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Christine De Pisan and Thomas Hobbes

Author(s): Karen Green

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Source: The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 177 (Oct., 1994), pp. 456-475
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ThePhilosophical Vol.44,No. 177
Quarterly October
ISSN 0031-8094



Recent feministpolitical theoryhas been highlycritical of the social

contracttradition.1Liberalism,in particular,has been deemed an inad-
equate foundationfor feminism,and some have argued that feminist
political theoryshould be groundedin a non-contractualunderstanding
of society.2It has been suggestedthat in a feminist,non-contractual,
political theory,relationsbetween citizenswould be modelled on those
between mothersand children. In this paper I hope to illuminatethe
points of differencebetween contractual and non-contractualconcep-
tions of society by comparing the political writingsof the mediaeval
feministChristinede Pisan withthose of Thomas Hobbes. Christinede
Pisan, I argue, can be interpretedas endorsing a more 'maternalist'
conception of political authoritythan other monarchistthinkers.Her
writingthus offersus one version of a non-contractualunderstanding
of political relations. However, the consequences that she draws from
her understandingof political rightsand duties, modelled as they are
on maternaland filialobligations,are not compatible with the modern
feministcommitmentto egalitarianism. In order to illuminate the
strengthsand weaknessesof social contracttheoryI firstdiscuss one of
Carol Pateman's criticismsof Hobbes and show thatit is flawed.I then
offermy own criticismof Hobbes' reasoning,arguingthat the situation
of women serves to demonstratea dramatic failurein his logic. How-
ever, the nature of this failureis not sufficientto undermineall forms
of social contract theory. What it shows is not that social contract
theoryis completelydefective,but that it is incomplete.The nature of
this incompletenessis furtherilluminatedthrougha discussion of the
political writingsof Christinede Pisan.
Like Hobbes, de Pisan wrote a number of political treatises,includ-
ing Le Livredu Corpsde Policie,at a time of impendingcivil war, and in
the hope of promotingpeace. Like him, she was interestedin uphold-

I See Pateman 1988, 1989.

2Jaggar1983, p. 50; also Held.

? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 108 CowleyRoad, OxfordOX4 IJF,UK

MA 02142,USA.
and 238 Main Street,Cambridge,

ing the authorityof the sovereign(cf. Hobbes EW vol. 2, pp. 78-80).

Unlike him, she also wrote explicitlyand at length on the place of
women in society,and her views cast a new lighton Hobbes' advocacy
of political subjection. There are furthersimilaritiesin their thought,
which will be discussed below. And there is also an importantdiffer-
ence, which resides in their assumptionsconcerningmoral psychology
and moral education. Hobbes believes thatreason by itselfmustbe able
to give us a reason forbeing ethical,for'the Lawes of Nature (as Justice,
Equity,Modesty, Mercyand (in summe) doingto others,as weewouldbe done
to) ... are contrary to our naturall Passions' (L ch. xvII, pp. 87-9).
De Pisan, by contrast, writes within the frameworkof a Christian
Platonismwhich treatsthe love of the good as a natural tendency,dis-
tinct from reason. For her, moral motivationis sui generis, and is not
identicalwithprudence. I shall argue thatfeministobjectionsto Hobbes
are most cogent if they are understoodas objections to his moral psy-
chology, but this moral psychologyis not an essential part of social
contracttheory.This indicatesthe possibilityof developinga versionof
political theorywhich is both contractualand maternalist,in a sense to
be developed later.


Hobbes introduceshis discussion of commonwealthswith the observa-

tion that humans are by nature equal. They are all equally possessed of
reason, the desire to preserve their own life above all thingsand, im-
portantlyforhis argument,the capacityto preserveit (L ch. xIII, p. 63).
Accordingto a standardinterpretation, he then argues that humans are
self-interestedand thatthe state of natureis a stateof war. Since a state
of war is in no one's long-terminterest,people are led by reason to
enter into a social contractand to give up their freedomin exchange
for the protectionwhich the state provides. Thus the existence of the
state and its laws is justifiedin the light of the rational egoism of all
humans. Reason leads to the recognitionthat the best way to preserve
one's own life, liberty and material possessions is to submit to the
power of a state that will protectthem (L ch. xvII, pp. 87-90).
The existence of women and childrenposes an immediate difficulty
for Hobbes' political views, for women in civil society are not men's
equals, and it is extremelyodd to thinkof our ethical relations with
childrenas based on contract(see Brennan and Pateman). Yet, unlike
so many male theorists,Hobbes resiststhe temptationof explainingthis
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

