Saturday, December 21, 2013

Edith Stein on Woman's Distinctive Soul and Deep Dispositions


Writing about women

Most of Edith Stein’s writing on women and women’s vocation stems from the decade of her professional life between her conversion and her entrance into the Carmelite community at Cologne. The importance of these essays cannot be overestimated, both in terms of their originality and level of insight, but also in terms of their wider influence. On a recent visit to the U.S., Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, himself a Jewish convert to Catholicism, called Edith Stein one of the greatest philosophers of our time. “Her best pupil,” he said, “is the Holy Father.” Anyone who has read the pope’s encyclical on The Dignity andVocation of Woman, or his more recent Letter to Women, will see immediately how much they owe to Edith Stein’s pioneering work on this subject.

The motivation for these inquiries into the nature and vocation of women was, in Stein’s view, the need to educate women in a way that would be perfective of them, not just as generic human beings, but as women. Stein rejected the radical feminist claim that there are no important differences between men and women. As a philosopher looking for the basis of true femininity, she begins with what might be called an ontology of woman.

After her conversion to Catholicism, Stein had turned to an intense study of the great Catholic philosopher and Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. She was fascinated by St. Thomas’s view of the human person. Unlike the radical dualism of Descartes, which represents soul and body as two different and distinct entities, Thomas insisted upon the subsistent unity of the person, body and soul, since each natural substance is a composite of form and matter. Further, since matter is what distinguishes one human being from another, the body is essential to the person, and not simply a machine or a shell for the soul that could be discarded without serious loss to the “real” self. 

Woman's distinctive soul

Along with St. Thomas and Aristotle, Stein acknowledged that there are traits unique to the human soul, abilities (or at least dispositional traits) that are shared by every member of the species. Rationality, and along with it free choice, belong to every human being and so to every woman as a human person. But if the soul is the form of the body, and the form of humanity is individuated by being united with this body or that one, Stein reasoned that the woman’s soul will have a spiritual quality distinct from the man’s soul. She did not argue that biology is destiny, but that the physical differences between men and women profoundly mark their personalities. The woman’s body stamps her soul with particular qualities that are common to all women but different from distinctively masculine traits. Stein saw these differences as complementary and not hierarchical in value, and so they should be recognized and celebrated rather than minimized and deplored. There are two ways of being human, as man or as woman.

Stein supported her view both by philosophical appeal to the intimacy of the body/soul relationship and to psychological theories that focus on personality types, rather than on behavior alone. She considered the differences between males and females to be evident even to common sense, and so in need of little argument. Her thesis would be denied by many feminists today, but probably not by anyone who has children of both genders. The differences between girls and boys are evident and seem totally resistant to manipulation. Nature has a stubborn way of asserting herself in total disregard for our theories. 

Deep dispositions

Stein looked especially to the creation narratives of Genesis to draw out what she took to be the natural vocation of woman. Every woman, she claimed, is meant to be both a companion (her spousal vocation) and a mother. Because of her close connection with human birth and development, woman seeks and embraces whatever is living, personal, and whole. “To cherish, guard, protect, nourish, and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.” Woman naturally focuses on what is human, and tends to give relationships a higher importance than work, success, reputation, etc. Here Stein’s thinking lines up with recent neo-feminist authors like Carol Gilligan who claim that women approach moral questions with more attention to the people affected by their actions and decisions than to abstract and impersonal considerations of duty, rights, and justice.

Woman is naturally more attuned to the individual, and hence to a concrete, particular person with all of his or her own needs and potential. Further, this maternal concern aims at the total development of the other person as a unity of body, soul, and spirit. No one aspect of the personality is to be sacrificed to any other. In particular, there is to be no divorcing of mind and body, treating persons (especially students) as if they were disembodied intellects.
The maternal aspect of woman’s vocation involves helping other persons develop to their fullest potential, and for those who are married, this will include their husbands as well as their children. Motherhood is a universal calling for women, and so not simply a task to be exercised with one’s biological children. Woman’s concern for the good of persons must extend to all those whose lives touch hers in some way.

Pope John Paul II raises this feminine vocation to truly cosmic proportions, looking to women for the rehumanization of a world dominated by hedonism and materialism. In The Gospel of Life he calls upon women to “teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.” This contribution of women, declares the Holy Father, is “an indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change,” for replacing the culture of death with the civilization of love.

In addition to this cultural or spiritual motherhood, Stein sees woman’s calling as including a spousal dimension, the role of companionship. This involves sharing the life of another, entering into it and making that person’s concerns one’s own. One might argue that this is a vocation for both men and women, and it is unlikely that Stein would deny that it is. But it may also be true that women have a special genius for friendship, perhaps because of their orientation to the human and personal, and a greater capacity for exercising empathy. Stein’s dissertation on the subject of empathy was completed some years prior to her lectures on women’s roles, but one can see its influence on that later work. She describes empathy as a clear awareness of another person, not simply of the content of his experience, but of his experience of that content. In empathy, one takes the place of the other without becoming strictly identical to him. It is not just understanding the experiences of the other, but in some sense taking them on as one’s own.

Obviously this ability to enter into another’s life is especially helpful within marriage, but it can and should be exercised in other relationships as well. For women who are single, or for those who have consecrated themselves wholly to God, this aspect of their vocation should take on a more universal scope, and will call for a more disinterested {that is to say a more divine} kind of love. Everyone who knew Edith Stein tells us that she was a living example of this capacity for empathy. Her spiritual director in the late '20s, Abbot Raphael Walzer, wrote that she possessed “a tender, even maternal, solicitude for others. She was plain and direct with ordinary people, learned with the scholars, a fellow-seeker with those searching for the truth. I could almost say she was a sinner with the sinners.” 

(by Laura Garcia)