Aristotle in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’

25 Aug

Classical feminist detective work is a tricky beast. People have been writing derogatory things about women for so long and in so many different languages that it becomes terribly difficult to hone in on the original misogyny. In the spirit of fair play and not misquoting people, it’s handy to have direct references, even if only for the disappointingly simple reason that a misquote may get used against you by someone who has the time/energy/lack of social life to go hunting for the original.

I went on a trail this afternoon after Caroline Criado-Perez posted this:


De Beauvoir writes in the introduction – (Vintage Classics edition, pp15-16):

‘”the female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”, said Aristotle; “we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”‘.

Unhelpfully, De Beauvoir does not give a reference for this Aristotle quote. Moreover, it’s written in such a way as to suggest that Aristotle said these two things one after the other.

Aristotle has a number of famous works, notably, the Politics, Nicomachaean Ethics, Physics, etc. He’s not particularly pro-women in any of them [read: he hates us], and searching for ‘women’ and ‘female’ in online versions of texts yields a pretty stark display of it. No easy answers there.

My first clue was a Google search for ‘Aristotle women defective by nature’. I found this article:

I didn’t stop to read it in depth as such (it came across as a bit try-hard apologetic, but I’ll probably go back and read it again more critically some day) but I did note the points about Aquinas and the Latin translation.

Aristotle didn’t write in Latin. Aquinas probably read Aristotle’s works in Latin after they were translated by a keen set of scribes. Aquinas therefore came across ‘femina est mas occasionatus’ and went from there. I put this phrase into Google and got Aquinas’ attempt to explain it. This makes sense in the context of the De Beauvoir quote as she goes on to say “St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being”.

I found the full Aquinas quote (in Latin) and it helpfully told me whereabouts in Aristotle he had derived this theory: de generatione animalium iv.2 766b 33.

Interlude: a significant amount of hunting. It’s extremely difficult to get hold of large amounts of Greek text online if they are not housed on the go-to site for all Classicists, Perseus. Eventually, however, I got lucky and found the full works of Aristotle in Greek in a pdf. Those who are curious – it’s here:

I then spent a long time trying to apply what little Greek I can still remember (Finals were over a year ago now, after all) attempting to match it up with an English translation I had found (one here: This task became significantly easier when I used my old JSTOR membership to let me in to an article which (at last!) made sense of the page numbers I was using. Turns out it was much simpler than I had thought and I quickly tracked down the text that I thought I was looking for.

Here it is:


The 2nd and 3rd lines are the ones that contain the quote we’re looking for. I’m pretty sure those *are* the right lines thanks to the (frankly torturous) route I took to get to them. Now, my Greek isn’t good enough to render those lines in a way that would satisfy a scholar, so you’ll have to pitch in here and help me out, but I reckon that the man is emphatically qualified as being ‘able’ or ’empowered to’ while the woman is explicitly ‘unable’. Not so much ‘defective’ as ‘incapable’.

In the wider context, Aristotle is talking about human reproduction. It seems that Aristotle’s imperfect understanding of biology is one of the founding blocks of the theory that biology is destiny, and female biology is worse than male biology. Of course, it wasn’t just Aristotle. Ancient theory was pretty convinced that the man had the baby-making capacity contained within his sperm, while the woman was the vessel that nourished it. You’ll spot that this went on for a lot longer than the 5th century BC. Now that we know it’s wrong, we can obviously jettison all the beliefs and cultural hang-ups we’ve accumulated as a result. Wouldn’t that be ace?

As for the second half of the quote (“we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness”) – I’m still working on it. At the moment, I don’t know what de Beauvoir wrote in French, because it seems to be impossible to get hold of a French copy on the internet (for free, anyway). And I don’t know what the French translation of Aristotle may have said. It’s quite possible that the translation expands on the Greek original to the extent that the whole of SdB’s quote spins out of that short Greek phrase – or she has found it from another part of Aristotle altogether. There are plenty of bits to choose from. As I said, he didn’t like women very much.

Right. That’s as far as I can trace this particular thread, I think. I’m going back to my book now (Backlash, Susan Faludi). G’night, team. X


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