social inequality by postulating women's natural inferiority,and he

does not interpretmarriage as naturallyinvolvingwomen's subordina-
tion. With admirable consistency,he insiststhat in the state of nature
men and women are equals and that any authoritythat husbands have
over wives is the resultof civil society.He points to the possibilityof a
society like the Amazons, who according to traditiongoverned them-
selves, contractingwithneighbouringtribesof men forintercourseand
giving them any boy children who might be born, while retaining
exclusivecontrolover theirdaughters(L ch. xx, p. 105; and EWvol. 2,
p. 116). In the state of nature, Hobbes argues, authorityover children
rests with mothers exclusively,for, without the social structuresthat
ensure paternity,paternitycannot be proved, and 'since everyman by
law of nature,hath rightor proprietyto his own body, the child ought
ratherto be the proprietyof the mother,of whose body it is part until
the time of separation' (EWvol. 4, p. 154). Neverthelessit is not gen-
eration but preservationwhich entitlesthe mother to dominion over
her child, and should she expose it and it be broughtup by some other,
the right of dominion would pass to that other. Having made these
observations,Hobbes says nothingexplicit regardingthe justice of the
usual relationshipof husbands to wives in the societyin which he lived.
He observesmerelythat forthe mostpart civil law gives dominion over
children to the fatherbecause commonwealthshave been erected by
the fathersand not by the mothersof families(L ch. xx, p. 105).
Somethingis clearlymissingfromHobbes' story.If his premiseswere
true, and if societywere founded on a social contractbetween equals,
we would expect women to be among the contractorsas well as men.
Individual women are not, as Hobbes admits, necessarilyweaker than
individual men, and in any case, weak men as well as strongones are
partyto the contractthat foundssociety.So how did the subjection of
women arise?
Feministcriticsof liberalismhave suggesteda numberof places where
the Hobbesian storyfalls down. Many have objected to his premises
concerninghuman nature, and in particularto the claim that humans
are rational egoists(e.g.,Jaggar p. 45). Some (e.g., Flax) have modified
this claim by suggestingthat only men are rational egoists, and that
consequentlythe view of human nature that Hobbes offersis distorted
and purely masculine. In support of the firstof these criticismsit can
be pointed out that Hobbes' storyis not borne out by anthropology,
and in order for infantsto survive,mothersmust be, at least partly,
altruistic. So, it can be argued, Hobbes' assumption of universal
rational egoism is not borne out by the facts.
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

While the differencebetweenthose social contracttheorieswhich are

compatible with feminismand those which are not depends, I shall
argue, on whetherHobbes' moral psychologyis adopted, by themselves
these observationsdo not take us veryfaras criticismsof Hobbes' logic.
Humans may not be total egoists, but it is not reasonable to assume
that they are total altruistseither. Althoughmost people act altruisti-
cally towards some individuals,many cannot be relied upon to extend
this behaviour to a verywide group. If they could, there would be no
need for laws and institutionsto protect our rights. As Hobbes
observed, in response to contemporaryobjections to his jaded assess-
ment of human nature, we shut our doors when we go to sleep and
defend our coasts, thus manifestingour belief that others will not
necessarily treat us altruistically(EW vol. 2, p. 6). And in fact all
that Hobbes needs to assume forthe sake of his argumentis that even
if we are by nature reasonably altruisticto those who are close to us,
by blood relationship,proximityor in virtue of some other trait that
excites our sympathy,we place our own self-preservation very high
among our interestsand that in fact, in general, it is an over-riding
Anothercommon criticismof Hobbes is that there never was a state
of nature in which people lived as isolated individuals.But as it stands
this falls shortas a compellingcriticism.One can read Hobbes as sug-
gestingthe implausiblehypothesisthat thereonce was a state of nature
populated by isolated individuals,but thereare places where he clearly
thinksof the state of nature as populated by familygroups, in conflict
witheach other,who are broughttogetherinto a commonwealthby the
social contract.This suggeststhe followingdevelopmentof the feminist
critique. Either Hobbes accepts the unrealistichypothesisthat there
was a state of nature in which humans lived as isolated atoms, or he
must admit that the familyconstitutesthe firstsociety,and that since
the familyis held togetherby natural altruisticsentiments,morality
cannot simplybe grounded in reason.
Yet Hobbes can be read as having pre-emptedthis criticism,and as
having rejected it on the grounds that natural ties of affectionare not
sufficientto hold familiestogether.He speaks of the familiesof 'the
savage people in many places of America' as being held togetheronly
by 'natural lust', and he also says that thereexistsin the state of nature
'the natural inclinationof the sexes, one to another,and to theirchild-
ren' (L ch. xIII, p. 65 and ch. xx, p. 105). But, he says, such ties are

3 See Coady.
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

weak and easily broken. The familymust thereforebe held together

by a compact that reflectsin miniaturethe compact that founds civil
society.4Members of a familyconsent to the absolute authorityof the
familyhead in exchange forthe protectionprovided by membershipof
the family.Since childrenowe theirlives to the protectionand nurture
of the one who has brought them up, who need not be a natural
parent, that person has dominion over them derived fromthe child's
consent, 'either express or by other sufficientarguments declared'
(L ch. xx, p. 105). So Hobbes understandsthe development of civil
societyas a two-stageprocess. Individuals contractto come togetherin
familygroups, which are, as a matterof fact,usually patriarchal;and
then patriarchal familyheads contract togetherto form a common-
wealth. The state of nature that exists in an abstract and theoretical
sense between individuals,exists historicallyas a state of war between
familiesand existseven now between nations.
The resultingHobbesian explanation of the inequality of women
in civil societyis that commonwealthsare set up by fathers,and civil
societyaccords dominion to fathers,because mothersare already sub-
jugated withinpatriarchalfamilies.And thereis contemporaryevidence
thatthisis how the statewas formed.5But thisonlypushes the apparent
inconsistencyback a step. For how is it that fathershave obtained
dominion over mothers and hence over their children? One answer
mightbe that Hobbes is simplywrong about the natural equality of all
individualsand that men and women are not equal in natural liberty.
Indeed Hobbes himselfequivocates over this,and at one place admits
that the equality he has in mind is possessed by 'all men of riperyears'
(EW vol. 2, p. 115). This admission would be strengthenedif one took
into account the fact that, although an individual man may not be
strongeror more able than an individual woman, women as a group
are less strong than men. It is also plausible given the particular
disadvantageswomen sufferbecause of pregnancy.Women wishingto
preservetheirinfants'lives are likelyto surrenderin the face of a threat
to theirchildren,even iftheycould sacrificethe infantand thenpossibly
vanquish theiraggressors.And, because of the possibilityof pregnancy,
women are subjectto a kindof attack,rape, thatmay have consequences
forthem different fromany that a man will ever suffer.Pregnancyalso
has another consequence. So long as children are seen as an asset,
women will be a valuable resource and so will be treated as booty,
ratherthan enemies, in war. There is historicalevidence that the first

