Beatrice in Modern Gear

“Dante and Beatrice” Henry Holiday, 1883

Beatrice in Modern Gear

“Thou “who, to bring my soul to Paradise,

 Didst leave the imprint of thy steps in hell …”

So wrote Dante of Beatrice at the end of his Divine Comedy.

 The eternal feminine leads us above.”

So wrote Goethe at the conclusion of his Faust.

“Tu m’a rendu meilleurs —

ou moins mauvais.”

“You have made me a better man, or anyway less bad,” my first love affirmed, in a letter written many years after we had parted.

So dated! they say.  So yesterday! they say.  Such a trap for women! as they say.

In my Facebook home page, where I’m asked to give my favorite line in literature, I quote the last line of Kipling’s Kim, where the Tibetan lama believes he has redeemed the half-Indian, half-Irish youth who attached himself to the old monk.

“He smiled,

 the smile of one who has won salvation

for himself and his beloved.”

Of course, many a woman has tried to save a man to her own detriment and without succeeding.  There are excellent reasons to warn a girl against embracing such an ideal.

Is there anything at all to that idealized picture, for a woman?  Is it all simply a delusion, top to bottom?  If so, what does the real world look like — the solid reality that we should put in place of this chimera?

Of course, a fourteenth-century poet and politician like Dante and an eighteenth-century all-round genius like Goethe had to know, as we do, that such an ideal could be a woman’s undoing.  The difference is that, in our time, we are told that the idealization of woman is always a snare and a delusion.

Why?  Why are we told that?  Is the advice to treat idealizations as poppycock good advice?  Regardless of whether it is or is not the right thing to say in a particular case, why does everyone today think it is always the right advice?  Feminists think that.  Novelists think that.  Men of science think that.   Therapists think it.  Why so much consensus?  Why do they care so much — if some women want to idealize themselves — or some men want to see an occasional woman in that light?

Why the rush to disenchant?

Over breakfast this morning, Jerry and I, two philosophers, were talking about the difference in worldview between the Ancients and the Moderns.

For the Ancients, for instance Aristotle, the external world of matter and the inner world of human aspiration and fear, were the same world.  In this sense, Dante was an Ancient.  “Love,” Dante wrote, “moves the sun and the other stars.”  Ideally, he thought, physics and human purposes can work in harmony.

For the Moderns, consciousness and physics occupy completely different spheres: the inner world subjective but delusive, the outer world real but indifferent to our deepest hopes and fears.  What’s “real” for a modern person?  The random play of bits of matter and natural forces devoid of purpose.

In his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, Sartre illustrates his concept of bad faith or inauthenticity by sketching a café scene where a man and woman are talking and the man puts his hand on hers.  The woman pretends to ignore his hand while continuing to discuss her ideals.  How inauthentic!

So what’s authentic?  The interplay of blind forces, when you get down to it? “Your place or mine?”

Something is wrong with our physics, our psychology, and the rest of it.

When my father was dying, he was also communicating with me, in a silent but emphatic inner speech.  It was not coming from me, and it had great authority.

Love is stronger than the laws of our physics.

 Love actually does

 move the sun and the other stars.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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