only those that fail to meet his delineation of the higher form. And this is to be expected of one who makes such discriminations in every other aspect of life. Indeed, were Nietzsche not to apply such tests to women, were he to exempt them from the critical scrutiny cast across everything else, this would be his real criticism of women, not the fact that some or many of them fail to meet his standards. This puts a different spin on his claim that “one cannot be too kind about women” for being too kind would patronize, shielding women from the standards by which all else is measured.
Some clue as to why superior women are rarer than higher men comes in another aphorism. “Error of noble women” suggests that over-refinement and delicacy hamper these women’s quest for truth, leading them to “think that a thing does not exist if it is not possible to speak about it in company” (HAH, 150, #383). This implies that women are more limited than men by rules governing polite conversation and so points to a social constraint on women’s pursuit of fuller knowledge, a pursuit central to Nietzsche’s higher human being.
Women’s constriction by society is evident again in a later aphorism. “Boredom” argues that women are most likely to suffer this, having “never learned to work properly” (HAH, 151, #391). Again there is no suggestion that incompetence or indolence are intrinsic to females; rather, society discourages women’s activity, subjecting them to easy boredom.ss A similar idea emerges in D’s warning against “clever women … whom fate has confined to a petty, dull environment and who grow old there” for these women are “spirits that lie in chains” (138, #227). That women’s characters are formed by their circumstances rather than anatomy or essence is also apparent in “Echoes of primal conditions in speech,” from an earlier book of HAH. Here Nietzsche writes that women “speak like creatures who have for millennia sat at the loom, or plied the needle, or been childish with children” (141, #342) but makes no suggestion that women’s only home is the domestic realm.
This passage also analyzes male speech, explaining this as a relic of past, more martial eras, so that modern men wield ideas with the aggression of weapons. The tacit critique of their conversational style also illustrates that while fond of military metaphors to characterize intellectual debates, Nietzsche does not ipso facto endorse a combative approach to conversation. Typically female passivity and typically male pugnacity are both chastized, but attributing them to mutable social functions implies that each can be overcome.
That this passive mode of speaking is typically but not ineluctably female becomes apparent later in a passage from HAH that also adduces Nietzsche’s conversational ideal: The dialogue is the perfect conversation, because everything one of the parties says acquires its particular colour, its sound, its accompanying gestures strictly with reference to the other to whom he is speaking … In a dialogue there is only a single refraction of thought: this is produced by the partner in the dialogue, as the mirror in which we desire to see our thoughts reflected as perfectly as possible. (147, #374; Nietzsche’s emphasis)
When several people converse, this harmony, subtlety, and sensitivity are lost. Whatever their gender, the interlocutors become bellicose and shrill. Only when the conversation returns to a tete-a-tete does it become “one of the pleasantest things in the world” (HAH, 147, #374) and only in such intimacy can the charm and intelligence of another, male or female, be known. The concern Nietzsche displays here with the virtues of conversation is not a feature of his work usually noted. As will emerge, it is a concern he shares with La Rochefoucauld, and for both thinkers the virtues required for a good conversation are androgynous.
In his middle period, Nietzsche sometimes presents women’s condition as socially rather than biologically conditioned, and sometimes he accords women agency in this evolution. Rather than their role being shaped entirely by men, “A judgement of Hesiod’s confirmed” (HAH, 154, #412), for example, argues that women have contrived a life free of labor for themselves, that their shrewdness has led to social arrangements making men responsible for them. Reversing essentialism and the usual explanations of women’s role in the domestic realm, the passage suspects that women carved out a niche for themselves rearing children so as to avoid “work as much as possible.” Nietzsche provides no evidence for this, exemplifying his sometimes loose and rhetorical use of history. Nonetheless, the passage’s general point is that women have known how, through subordination, to secure for themselves the preponderant advantage, even indeed the dominion (HAH, 154, #412). And its belief that women wilfully turn weakness to their advantage is reiterated in GS (125, #66).