4 See
5 See Lerner
pp. 89, 121-2.
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

slaves were women captured in battle and spared the death that auto-
maticallyawaited the men of theirvanquished tribes(Lernerpp. 78-89).
Since men have littlemotivationto kill women, women have little to
gain by attemptingto vanquish men. Hobbes himselfmakes no explicit
mention of the natural disadvantages that women face due to child-
bearing, but theyremain in the backgroundof his account.
In her book TheSexualContract Carole Pateman considersa Hobbesian
storyof this sort,and argues that it is not consistentwithHobbes' gen-
eral assumptionthat people are rational egoists.If choosing to care for
infantsputs women at a disadvantage,and all individualsare rational
egoists,then women would not care forinfants,and so the firstgener-
ation would be the last (p. 49). But this is too quick a rebuttalof the
Hobbesian story.Hobbes' individualsare interested,firstand foremost,
in the preservationof theirlives. In the face of conflictwitha potential
enemy there are always three options: to flee; or, if it is too late for
that, to submitto the otherpartyand contractinto theirservice; or to
fightto the point where either the other is vanquished (killed or sub-
mits)or one loses one's own life.If it comes to battle,some women may
take the former,some the latter course. Since the children of those
women who take the option of fightingto the death are less likelyto be
born, if the woman is childless,and more likelyto die, if she has child-
ren, over time there will be more children who are brought up by
those women who have accepted submission. So the assumption that
the firstaim of all is self-preservation leads to the conclusion that, in
the state of nature, if there is a life-and-deathconflict,the women
whose childrensurvivewill tend to be those who are prepared to accept
submissionin order to increase theirchildren'schances of survivaland
who are, in this sense, reasonably altruistic,at least towardstheirown
More recently,Pateman (1991 p. 70) seems to have given up her
criticismof the cogency of Hobbes' storyand to have recognizedin his
an earlyversion
oftheargument, inthelaternineteenth
presented andearliertwen-
andpolitical resulted
society from theoverthrow andthetriumph
ofmother-right of
This is surelyright.Hobbes, with his mention of the Amazons, shows
some awareness of the very mythsof the historic 'defeat of women'
which fuelledlater speculationabout the existenceof an originalmatri-
archy. But interpretingHobbes in this way throwsinto question the
success of the Hobbesian project, just so long as we interpretthat
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

project as involving a demonstrationof the rational justificationof

obedience to the moral law.
This emerges because we can establish that, while the Hobbesian
frameworkdoes provide an explanation of the origin of women's sub-
ordinationwithinthe patriarchalfamily,it cannot provide a justification
of that subordination.Pateman's intention,in her early rejectionof the
consistencyof Hobbes' argument,would seem to have been to pre-
empt any rationalizationof the subjection of women which took it to
be, like the subjection of servantsto masters,and citizens to the state,
groundedin consent,even consent obtained in circumstancesof duress.
Instead, she interpretswoman's historical situation as one of slavery
imposed upon women by the fraternity of men in order to guarantee
men's rightof sexual access. But her total rejection of social contract
theoryleaves nothingin place forthe reconstruction of a feministtheory
of justice. Although social contract theory may be flawed, properly
interpretedit can provide a plausible account ofjustice, understoodas
fairness.It would be hastyto reject it in its entiretyuntil such time as
a betteralternativebecomes available. It thereforeseems worthwhile
to take a longer route in order to see what is at fault with such
Hobbesian rationalizationsof women's historicalsubjection.
There is in the literatureon Hobbes some controversyover the inter-
pretationof his intentions(see Greenleaf). On one traditionalview, he
gives a descriptionof political society,based on what he takes to be
scientificpremises, which leads him into ethical relativismand the
claim that mightis right.He says that there is no justice outside civil
societyand thatwhat is just depends on the civil law. This would apply,
in particular,to matrimony.The civil law is whateveris promulgated
by the sovereign,and the sovereigngains its legitimacyfromits power
to protectthe citizenssubjectto it. Subjectionto the sovereignis rational,
because it is only throughthe consent of each individual to be ruled
that peace can be preserved, and peace is the precondition for the
preservationof life. The subjectionof women to theirhusbands will be
rational,by the same reasoning,if civil societyhas patriarchallaws. It
will be rational in the state of nature also, in so far as it is a means of
preservingpeace. If mightis right,then,ifone is not one of the mighty,
obedience and serviceto the powers that be is the most reasonable and
prudentcourse of action, the best way of maintainingthe protectionof
the mightyand the benefitsof theirgood favour. So, if Hobbes is cor-
rect,women's traditionalacceptance of submissionis grounded in their
desire for self-preservationand their consequent desire for peace.
Althoughthis reading of Hobbes mightappear to rationalize women's
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

