A Wax Nose or A Natural Limb?

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (part of modern-day Poland) in 1788. His philosophical works were widely read throughout the 19th century. Though he died in 1860, about 20 years before the time of our Femme, she would likely have been aware of his publications, or at least her parents would have been, as they were still widely read post-1860. In one of his essays on women he writes:

“[…] it is intolerable to see with what haughty disdain an aristocratic woman usually speaks to women who are beneath her (I am not referring to servants). The reason for this may be that with women all differences in rank are far more precarious than they are with us [men], and can be altered or abolished much more quickly, because in our case a hundred different considerations are involved, while in theirs only one is decisive, namely which man they have succeeded in attracting. Another reason may be that, because they are all in the same profession, they all stand much closer to one another than men do, and consequently strive to emphasize differences in rank.”

I find it difficult in 2017 to read this with complete objectivity, but it says a lot about early-mid 19th century beliefs on a woman’s role in society. Many thought that woman’s chief purpose (one of the middle or upper classes) was to attract the right man and extend his line. Whomever she found herself attached to would directly result in her own place in society. The idea that she strive for an occupation other than that of wife and mother, and carve out a social standing on her own without an attachment to a man, was just not done. Schopenhauer doesn’t consider this option when speaking about women in general terms. In other essays he makes it clear that the minds of men are much more suited for matters outside the home, while women are meant to nurture their children and care for their husbands. He believes this is the natural order of things as did many others. By the 1880s, it was more feasible and acceptable for women to take on a profession like nursing or teaching, though it would have been rare for a career beyond these options, however, doors were beginning to open. Many were still resistant because of this lingering mindset of a woman’s place within home.

On a lighter note, Schopenhauer contradicts the validity of his own essay in a sense, writing in another essay, “Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. […] A truth that has merely been learnt adheres to us only as an artificial limb, a false tooth, a wax nose does, or at most like transplanted skin; but a truth won by thinking for ourself us like a natural limb; it alone really belongs to us. This is what determines the difference between a thinker and a mere scholar.” Fortunately, many women did think for themselves and refused to believe the traditional rhetoric about not being capable for other types of work. Understandably, it was still very difficult to go against the grain between 1880-1930, but small steps were being made. Little by little, woman found that they had a valid place on their own in the public sphere, perhaps as well as being a domestic goddess, wife, and mother.

-Danielle Morrin

Essay excerpts from: Arthur Schopenhauer. Essays and Aphorisms. London: Penguin Press, 1970.

Photo // Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu/schopenh/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s