Cartesian Cave

I like to imagine Rene Descartes sometimes, sitting as a shadow among shadows in his little Rembrandt painting, an exile from the kingdom of France. Perhaps smoking a pipe, he glances up at his mistress/wife and says, “Madame, you know it has occurred to me that I think, and therefore I am.”

“Yes, Monsieur Descartes,” she replies, rolling her eyes. She hands him his daughter to hold while she tends to the fire, the only glow in the gloom.

Later in the Dutch-dark afternoon she nips over to the neighbour’s house. “You know I gave him the child, his child,” she says to the Frau, “and I saw his heart overflow with the love he has for the babe, and still he didn’t say, ‘I love and therefore I am’, or even ‘I feel and therefore I am’.”

“Men can be so dense,” her neighbor replies.

“I think and therefore I am”

But Rene was after an alternative to obedience. He’d already escaped the slavery of subservience to an absolutist king to live in the free republic of The Netherlands. And long association with protestants had freed him from blind obedience to the Pope. He was as a single man in the western world, tasting freedom for the first time.

For more than a thousand years humans in Christendom had used appeals to authority in all their arguments and disagreements. God, of course, was the ultimate authority and for a millennium the church had stood in God’s stead, claiming to know what God wanted, required, even demanded of every man, woman and child in Christendom . Obedience was the only possible response. Then Luther did his thing, the church fragmented, and suddenly the Word of God was available in translation, available to be read by every Tom, Dick or even Harriet, if her father had given her an education. Obedience to authority was no longer taken for granted, and individual conscience was now more important than ever before.

“Well,” thought Rene, “conscience tells us after the fact that we’ve done wrong, but what tells us the right path in advance?” It was then that he had his epiphany. We can reason our way between alternative courses of actions to the best, the truest one. Eureka.

And so God, the father, no longer necessary as the authority of right and wrong, retreated behind the newly mechanical universe and reason, the tool the father had left behind, took his place.

Maybe women don’t understand, Rene thought, as he rocked his child in his arms. Maybe bound by vows of obedience to men they hadn’t the same taste for freedom. Or maybe, bound by laws of nature in ways no man was, they didn’t require freedom.

Rene’s little insight rocked all of Europe and it wasn’t long before others required the freedom to use what they called the “light of reason” as their only guide for living. Some of them, more honest than practical, realized that if God, King and Pope had lost their authority over men, men had lost their authority over women. Men had no god-given, church-sanctioned right to enslave women in marriage, and women had no god-given requirement to obey men. These seventheenth century male philosophers were the first feminists, using reason to unfasten men from the servitude of women.

One problem: reason owes no allegiance to truth. Reason can uncover facts, real and probable, but only the human can know truth. That knowing seems to come from some faculty other than the reasoning mind.

It didn’t take long for men to compile a list of reasons why women should continue to serve and obey men. For one thing, they said, women aren’t reasonable: “ They’re … why they’re emotional and emotion is … why it’s the opposite of reason!”

And so reason provided them their first lie. And their second.

It shouldn’t have taken more than a minute after the first man made the pompous announcement that men are rational and women are emotional for people to start laughing. You don’t have to be a genius to see that men are not only emotional, they’re possessed by their emotions. Almost their every action is a reaction to emotion, born out of emotion and beyond their ability to control.

Men kill their wives and lovers by the thousands every year out of the emotions of jealousy and vengeance. They kill other men out of the emotions of hatred and greed; they start wars from the emotional need to be better than, to be proved right, to possess what’s not theirs.

I don’t know why women have spent decades trying to prove that women are rational too, when any idiot can prove that men are not.

The second lie is the proposition that emotion and reason are opposites. Reason is a tool; emotion is a state of being. To assert opposition is the same as asserting that a tree is the opposite of a saw, or a boat the opposite of a lake.

When we’re drowning in the waters of emotion, reason can help us navigate out, but it’s a reason that requires the ability to look within, to notice our drowning state, to wish for a different state of being, to untangle the weedy threads that have bound us to the one we’re in. All this information is available in the body, where the states of being reside, and where the causes also live. Reason that refuses to descend the neck to the heart, the belly, the groin is reason that will lie to us, that is capable of heinous crimes the very opposite of truth.

Reason tells us that the elimination of rivals and enemies is good – in the wrong hands, reason can justify genocide. But something else in us revolts from the mathematical calculations of this head-bound reason. What is that, and where does it live?

Rene ran from child-like, unquestioning obedience to father-figures. But he ran into a cave, where deceit and self-deceit could not help but grow. From his new prison, all of Europe was endarkened by reason unchained. Revolution succeeded revolution, war became the massacres of the twentieth century, the holocausts of Jew and Slav and common men and women. Billions slaughtered by reason misused by men who hadn’t read the handbook, who were drowning in unacknowledged emotions.

Only women feel, they intoned from within bodies rigid with hatred and fear and grief and need.


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