historicalsubjection,it also has emancipatoryimplications.If men hold

sway over women merelyon the grounds of consent obtained through
the use of force,and women are able to reversethe situation,perhaps
because changing technologyhas altered the importanceof muscle in
the distributionof power and diminished the disadvantages of preg-
nancy, then women have a natural rightto do so. All spoils will go to
the victorin the battle of the sexes, and woman must be expected to
retrieveher natural dominion over her children and the fruitsof her
labour whenevershe has the power to do so. But at the same time this
reading undercutsthe possibilityof articulatinga satisfactory theoryof
justice between the sexes that could be acceptable to both men and
women, because it denies that there is any justice beyond the laws
which are upheld by those in power.
On another reading, Hobbes is arguing that there is a God-given
naturallaw, the studyof which is the science of naturaljustice, and this
law is perceptibleby the lightof reason (L ch. xxxI, p. 197). Such a law
is ineffectualexcept when upheld by a civil authority,but at the same
time a civil authoritywill ultimatelybe ineffectualunless it understands
and obeys the natural law. Rational individuals subject themselvesto
the state, in order to ensure that the natural law is upheld, and any
state that is to preserveitselfmust have a civil law in keepingwith the
law of nature (EW vol. 4, pp. 213-20). Because people entercivil soci-
etyin order to preserveas many of theirnatural rightsas is compatible
witha recognitionof the rightsof others,a stable civil governmentwill
extend libertyto its citizens. Hobbes elucidates (ibid.p. 215):
I mean,thatthere
Byliberty, be noprohibition
without ofanything
necessity toany
man,whichwas lawfulto himin thestateof nature;thatis to say,thattherebe no
ofnatural butwhatis necessary
liberty, forthegoodofthecommonwealth.
This reading of Hobbes has even more obvious emancipatoryimplica-
tions for women. If, as he allows, women in the state of nature have
dominion over their children and the rightto their service, how can
one justifytheirgivingup these rightsin civil society?If one gives the
Hobbesian answer, that women submittedto men at a stage of the
developmentof societyearlier than the institutionof great states,since
women's libertieswere not preserved,this now goes against the prin-
ciple of natural law as spelt out by Hobbes, and so begins to look like
a grave injustice.
The picture that would fitbest with this edict of natural law would
be one in which a woman gave up some liberty,notably the libertyto
have sexual relationswithany man otherthan her husband,in exchange
for the protectionof herselfand her children,while the husband gave
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

up some comparable liberty,presumablythe libertyto dispose of his

surplus production at will, in exchange for the secure knowledge of
paternity.If the institutionis to conformto the natural law, as charac-
terized by Hobbes in this passage, it should involve the loss of no
furtherliberties.So natural law would suggestthat, since this contract
is between equals, it should guarantee the parentsjoint dominion over
theirchildren.At least one earlier English commentatorseems to have
seen the familyin this way (see Hinton pp. 292-3). Hobbes, however,
does not consider this possibility,for he assumes that either the hus-
band or wife must rule, insistingthat 'No man can serve two masters'
(L ch. xx, p. 105).
If we emphasize the normative elements in Hobbes' work, which
stressthe rational law of nature and each individual's equal rightto
those natural libertiesthat are compatiblewitha like libertyforothers,
the subjection of women to their husbands stands out as a manifest
injustice. In fact,it indicates a fatal flaw in Hobbes' reasoning,which
undermineshis whole attemptto show how ethical behaviour and ob-
edience to the state can be justified.What is interestingabout Hobbes'
argument is that it seems to provide reasons for behaving ethically
which are compellingeven foran egoist.As I pointed out above, one does
not need to attributeto Hobbes a belief in an implausible psycholog-
ical egoism: he only needs to assume that a usually over-ridingmotive
in human psychologyis self-preservation. This does not detract from
the claim that the argument,if good, will convince an egoist. For the
achievementof all aims, whetherthey are egoistic or altruistic,almost
always depends on one's own survival. However, whether one starts
withthe assumptionthat humans are by naturerationalegoists,or with
the weaker assumption that self-preservationis a primary motive,
Hobbes' attemptto place obedience to the natural law on a rational
foundation fails. It is worth going into the reasons for this in some
detail, for it shows where the limitationsof the attempt to ground
moralityin reason lie. As already mentioned, feministwritershave
insistedthat the attitudeof the rational egoist comes more naturallyto
men than to women. But this observationby itselfdoes not show that
Hobbes' argument collapses. Indeed, the Hobbesian explanation of
women's subordinationsuggeststhatwomen will be more likelyto have
to seek their self-preservation throughsubmissionthan men are, and
that thiswill be particularlythe case if theiraims include the preserva-
tion of theiroffspring; but it offersno criticismof this situation,which
is perpetuatedat the expense of women. If we are to show the flaw in
Hobbes' reasoning we need to show how a situationwhich does not
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

