What are Bodies Like, in Early Modern Philosophy?

Descartes effectively separates the mind from the body. And, minds are where our reflective, intellectual capacities reside. So what are bodies like, in early modern philosophy?


1. Bodies are the
location of the passions. For people like Locke, there is a struggle between reason and the passions. The passions are our wants and desires.


2. Bodies are an
embarrassment - they are given to excess. They need to be controlled and directed.


3. The body is identified with
women. Women are "closer to the body". This goes as far back as Aristotle, whose account of birth has it that women's eggs provide the "matter" and men's sperm provide the "form", which constitutes the human being. So, men provide the part of us known to the mind, the part that can be reflected on and which ultimately strives toward God. Men provide what is best about us, our souls. Women provide that which is supposed to be overcome or subjugated, our bodies (our matter).


4. The body is identified with
children. Children are driven by their passions, and require adults to guide them toward reason.


5. The body is associated with the
lower classes in society. The higher classes are like the mind, and their culture is by definition better. The culture of lower classes (if it can even be called culture) is "bawdy". These classes are to be brought up to the level of the higher - although for many, this will never happen, and as for Descartes, there is a permanent and unbridgeable split between the classes.


6. The body is identified with
non-Europeans. Other civilizations are like the body, in that they too are driven by their passions. Therefore it is up to Europeans to bring reason and culture to these places, to "form" them the way parents form children, and the way men form women. It also makes sense that Europeans should colonize these places - it is just bringing reason to these unformed places.


7. The body is identified with the
natural environment, and the mind with the ability to cultivate it. Locke believed that property, the cornerstone of political life, was constructed by mixing labour with nature, or in other words, cultivating it. By itself, nature is nothing, but if we bring rational order to it, then it becomes something. This applies not only to nature at home, but nature in foreign lands. Thus, if other people are not cultivating nature to the extent that the rational mind would, it is up to the European to make that land into what it could be, to make it productive.


8. The body is identified with
this world, and the mind with the world to come. Therefore, religion has a kind of rationality, in that it reflects on that coming world and prepares us for it. Augustine's notion of the two cities supports this. We are of the body here, but in the modern conception of the soul, we will go to heaven, which is immaterial and eternal.


9. Along with this, then, the body is about what is
temporal, and the mind is about what is eternal. More to the point, the body is about the human, and the mind is about God. Thinking about the body, then, is the same as focussing on the human rather than on the divine.


10. Note as well that
homosexuality becomes a sin under this logic, because it is thought to just be about bodily desire in the modern era. The Greeks, it should be said, never thought of homosexuality this way. If you think about Aristotle's logic, male homosexuality would mean bringing together two "forms" (so what does this say about two women together?). Socrates talks about the importance of an older man bringing a younger man into adulthood.


In the modern era, though, the issue with homosexuality is about what is "natural", and homosexuality becomes unnatural in a way that the Greeks never really thought.



All this is part of the logic of dualism, and becomes part of a mutually reinforcing system. Bodies, then, are not seen as the source of anything rational, cultured, natural, productive, or divine - that is what minds do.