Jeffery L Nicholas
Philosophy and social theory
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
to building a society of flourishing people
united in common goods.
Aristotle woke up, stretched, and rubbed his face. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his mind wondered, as it often did; and today it had more to wonder about. He stood up and made his ablations and dressed.
In the breakfast room, he sat next to Plato. They stared at each other a moment, both seeing red eyes staring back, both seeing exhaustion in the other. They shared a breakfast of oatmeal with fresh honey, blueberries, and flax. It was simple, but it was enough for the day.
"We better get to it," Plato said.
They cleaned out their bowls and set them aside to dry in the sun coming from the window. Aristotle smiled at the sunlight. It was strange, but it shored up the hope in his heart. Clearly, he was tired and frustrated and so sad... so very sad to have been right this one time.
Plato and Aristotle stepped out into the warmth of the new day and stared out at Athens. They could hear moaning coming from around them. Yesterday, Pericles had conceded to The Orange Haired Spartan. Her speech was conciliatory. But she also said that they had to give the Orange Haired Spartan a chance to lead. Pragmatic to the end, Aristotle thought. Pragmatism was what landed us here. "Paying the mortgage," he said to Plato. They both chuckled. It was their mantra for dealing with the last months. Everyone had to pay the mortgage; even they did.
"Living well," Plato said.
That was the only answer possible, Aristotle knew. You had to pay the mortgage, but you didn't have to sacrifice your life to it. That was the one thing that had defeated the Athenians... they sacrificed their life to paying the mortgage. Everyday. And then they made the final sacrifice that elected Pericles over Socrates.
They walked down the street and came to Aristophanes lying in his own vomit. They picked him up and carried him to his house. As Aristotle cleaned vomit from Aristophanes, he recalled some of the funny parts in The Clouds, even the ones that had made fun of Socrates. They play was funny, but it was sad that so many people had used it as a reason to reject Socrates. He was the only one that could have united the Athenians to defeat Sparta. Best not to dwell in the past.
They left Aristophanes to his own devices and continued down the way. As they went along they picked up trash in the street and put it in the correct bins. When they came to a homeless person, they invited him to join them. After an hour's walk, they came to Diotima's house. Aristotle could feel the nervousness of the men and women behind him. Diotima was a witch, and a midwife to boot. She knew the secrets of the world, secrets she had shared with Socrates. Since Socrates had drank the hemlock and passed his cloak over to Pericles, Plato and Aristotle had come to sit at her knee. Aristotle was not used to being around so many women, or around so much discussion of love. It put Plato's Symposium to shame.
Diotima invited them into the house. She did not hesitate when she saw the large number of people. instead, she smiled. They needed people now, now more than ever. She gave each homeless person some grapes, olives and cheese. When they were refreshed, she led them out into her garden where they met the other midwives and witches, witches and midwives, and midwife-witches.
"Let's ground ourselves," Diotima said. She struck a song bowl, it's clear note hanging in the air for an infinite moment. Then they learned to breathe, to feel the breath enter the body, fill it up with hope, and take away all the fear when it left the body. The ending note stayed with Aristotle the rest of the day.
Then they walked out into the fields around Athens and began to tend to the garden.
"We begin here," Diotima said, "where we are closest to nature, where we can feel the love pushing up from the ground and reaching for the sun." She took an old man's hands and pushed it into the cool dirt. "We begin where we remember that life comes round every year, that even in the coldest, darkest winter, the soil lives." She moved to the next one, and the next one, working her magic.
When she was finished, she walked over to Aristotle. he was bent down in the dirt, his dark hands covered with soil and a smile on his face. She placed her hands around his face and lifted it to her. Their eyes danced a dance with each other.
"It's time you began talking about love as well as friendship, is it not?" She had been working her magic on him for months now, and he was beginning to understand her secrets.
Aristotle was not sure he was up to the task, but then Diotima would remind him that it just takes a little every day. That was another reason they worked in the fields. Every day they could make a little change, and with their prayers, and their love, they might change the world. If nothing else, they would leave a little piece of it better than it was before.
This story began here.
We are nearing the end of National Midwifery Week, so I want to leave you with something positive, something to continue motivating you to ask questions for your own care.