accord withthe naturallaw, as Hobbes outlinesit, neverthelesscan per-

petuateitselfwiththe consent,underduress,of thosewho are deprivedof
theirnatural liberties.
We can see this once we admit that women have an equal natural
rightto liberty.Since men do not have to take into account, to any
very great degree, the threatthat women pose to men's survival,they
do not need to recognize the natural rightsof women. For women, as
a group, are disadvantaged in relation to men, as a group. Women
clearly could murdertheirfathersand husbands, as they do in one of
Herodotus' stories.6But theyare unlikely,given theiraverage inferiority
in physical strength,to be able to maintain men in a state of submis-
sion grounded in the threatof superiorforce. By contrast,men, since
theyhave littlefear that women will succeed in any rebellion,are able,
as a group, to maintain women in a state of submissionwithoutfully
recognizingtheir equal natural rightto liberty.Hobbes attemptedto
show that adherence to the natural moral law is rational,forboth sub-
ject and sovereign,given thatthe desire forself-preservation and liberty
is primary.The situationof women suggeststhat when the sovereignis
a member of a group which is strongerthan anothergroup in the soc-
iety,the sovereigncan avoid such adherence in relationto membersof
the weaker group. This appears to be the historicalsituationof women,
and of other subordinategroups or classes, whose rightshave not been
recognized by the rulersof the societiesin which theylive.
At the root of thisfailurein Hobbes' reasoningis an ambiguityin the
concept of the equality of individuals.The argumentthat foundsmoral
and political obligationon the desire forself-preservation depends cru-
cially on a claimed of
equality power, which is plausible so long as we
thinkof people as isolated individuals,but which breaks down because
real power is not merely an individual attribute,but belongs to indi-
viduals partlyin virtueof the group to which theybelong. At the same
time,Hobbes recognizesan equality of natural rightwhich existsinde-
pendentlyof our power to enforceit. It is our grasp of thismoral notion
that enables us to recognize that there are situationsin which individ-
uals may be forced to consent to unjust pacts, and that consent does
not of itselfentail justice. It is the obviousness of this natural equal
rightto libertywhich has been taken up by later feminists,and, it is
important to note, the notion can be defended independently of
implausibleassumptionsconcerningour actual independenceand equal-
ity in the state of nature, or our intrinsicegoism. Modern versionsof
6 See p. 114 in Rawlinson'stranslation(London: Everyman,1948).
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

social contracttheory,epitomizedby Rawls, abstractaway fromclaims

about actual equality of power in order to maintain that the principles
ofjustice are those principlesthat we would consentto be governedby
were we all rational and equal in power (see Rawls p. 11).


Interestin the writingsof Christinede Pisan has been fuelled by her

claimed status as the firstknown feminist.Yet her rightto be deemed
a feministhas been hotlycontested.RecentlySheila Delany has asserted
(p. 181) 'that she was not even by the standards of her own day a
reformeror protofeminist'. And Delany is only one of a numberof fem-
inistwriters,going back at least as far as Mathilde Laigle (pp. 120-3),
to question de Pisan's feminism.De Pisan ends The Bookof theCityof
Ladies,her major defence of women against the slanders of men, with
the advice (p. 255) that women who are married should not disdain
being subject to their husbands. This pronouncementis quite incon-
sistent with modern feministdoctrine. Maureen Quilligan, who is
interestedin defendingde Pisan against her critics,and who findsin
her writingan elegant defence of female authority,is tempted(p. 244)
to dismissthisending as 'the firsteffectof the failureof will of a weary
author'. But thisresponseis quite superficial.It failsto take into account
that de Pisan's advice to marriedwomen is part and parcel of her gen-
eral political theory.If this theoryis, as I shall argue it is, plausibly
deemed maternalist,then thisconsequence shows thatmaternalistpolit-
ical thoughtcan carrywith it some of the same dangers as paternalist
thinking.NeverthelessI hope to show that there are some strengthsin
de Pisan's political philosophy which can be re-appropriatedby a
De Pisan's advice to married women is completelyconsistentwith
her general understandingof political subjectionand social duty.In her
earliestdiscussionof the functionof the sovereign,she gives (FBM p. 5)
an account of the originof political authorityratherlike that given by
whenthehumanracebegantopopulate oftheearth,
andfillthecountries since
is naturalto thehumanrace,whenit is notmoderated
perversity byreason,the
people,havingno law,tookto extortionand committedinfinite evilagainsteach
pillage, and
killing manyoutrages withoutregard justiceandwithout
to any
constraint; by the of
gift nature, longexperience and by
decidedthatitwouldbe good,in ordertoavoidtheseills,thatoneofthem,
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

the mostdignifiedand appropriatein virtueand knowledge,

shouldbe established
superiorand princeand thusbycommonconsenttheygaveauthority and sovereignty
to thisperson.

She is thus quite clear, fromthe outset,that the role of the sovereignis
to preservethe peace, and that dutifulsubjectswill do what theycan to
reinforcethe sovereign'slegitimatepower. In her biographyof Charles V
she excuses the ratherrosy picture that she paints of the character of
the French royal familyby suggestingthat forher to criticizethe ruling
house in public would be inappropriate.Since people are much more
likelyto notice otherpeople's faultsthan theirown, such acts are more
likely to be dangerous than useful. Princes, she believes, should be
criticized in private, by those who are close to them (FBM p. 33).
Insubordinationof all kinds is anathema to her way of thinking.The
body politicwhich she describesis governedby a prince or princeswho
correspondto the understanding,fromwhich derive all the movements
of the body. The knightsand nobles are the arms and hands which
carry out the sovereign's decisions, and the ordinarypeople are the
stomach, feet and legs (CP pp. 2-3). Each individual has an appro-
priate role to play, according to this hierarchicaland organic model.
Differentindividualshave different duties,derivedfromtheirsocial posi-
tions, and each position provides equal scope for the honour people
deservein proportionto theirvirtue(CP pp. 3-4). The justice which the
prince will uphold is, says de Pisan, quoting Aristotle,a measure which
will render to each his right,and, like Aristotle,she believes that dif-
ferentkindsof people have different rightsand obligations(CP p. 61). In
particular, men are more adequately equipped with 'strongand hardy
bodies' which enable them to uphold the laws by physical constraint
and forceof arms, so men more naturallyadministerlaws and rule than
do women (TCL p. 31). Women, then, even when they are marriedto
princes, are in the position of subjects, and like other subjects they
should serve well, for their own sakes and for the sake of the general
good. But de Pisan's endorsementof political subjectionshould not be
read as an approbation of servileor thoughtlessobedience. It is partly
prudent,forin the societythat she describesmost people are both sub-
ject and sovereign. It is also exemplary, and, she believes, has the
power to move the powerfulto recognize theirown duty of subjection
to the moral law.
The sketchso far provided of de Pisan's political thoughtdoes little
to distinguishit from standard patriarchal thinking.There are, how-
ever, two related featuresof her treatiseson political relationswhich
warrantattributingto her a 'maternalist'conception of the sovereign.
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

The firsthas to do with the functionof love in her political thought.