Nietzsche’s claim about women’s contrived dependence might be empirically ungrounded and oblivious to or ignorant of the many sites of women’s labor, and its overt devaluation of housekeeping and childrearing betokens a bias in favor of waged, public labor. However, its rejection of essentialism is unmistakable. Its attribution of agency to women in shaping their situation, even though this is deemed a Pyrrhic victory, at least presents them as actors rather than ornaments or objects. This issue of female agency is further debated in GS. In “Will and willingness” a sage says that women do not corrupt but are corrupted by men-he wills and she responds willingly-leading the sage to inquire, “Who could have oil and kindness enough for them?” (126, #68). However, the next passage, “Capacity for revenge,” implicitly rebuts this, claiming that women could not enthrall men were they so malleable, willing, and will-less. To really intrigue, women must be capable of revenge and cruelty-toward others or themselves (126, #69). Although Nietzsche is typically critical of revenge as a motive for action, the ability to act cruelly and eschew sympathy is valued by him. This suggests again that females have the potential to realize some of his goods and shows Nietzsche rejecting the traditional association (which he sometimes makes) of women with altruism, empathy, and care for others.
That women’s achievement of dependency on men is a Pyrrhic victory is apparent in another of HAH’s passages, “The parasite,” which argues that “it indicates a complete lack of nobility of disposition when someone prefers to live in dependency, at the expense of others, merely so as not to have to work and usually with a secret animosity towards those he is dependent on. Such a disposition is much more frequent among women than men, also much more excusable (for historical reasons)” (143, #356). While reaching similar conclusions to “Hesiod,” this section offers them more sympathetically and does not attribute the outcome to feminine wiliness. The historical factors explaining it are unspecified-although it could be that cunning is the cause that is only elaborated in the later Hesiod passage. But the fact that the cause lies in history indicates that Nietzsche does not see the outcome as irrevocable. Another noteworthy feature of this argument is the way it assesses women’s position by the criterion of autonomy, a value central to Nietzsche’s notion of nobility. He values autonomy in thought, action, and care of the self, for “to satisfy one’s necessary requirements as completely as possible oneself, even if imperfectly, is the road to freedom of spirit and person. To let others satisfy many of one’s requirements, even superfluous ones … is a training in unfreedom” (HAH, 389, #318; Nietzsche’s emphasis). This again suggests some genderneutrality in application (if not constitution) of the virtues advocated by the middle period; for if males enjoyed the monopoly on independence, women’s lack would be presented as unremarkable or insurmountable.
Further evidence that some women can realize some of the same values as some men comes in one of Nietzsche’s discussions of the power of ruling and being ruled in turn. This is another important quality of the new aristocracy he envisions and is, relatedly, an important facet of caring for the self. Although such capacity for commanding and obeying has traditionally been seen as a male virtue, especially in the Greek context, at one point Nietzsche allows it to be gender neutral: “That in which men and women of the nobility excel others and which gives them an undoubted right to be rated higher consists in two arts ever more enhanced through inheritance: the art of commanding and the art of proud obedience” (HAH, 162, #440). This stands in marked contrast to the traditional essentialist view, which Nietzsche sometimes also espouses, that the excellence of male virtue is to command and female to obey.
That females are limited by social conditioning rather than inherent weaknesses is also evident in a reflection on girls’ education. Nietzsche pleads that girls not go to grammar school, not because they are unequal to it but because this would subject them to a procrustean training. Unschooled girls are “spirited, knowledge-thirsty, passionate young people” and he fears that giving them a conventional education will sap their spirit and strength, reducing them to “images of their teachers!” (HAH, 153, #409). D’s reference to “the supreme principle of all education, that one should offer food only to him who hungers for it!” (115, #195; Nietzsche’s emphasis), indicates again that the quality of the education, rather than its female consumers, is deficient here.