Midwifery is, not simply good health care, better for the mother and child and family, better for the community, but it is pro-woman. I've alluded to this before: the first role of the midwife is to help the mother trust herself and trust the natural process. The first role of the midwife is to empower others.
What we see in the US system is quite different. The system is based on fear: a fear of death ultimate, but that manifests as a fear of litigation and a fear of loss of control. Watch videos of women delivering and you will hear guttural--beautiful--noises coming from them. They are able to let go. Yet, we fear when to let our bodies go so often in this controlled society. We fear being too fat or too thin. We fear being sued because we have no control over the situation, so we try to tighten the screw. But like any normal screw, over-tightening leads to stripping the screw of its natural form, making it incapable of functioning. So we discard it.
The primary virtue--to be a little philosophical--of the midwife is trust. In the basis of that trust, she is able to help the laboring mother listen to her body, to trust what the body is telling her. Some times, the body tells her that it needs some medical help. That empowers the mother to exercise her agency, by listening to and trusting her body. She can make a decision grounded, not in fear, but in love and honesty.
I don't mean to romanticize the labor and birth. It's painful. Nor do I intend to demean any one who desires to numb the pain through an epidural. Rather, I'm simply inviting people to consider other possibilities. Possibilities grounded in the empowerment of women and of families. I've talked about the dominance of science in our country and asking ourselves where science and technology fit in human life. That is all I am doing here: at what point does technology and medicine in the birthing room support human life and at what point does it detract? A midwife is one of the best, if not the best, guide in helping to answer that question.
My interest in midwifery stems from the social justice issues around it. For me, as most of my readers know, social justice ties directly to community. Midwives, unlike obstetricians and other medical professionals, are more inclined to help build community.
Thus, in the movie "Why not home," several of the midwives commented on their role in building community. "We should help build communities around birth because that makes families stronger."
In the US, our culture is built on death--how could it not be when it is founded on the genocide of First Nation Peoples? How could it not be when it arose at the same time as the industrial revolution which often requires the death of community, the death of individuals, and the death of the land?
We need to change. As mindfulness and Buddhist teachings tell us, we do not have to keep on going the same way we have been. We can, instead, look at our past and realize what we would like to change about it, and move forward with that change. Beginning with a change in the status of midwifery in the US is a crucial first step in this change. Just because doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies have fought over dollars in the birthing room does not mean that we need to continue to let this happen.
I invite you, not just to accept what I write here as fact, but to question. Question your doctors and hospitals about their high infant and maternal mortality. Question why the increase in C-sections continues when it coincides with a higher maternal mortality. Look at the studies, not just the ones done in the US, but those done in the world. Look at the Frontier Nursing Service which provided midwifery services in Appalachia--some of our poorest country--for 20 years without an infant death, compared the the growing obstetric practice.
And remember that I am not advocating that we stop all technology and all hospital or obstetric led birth. Rather, I am asking us to do what most needs to be done: to integrate our science with a life-affirming way of life.
Last night, I had to wonderful opportunity to participate in a panel on the movie "Why not home?" by Jessica Moore at the Sarah Doyle Women's Center at Brown University.
The movie is simply wonderful, showing the beauty of homebirth while discussing--in a most balanced way--the issues involved. If you have the opportunity, please attend one of the screenings around the country. I am thinking of attending the one at Brookline in order to meet the film maker.
In the US, we spend more on birth than any other industrialized nation ($111million), while suffering worse outcomes. For example, the C-section rate has increased to 32% in the US over the last 12 years, while maternal mortality has increased--more mothers dying from birth. Further, our infant mortality rate has fared poorly compared to other countries--deaths have decreased only 13% in the US while they have decreased by 23% in other industrialized countries.
One other interesting point from the movie: the main study used in the US to discriminate against homebirth refused to include the major study from the Netherlands. Thus, the Netherlands' study involved 500,000 homebirths, while the US study involved only 50,000.
As I stated last night, when we deny people information, when we limit people's choices, when we refuse to share information with others, we dehumanize them. In the US, our medical field and the media dehumanize women and children every day, every year, killing many and making many others suffer. I ask you to inform yourself and your loved ones and all you know about the facts around birth, midwifery, and family life to make the best decision for you.