The second involvesher depictionof women as paradigmaticsovereigns
and subjects.
Because the functionof the sovereignis to protectthe countryfrom
its externalenemies and to upholdjustice within,the health of the body
politic depends on the sovereign'svirtueand love ofjustice. So de Pisan
in Le Livredu Corpsde Policieturns early to the education of princes
(pp. 5-14). And in her manual of advice to women The Treasureof the
CityofLadies she also discusses the education of childrenand the best
way to instil virtue (pp. 66-8, 85-9). She suggeststhat children will
more easilylearn fromsomeone thattheylove and respect.The teacher
who wants to teach virtuemust be a mirroror model of virtuefor the
child, but at the same time should not be too solemn, but make sure
the child has time to play. The teacher should win the child's affection
with small presentsand story-telling. The mother,tutor or governess
teaches largely by example. And, like the mother,the good prince is
responsiblefor the moral welfareof his subjects,so he too has a duty
to act as a moral exemplar. In contrast to Machiavelli, who (p. 96)
answers the question 'Is it betterfor a prince to be loved or feared by
his people?' in favour of fear, de Pisan (TCL pp. 71-4) advises the
princessthat it is the love of her subjectswhich is her surestprotection
and which she should workto deserve. De Pisan's enlightenedviews on
education are plausibly seen as deriving from practical traditionsof
child-rearing,and are extendedin the sphere of governmentto the sta-
tus of a general principle,that subjectswill be more stronglymotivated
to please and obey rulers they love and respect,than those they fear
and despise. Within a good family,the position of child is not more
onerous than the position of parent. Though the child owes its parents
obedience, it is freeof the responsibilitiesthat go with parental power.
The greaterthe power that individualshave, the greatertheirrespon-
sibilityforthe moral and materialwelfareof those withintheircharge,
and it is in the lightof these views that de Pisan can both be considered
a feministand consistentlyjudge that women should not scorn their
lack of independence.
Virginia Held is just one of a numberof writerswho have been influ-
enced by Carol Gilligan's claim that there are different masculine and
feminineethical voices and by Sarah Ruddick's related suggestionthat
women have a sense of selfrelatedto theirpositionas potentialmothers.
Reading de Pisan confirmsthishypothesis.She uses a vocabularywhich
places farmore emphasis on love, virtueand ethical devotionthan that
of most male writers. Like modern proponents of the maternalist
? The Editorsof 7hePhilosophical 1994.

ethic, she also sees women as having an importantrole to play in the

preservationof peace.7 Yet thismaternalistethic,when it is pursued by
those who lack power, can easily transmuteinto a quietist acceptance
of virtuous subordination.This emerges from the way in which, for
de Pisan, women's subordinationis exemplary.Like Hobbes, she sees
marriageas a political relationship.And she is well aware of the Greek
and Roman mythswhich, as suggested above, plausibly lay behind
Hobbes' belief that there had been a historicaldefeat of women. The
way she treats these mythsis interestinglydifferentfrom their usual
treatment,forshe emphasizes women's active participationin the con-
stitutionof the state in which individualsaccept theirsubordinationto
the law. She repeats the historyof the Amazons in a number of places
(e.g., BCL pp. 40-51). But, while the Athenians stressedthe defeat of
the Amazons, de Pisan uses them as proof that women are capable of
great strengthand courage, and she leaves obscure the decline of their
empire, which she says had lasted eight hundred years. She does not
mention the role that the defeat of the Amazons was alleged to have
played in the foundationof Athens.8She is, however,interestedin the
Sabine women and the part they played in the foundationof Rome.
She introducestheir storyin the second part of The Bookof theCityof
Ladies,where she is dealing with the benefitsbroughtby women to the
world,and she uses it as one of a numberof storieswhich illustratethe
spiritualgood women have done (pp. 142-50). Like the Virgin Mary,
Judithand Esther,the Sabine women bringa spiritualbenefitand save
theirpeople fromdestruction.The rape of the Sabines is a storywhich
fitsin well withthe Hobbesian explanation of the subjectionof women.
The Sabine women are captured by the trickeryand force of the
Roman men. Their status as wives is the same as their status as cap-
tives. But de Pisan emphasizes those aspects of Plutarch's storywhich
attributethe institutionof the law and peace to the interventionof the
women.9The Sabine men attemptto avenge themselveson the Romans
and to win back theirwomen, but the women, carryingtheirchildren,
throw themselves between the battle lines in order to bring about
peace. They want neitherthe victoryof theirfathersand brothers,for
whom their children would be enemies, nor the victoryof their hus-
bands, who will kill their fathersand brothers.Instead, they sue for
peace and the recognitionof the rule of law. Whereas Hobbes makes
the subjection of women an act of self-interestin the face of superior