But this description of unschooled girls longing for knowledge seems at odds with one that soon follows of the female aversion to disengaged, impartial knowledge. Because they prefer to personalize issues and things, it is claimed in “On the emancipation of women” that women are ill-suited to pursuits like politics or sciences like history. Rare is she who really knows what science is, and even then she is likely to harbor “a secret contempt for it” (HAH, 154-55, #416). Indeed, a belief in women’s hostility to the scientific approach to knowledge resounds throughout the middle period, and in this hostility women resemble youths, artists, and the religious-all criticized in Nietzsche’s positivist period (see HAH, 221, #30; D, 217,#544; GS, 235, #293). Because the middle period so lauds science’s free and impartial pursuit of truth, women’s constitutional incapacity for it would seem a serious obstacle to their ascent to free spirithood.
However, Nietzsche’s favorable depiction of knowledge-thirsty girls suggests that women’s incapacity for science is not inborn, but caused by their education, a view consonant with the above point about social conditioning. Two further considerations prevent the ’emancipation’ passage from mounting a determinist reading of women as inherently inferior to men when it comes to the pursuit of knowledge that Nietzsche so values. The first is its implication that women, or at least those in a position to do so, freely reject the scientific approach to knowledge, feeling superior to it. (This is later undercut, though, when HAH explains women’s dislike of science as a mixture of “envy and sentimentality” [276, #265], for Nietzsche usually attributes envy to inferiority.) The second point freeing this position from determinism, and a corollary of the idea of choice, is the concession that “all this may change” (HAH, 155, #416).
HAH’s next passage, “Inspiration in female judgement,” picks up on this point about women forming quick and partial assessments. Instead of going on to criticize them, it attacks the men who praise female perspicacity and intuition (155, # 417). Even then, though, Nietzsche’s criticism stems not from the fact that women are wrong to think like this-instead it seems that the error lies in taking this to be the sole or highest form of knowledge. Because anything can be approached from several angles, such rapid judgments will contain some truth, but only some, so women’s knowledge should know itself to be partial in both senses of the term. Thus what begins as an apparent condemnation of a typically female approach to knowledge ends as a qualified endorsement of it by becoming a statement about perspectivism.
Something similar transpires when, two passages later, Nietzsche depicts women’s ability to sustain contradictory ideas (HAH, 155, #419). Although the passage attacks their approach to knowledge, when read after the endorsement of perspectivism the capacity to entertain contradictory ideas becomes a strength and a prerequisite of a higher form of consciousness. Moreover, when this section is read self-referentially, Nietzsche’s text becomes a woman’s head, for myriad contradictory ideas coexist there. No attempt is made to purge its tensions, paradoxes or contradictions-instead, acknowledging these is one of the rationales for adopting the aphoristic form, which is held to provide a better reflection of the multifarious, complex character of the world, and is one of the features distinguishing Nietzsche’s middle from his early period. As such, women’s way of thinking can again be read as superior to linear, rigorous thought. To further confuse this issue, though, and show what a really ‘female head’ his text is, Nietzsche later writes that women cannot manage contradiction and complexity: “reverence on ten points and silent disapprobation on ten others seems to them impossible at the same time, because they possess wholesale souls” (HAH, 279, #284).
The possibility that women’s way of knowing is socially constructed rather than endemic and therefore can be overcome is developed a little later in “Storm-and-stress period of women,” which predicts that: “In the three or four civilized countries of Europe women can through a few centuries of education be made into anything, even into men: not in the sexual sense, to be sure, but in every other sense. Under such a regimen they will one day have acquired all the male strengths and virtues, though they will also of course have had to accept all their weaknesses and vices into the bargain” (HAH, 157, #425). This is not only further evidence that the middle period contains historicist readings of gender but also indicates female potential for Nietzsche’s new aristocracy, a major component of which is intellectual strength and daring. The passage depicts a struggle within women between their “primeval properties” and their “newly learned and acquired” ones (HAH, 157, #425), but Nietzsche is confident the latter will triumph. Although he goes on to lament “the intermediate stage” when this struggle plays itself out and women’s involvement increases babble in philosophy, partisanship in politics and dilettantism in the arts, this picture of interregnum is a leitmotif of the middle period (HAH, 117, #248; 118, #250; D, 104, #171; 190-91, #453) and thus consistent with Nietzsche’s wider view rather than part of a severe critique of women.
