September 24, 2008

Stirring up trouble

As published in The Erin Advocate

While visiting the Wellington County Museum near Fergus recently, I opened the door of the County Archives office, not really knowing what to expect.

Turns out they have friendly staff who can help you find information about people and places back into the mid-1800s. Having nothing in particular to research, I asked to see their oldest copy of The Erin Advocate.

Out came the microfiche and there it was, tattered but intact, dated December 17, 1880, in its first year as a weekly paper. Published by Sylvester Dilts, it had subscriptions at $1 a year if paid in advance, and ad rates at 8 cents per line for the first insertion.

I enjoy the ads in old papers, like the one from the Erin Furniture Depot, in which D.S. Travis promises, “Furniture of a superior make to any hitherto sold in Erin”. Or an in-house promotion by The Advocate for job printing of posters and cards: “Neatest and Latest Style of the Art…Executed on the Shortest Notice”.

What really caught my eye, at the top of page one, was the headline: WOMEN: Schopenhauer’s Peculiar Opinion of the Sex. Here is a brief excerpt, for educational purposes, from a piece of writing that even in its day would have been considered outrageous and inflammatory.

“The mere aspect of woman proves that she is destined neither for the great labors of intelligence nor for great material undertakings. She pays her debt to life not by action but by suffering; she ought therefore, to obey man, and to be his patient companion, restoring serenity to his mind.”

“Women perjure themselves so readily in Courts of Justice that it has often been a question whether they ought to be allowed to take an oath. …What may be called the European Woman is a sort that ought not to exist. Those who help in the house and look after the house ought to be the only women in the world.”

Two questions stand out. Who was Schopenhauer, and what was his misogynist tirade doing on the front page of The Advocate?

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who lived from 1788 to 1860. He is known for his analysis of human motivation, arguing that basic human instincts supersede reason, and that human desires can never be truly fulfilled. He extolled the value of negating the will.

As a prominent Pessimist, he held that we live in the worst of all possible worlds, since if things were any worse, we would be extinct. He said that evil was the only real force in the world, and that anything good was just a brief respite from a boring, painful existence.

His ultra-intolerant views on women probably stem from tempestuous relationships with his mother and other women – though he also had praise for some.

He was a strong advocate of animal rights, remarking that animals are incapable of deception. He praised artistic achievement as more essential than science and reason. His work was considered influential on composer Richard Wagner, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

In 1851, at the age of 63, he became famous throughout Europe and North America with publication of a series of essays that include: On the vanity of existence, On suicide and On women – a translation of which found its way into Erin’s newspaper, 29 years later.

Publishers in that era often mixed classified ads with local, national and international news, fiction and trivia on their front page. Anything to attract readers.

I doubt there were many students of European philosophy in that little village.

My guess is that Mr. Dilts figured he could get away with printing part of a philosophy essay from a published book, titillating some male egos and enraging some female ones.

That was in the old days. Enlightened media outlets in the new millennium would never give attention to extremist views just to stir up trouble.

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