7 See Ruddick 1984; and de Pisan TCL pp. 50-2 and EQF.
8 See du Bois pp. 67-71; Tyrellpp. 113-28.
9 See Bryson.
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

force,for de Pisan it is rathera conscious ethical choice made for the

greatergood. In subjectingthemselvesthe women act in a way which
has both material and spiritualvalue.
There are many passages in de Pisan's writingwhich warn against
the danger in doing evil, but she does not attemptto show, as Hobbes
does, that unrestrainedself-interest is irrational in virtue of its bad
effectsin thisworld. She relies on two different argumentsto persuade
the powerful to be ethical, one which stresses that true happiness
depends on honour, and a second which evokes the possibilityof pun-
ishmentin the world hereafter.Her reliance on this second argument
may seem to be a weakness in her work, as compared with Hobbes'.
But, in fact, this apparent weakness could be taken to indicate an
awareness on de Pisan's behalf that the claim that political immorality
is against one's rational self-interestis simplyimplausible,if one con-
siders only the consequences in this life. As the situation of women
attests,and so long as what is meant by reason is merelyself-interested
reason, the verypowerfulmay well never have reason to worryabout
the rightsof the powerless. Unless one accepts that virtueand honour
are intrinsicgoods, moralityand rational self-interest cannot be guar-
anteed to coincide.
For our purposes,it is in the firstargumentthat the more interesting
aspects of de Pisan's thoughtreside. She recognizesthat society,in the
end, depends on the promotion,in its powerfulmembers, of ethical
motivation,or love of honour, and she attemptsto show the powerful
how such love of honour is integralfor securinghappiness. Her argu-
ments, grounded in her own experience, start out from a profound
sense of our dependenceforhappinesson the good-willof others.Virtue,
in her scheme of things,makes that dependence more secure, and, in
the last instance,it can be an inalienable source of solace, in the face
of the kinds of change of fortunethat it is beyond our power to pre-
vent.10Virtue makes one's situationmore secure, partlythroughgiving
others no reason to hate oneself,and partlybecause we are creatures
who learn by imitation.By practisingvirtuewe teach it to others,par-
ticularlyto our childrenand subordinates,on whose virtuewe ultimately
depend. By contrast,Hobbes begins with a state of nature in which it
appears that we are all independentagents. Moralityis introducedas a
restrictionon our natural liberty,which we accept only because we are
forced to by a recognitionof the strengthof others. For de Pisan, we
have natural inclinationsin childhood which, if properlyfostered,will
10 CLE
pp. 8-11, and Hindman pp. 123-8.
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

lead us to virtue,and by discoveringthat virtueis an end in itself,we

achieve not just the good of othersbut our own true good.
Behind Christine de Pisan's philosophy it is plausible to find a
thoughtof the followingkind. It is in the interestsof those who are re-
lativelypowerless to fosterin others a sense of their duty towards the
powerless, for, being unable to force others to recognize their rights,
they are constrainedto rely on reason and persuasion, on stimulating
the sympathyor gratitudeof others, or on teaching by example, in
order to achieve theiraims. Since we are all reallyquite powerless,no
matter how our good fortunemight mask this fact at any time, we
should all adopt thispath. The good prince should recognize that he is
'as frailas another man and no differentfromothers except for good
fortune' (CP p. 16). The political philosophy which resultsfrom this
thoughthas a great weakness and a great strength.Its weakness is that
the methodsit suggestscan be pursued fora long time withoutmaking
those who are powerfuland immoral change theirways. Its strengthis
that there is no conflictbetween the means advocated to achieve the
ultimateend of a good society,and the end aspired to. The end is a
society in which those with power recognize and fulfiltheir duty to
exercise theirpower in defenceof the well-beingand libertyof all (with
the exception of those who threatenthe libertiesof others);the means
is simplyto live, as faras possible,accordingto the principlesthatwould
be adopted were all to aspire to this end.
De Pisan's writingemphasizes love, dependence and the duties of
those in positions of power to care for the less powerful.The kind of
ethicalimpulsewhichis motivatedby love of the good cannotbe reduced
to rational self-interest,although it is in general in accord with prud-
ence. But it would be a mistake to think that, having showed that
Hobbes' attemptto reduce moralityto rational self-interest fails, we
should simplyjettison social contract theory and replace it with the
imperativeto fulfilone's personal duties to care for others. For there
are significantlimitationsto de Pisan's philosophywhich should give
pause to recentfeministadvocacy of a simple turnfromjustice to care.
Socialists and feministshave pointed out the illusorinessof the image of
man, the independent, autonomous individual which is evident in
Hobbes' works." At the same time,much feministthought,in particu-
lar that of Wollstonecraftand de Beauvoir, owes much of its inspiration
to thisconceptionof humanity,and forthisreason it has recentlycome
under critical scrutiny.Many feministsnow assert that women value

" E.g.,Jaggar pp. 39-46.

? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

connectedness,care and dependence. Yet Christine de Pisan reasons

fromour dependence on othersto the wisdom of the acceptance of sub-
jection in marriage,and this cannot be embraced by any who consider
themselvesgenuine feminists.Not all relationsbetween citizens should
be modelled on the natural inequalityof power and responsibilitythat
exists between mothersand children.In the remainderof this paper I
suggestthat the resolutionof this conflictis to combine the principles
ofjustice that can be derived fromhypotheticalversionsof social con-
tracttheorywith a moral psychologyof the kind implicitin de Pisan.