The image in “Storm and stress” of women developing male traits suggests that HAH’s earlier portrayal of them as “custodians of the ancient” (44, #64) does not capture the insuperable female self. That women can and should be tutored in scientific thinking is reiterated in HAH (202, #635) although “Disgust at truth” declares that “women are so constituted” that they loathe the truth and resent attempts to impose it on them (HAH, 279, #286). While the forces so constituting women are not spelled out, this does gesture toward an essentialist notion of the female. However, in D, as part of a litany of sins against the truth, Nietzsche denounces talking “of compliments to women who are later to become mothers and not of the truth” (117, #196), which could imply that women are insufficiently exposed to truth. This might explain how they come to abhor it, again intimating criticism of their education and socialization rather than intrinsic nature; for were women inherently unequal to the truth, their insulation from it could not be condemned.
Another indictment of women’s approach to knowledge comes in HAH’s “Employment of novelties,” which claims that they use new knowledge to adorn themselves—they do not value it in itself, but only insofar as it beautifies them. Men also use knowledge instrumentally “as a ploughshare, perhaps also as a weapon” (280, #29o), but not as ornamentation. However, this impression of women as preoccupied with, if not exhausted by, appearance and embellishment does not dominate the middle period. That women’s highest virtue is beauty is rejected in an earlier book in HAH where “the beautiful face of a mindless woman” is dismissed as “mask-like” ( 101, #218) and worth little. This idea returns in Book 7, when obsession with appearance makes some women all surface and no substance, “almost spectral, necessarily unsatisfied beings” (152, #405). While Nietzsche appreciates the appeal of such women, especially the endless search for their nonexistent soul, men desiring them receive his commiseration. Book 7 also condemns women who beautify themselves to attract husbands, revealing this to be only a refined form of courtesanly behavior (152, #404).
A related point about women and appearance is made as part of a wider argument about fashion. The spread of modernity and Europeanization replaces national costume with fashionable clothes, but within this trend, interest in clothes that make a statement varies with maturity, autonomy, and gender. While women dress to mark themselves as members of a certain social echelon or cohort, Nietzsche does not see this as evincing their necessary interest in appearance. Rather, it wanes as they mature. “The more women grow inwardly, however, and cease among themselves to give precedence to the immature as they have done hitherto, the smaller these variations in their costume and the simpler their adornment will become” (364, #215; Nietzsche’s emphasis).
But a gulf separates this prediction from the portrait of “The female mind in contemporary society,” which observes that women present themselves to attract men (HAH, 375-76, #270; cf. GS, 126, #68). The assumption behind their self-presentation is that intelligence deters suitors, so sensuality is accentuated and intellect downplayed. This critique of beauty as a substitute for intellect is revisited in one of D’s aphorisms, which warns of the “Danger in beauty”: “This woman is beautiful and clever, but how much cleverer she would have become if she were not beautiful!” (151, #282). Again Nietzsche’s attack on the prizing of female beauty to the detriment of self-development is evident, for were this acceptable or natural, beauty would pose women no danger.
Nonetheless, the argument that Nietzsche’s middle period offers a nonessentialist, sympathetic reading of the female condition captures only part of it. There are also arguments to challenge and contradict many of those set out here. In particular, the idea that the highest virtues are accessible to women is refuted by claims about the impossibility of female free spirits. “Disharmony of concords” exemplifies this. “Women want to serve and in that they discover their happiness: and the free spirit wants not to be served and in that he discovers his happiness” (HAH, 159, #432). Not only are women ineligible for free spirithood here, but Nietzsche sometimes contends that even consorting with them is hazardous, a threat which is even more explicit in “Pleasing adversary.”
