On the sexual politics behind the upright man and his counterpoint: the inclining woman.
Sexual and emotional inclination toward a person—for brevity’s sake, we’ll call it eros—stirs serious apprehension, above all among philosophers. They perceive it as a threat to the subject’s equilibrium—a deep quiver, a slippery slope. What they fear most of all are inclinations that are too impetuous and difficult to master. In the turbulent realm of eros, these include the inclination that turns to lust and other pleasures of the flesh—prominent among which is the alleged propensity of specifically female nature to lasciviousness.
In traditional ethics, this argument is often developed with particular passion, but it also appears in authors who would seem to be more open-minded. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the influential philosopher Pierre Proudhon, known for his innovative and revolutionary ideas, wrote some passages on this theme that are worthy of mention. In La pornacratie, ou les femmes dans les temps modernes he writes,
To speak of sexual relations, it is a law of nature in all animals that the female, incited by the instinct to have children, searches for a male in all manner of ways. Woman cannot escape this law. She is naturally more inclined to lasciviousness than man, first because her self is more fragile, such that liberty and intelligence struggle in her with less force against her animalistic inclinations, and secondly because love is the great, if not only, occupation of her life.
Despite his misogyny, or perhaps precisely because his prejudice does not spare even maternity, Proudhon’s words are ultimately thought-provoking. Following a widely accepted theory, Proudhon argues that love, with its pathologies and excesses, is essentially rooted in natural and animal phenomena related to sexual inclination, understood not as an orientation for a particular sex but as the instinct to have sex. He also suggests that, in women as in females of other species, this instinct is subordinated to the instinct for procreation. From this perspective, erotic and maternal inclinations spring from a core that is as imperious and indomitable as nature itself.
Obviously, were woman a free and rational individual, she too, like the male of the human species, would be able to oppose the rule of the instincts. But because nature instead provided her with a rather weak ego, “liberty and intelligence struggle in her with less force against her animalistic inclinations.” For Proudhon, in short, the weak sex represents a reality in which inclinations rage out of control, and are therefore stronger and more dangerous.
For Schopenhauer too—to remain within nineteenth-century philosophy—feminine nature is characterized by a perfect short-circuit between lasciviousness, giving birth, and the instinctual care of offspring. After condemning the indecent female art of seduction, he writes that “women in truth exist entirely for the propagation of the race, and their destiny ends here.” One may find this passage excessively misogynist; in essence, however, it has a broad consensus within a respected tradition: in the library of the West, whenever discussion turns to the dangers of inclinations, women are regularly in the mix.
The “upright man” more than an abused metaphor, is literally a subject who conforms to a vertical axis, which in turn functions as a principle and norm for its ethical posture.
Words like righteousness and rectitude, which occur frequently in dictionaries of morals, and were often used already in the Middle Ages for the “rectification” of bad inclinations, are an important anticipation of this scenario. The “upright man” of which the tradition speaks, more than an abused metaphor, is literally a subject who conforms to a vertical axis, which in turn functions as a principle and norm for its ethical posture. One can thus understand why philosophers see inclination as a perpetual source of apprehension, which is renewed in each epoch, and which takes on even more weight during modernity, when the free and autonomous self celebrated by Kant enters the scene.
Even common people who may be unfamiliar with philosophy know that the most frequent and feared inclination, love, is an attack against the self’s balance. To fall in love, to be moved outside of the self, to give in to the attraction coming from another person and to slide down a slope that pulls irresistibly—this is a big mess for everyone. As is often said, the attractions of love remove self-control from the I, causing it to get carried away and to exit itself: this, precisely, is the meaning of ek-stasis. Erotic inclination, accordingly, has an intrinsically ecstatic effect, even without the ultimate enjoyment that some, not surprisingly, call ecstasy.
Philosophers see inclination as a perpetual source of apprehension.
Love overwhelms, dispossesses, and sometimes leads to a romantic death—the literature on this phenomenon is, as we know, immense. Men as well as women suffer it, but, as Proudhon and others believe, it especially afflicts women because of their structural absence of a stable self. Paradigmatic in this sense, to remain in the realm of masterpieces of the western novel, is the figure of Anna Karenina, in whom the devastating and exemplary lethal force of the inclination of love comes into conflict with maternal inclination. That in such a context eros easily can claim victory is already clear from the conservative tradition which, since antiquity, has assigned women two distinct social roles: while some women are destined for the use of pleasure, others are supposed to dedicate themselves to the domestic sphere and to maternal care.
As an unfaithful wife, and hence as a depraved woman—lost to herself and to society—Anna Karenina overcomes precisely the limit that keeps these two ambits distinct. In an open confrontation between maternal inclination and inclination for her lover, once the barrier that should have enclosed eros has fallen, the former ends up succumbing to the latter. Certainly, the fight could have ended differently under different skies and in different times; but the novel is emblematic precisely because of how the story unfolds, up to and including the final suicide. The misogynistic vein, which pulses through Tolstoy’s masterpiece, needs the fallen woman to die, and she does so in a horrible way, even more so because she is a mother.
In her famous book The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir writes: "A man is in his right by virtue of being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. In fact, just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical that defined the oblique, there is an absolute human type that is masculine." From this perspective, the well-known theological doctrine on original sin that ascribes an innate inclinatio ad malum to the whole human race appears less sexist. If everyone is inclined toward evil, the starting point is, however dismaying, nevertheless equal regardless of gender.
With the thesis of a congenital and originary inclination to evil, we face an extreme, perhaps totalizing, case that resoundingly escapes established critical frameworks. Philosophy, as a rule, avoids bringing the whole system of human inclinations back to a single, predestined origin. It instead limits itself to denunciations of the more or less devastating effect of some inclinations, above all those related to the sexual sphere. Although characterized by certain constants, this framework is essentially open to numerous variants: in different epochs and contexts, certain inclinations—at times considered natural, at times socially acquired, or the result of a perversion—are more worrisome than others. Given that two sexes are in question here, the problem is not so much, or not only, to contest the absoluteness of the vertical axis, but also to free inclination from its normative command and its defining grip.