Camille Paglia, Plato, and the paradox of freedom

Paglia is saying in the secular media what some of us Catholics say only to each other in publications like this one. But why is she doing it? That’s the mystery.

Left: Camille Paglia in 2015 (Wikipedia); right: Statue of Plato [araelf/

Camille Paglia is an enigma.

Identifying more with males than females since childhood, Paglia calls herself trans; yet she rejects a key false assumption of transgender ideology: “The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible.”

A libertine who labels herself gay, Paglia opposes legal prohibitions of prostitution and pornography; yet she also opposes the efforts to normalize homosexuality: “In nature, procreation is the single, relentless rule. That is the norm.”

Paglia is a feminist, yet she rejects the idea that women have historically been the victims of an oppressive male patriarchy and argues that men have dedicated their talents and sacrificed their lives for women and children since who knows how long ago: “[The feminist] portrayal of history as male oppression and female victimage is a gross distortion of the facts.”

Calling herself by turns a pagan and an atheist, Paglia says a true education includes the study of world religions. While no friend of dogma, she celebrates the transcendence and the beauty provided by religion, which she describes as “the metaphysical system that honors the largeness of the universe…. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.”

Paglia is saying in the secular media what some of us Catholics say only to each other in publications like this one. But why is she doing it? That’s the mystery.

It’s more clear to see how she can do it. One reason her commonsense remarks pass by the politically correct gatekeepers of public discourse is her brazen bio described above. The other reason is that she is a wicked smart woman and a highly educated member of the academy: she did her graduate work at Yale and has been a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984. She is the author of eight books and numerous articles, and she has been extensively interviewed. A 2005 Prospect/Foreign Policy poll ranked her twentieth on their list of the world’s top one hundred public intellectuals. In short, she has made a name for herself.

But back to the why. She admits to being a bomb-thrower: “My mission is to be absolutely as painful as possible in every situation.” But it appears that she is also motivated by something besides being provocative–conviction.

Paglia says that the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s took a wrong turn somewhere: “Liberalism of the 1950s and ’60s exalted civil liberties, individualism, and dissident thought and speech…. But today’s liberalism has become grotesquely mechanistic and authoritarian: It’s all about reducing individuals to a group identity, defining that group in permanent victim terms, and denying others their democratic right to challenge that group and its ideology.”

She laments that the movement for radical liberation that began on campuses when she was a college student has resulted in tyrannical rules regulating speech and male-female interactions, even at universities: “How is it possible that today’s academic left has supported rather than protested campus speech codes as well as the grotesque surveillance and overregulation of student life?”

Paglia prides herself on championing the right of women to forge their own identities, to compete with men in whatever spheres their interests and talents and brains can qualify them. Thus she detests the male-bashing and the lowering of standards and the whining about victimization that has become central to contemporary feminism: “Women will never know who they are until they let men be men,” she says. “Let’s get rid of Infirmary Feminism.”

Yes, let’s indeed. But let’s first try to solve the riddle of how feminism got sick in the first place.

As a student of history, Paglia must know that revolutions have a way of turning into tyrannies; France, Russia, and China come to mind. “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy,” said Plato, “and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” By “democracy” Plato did not mean a constitutional republic, like the one founded in America after her war of independence from England; he meant direct rule by the poor masses, in more vivid terms, the mobs who storm the high places with their torches and pitchforks. I’m not a political philosopher, so I’m not going to try to explain Plato any further. Instead I will give two concrete examples that support his claim.

In the city where I live (San Francisco), the buses have signs that say, in effect, “City Ordinance such and such requires that you give up your seat for a disabled person.” The very fact that there is such a law indicates that the rules of decent behavior, which enough people used to follow voluntarily because of their good upbringing and good habits, have broken down. After that happened, what was a person on crutches to do when he could no longer find a needed seat on the bus? Call City Hall.