The natural tendency of women towards a quiet, calm, happy, harmonious existence, the way they pour soothing oil on the sea of life, unwittingly works against the heroic impulse in the heart of the free spirit. Without realizing it, women behave as one would do who removed the stones from the path of the wandering mineralogist so that his foot should not strike against them—whereas he has gone forth so that his foot shall strike against them. (HAH, 159, #431; Nietzsche’s emphasis)
Reference to women’s “natural tendency” defies the previous argument about Nietzsche’s nonessentialist reading of gender. However, ambiguity increases when HAH later detects this supposedly natural female longing for happiness and contentment only in “women who lack a soul-fulfilling occupation” (25445, # 173). This taps into the earlier point about society discouraging female occupation and self-development. Moreover, GS dismisses this image of women as harmonious, peace-loving, and soothing as idealized, leaving unclear exactly what, if anything, is woman’s `natural tendency’ (124, #60).
Analogously, female admission to free spirithood seems to be first given then taken away in GS’s “Women who master the masters.” Describing the way voices in the theatre can evoke new possibilities, Nietzsche writes that: “All at once we believe that somewhere in the world there could be women with lofty, heroic, and royal souls, capable of and ready for grandiose responses, resolutions, and sacrifices, capable of and ready for rule over men because in them the best elements of man apart from his sex have become an incarnate ideal” (127, #70). But the passage ends by undermining the possibility it so vividly scripts. Its attunement to voice is echoed in HAH’s “Laughter as treason,” which claims that how and when a woman laughs discloses her culture, while the sound of her laugh betrays her nature. Indeed, in highly refined women laughter may reveal “the last inextinguishable remnants of her nature” (278, #276). This echoes two of the above points-that women are more heavily socialized than men and, related to this, that their appearance need not be a window to their soul.
Despite its many convolutions, one certain thing to come out of this survey of the middle period’s views on women is just what a melange of rival ideas it represents. Laying out Nietzsche’s different views might create some sense of where their burden lies, or it could be that in the final analysis no resolution nor even summation of his position is possible. However, even if the latter holds, the mere recognition of the contradictory nature of Nietzsche’s views, of just what ‘a woman’s head’ his ideas on gender are, is a gain, for, as mentioned, when taken at face value Nietzsche’s reflections on women are readily dismissed as misogynistic. But while such a ‘womanly’, quick and partial assessment of his work might convey some of the truth, it is only some.
Although this does not automatically absolve Nietzsche from misogyny, D identifies and tries to explain hatred of women. “Misogynists” contends that demonizing women is born of “an immoderate drive” which hates not only itself “but its means of satisfaction of well” (165, #346). Illustrating La Rochefoucauld’s argument that some criticism reveals more about the critic than the criticized, men who proclaim hatred of women are actually overwhelmed with desire for them, but detest the desire and the women who provoke and who could satisfy it. Misogyny thus becomes a projection of selfloathing and the middle period’s accent on the nobility of self-love would make such a drive the preserve of lower beings. Moreover, D calls Aeschylus an “ancient misogynist” with no hint that this is a term of endearment (114, #193)
Invoking La Rochefoucauld is apropos, for, as mentioned, some argue that Nietzsche’s supposed hatred of women is a legacy from the French moralists. While evidence for this thesis exists, one problem it should but does not address is lag time in influence. Although Nietzsche read the moralists most intently in his middle period, at this time his views on women were more nuanced and less vitriolic than they later became. Attention to the lag factor would have to explain why the full impact of the moralists’ misogyny only manifested itself in Nietzsche’s later work. However, a bigger obstacle to this interpretation is its imputation of misogyny to the moralists. A more accurate account would point out that Nietzsche and the moralists depict women in ambiguous ways, making it too crude to charge any of these writers with misogyny unmodified. This is well illustrated by studying La Rochefoucauld’s views on women.
