Male Gallantry

“King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid”
Edward Burne-Jones, 1884

Male Gallantry

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven, here’s a topic that’s been tapping on the casement of my mind during the past few weeks.  It’s reminded me of an incident that happened some years back, when I was tenured, published and safely embedded in professional life.

However, none of us is all that safe.  A recent mammogram had occasioned the recommendation that I undergo a diagnostic biopsy.  And I’d about decided not to go that route a second time.

I was divorced.  My parents were gone by then.  In the solitary circumstances where I found myself, it did not seem irresponsible for me to try alternative treatment approaches.

The phone rang while I was mulling over this decision.  It was X, a former suitor who now wore the respectable title of associate professor.  X was between marriages and clearly thinking of me as the next Mrs. X.  Given the stark solitude in which I was weighing life and death decisions, his call was at least a welcome distraction.

We met for coffee, but really to talk about a possible renewal of our courtship of years before.

“Why not?” he asked me.

“I’ll tell you why not.  When I was fighting to get my job back, you sent me an email defending my adversaries!”

“I didn’t know they were on the other side.  I never heard exactly what happened, who did what.”

“If you had known, I think you would have sided with them anyway.”

He thought a minute.  “Yes.  I would have.”  Another pause, and then he said,  “You’re saying I’m a worm. ….

Am I a worm?”

“I don’t know.”

Since I didn’t know, we agreed to have dinner later in the week at the New York hotel where the American Philosophical Association was holding its mid-winter meetings.  We thought it would be fun to join a group of philosophers who’d been young colleagues together with us at the university where we all had our first teaching jobs.  Hey, the gang’s all here!

At the restaurant, we exchanged reports about our present lives.  It didn’t seem like fun to talk about my possible cancer, so I decided to mention that I’d become a theist.  That was a pretty big change of mind for a philosopher, since I’d been a young atheist at the time when we’d been colleagues together.

The old gang looked startled but decided, after a bit of discussion, that it wasn’t as far out as it sounded since Z, a highly respected philosopher, called himself a theist too.

“I don’t think he can be a serious theist, since he goes around pretending to look for a job at new departments, for the sole purpose of getting a salary increase at his home university.  When I was at Sydney, the joke was about founding a “Z’s Anonymous” group so that chairmen who’d been played that way could call each other in the middle of the night when they felt the urge to take a drink!”

How was I to know that one was not supposed to talk that way about a Certified Big Shot?  I thought we were still all kids together.  When did my former buddies become boring and middle-aged?  Anyway, they reacted by ganging up on me.  They couldn’t care less whether Z’s pretend job searches were or were not consistent with his professed theism.  As if on a signal, they began to shower me with ridicule.

Hey, fellas!  I thought we were friends!  I thought we were buddies!  I thought we had philosophy — the queen of the sciences — the search for wisdom, in common!  They were at least four to one, so it was not obvious how to return their serves.

As I was gearing up to say whatever I could, my once-and-future suitor, seated beside me, muttered, “Don’t say anything.  You’ll only make it worse.”

“Join the mob.”

That was the pithy comment of a fireman friend to whom I later repeated this story about … the “philosophers.”

Of course, the courtship with X was aborted then and there.  Nevertheless, we did exchange a few more emails.  He took the line that, in failing to come to my defense, he was making good his credentials as a feminist.

“A modern, liberated woman should be given the space to defend herself.”

“Maybe so, but you didn’t give me that space.  What you actually did was tell me to shut up!”

Is a man who won’t defend a beleaguered woman thereby showing himself to be an authentic feminist?

Let’s not get into generalities.  In this particular case, prompted by a track record of siding with adversaries who had once looked stronger than me, X had already posed the question:

Am I a worm?

In the subsequent case, where he did it again, the answer had now come in.  It was …


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 and as an audiobook. 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 and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( 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. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Male Gallantry

  1. Johan Herrenberg says:

    Apart from the male-female dynamic, one should side with and fight for a friend. I know I would. And I do.

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