Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is a book of philosophical and logical refutations and arguments. It is a direct response to several writings in which the male authors make claims against women’s purity. These books, according to de Pizan, slander Woman, and she has been ordained by God, with the help of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, to bring the truth to light. The Book of the City of Ladies, as the title implies, builds a pure and holy city in which noble and good women could live apart from the slandering men and the impure women upon whom those slanders are based. In order to be taken seriously by those she is refuting, de Pizan makes use of logic forms and attempts to create both valid and sound arguments throughout her writing. But she herself is not above fallacy, no matter her noble intentions.
In writing this book, de Pizan hopes not only to refute the arguments that women are evil, base, and that they cannot think for themselves, but also to empower women in general. Her claims are a breath of fresh air after being bogged down by the heavy accusations of men. It is not enough for a woman to simply write her opinions on a matter, though. de Pizan has to utilize her education, read and research extensively to be sure she can properly understand and refute the arguments she includes, and see that she has enough to write a book—the latter, at least, is certain, given how often one of the heavenly sisters must cut a story short for want of time and space!
She emulates the writing style of the men before her; it reads almost like Dante’s Inferno, with the self-insertion and her being guided by famous figures (if we can consider the personification of virtues to be famous) who tell her stories of other women. In this light, The Book of the City of Ladies can be read as entertainment. It is not a political work, as she does not claim nor advocate anything as radical as social equality, nor is the book merely meant as a source of information about women in history. The purpose of the book is to change the views of men and women alike who believe that women are inferior. She does this through what I term “logical narrative.”
A prime example of de Pizan’s use of logic is the following quote: “If, in fact, they themselves are lacking in constancy it’s totally unacceptable for [men] to accuse others of having the same failing or to insist that others should possess a virtue which they themselves do not” (150). The form is If p, then q. P; therefore, q. In other words, If men are not virtuous, it is unethical for men to condemn those who are also not virtuous. Men are not virtuous; therefore, it is unethical for them to condemn others for the same failing.
To contrast, from the men’s perspective, an argument might look something like this: If a woman is not virtuous, it is because women are imperfect or evil. As we can see, women are imperfect or evil; therefore, a woman is not virtuous. This argument confirms the consequent (If p, then q. Q; therefore p) rather than the antecedent, which makes the argument invalid. de Pizan’s argument confirms the antecedent, making hers logically valid. (Whether it is sound—i.e., true—is a matter that does not concern this paper.)
We could claim that the men’s arguments, which de Pizan is countering, are inherently fallacious, whether it is due to backwards reasoning, ad hominem, false analogy, and so on. But it is wrong to claim that de Pizan is above such fallacies, for she utilizes them throughout The Book of the City of Ladies. There are two in particular that this paper addresses, mostly because they are often used by men as well.
The first offense is de Pizan’s assumption that God exists. She effectively replaces pagan deities and philosophies with God, stating that God has always been present and benevolent despite not being worshiped by the pagans (and also despite obvious excerpts of the Bible detailing such times when he was not so lenient). Furthermore, she ascribes all virtue to God’s endowing of gifts, no matter who receives those gifts. For example, de Pizan (34 – 37) writes that “God clearly wished to prove to men that, just because all women are not as physically strong and courageous as men,” and goes on to use Queen Semiramis as a heroine. This indicates that God has endowed the gift of strength and strategy to her; however, de Pizan also excuses Semiramis for marrying her son due to the fact she was not Christian. In trying to reconcile pagan women like Semiramis with Christian virtues, she is forcing her point. Further, in order to reaffirm that there is only God, de Pizan (66 – 68) relegates the Roman goddess Minerva to mortal form, albeit an extraordinarily—indeed, almost supernaturally—gifted mortal. de Pizan’s book is based on her assumption that God exists, so all her facts must follow from this, which is why many of her explanations of her examples feel inconsistent and forced.
The author’s second offense in logic is hypocrisy. A prime example is: “…God alone has the right to judge us” (189). de Pizan writes this despite passing judgment on others throughout the book. She judges not only men who judge women, but judges women who don’t meet up to the standards she prescribes for “noble” and “virtuous” ladies. Although it is probably not a stretch to presume that men also use the “judge not lest ye be judged” in their own judging works, de Pizan’s hypocritical use of it seems to derail her argument. That is, of course, unless one believes her writing of this book actually is the result of some divine vision, in which case God might have passed judgment and sent his verdict along with the command to preach the truth. But even so, this is never explicitly stated, so it stands to reason that de Pizan could be making her own judgments.
These two errors in logic—the assumption of God and the hypocrisy—are easily explained by the time in which de Pizan lives. In all likelihood, the men against whom de Pizan argues also utilized these fallacies, which is why it is acceptable for her to follow suit. Of course, given the religiosity of the period and location, the assumption of God’s existent is overwhelmingly predominant. If she had not appealed to God, the book would not have worked, and it would have had no credibility. Further, that she responds to men’s criticisms in this way, makes it more difficult for opponents to claim that she is hysterical: God has ordained her to this task, so God-fearing men may not refute her without denying His will. So we see that this foundational assumption works in her favor, at least for a Christian audience, in two ways: by presenting herself as a good and knowledgeable Christian, and by giving her a weapon against those who wield religion as one.
de Pizan also knows how to effectively play her hand. One cannot presume that she believed women should be equal in all spheres (i.e., the home as well as politics or war), but if she did, she never alludes to it. Instead, de Pizan is sure to never overstep her bounds too dramatically. She remains confined to God’s order of revealing the truth, and does not prescribe egalitarian views. Indeed, de Pizan (188) writes that “wearing clothes that aren’t fitting to one’s station in life is particularly reprehensible”—yet another judgment she makes. de Pizan (235) also states: “It’s not necessarily the best thing in the world to be free.” That is, women should stay in their stations, and “be humble and long-suffering.”
It is unclear whether she really believes women belong in a separate sphere. Given all the evidence she portrays, building up women and tearing down men to their level, here at the end de Pizan seems to contradict herself. Women, she purports, should tolerate wicked husbands, but in the next moment she cautions them to fly from the wicked. A [Christian] charitable reading would ascribe this to her attempting to reconcile the aforementioned strong women with her own period’s views. A modern feminist might like to argue that de Pizan is doing this, but struggling against her own radical ideas of equality, which is why she has a conflicting end to The Book of the City of Ladies.
To conclude, although de Pizan is not above using the same fallacies that her opponents do, her logic is overwhelmingly straightforward. Her examples and presentations on various subjects and refutations largely follow valid logic structures as well as have sound premises, which is more than can be said for many other writers (such as Aquinas). To argue the ethics of the fallacy is anachronistic; I merely argue that the book does contain fallacies, though they are explained by the circumstances in which de Pizan was raised and wrote.