La Rochefoucauld typically portrays women in scenes of love and romance. This is unsurprising given his assertion that “coquetry is the basis of women’s humour” (67, #241). This implies an essentialist and determinist approach to gender, and the moralist’s analysis of women’s actions and intentions that flows from this premise is usually censorious. His criticism is summarized in the claim that “the smallest fault of women who have abandoned themselves to lovemaking is making love” (56, #131). From the details of this critique, a picture emerges of women in ‘love’ as either conniving, selfinterested, ambitious, and envious or weak and malleable. The hollowness of their love shows in the fact that while they fall in love with a particular man, they come to prefer being in love to their lover (85, #471). Romance also distorts female judgment, letting women “forgive huge indiscretions more easily than small infidelities” (82, #429).
Although La Rochefoucauld claims that women are driven to love by passion (85, #471), elsewhere he attributes it to attrition-women succumb to the persistence of relentless men, yielding to their own weakness rather than desire (98, #56). Whatever their motives for beginning love affairs, women continue for many reasons-intrigue, desire to please, reluctance to refuse, the illusion that they are in love, and so on (70, #277). And once a woman has had an affair, she is likely to have more (51, #73; cf. 87, #499).
Not all females are coquettes, but La Rochefoucauld frequently presents the “virtuous” ones as making a virtue of necessity, as not enamored of their chastity, or at least not for moral reasons. “Women are always somewhat averse to complete rectitude” 74, #333). “Few virtuous women are not bored with their station” (77, #367). Although this latter claim allows that there are some genuinely virtuous women, its gist is that most virtuous women really aren’t-their behavior, rather than their inclination, is proper. And just as weakness prompts some women to have affairs, it prompts others to respectability. Inertia’s love of repose or women’s desire to maintain their reputation, rather than any principled disdain of it, dissuades them from coquetry (62, #205).
However, when this portrayal of women and their seemingly genderspecific shortcomings is set against La Rochefoucauld’s wider discussion of psychology and the moral life, these vices and peccadilloes emerge as typically human, rather than uniquely female. All that is specific to women is the context of romantic love, and even then men in love behave in similar ways. For La Rochefoucauld (and Nietzsche) it is all too human to act (or do nothing) from weakness or habit rather than virtue, and this can often give rise to the appearance of merit, despite the vacuum beneath. Being driven by passion or self-interest rather than reason and making faulty moral judgments are also typical. Feigning emotion and using the love of others to inflate one’s status, as most women do when mourning a lover’s death (76, #362), are not confined to females either (65-66, #233). Ignorance of the mixture of motives that contributes to outcomes is also widespread, as is faith in appearances. Indeed, if these were not the conditions of existence for most individuals, La Rochefoucauld’s work would be largely redundant, for one of its aims is to make readers aware of their hidden, unknown selves. That this falsehood is general rather than gender-specific is captured in one of the moralist’s suppressed maxims. “What an Italian poet has said about the virtue of women can be applied to all our virtues, that it is often nothing but the art of appearing virtuous” (95, #33).
Another feature of La Rochefoucauld’s wider discussion of morality that must be borne in mind if his analysis of women is to be fully appreciated is the distinction between the many and the few. As is the case with Nietzsche, the French moralist draws a sharp division between the ordinary and the elite human, and the ethical and aesthetic ideals he advances are available only to an elevated minority. However, La Rochefoucauld’s elitism does not exclude women from the good life. Instead, he allows that a minority of superior ones do or can achieve what most cannot. Thus women who have had only one love affair are rare but exist; truly honest women are in the minority but not impossible; there are honest women who are not bored and if, as the moralist claims, most women shed crocodile tears, there must be those who do not. As “there are few women whose merit lasts longer than their beauty” (85, #474), there must be some. Most but not all use their minds to strengthen folly rather than reason (75, #340). And La Rochefoucauld’s claim that “there can be no order in women’s mind or heart unless their temperament agrees” (75, #346) simply applies to women the moralist’s wider point about the centrality of the natural. Affecting qualities, no matter how laudable, is offensive if it does not comport with the individual’s peculiar constitution. So women are not incapable of reason; that some are (as are some men) is conceded throughout by La Rochefoucauld.