The moral psychologyarticulated by de Pisan involves an originally

Platonic way of thinkingof the moral individual,in which it is assumed
thatthe soul is divided into threeparts. She followsa Christianizedver-
sion of this traditionin her assumptionthat love of the good, and the
pursuitof virtue,are the true ends of man, and the means to a happi-
ness which is not subject to changes of fortune.Love is here associated
withthe forcethat motivatesus to do good. It can be love of the good,
and the desire to do othersgood, as well as love of the beloved forwhat
is good in them. The picture assumes that humans tend to have a nat-
ural desire to do good, which neverthelessneeds to be stimulatedand
fostered,and which makes us by nature moral beings. Within Hobbes'
psychology,the suggestionthat there is a natural moral motivationis
vigorouslyrejected.It is claimed thatour primarymotivationis towards
self-preservation, libertyand power. Moralityis thoughtof as a system
of rules,whichreason dictatesit is in our intereststo adopt. But morality
is not an end in itself.It thusbecomes extremelydifficult to demonstrate
why those who have freedom and power should bother about morality,
in the many situationsin which their immoralitycannot rationallybe
seen to threaten their self-interest. It is ultimatelyto this feature of
Hobbes' moral psychologythat feministsare objectingwhen theyreject
his rational egoism. But the alternativeview, held by Christine de
Pisan, that virtueis an end in itself,can be seen to be deeply problem-
atic when it is pursued by individuals who themselves exist in a
situationof oppression.
Modern liberal thought has been deeply influencedby Rousseau's
consignmentof the reproductionof the citizen to the private realm of
the family,governed by a femininelove and sentimentquite different
from the rational justice of the public realm. Neither Hobbes nor
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

de Pisan operated with a clear distinctionbetween the private and the

public realm. Much of de Pisan's advice to women is directed towards
princesses,and she assumes that sexual moralityis just as importantto
matters of state as are the virtues of justice, and the art of making
peace. Her emphasis on the good that women have wrought casts a
new lighton Hobbes' explanation of women's submission.If Hobbes is
right,and citizenshipinvolvesacquiescence to the rule of the sovereign,
and the firstsovereignsare heads of families,then a woman's acquies-
cence to her husband can be taken to be a paradigm of citizenship.De
Pisan remained unperturbedby women's subjection to their husbands
just because she saw it in thislight.Her defence of women can be read
as a moral defencewhich highlightsthe moral excellence of women, in
theirdevotion to dutyand subjectionto the moral law. Her orientation
gives her political philosophy a moralisticcast, noted by a number of
commentators.In a sense, this makes her developmentof the parental-
ist metaphorin political life more consistentthan Hobbes'. One of the
weakest aspects of Hobbes' thoughtis his attemptto transformchild-
parent relationsinto relationsof consent. De Pisan, by contrast,takes
for granted that the relation of parent to child is the paradigm of an
ethical relation,and the situationin which the duties of the powerfulto
the powerless and the consequent rewards of virtue are clearest. She
sees quite clearlythatchildrenlearn by example and thatthe best means
to encouraging a child to develop a good character is for it to love
someone of good character.She extendsthisidea to the political realm.
Thus at the centre of her political philosophyare ethics,moral educa-
tion and the developmentof the love of God in those in positions of
power. She sees these as bound up withrelationshipsbetween members
of the society which fosterethical behaviour, trust,truthfulnessand
love. Her advice seems to have been naturallyadopted by many gen-
erations of women, who have seen devotion to the duties of wife and
mother,and care forthe physicaland moral well-beingof others,as more
immediatelyimportantthan the overthrowof structuralinjustice.
What de Pisan's political philosophylacks, however,is a criterionof
justice which can be used to clarifythe differencebetween those situa-
tions in which such devotion to personal duty counts as consent under
duress to servitude,and those in which it counts as the voluntarypur-
suit of virtue. Hypotheticalversions of social contract theory,such as
Rawls', can fillthis gap. Because the focus of political philosophyhas
shiftedsince the time of de Pisan and Hobbes, fromreasons forpoliti-
cal subjection to the defence of individual sovereignty,the question
whichwas uppermostin de Pisan's mind,'How to instilin the individual
? The Editorsof ThePhilosophical 1994.

politicaland moral virtue?',has dropped fromsight.With Locke's intro-

duction of the distinctionbetween political and parental power, and
Rousseau's alignmentof the private ethical realm with women and of
the public realm of justice with men, this question has been relegated
to the sphere of the personal and sentimental.What the situation of
women shows is that Hobbes was wrong: moralitycannot be identified
withrational self-interest,because historyand nature have lefta legacy
of greatactual differencesin power. In the wake of the failureof attempts
to overcome the limitationsof liberalism,by abolishing all actual in-
equalities, it is worthturningback to the question which was centralin
de Pisan's political philosophy.How does one promote in citizens,no
matterhow great a portionof power fatehas dealt them,virtue,love of
honour and subjectionto the moral law?
As we have seen, one cannot turn back to this question without
holding on to demands forjustice. But retainingliberal methods for
determiningwhich situationsare unjust does not imply an acceptance
of Hobbes' moral psychology.Actual liberal societieshave largelyrelied
on the subjection of women withinthe familyfor the reproductionof
morally motivated citizens. But as women overthrowthat subjection,
the questionof the subjectionof the individualto the moral law becomes
more urgent.Without an understandingof the productionof the indi-
vidual who loves honourand justice, social contracttheoryis incomplete.
But withoutsocial contracttheory,we have littleunderstandingof how
we mightsettle questions of justice. A feministcontractualismshould,
therefore,place the reproductionof the moral individualat centrestage
and could thus plausiblybe deemed maternalist.



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