I want to reflect for a moment on a post from Graham Meltzer about transforming the world and the role of community.
No less than the role of community in the evolution of our species. Yes, I do see a link there! So this post is not about Findhorn directly, but about community life in general and its contribution to the making of a better world through the humane welcoming of babies and raising of children.
How do we change the world is perhaps the fundamental question of both Christianity and of Marxist philosophy, in many ways a Christian heresy. The big attempts at change were never really attempts at all in the Marxist sense--the USSR, China, Cuba, all began from different principles. The vanguard ideology was never something Marx fully embraced, certainly not in the way that we have seen it instantiated. Yet, that leaves us with the question, whence transformation?
What Graham points out is what must be obvious and what we ignore, especially in Western philosophical circles: it begins with children and how we raise children. Robin Grille's research demonstrates this point on a socio-psychological level.
Perhaps then, it might only take a few generations of our kids repeatedly enjoying a humane and loving welcome into community for peace, harmony and resilience to become the norm.
I'm always at pain with my students to remind them what children are really like when they are young. My students repeat what they hear in society: human beings are selfish, children are self-centered. Having raised three beautiful, wonderful human beings, I know, of course, that they can be, that every person must go through some stage of self-centeredness.
Yet, when they are young, a child is the first to come to someone who is hurt and offer a hug. A child is the first, when she is secured in her life, to offer to share.
What Rousseau got right, and what Marx emphasized is that society conditions people to act in certain ways. The communities we have, at least in modern liberal democracies today, emphasize selfish tendencies.
But one community at a time, built around healthy birth and a healthy relationship to the earth, provides an opportunity to raise children with different values.
My philosophical mission has always been grounded in this search for a new world. I'm not saying I am perfect, that I was a perfect parent, or that I know all the answers. What I am saying is that I have been searching for the philosophical foundations for this new way of being, this new way of life. I believe wholeheartedly with Paulo Freire that change without reflection is no change at all.
Intentional communities, like Findhorn, are intention--ed. And they are local. We cannot just take Findhorn and transplant it in Rhode Island. But we might be able to discover the principles which support the building of such communities. Science fiction is one way to discover these principles. Philosophy is another. But to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, these are but straw if we do not put them into practice.
This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally.
For me, these lines are like the gestalt picture of the rabbit and the duck. In one light, they make me think of the baby being born. The pregnancy and the birthing are mysterious powers--a new life lives inside the woman and she brings it forth at birth into the world. When needlessly contorted by fetal heart monitors, epidurals, and C-sections, the health of the mother and the baby can suffer--especially the spiritual health. Several speakers addressed this mouldiness at the HBHE conference. The technocratic nature of birth can be part of the distortion of childhodd that Robin Grille discussed.
In another light, I see so much else about the way we live or refuse to live in our bodies. Western Christian culture has such a distorted view inherited from Manicheanism through Augustine. Yet, God created us as ensouled bodies--as Thomas Aquinas states, to be without a body is an unnatural state. That's why we have a resurrection of the body--not just of the soul. The soul deformed without the body. Modern philosophy and science and culture mis-understand this. We are not ghosts in a shell. We are living bodies.
It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.
I love this vision of freedom: giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts.
Those familiar with the work my students do in classes might recall the way we imagine leadership
This definition came from our reading of Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference. It lies at the heart of what I see in MacIntyrean practices--like midwifery, fishing, playing guitar, etc. Freedom lies in releasing our creativity and love for others.
Re-imagining birth, the environment, and society in new language is a step toward this freedom. It means engaging in practices for their goods and not for other reasons. Ignorance brought on by the desire for security in the form of ever more money prevents us from engaging in that way. As a teacher, one of my goals is to at least get students to think about the possibilities here. One of my successes was a student a long time ago who, after taking ethics with me, left her business major and went off to film school.
How I wish we could all be so inspired. How I wish we could all go off to our own film schools, or own creative centers.
That is what we must aim for in transforming society.