However, if the moralist’s assertion that coquetry is the basis of the female humour holds, this means that such superior women are not free of coquettish impulses, but husband them. Indeed, the remainder of the maxim indicates this, with its qualification that “not all women practise coquetry, some withhold it out of fear or reason” (67, #242). As this shows, his later claim that “women can less overcome their coquetry than their passions” (74, #334) does not mean that women are incapable of controlling this impulse. Even if it is stronger than their passions, they need not remain its victim. And presumably this applies to the forces of self-love, interest, inertia and so forth that spoil or defeat most women. What is decisive is not their presence but mastery of them.
This points to the need to distinguish between essentialism and determinism in La Rochefoucauld’s thought. That women might be something in essence does not mean that they must submit to this—there is some margin for self-husbandry and self-making. The moralist depicts the human psyche as a m6lange of competing forces, and individuals have some power to set their virtues against their vices, the vices against each other, one passion against others or against interests, and so forth. Thus the self is not determined by its humor; other forces come or can be brought into play to mitigate or reconfigure its power. And this space for self-fashioning relates to the claim that an important purpose of La Rochefoucuald’s work is to elucidate the play of these forces in human action and to enhance readers’ self-awareness, for it also encourages the superior among them to remake themselves in line with the classical French ethos of honnetete.
An example of the need to foster self-awareness among females comes in a maxim quoted above, “Women often think they still love when they no longer do,” for many factors conspire “to persuade them that they are driven by passion when it is really only coquetry” (70, #277). Thus women’s quest for self-knowledge must pierce their own and society’s picture of them as primarily coquettes and lovers, and one of the reasons La Rochefoucauld focuses on this domain of female activity and identity might be that many women are so immersed in their role as coquettes that they cannot see it. “Women do not know the extent of their coquetry” (74, #332) and those who deny coquetry are, in so doing, playing the coquette (54, #107). So, if women’s selfknowledge is to be heightened, the extent of their coquetry must be made as plain as possible.
Nor should it be inferred that because La Rochefoucauld repeatedly situates women in the realm of romance, this is their only home. A hint that this association is socially conditioned emerges in a long maxim discussing suffering and hypocrisy. One form of hypocrisy identified is the extended mourning engaged in by “those who aspire to the glory of a beautiful, immortal sorrow.” This is pronounced among ambitious women, because “as their sex closes all avenues of glory to them, they are forced to distinguish themselves by the display of inconsolable suffering” (66, #233). Some women long for the immortality of glory, but because the social outlets available to men are closed to them, they redirect this thirst to a more acceptable, ‘feminine’ outlet. That women’s potential is not exhausted by romance is also apparent in the moralist’s acknowledgement that “a women can love the sciences” even if “not all the sciences are always suited to her” (I27, #13).
Against their restriction to the realm of romance and its intrigues, La Rochefoucauld outlines a range of authentic virtues that women, or the superior among them, can pursue, for the virtues to be discovered and practiced in the community of honnetes gens are androgynous. A good example of this comes in the significance accorded to the well-tuned conversation, an ideal that might have informed Nietzsche’s discussion of dialogue and its delights.
