By Thomas Berry
Maya giving birth to the Buddha, holding the branch of a tree.
Patriarchy, western history & the destiny of the Earth
When the apparent success of the earlier matricentric period is compared with the devastation of the Earth resulting from the civilizational order that followed, we have a comprehensive critique of the Western civilizational process that has probably never been surpassed. We are confronted with a profound reversal of values. The entire course of Western civilization is seen as vitiated by patriarchy - the aggressive, plundering, male domination of our society.
If we inquire into the driving forces that have evoked this critical re-evaluation of Western civilization, we can identify them as the rising consciousness of women and the devastation of all the basic living forms of the Earth presently taking place in consequence of the male-dominated regimes that have existed during this period. The new mode of ecological consciousness now emerging sees the new period of the Earth community as having a basic nurturing aspect that tends more toward traditional feminine than toward masculine qualities. There are indeed religious, cosmological, biological, and historical reasons for considering the feminine as having a special role in our thinking about the Earth.
Our most prominent illustration of male rule over the extended tribal family is found in the patriarchal period in earliest biblical narratives, prior to establishment of separate roles for priest and prophet. Even more important is the patria potestas in Roman law. In this period the father had absolute rights over his entire family, including the right to impose capital punishment. The extended family was a total possession. The father owned everything and decided everything….When joined with the heroic leadership ideals of [later] barbarian peoples, the tradition of rule by male warrior personalities was well established in the European world.
Ecclesiastically, patriarchy designates the supreme centres of prestige in the [Christian] church. The four great patriarchies of the Eastern Christian church are Constantinople, Jersusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. In the West the supreme patriarchate is centered in Rome. Since religious authority in the West has always been exercised by a male priesthood and required immediate and total acceptance by the believing community, this, too, contributed mightily to the sense of patriarchal responsibility for the unfolding of Western history.
From these beginnings the term patriarchy has now been brought forward as a way of indicating the larger sources of responsibility for what is happening not only with women, but also with the total civilizational structure of our society and even with the planet itself. The sense of patriarchy has now evolved as the archetypal pattern of oppressive governance by men with little regard for the well-being or personal fulfilment of women, for the more significant human values, or for the destiny of the Earth itself.
The Venus of Brassempouy, a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Palaeolithic, 25,000 years old, it is one of the earliest realistic representations of the female face.
The basic pathology of western civilization
Choice of the term patriarchy for defining the basic pathology of Western civilization is being confirmed by historical evidence of an earlier, more benign civilizational period, a matricentric, matrifocal or matriarchal period. Judy Chicago concludes that ”all archaeological evidence indicates that these matriarchal cultures were egalitarian, democratic, peaceful. But female-oriented agricultural societies gradually gave way to a male-dominated political state in which occupational specialization, commerce, social stratification, and militarism developed.”
Change from this earlier period to a dominant patriarchal type of civilizational process took place in Old Europe, apparently with the invading Aryan Indo-European peoples, beginning around 4500 BC, the period from which we trace the most profound determinations of our Western mode of consciousness. In the words of Marija Gimbutas, “The earliest European civilization was savagely destroyed by the patriarchal element, and it never recovered, but its legacy lingered in the substratum which nourished further European cultural development.” Those proposing this reversal of values are not arguing exactly from philosophical principles, but from historical realities and from our planetary peril, as well as from the deepest realms of the human psyche.
The human is nonviable in its present mode of patriarchy
The historical mission of the present is to introduce a more integral period of Earth development, a period when a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship might be established—if indeed the human is to prove itself to be a viable species on a viable planet. That the human is nonviable in its present mode of partriarchal functioning seems to be quite clear.
Even in this period of patriarchal dominance the heritage of the earlier matricentric phase has continued as an undercurrent within Western cultural traditions. Matricentric ways of thinking and their associated rituals seem to be among the compoment elements of our submerged cultural traditions. They carry on an earlier wisdom associated with alchemy, astrology, the pagan nature rituals, and the hermetic teachings. These hidden traditions, considered destructive and unacceptable within the religious-humanist traditions of Western society, need reconsideration for the contributions they make to our understanding of the universe, its deeper modes of functioning, and the proper role of the human. They carry some of the most creative aspects of our civilization. In their symbolic modes of expression, especially, they enable us to go beyond the rational processes derivative from the classical philosophers and our later theologies. Through these traditions we have recovered our understanding of the archetypal world of the unconscious.