Graham Meltzer encouraged me to think about writing something on birth and community. I've spent some time thinking about what I would have to say here. It seems to me obvious that something should be said, but what should be said and why I should say it has been the problem.
It occurred to me as I walked to work this morning, that we can draw some parallels between birth and political community. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in After Virtue, our politics has for a long time been removed from the hands of the people. Max Weber is notable for pointing out the workings of bureaucracy in the state. MacIntyre explains how, not the good or needs of the people, but the knowledge of the experts is the standard way for determining state policy.
This point should sound familiar. Whether midwives are permitted or not in the birthing room, the overwhelming driving force can often be the knowledge of the experts. This "knowledge" sees pregnancy and birth as pathological, has devised instruments for "helping" the birth along, and has removed agency from the hands of those most involved in birth. I know more about this in the US than other countries. In the US, midwives attend 7% of births. When my wife and I went to a midwife for the birth of our second child we were told no, because we were at risk. Why? Because it was the beginning of the second trimester and we'd not seen a physician yet. This fact put us at risk, despite my wife already giving birth to one child with no complications. I've read articles about court cases where midwives will testify, but their testimony would be ignored because of the expert opinion of physicians--the scientists. (I address scientism as a ideology in my article "Eucharist and Dragonfighting.") The experts can drive the decision making in the birthing room, and do so. In the US, midwives have been displaced as ignorant and dirty in favor of the experts. Regarding the UK, I am familiar with an article titles "Mad, Bad, or Indifferent." This article reports the ways that midwives often undermine the expert control of the physician in the birthing room. Overall, however, midwives are being attacked in the UK by the experts.
These are the negative aspects that unite birth and community. I want also to focus on the positive aspects. I invite you, my dear readers, to share below both negative and positive parallels of birth and community.
What Plato later called dialegesthai, Socrates himself called maieutic, the art of midwifery: he wanted to help others give birth to what they themselves thought anyhow, to find the truth in their doxa.
Let’s consider this thought a moment in relation to the modern way of birth. The midwife helps the mother—supports her—in giving birth to a child. Often, though, especially in medical institutional settings, the obstetrician—and here I want to remember that what I write is not true of all obstetricians, and that it may be more true in the US than other places—takes over from the mother, uses his own technology to separate the mother and child. (In relation to yesterdy’s post, this obstetrical action can be viewed as Freire’s banking model of education.) Obviously, sometimes both in education and in birth, a different expertise is needed, when, not the mother’s hesitation, concern, etc, but the body’s operation might require input. Yet, the different models are telling. (To refer to an earlier post, one might read Robbie Davis-Floyd’s work on the wholistic model of birth.)
If we remain true to his own metaphor of maieutic, we may say: Socrates wanted to make the city more truthful by delivering each of the citizens of their truths
To continue this analogy from Socrates, the midwife wants to make the city more humanistic, letting each mother and each family find the truth—and the trust—in their own natures. We can think on this ideal a bit more in relation to the city. It would be easy to consider the city as the symbol for technology, and thus to consider the over-use of technology on a par with the increase in city life. David Harvey, on whom I’ve posted before, sees in the city the centre of revolutionary potential. So the city has something special about it. He ends his discussion of the city and revolution (in Rebel Cities) by noting the need to balance the infrastructure of the city with the natural environment. Here we return to birth again. By returning to a more wholistic model of birth we might also discover a better way of building cities. Once our model of birth is one with nature, where technology has a subordinate role, then we can begin to live more human lives in harmony with nature. Cities, under this model, must be restructured to support our natural living.
To Socrates, maieutic was a political activity, a give-and-take, fundamentally on a basis of strict equality, the fruits of which could not be measured by the result of arriving at this or that general truth
At the heart of the midwife activity, in contrast to the dominant obstetric-technological model, is equality. What might our democracy look like, our cities look like, our social relations look like if we birthed naturally, with or without midwives and doulas, in a relationship of fundamental equality? A return to natural birth, again supported by the obstetrician and technology when necessary, is a first step to a return to a natural equality, one which the Neolithic age disrupted.
It is time for us to reclaim our mothers, our births, and our equality.
This article should both sadden and frighten us all.
