I have grown increasingly interested in the portrayal of women in rhetoric and the gender specific definition of “virtue” by classical rhetorician Aristotle. After exploring Aristotle’s thoughts of a virtuous man, I will further connect two of de Pizan’s texts in order to document the shift in female rhetoric and its depiction of a “virtuous woman” and some scholarly articles.
It can be said that a “virtuous person,” within the 21st century, renders a genderless appeal relating to all equally. Virtue, according to the dictionary, comes from the Latin word “vir” meaning “man” and virtus meaning “valor, merit, and moral perfection” (dictionary.com). During the middle ages, the French word vertu evolved into what is known today as virtue linked to “good moral behavior.” For women, the dictionary defines the archaic word virtue to mean “virginity or chastity, especially of a woman” (dictionary.com). To be Virtuous means “having or showing high moral standards” (dictionary.com). On my quest to find “virtuous women” within the rhetoric discourse, I realized that “virtue” is never quite defined for a woman, but only for a man. In order to fully understand the negation of “virtuous women” in rhetoric, we must first define “virtue” in Aristotle’s text Rhetoric. Furthermore, Politics by Aristotle lays a foundational stance of a woman in a man’s domain.
In my pursuit to define “virtue” for women in rhetoric, I quickly recognized that there is a gap between Classical Rhetoric and Medieval Rhetoric. Many orators believed that speaking well coincided with a virtuous person, but never included women among this category. It is now well known that women were seen as obsolete and never allowed to speak publically. Aristotle in Rhetoric does, however, state that “virtue is, according to the usual view, a faculty of providing and preserving good things; or a faculty of conferring many great benefits, and benefits of all kinds on all occasions [1366b]” (Bizzel and Hertzberg, “Rhetoric” 197). According to Aristotle, virtue is “justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom” (Bizzell and Herzberg, “Rhetoric” 197). He also states virtue must somehow be noble therefore linking the two. Courageous men, or to have courage is the very thing that “disposes men to do noble deeds in situations of danger” all while still abiding with the law ( Bizzel and Herzberg, “Rhetoric” 197). “Virtue”, by this definition, is something only accomplished by men because it is believed women were weak and of ill power.
In Politics, Aristotle discusses the superiority of man over the woman. Men, according to Aristotle, are “naturally more qualified to lead than the female” (Aristotle, Politics 147) and if he—the man–dares measure in equivalence to that of “a brave woman” this would define him as a cowardly man (Aristotle, Politics 171). The head of a household, “the husband over the wife,” as part of the duties of a man, he must “rule both his wife and his children as beings equally free, but not with the same character of rule” because “his rule over his wife is like that of a magistrate in a free state” (Aristotle, Politics 147). Aristotle believed that “nature’s direction” would lead towards the free man to rule over “the slave,” the “female” and “the child” because much like the slave “has not the deliberative faculty, but the woman has it, though without power to be effective” (Aristotle, Politics 150). Women, by Aristotle’s text, were clearly considered to have a bit more power than a slave, yet still subordinate to her husband and all men. Both Rhetoric and Politics paint a picture no different than that of Christine de Pizan’s era, where women are perceived to be inferior, incapable of public oration, and unable to be granted equal education. Through his text, Aristotle portrayed a world where a free man was placed above all other mortals. This philosophy has influenced many cultures including de Pizan’s world right down to our western civilization. It seems that Aristotle, among others, created a misogynistic foundation where defacing women within text was the norm causing society to continue the patriarchal position. Today, in some cultures, we still find this degrading characterization of women linking “virtue” to relate to a virginal foundational stance while defining men as someone with “high moral standards” is the ultimate definition of the word.
This is an unfinished position as I still must present de Pizan’s text and a rounded conclusion, but as of now, do you find the word “virtue” in rhetoric to differ according to gender? Somehow, even though Aristotle saw women as lower class citizens, I do deem some of his texts as being important. How about you?
Aristotle, Immanuel Bekker, W. E. Bolland, Andrew Lang, James Donaldson, and James Donaldson. Aristotle’s Politics Books I. III. IV. (VII.) the Text of Bekker with an English Translation by W.E. Bolland, M.A. Assistant-Master of Bedford Grammar School Late Post Master of Merton College, Oxford Together with Short Introductory Essays by A. Lang, M.A. Late Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. London: Longmans, Green, 1877. Internet Archive. Web. 21 July 2016.
Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. “Rhetoric by Aristotle.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical times to the Present. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1990. 179-240. Print.
“The Definition of Virtue.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2016.
“The Definition of Virtuous.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2016.