As we look back on the Western historical process, we can identify four patriarchal establishments that have been in control of Western history over the centuries. However benign our view of these establishments or however brilliant in some of their achievements, we must observe that they have become progressively virulent in their destructive powers, until presently they are bringing about the closing down of all the basic life systems of the planet.
These four establishments are: the classical empires, the ecclesiastical establishment, the nation-state, and the modern corporation. The four are exclusively male-dominated and primarily for fulfilment in terms of the human as envisaged by men. Women had minimal if any consistent role in the direction of these establishments.
G. Boulanger: The Slave Market
First patriarchal establishment: classical empires
These empires had their precedent in the sacred rulers that appeared in Sumeria and in Egypt some 5000 years ago. They were identified by Karl Wittfogel as “the harshest expression of total power”. When we look at the grandeur of these civilizations and at their successors in Assyria and Babylonia, we can only wonder at so much oppression coexisting with such stupendous achievements….In terms of fully organized political rule over a diverse association of peoples, the earliest of the empires was the Persian empire under Cyrus in the sixth century BC. Then came the Macedonian empire of Alexander and the Roman Empire in the Western world. In the East came the sequence of Chinese empires…In India the imperial process produced Asoka in the third century BC, one of the most benign of the great rulers of the period.
This sequence of empires was succeeded in the West by the Byzantine empire, the Holy Roman empire in Europe, then the later empires with a dominant presence of the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British – all overseas – while the Russians expanded their empire throughout the Eurasian continent.
The triumphal achievements of imperial personalities were extolled in epic poetry such as the Homeric accounts of the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeniad of Virgil…These epic stories became the inspiration of succeeding generations.To doubt these ideals or to fail in enthusiasm for these wars, whether of defence or conquest, would be to doubt not only the human process, but also the divine disposition of the universe.
Second patriarchal establishment: ecclesiatical christianity
In the sacred writings of the Bible we find a warring deity and warrior ideals. If a more peaceful teaching did arise in the gospels, it did not survive the challenge that arose in later centuries when conflict appeared as the way for survival. In the age of chivalry, efforts were made to mitigate the violence by a sense of dedicated strength in the service of the weak who were assaulted by the strong. Once the natural and human worlds were envisaged as inherently subject to the strife for power, the way of peace and pacifism was no longer available. As with any addiction, it could only become worse. The pathology was too deep and too universal to eradicate at the time. It could only continue until the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and industrial nations began construction of nuclear warheads sufficient to extinguish all the greater life forms on the planet.
The church was the single comprehensive, trans-national authority in the Western world for more than a thousand years. …The main determinant of reality and value in Western civilization was expressed in the belief structures it presented….Here is the deepest source and support for the patriarchal tradition of Western civilization. It is also the most profound challenge in terms of the reversal taking place in our understanding of reality and value. The sense of the sacred in any civilization is precisely that which cannot be questioned, for the sense of the sacred is the unquestionable answer to all questions.
The biblical tradition begins with the creation narrative wherein the Earth Mother of the eastern Mediterranean is abandoned in favour of the transcendent Heaven Father. Later the relationship between the human and the divine is constituted in terms of a covenant between a chosen people and a personal transcendent creative Father deity. This becomes the context in which human-divine affairs are worked out over the succeeding centuries. The natural world is no longer the locus of the meeting of the divine and the human. A subtle aversion develops toward the natural world, a feeling that humans in the depth of their beings do not really belong to the earthly community of life, but to a heavenly community. We are presently in a state of exile from our true country.
In the Bible narrative, woman becomes the instrument for the entry of evil into the world and for the breakdown in human-divine relations. Only in a derivative sense, through their association with men, do women function in the public life of the sacred community. Later, in explanation of the lesser quality of female being, women are seen as biologically the consequence of some lack of vigour in the male component of the conception process, since in its full energy conception should produce a male child. In this context the whole of feminine existence becomes profoundly diminished as a mode of personal being.
Third patriarchal establishment: the nation state
The next patriarchal establishment that needs consideration is the nation-state…The nation-state might be considered the most powerful institution ever invented for organizing human societies. Above all, the concept of national sovereignty came into being. This concept might be considered a supreme expression of what we are here designating as patriarchy, the aggressive use of power in pursuit of the male values of conquest and dominion… The various Western people have consistently gone to war over the past few centuries in defence of national honour and in a vain effort at national security. This has led in turn to citizen armies, to universal conscription for military purposes. Such armies in modern times are an invention of the nation-state…
Beyond the concept of total war is also the concept of world war. These wars have become so endemic, the instruments of warfare so destructive, and the financial cost of military activities so exhausting that we must wonder how long these conflicts and the threat of such conflicts can endure. They are driven obviously by the deepest of our civilizational pathologies, originating, as so many pathologies, in some distorted sense of the sacred.
