Pagans and Inverted Victorians

This short piece from the Touchstone journal compares the perspectives and lifestyles of pagans, early Christians, and feminists regarding home and virtue — and disconnections that rob us of our full humanity.

Home Remodeling by Peter Leithart

In the ancient world, household and city were confined to opposite corners. The inner space of the household was for women and children, while the open space of the city was for men. Men gained honor and displayed their prowess in the forum and on the battlefield, places where only men could go. Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that virtue for Homer was military prowess, and the etymological connection between the Latin “vir” (man) and “virtus” (virtue) is no accident.

English theologian John Milbank has argued that the social revolution of Christianity broke down this distinction. The church is both household and city, Christians both brothers and fellow citizens. As the gospel penetrated late antique culture, the household itself, along with its work and its child-rearing, was increasingly valorized, producing what to ancient paganism would have been the oxymoron of the “virtuous woman.”

The deep paganism of modern feminism is evident in the effort to reverse that Christian achievement. Many feminists feel that they cannot flourish in the cramped space of the home. To be fully human, they must abandon the hearth and crib to take part in the agon [contest] of the male world outside.

In developing this neo-pagan social cartography, however, feminists are often reacting against a reversal that had taken place earlier within Christian culture. Nineteenth-century sentimental domesticity joined with fascination for the classics to re-divide household and city. From this angle, feminists look less like radicals than like inverted Victorians.

In any case, the Christian response to the whole mess seems clear: to reaffirm the original Christian revolution by insisting that, for both men and women, the household is a school of virtue.

Touchstone, Sept-Oct 2010

3 thoughts on “Pagans and Inverted Victorians

  1. Oh goodness. As usual, I disagree quite a bit with Peter Leithart. I could go into quite a bit of detail regarding simply Homer and the role of woman and home in his epics. Females are not relegated to the home, and they are not lacking influence, even on the battlefield — Leithart of course knows this, being a scholar of ancient things. In Homer, battle comes into the home, and women (both mortal and divine and in-between) are quite forceful in battle. So I must wonder why he contorts facts in this way to achieve his parallels and conclusions. It’s a clever idea, but in the end, it’s wrong.


    1. As I am definitely *not* a scholar of ancient things, I really appreciate your perspective, Mary Kathryn. I tend to be suspicious of short and necessarily reductionist treatment of a subject as was the case here. The magazine from which I quoted has this department where editors can post what might be thought of as stubs. Maybe if Leithart had (or has) tried to work this into a more thorough treatment he’d have done more justice to the ideas.


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