[Update: I had some problems when editing the blog and this post accidentally got deleted. I’ve reconstructed it, but if anyone notices any minor changes, apologies]
A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a fellow medievalist about medieval and modern concepts of the relationship of the body and the mind. She argued for a Cartesian dualism that separated the modern body and mind. I countered by quoting from the eighth-century Liber exhortationis of Paulinus of Aquileia (c 35) saying that the flesh should obey the soul (anima), just like the slave woman (ancilla) does her mistress. But I’ve been thinking on and off about this issue ever since and trying to work out, tentatively, what modern (popular) views on the body are.
The idea of humans as body plus something else goes back in the west at least to the dualism of classical Greece and Rome. You can argue that it makes a difference whether the other bit is soul, or mind and soul, or just mind (as with Descartes), but the same principle of the bit that’s really us, plus its wrapper is still present. However, I don’t have the sense that such a view is still as strong in the modern world. Scientific thought increasingly stresses our animal nature, with thought as a biochemical process and consciousness as somehow emergent from that. In popular culture too, I think the notion of the body as merely a wrapper is increasingly rare. What is the slogan ‘You’re worth it’, but an identification of self with the body that ‘deserves’ pampering? And I suspect both Paulinus and Descartes would be horrified by the bookshop shelves dealing with ‘mind/body/spirit’, as if the concepts are interchangeable.
That isn’t to deny that there is still an element of the feeling that the body is a separate thing to the self. But the relationship between them is no longer of the body as a slave to the self, but more as a canvas for the self. Modern bodies are quite literally a canvas in an increasing number of cases, given that 20% of Britons now have tattoos. Even for those of us who don’t want to get coloured in, cultivation of the body (caring for it, tending it, disciplining it) is a normal part of most people’s life. And the contempt for those who ‘let themselves go’, opting out of bodily cultivation, is sometimes palpable. Cultivating the mind, in contrast, is a minority sport: there are far more people who worry about eating junk food than about reading junk literature or watching junk TV.
Our relationship with our bodies is now more aesthetic than moral. The question is now no longer whether you can successfully control your body, but whether you can successfully make it look good. If you’re a binge drinker, but beautiful, your status is higher than if you’re teetotal but ugly. Although this is obviously true of women, it’s increasingly true of men as well. Men can still get away with being two out of three of bald, fat and scruffy, but rarely all three together (like Churchill).
Of course, cultivating the body isn’t a new phenomenon: Roman senators already had an elaborate bodily culture of gesture, voice, movement, costume, and there are many earlier and later examples as well. But I think the big difference is in changes in the social characteristics of those carrying out this aesthetic culture, particularly in terms of age and class. In most previous centuries in the West, bodily cultivation has been mainly the obsession of a privileged class: the ones who can afford to taking dancing lessons or ride a horse, and not get sun-burnt or have to do hard manual labour etc. But the bodily ideals have tended to be ones that could be attained by a relatively wide age range. As long as the Roman senator’s voice was resonant and his pace deliberate, it didn’t matter if his hair was gray.
In contrast, bodily ideals have now been ‘democratised’ in one sense: ‘anyone’ can aspire to be beautiful. But in practice the bodily ideal held up is overwhelmingly a youthful one. This is obviously a difficulty for all of us as we get old. But it’s not always realised that it’s also a class-based matter. A good-looking 20 year can be from any class. A good-looking 60 year old is far more likely to be from a higher social class. Lower social classes don’t just have lower life expectancy, they have lower expectancy of healthy life : in the poorest areas they’re likely to be chronically ill by 50. Even if you’re not ill, it’s a lot easier to stay beautiful at 60 if you have the money for flattering clothes, a good diet, trips to the gym and possibly even a face lift than if you’re poor. Nineteenth and early twentieth century thought tended to take it for granted that the ‘early bloom’ of beautiful working class women would soon fade: the same is still on average likely to be true today (and also for working class men).
In such a world of bodily aesthetics rather than bodily morality, what place can those who are (or become) visibly disabled hold? Medieval thought sometimes saw disability as punishment for sin: I shuddered when reading sources saying that those who had sex at prohibited times would give birth to deformed children. But disability could also be seen as unrelated to a person’s moral status, allowed by God’s providence to exist in order to prove saints’ healing power. In contrast, the disabled body now has little moral significance. Instead, it bears the full weight of aesthetic significance: if your disability makes you ‘ugly’ (as many disabilities do), you’re aligned with the losers in life. I have no wish to go back to past obsession with bodily morality. But I’m not sure that a culture based around the aesthetics of the body is really much kinder.