As with the ancient empires and the ecclesiastical establishment, so now with the nation-state; it was an affair carried out by men and for the ideals of men. Women were without power in the public realm, in its values, or in its functioning. Women functioned in areas withdrawn from the public life of the society: in the home, caring for children, serving men…Women did not participate in the electoral process in the United States until 1920, and in Great Britain until 1928. Even as late as 1987, there were only 2 women in the 100-member U.S. Senate, 24 in the 411-member House of Representatives. The first woman member of the Supreme Court was appointed in 1981. This type of imbalance was no longer acceptable to women, who comprise more than half the population. They were no longer willing to accept such control over their lives or over the public life of the society or over the integral functioning of the Earth. The feminist movement became a pervasive influence through society.
The corporation sells itself as eroticized mother (1970).
Fourth patriarchal establishment: the business corporation
Whether industrial, financial, or commercial, the corporation is considered the primary instrument of “progress,” although just what progress means is never clear. The supposition seems to be that the greater the devastation of the natural world through construction of highways, airports, development projects, shopping malls, supermarkets, and corporate headquarters, the closer we are to fulfilling the American Dream. It is precisely through this dream vision of a new humanly-created wonderworld that the advertising industry brings about that level of heightened consumption upon which the corporation depends for its ever-increasing control over our society and its ever-increasing profits. Through advertising the corporation has gained control over the public media. Through the public media the corporation controls the deepest psychic as well as the most powerful physical forces of the planet.
Because the industrial-commercial corporation is so central to contemporary existence, our educational programs have become subservient to its control. High school and college students must prepare themselves for jobs within this industrial-commercial setting. This industrial context of American life can be thought of as an all-enclosing bubble. Outside the bubble there is neither life nor joy nor any decent manner of human fulfilment. Within the bubble we can live and work and earn money and enjoy the ever-fascinating programs flowing across the television screen. In support of this process, our scientific research institutes—those in the universities and technical schools and those within industrial establishments—are constantly at work inventing a multitude of products that range from vast instruments of nuclear warfare to the frivolous products that have no purpose other than making a profit for some enterprising entrepreneur.
Since the 1880s this has been the age of the engineers, people of inventive genius joining scientific knowledge with technological skills, especially in the electronic and petrochemical industries. With this knowledge and these skills our engineers can build the great hydroelectric dams that destroy our rivers; drown our soil in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; throw satellites into space until the debris begins to clutter the heavens; and invent a million varieties of plastic objects that are scattered over both the land and the sea. They can do all that, but they seem to have not the slightest idea of how to establish a mutually enhancing mode of human presence upon the Earth. They only make the human a deadly and intolerable presence on the planet.
The difficulty with our industrial wonderworld is that its products last for a brief period and then forever remain as a trashed and toxic world in which we and all future generations are condemned to live for an indefinite period. Like the illusion of a magician, we are presented with the blissful moment in the use of these inventions, with no indication of their abiding dark aspect. Human productions do not consistently renew themselves in the manner of natural forms.
The Styrofoam cup used momentarily in some fast-food establishment must either remain forever in some ever-mounting trash deposit or else release its toxic components into the environment when it is destroyed. So with hospital equipment, so with plastic diapers. To label such products as “disposable” is to falsify the reality. In the natural world there is no such problem as that of disposing of some product. The waste product from one life-form is the nourishment of another. We, on the other hand, are making a world of universal waste and maximal entropy.
As noted by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, this inability to deal with waste matter is a typical failure of the male in our society. Cleanup tasks have consistently been left for the women. As men have seldom shared in the cleanup tasks associated with their biological children, so they reveal their incompetence and lack of concern over the cleanup tasks associated with their industrial children. In this case, however, the consequences are a geological, biological, and ultimately, human disaster.
