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Food for Thought

Emily Brontë – Philosopher

Tim Madigan philosophizes poetically.

Enough of Thought, Philosopher;
Too long hast thou been dreaming
Unlightened, in this chamber drear –
While summer’s sun is beaming –
Space-sweeping soul, what sad refrain
Concludes thy musings once again?
– Emily Brontë (1818-1848), ‘The Philosopher’

As one who has spent many a summer’s day reading philosophy in ‘chambers drear’, I can empathize with Emily Brontë’s poem. For several years now I have made use of her poetry when teaching Introduction to Philosophy classes, in order to show that some of the deepest issues in this discipline can best be expressed in non-prosaic terms.

One of the questions we consider in class is why there have been so few female philosophers until fairly recent times. We first read Plato’s arguments in The Republic as to why there cannot be a truly just society until all citizens, both male and female, are given equal opportunity to excel; then we study Aristotle’s rejoinder that such a policy would be folly, since women are by nature inferior to men, intellectually and physically. This point is reiterated later in the course by selections from the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a vociferous misogynist, who argued that women were really just big children, unable to understand abstract thought. (Ironically, his mother was one of the first female novelists to publish under her own name. Understandably, she did not get along very well with her son.) To balance these arguments for women’s inherent inferiority, I then have the class read several poems by Emily Brontë, including ‘The Old Stoic’ (below), ‘I See Around Me Tombstones Grey’, and the above-quoted ‘The Philosopher’. I ask the students to discuss their personal interpretations of these works and how these might relate to the views of Aristotle and Schopenhauer. Following this, I have them read a selection from Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In this, Woolf, the daughter of prominent Victorian philosopher Leslie Stephen, argued that women had been systematically banned from all academic fields and denied a proper education. She also made several references to the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and gave them credit for transcending their own limited horizons and for addressing issues previously thought to be off-limits to members of ‘the fairer sex’.

Most of my students (although not as many as I would wish) are already familiar with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights from their high school English classes – a familiarity they do not have with the philosophers I introduce them to. They also seem to be interested in the personal story of the Brontë sisters and their struggle to express their unique points-of-view. This biographical information helps them to better understand the points made by Woolf, that thoughtful writers need not only time to reflect, but also suitable space in which to do their work – conditions that until quite recently were generally denied to female members of society. In this sense, Emily Brontë represents the triumph of the imagination over stultifying social conditions. She was obviously touched by the diverse philosophical movements sweeping England during her lifetime (which her father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, avidly discussed with her, his favored child), and in her own way she commented upon these movements through her creative fiction (see below for a vivid example of her personal credo).

The American philosopher John Dewey once remarked that when women philosophers became prominent, the very notion of what constitutes philosophical inquiry would be greatly expanded. By insisting on their right to be heard, and by demonstrating their keen powers of observation, the Brontë sisters have had a powerful and enduring impact on the history of thought. It is a pleasure for me to be able to introduce my students to their writings, and in particular to Emily’s poetry, which ably demonstrates the folly of claiming that women cannot understand or write metaphysical works.

The Old Stoic

by Emily Brontë (1818-1848)

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanish’d with the morn:
And, if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”
Yea, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore:
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2012

Tim Madigan has been a member of the International Brontë Society for over 25 years, and admits a special affection for Emily’s misbegotten brother, Branwell.

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