Scientists have discovered that they can use any cell to begin reproduction through a form of parthenogenesis. Parthenogenesis is a cellular process by which some animals--mostly reptilians and amphibians--can reproduce without a male partner. You may be familiar with this term from the Jurassic Park movies, for they use parthenogenesis to reproduce the dinosaurs.
Like the scientists in Jurassic Park, our present story lacks any discussion of the why. Why should we use non-egg cells to reproduce new life? The reasons are easy enough,perhaps, to discover. A gay couple may want a child of their own genetic material. A rich, childless man may want an heir. Or perhaps it is the first step to immortality in one's own body, so to speak.
Or, to follow the thread here even further: we can imagine a future species like the Bene Tleilax who reproduce solely through cloning.
The title of the piece is telling here: "motherless" babies. The Tleilax use axlotl tanks for reproduction--women hooked up to machines, with no autonomy, no agency, simply used for the womb. For a long time, I have wondered about parthenogenesis as a story element for a male-less society. Here, though, in reality, the scientists are pursuing a female-less society. At what cost? What thought has gone into this? We already know that female fetuses are aborted at higher rates than males, that women have fewer opportunities for expansion of their agency throughout the world, etc. Imagine, it's not too hard, a China with a one child policy and this motherless science.
That possibility leads to greater threats of course. We know, for instance, that chimpanzee infants would rather cuddle a terry cloth robe than nurse from a bottle hooked to a metal mother-figure. Mothers in the US receive limited maternity leave. We devalue them everywhere. Yet, without mothers we become inhuman--we lack the basic touch that produces healthy men and women secure in themselves and in each other. We return again and again to a world filled with monsters but no human persons.
Someday, I hope soon, we may learn that wisdom must precede science. That is the real message of the masterful novel The Canticle for Liebowitz.
The last few posts have addressed the revolutionary nature of the act of a woman giving birth, both in its economic and in its cultural aspects.
In this post, I want to step back for a moment and reflect on the truly revolutionary nature of the Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth conference. I do so from the philosophy of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
It should be obvious to anyone that women, children, and all people are today suffering from oppression. It should also be obvious that the earth too suffers from oppression. The oppression is, in many ways, from our own making. Michel Odent pointed out that our culture is grounded in a domination of nature; Robin Grille pointed out how the domination of birth and children leads to ever greater domination; many speakers spoke on the way that birthing methods today are dehumanizing.
The tremendous praxis of this conference lay in the reality that we as oppressed people were speaking out and educating each other on this oppression and on change. (I include myself in this "we" even though I was not a presenter because to do otherwise would be to deny what happened to me personally, as well as professionally, at the conference.) Freire writes
This then is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.
When they discover within themselves the yearning to be free, they perceive that this yearning can be transformed into reality only when the same yearning is aroused in their comrades.
The wonderful, lovely, inspirational, transformative reality of this Heal Thy Birth, Heal Thy Earth conference is that we have grasped on to this yearning and we want to spread it to others. The moment of solidarity is alive in the coming together, not to rail against the oppressors, but to understand our own oppression and how we might redeem ourselves and the world, how we might change consciousness by changing the way we relate to birth and the earth.
To use Freire again, reflection and action were one in this conference. We attendees engaged in transformative action during our reflection, through dance, singing, living together, eating together, and eating from the earth.
This week made our lives more difficult. Now we have returned to our daily lives where we are no longer surrounded by loving hands and minds. Our task does not change: that our action is reflective, that our reflection is active, that we are always inviting others to join us in praxis. Here, then, we must build community, one patient, one client, one friend, one family member, one person at a time.
Jeffery L. Nicholas (Ph.D philosophy, University of Kentucky) is an associate professor at Providence College and an international scholar on ethics and politics. He serves as research associate for the Center for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics at London Metropolitan University and a foreign research associate at Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá Colombia. Dr. Nicholas is co-founder of and executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre's Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), as well as numerous articles. Dr. Nicholas writes on midwifery and birth, the common good, friendship and community, practical reason, and Native American philosophy. He aims to develop a philosophy of integral humanism that synthesizes the philosophical traditions of Alasdair MacIntyre, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and Feminist Care Ethics.