This is power. The power of men. The power to profoundly disturb the most significant functioning of the Earth. Women have had minimal presence, except as needed for service positions. In this regard, over the generations women have consistently been exploited by the various business processes. In the early days of the textile industry, women were employed as cheap labour that developed into the sweatshop system in the large cities of the East. In various business ventures women did the secretarial work. They were file clerks, typists, waitresses, cleanup persons. More professional roles were found in nursing, social work, teaching, writing. Some women had brilliant careers in the performance arts: in music and song and dance and drama.
Yet these have not been the positions of power that are needed to alter the larger directions taken by our society. Those positions are still held by men, and for their own purposes. If mitigations have appeared, they have served only to make industrial processes more endurable…the tendency to constantly modify an existing system without changing the basic pattern of its functioning. What is needed is a profound alteration of the pattern itself, not some modification of the pattern. To achieve this, the basic principle of every significant revolution needs to be asserted: rejection of partial solutions….The pain to be endured from the change must be experienced as a lesser pain to that of continuing the present course.
A pathology beyond adequate description or comprehension
The four patriarchal establishments have made a world that carries within it a certain pathos. Assuredly there is grandeur in many of its achievements. Enormous energies have been expended in what has been thought to be beneficial to the larger human process. To realize suddenly that so much of this has been misdirected, alienating, and destructive beyond anything previously known in human history is a bitter moment indeed….Only in the late twentieth century, have the awesome dimensions of our cultural and institutional pathologies become clarified.
None of the other revolutionary movements in Western civilization has prepared us for what we must now confront. Quite naturally this demand for change, as with all such moments of radical confrontation, brings with it a heightened level of psychic intensity. Everything is at stake. This is something more than feminine resentment at personal neglect or oppression. It is possibly the most complete reversal of values that has taken place since the Neolithic period.
The ethical basis of our judgment concerning good and evil is itself being identified as anti-feminist, anti-human, anti-Earth. Our legal system is seen as supportive of a patriarchal bias against the feminine dimension of the human and therefore as offensive to the human itself. The legal system is especially deficient in its radical inability to deal with questions of human-Earth relationships. The medical profession has made some shocking mistakes in its inability to deal with the simplest aspects of the well-being of women and of children in their infant stage. Also it is revealing its inability to function effectively as a profession in the public arena in relation to the continuing toxification of the entire biosphere. When the breast milk of women becomes questionable nourishment for infants because of its contamination with toxins, something more in the form of public protest might be expected from the medical profession, as well as from the legal profession and the professional moralists.
The greatest support for the feminist, anti-patriarchal movement can be found in the ecological movement. As regards the ecological integrity of the Earth, the four establishments that we have mentioned all come under condemnation as leading to a non-viable mode of the human and even to a non-viable mode of the Earth in its major life systems. As Norman Myers has indicated, we are bringing about an “extinction spasm” that is likely to produce “the greatest setback to the abundance and variety of life since the first flickering of life on Earth some four billion years ago.” That we should presently be killing off the rain forests at the rate of some fifty acres per minute is an irreversible tragedy. When we consider especially that these rain forests contain fully half the living species of life upon the Earth and that they took some sixty-five million years to attain their present status, this is obviously a pathology beyond adequate description or comprehension.
The situation is further aggravated when we consider that none of the institutions that we have identified as the four basic patriarchal establishments has seriously protested the situation nor made serious efforts to stop its involvement in the process. They are indeed still fostering the industrial plundering of the planet as part of the progress myth from which the devastation took its beginning. What has become progressively clear is the association of the feminine issue with the ecological issue.
One of the main characteristics of the emerging ecological period is the move from a human-centred norm of reality and value to a nature-centred norm. We cannot expect life, the Earth, or the universe to fit into our rational human designs of how life, the Earth, or the universe should function. We must fit our thinking and our actions within the larger process. We must move from democracy to biocracy. We need a United Species, not a United Nations.
We came into being within the life community through the billions of years that it took to shape a world into which humans could be born. It has been a creative maternal process throughout, with all the violence of the primordial fireball, the supernova explosions, and the volcanic eruptions from within the Earth itself. However terrifying these transition moments, they have consistently been birth moments. We might hope that what we are now experiencing is another birth moment, yet the patriarchal period is too poignant in its past memories and its present realities for us to fully understand what is happening or what will emerge in the years to come. Too much of what we are doing is irreversible. What we can say is that the Earth seems to be rising in defence of herself and her children after this long period of patriarchal dominion.
The above is an edited synopsis of Patriarchy: A New Interpretation of History, from The Dream of the Earth.