San Francisco somewhat recently passed an ordinance prohibiting naked people from eating in restaurants. Here we see that the term “nanny state” not only applies to a government that provides cradle-to-grave welfare but also to a government that teaches table manners. The no-nude-dining law is another case in point that the more people tear down the norms of behavior, the more the government is called upon to reestablish them for the common good.

Some might ask, “What’s so bad about that?” And I will answer that your giving up your seat for an elderly woman or ordering a steak while wearing at least undergarments should be a good act you freely do as a sign of respect for yourself and others. It should not be a sign that you are complying with a civic law, which is imposed on you not internally by good will but externally by force, the only power government has, which is why it should be reserved for weighty matters.

When my children were young they took offense whenever I told them to do something decent that they were going to do anyway. They would say, “That takes all the fun out of it, Mom.” Yes, it does, and I suspect that Paglia would agree.

Now let’s take a look at these college dating rules that Paglia despises and apply my Plato-might-be-right theory.

When Paglia was a coed, she advocated for the right of female students to stay out as late as the male students. When administrators claimed they were protecting women from predatory men, she argued that women should be treated as grownups and not children. They ought to be free to make stupid decisions and not be protected by college administrators from their own idiocy or naiveté. I understand her point and its link to feminism. If women were going to compete in the world of men, they needed to learn how to survive in it without a father, an in loco parentis, or a husband.

But at the same time, or at least soon afterward, coeds were counseled by their professors to stop even listening to their old-fashioned parents and outdated religions, who had some wise things to say about relations between the sexes. Many of their rules, which were the reason behind those curfews for coeds, were intent on preventing one thing: out of wedlock births, because there is nothing more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life, and in need of care by the community, than an orphan, which for all practical purposes a fatherless child usually is.

Ah, but those clamoring for new freedoms for women came up with another solution to this little problem—the pill, which was soon followed by abortion for when the pill failed or the woman was raped. The rock and roll stars sang along and the movie makers played along and we found ourselves in the middle of a sexual revolution.

Young men and women were set adrift in their swirling hormones without the moorings that had been provided by not only the previous rules but also the cultural standards of gentlemanly or ladylike behavior, which were scorned and trashed as “bourgeois values”. And as everyone knows, the worst thing a person can be during a revolution is bourgeois.

Yes, women were set free like never before to pursue careers in law, medicine, and what not, and I do not want to turn back the clock to when qualified women were barred from the professions and the educations that made them possible. But the whole society has paid a high price for the radical sexual freedom that went hand in hand with this other freedom that allowed bright, talented, and motivated women to climb to the upper echelons of society.

I hope I don’t need to prove that last statement with tiresome statistics about a rampant hook-up culture that has moved off campus and become a society-wide phenomenon, made easier than ever by phone apps; an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, some of which are or have become untreatable; a soaring suicide rate among younger people, which if its surface were scratched might reveal a fair amount of despair associated with broken sexual relationships at tender ages; higher rates of failure to marry and illegitimacy than this country has known before, especially among those who are the children of divorce or who are lower on the socio-economic totem pole.

Given the social landscape, I am not at all surprised that many women feel victimized and angry. Some of them feel victimized because they, and possibly even their born and unborn children, really have been victims, one could even say sacrificial victims to the gods who have been worshipped in our vast, unending bacchanal.

And they have discovered that a nanny state is also a tattle-tale state: all they need to do to receive some compensation for their pain is to send a complaint to the college president or a denouncement to the company’s human resources department. They can even testify before the U.S. Senate in an effort to destroy a man for something he might have done decades ago while he was a drunk high school student. The irony in this case is that the real reason for the supposed victim to seek redress in this way was to prevent the potential for curtailments of abortion.

I am delighted whenever I hear or read Paglia’s statements that victimology and identity politics are threatening the freedoms she fought for and maybe even pounding the last nails on the coffin of Western civilization. I wish I could say these things and get a hearing “out there” too. But I would be even happier if she were to admit that if we want to keep the positive gains women have made in the last few decades and rebuild a foundation for fruitful relationships between the sexes, we need to be frank about this paradox: if people want to keep their freedoms, they need to learn how to exercise some self-restraint.

