Pre-Socratics and Motherhood

Dr. Kathryn Rombs // Metaphysics of Motherhood


December 20  

Pre-Socratics and Motherhood

The Pre-Socratic philosophers were occupied with answering metaphysical questions, not in terms of myth or metaphor, but realistically.  One of the primary metaphysical questions they sought to answer is about causation: Why is there change?  Change is omni-present, from the shifting of the four seasons, to the birth, growth, death and decay or organisms.  Why?  What are the causes of change?

The first Pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales, offered his answer: all things are made of water.  So, when something changes, it is a re-arrangement of water particles, or a ratification or condensation of water.  Anaximander came after him, saying all things are from “the infinite.”  From the infinite come opposites, and change is the result of the strife among them.  Anaximenes said all things are made of air; Heraclitus, fire; Empedocles, the four elements–earth, air, fire and water; Anaxagoras said all things are arranged and rearranged by Mind, and what Mind orders is the elements; Pythagoras said all things are ultimately reducible to number, that number is the logos that orders the universe. Parmenides, wildly, denied change, and said that reality is eternal and unchanging, hence the changes we detect with our senses are illusory; the atomists such as Democritus, Leucippus and Licretius  claimed that all change is a function of atoms arranging and rearranging.

Ultimately, the central question for the Pre-Socratics is about causation, and the prototypical instance of change is birth.  Coming to be: this is the paradigm of change.  Not surprisingly, the Pre-Socratics had loads to say about women and men on the subject of generation.  Oh, how tiresome, really, are the ancient theories of reproduction.  The seed: is it from both the woman and the man, or just the woman or just the man? The uterus: is the fetus on the right or left?  This will determine the sex of the child.  The temperature: is it warm or cool?  This will determine the level of masculinity or femininity of the baby.  Gonads, sperm, sexual fluids from the woman and the man. . . it is not for the delicate reader. How I blushed in graduate school the first time I was exposed to Aristotle’s review of his predecessors on generation, and then the presentation of his view.

Let us not miss the fact that generation of human beings–motherhood, fatherhood, parenthood, pregnancy, birth–is one of the foundational topics in the origin of metaphysics.  Over the centuries, it became sidelined. . . we’ll get to why that is.  A “metaphysics of motherhood” may sound funny to the modern reader.  To the Pre-Socratic, however, the term would have been run-of-the-mill.  He would simply have looked up from his ouzo and olives and asked you, “What do you think about the role of a woman’s sexual fluids in intercourse?”

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