One of the moralist’s major criticisms of conversational practice is a point Nietzsche echoes: that people treat conversation as a chance to discourse about themselves, rather than an exchange. “That one should rarely speak of one’s wife is well known, but it is less known that one should speak even less of oneself” (77, #364; cf. 115, 1 i6, #4). (Perhaps this reference to one’s wife intimates that this is more of a male than a female indulgence?) La Rochefoucauld chides the insensitivity of the monologists’ perception that what pleases them automatically pleases another: “The extreme pleasure we find in speaking about ourself should make us suspect that this gives less pleasure to our listeners” (73, #314). As this suggests, conversations consisting of one or alternate monologues ignore the imperatives of the classical French art of pleasing, which counsels consideration for the other’s enjoyment. As Dens notes, the secret of this art is accommodating oneself to the personality and tendencies of others. One way of achieving this in conversation is not to dominate in time, tone, or content (115-16, #4). Another is to listen, rather than plan one’s imminent contribution, while the other speaks. Such attention also guarantees a genuine response, rendering the exchange more rational as well as more agreeable. Thus “listening well and responding well are among conversation’s highest perfections” (57, #139). As La Rochefoucauld’s reflection “On Conversation” insists, the norm of reciprocity also operates here, for if we want others to listen to us, we should listen to them. This assumes that conversation is fundamentally about the exchange of ideas, experiences, or impressions, but by La Rochefoucauld’s own account, this seemingly basic hypothesis is violated in much social life. Most so-called conversations comprise people expounding views for their own edification, to flatter their self-image or manufacture an image for popular consumption. The good conversation, by contrast, aims to enter the spirit and taste of the other, to really follow what they are saying, even when this seems trivial, useless, or uninteresting. And, as suggested, the moralist’s image of the ideal conversation is mirrored in Nietzsche’s picture above of the dialogue as “a single refraction of thought.”
The care with which La Rochefoucauld unfolds the qualities of a good conversation shows it to be a core component of his art of pleasing. But nothing in his prescription makes this inaccessible to women—if anything, men must refine themselves more to become agreeable interlocutors. Indeed, the move to the salon as the most valued milieu of aristocratic social life and the art of pleasing in general, with its emphasis on sensitivity, effacement, grace, gentleness, subtlety, delicacy, and consideration of others, can be seen as a feminization of virtue, displacing the typically aggressive, competitive, virtue-driven and masculine heroic ethos. As such it could be read as the triumph of traditionally feminine over traditionally masculine values. However, this holds only at the metaphorical level, for there is no specific vice or virtue in La Rochefoucauld that must preponderate in either gender. While women are encouraged by society to present themselves as embodiments of the feminine graces, the moralist’s expos shows that this is largely a hoax.
Similarly, despite its being a sublimation of some of the older heroic ethos, there is nothing in the quest for self-knowledge that excludes women, for, as we have seen, La Rochefoucauld acknowledges the thirst for heroism and glory that some women harbor. Therefore the major difference between men and women is the realm in which they express, expose, or reshape the forces driving them.
With La Rochefoucauld’s focus on salon life, what was formerly women’s domain becomes the dominant one for the practice by both genders of a range of androgynous virtues. Thus the moralist does not segregate women to practice gender-neutral virtues in their own realm. Instead, with the decline of the honor ethic the salon becomes home to the good life for them together with men. Again, the crucial social cleavage for La Rochefoucauld comes not from gender but from the many/few distinction.
This also applies to Nietzsche, or to those parts of his work that do not present women as a subset of the inferior many. So while Nietzsche does continue some of La Rochefoucauld’s attitudes toward women, this is not a legacy of unabated misogyny. Both gesture toward an essentialist reading of women at times, but it is always complicated by other factors and should not be extracted from their writing as expressing their definitive position on gender. Sometimes Nietzsche advances a historicist reading of women’s condition, showing their situation and characteristics to be mutable, and allowing some females to be candidates for free-spirithood. He also follows La Rochefoucauld when judging women by the standards men are measured by, and in finding most wanting. Both, however, outline a range of virtues that the elite of both genders can practice and strive to perfect, even when these virtues have hitherto been the province of one gender, be they the heroic virtues rechannelled or those of politeness, grace, and good conversation. Indeed, in the case of Nietzsche, to insist that these capacities are intrinsic to either gender would run afoul of the fact that “Everything has its day.” “When man gave all things a sex he thought, not that he was playing, but that he had gained a profound insight: it was only very late that he confessed to himself what an enormous error this was, and perhaps now he has not confessed it completely” (D, 9, #3).