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About Vivian Dudro 1 Article
Vivian Dudro is Senior Editor at Ignatius Press. Over the last 35 years, she has written news articles, book reviews, and columns for various Catholic media, including the National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, and Catholic San Francisco. She has been interviewed on radio and television programs, both Catholic and secular, about a variety of literary and religious topics. Vivian and her husband live in San Francisco and are the parents of four grown children.


  1. “Yes, women were set free like never before to pursue careers in law, medicine, and what not, and I do not want to turn back the clock to when qualified women were barred from the professions and the educations that made them possible. But the whole society has paid a high price for the radical sexual freedom that went hand in hand with this other freedom that allowed bright, talented, and motivated women to climb to the upper echelons of society.”

    You may not want to turn back the clock, but the clock will be turned.

    By competing with men for jobs, men and families have suffered as a single wage is no longer sufficient. And as a result of their perceived increase in status, the pool of men women find “suitable” for marriage has shrunk, thanks to their natural hypergamous instinct.

    Women can’t have it all, and the big correction is in the not so distant future.

    • I agree the clock needs turning back. We have a cuckoo’s nest government school system because of all the working mothers who drag and drop the few children they have while heading off to work. Instead of staying home to homeschool them. There is no reason my taxes should pay for their two income household.

    • And remember as well that the vast majority of men did not have careers or professional standing, only mundane jobs -sometimes two or more – which served the purpose of supporting their wives and families, which they often made great sacrifices to do. Most men were not corporate CEO’s, high-powered lawyers, etc. That notion existed largely in the imaginations of the upper middle class feminist movement, those permanently aggrieved perpetually angry and highly privileged ladies who continue to dominate it. Back in the day, women’s advocates like Florence Kelley stressed that “equality” would mean enabling working class women to be at home with their children on the same basis that middle class women were. She differed sharply with Alice Paul, who thought that the women’s movement should focus exclusively on professional women, not surprising given her own origins as the daughter of a millionaire banker. So while I don’t in the least begrudge women aspiring to careers, etc., the notion that most men have “had it all” is pure feminist fantasy.

    • Your “clock” metaphor only illustrates the secular notion of history as progress, which only proves the adage that the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn anything from history. Progress is a myth because God given human nature never changes. The human condition is one of human vanity trying to engineer utopia and always failing because elitists assuming their superiority to God are absurdly and inherently wrong and only produce crimes against humanity trying to prove what they cannot prove. The human condition is permanently imperfectible. Development and discovery exists. But we can only discover what God already knows and we can never step outside His moral order with those discoveries without doing harm.

    • When has the Catholic church ever been about “self-restraint?” I don’t approve of rampant promiscuity or out of wedlock births, but one of the goals of Catholicism has always been to make as many Catholics as possible. Hence the historical prohibition of birth control.

  2. BISHOP CAGGIANO APPOINTS LEFTIST FEMINIST WOMAN TO LEAD PRIESTLESS PARISH. A headline that as shocking as may seem not so shocking for reasons proposed by author Dudro and correctly outlined by Sol. Ironically I was chiding our ‘leader’ the other morning regarding the downplaying of the role of ordained priesthood v leadership roles assigned to Laity. She was our leader for that morning Mass though fully understanding the issue and in agreement with my concern. Voila. A liberated feminist assigned by Bridgeport’s Bishop Caggiano as technical pastor the parish priests emasculated drones under her charge. Forgive my obvious ire. Last night Arroyo raised the issue with Cardinal Burke who hesitatingly said after reflection “Canon law requires a man, a priest to shepherd a parish”. That he hesitated speaks to the depths we have fallen from grace. The irrational standard today is absolute equality translated as denial of the natural order. Man and Woman inseparable as co creators equals spiritually before God ordained distinct in function. This breakdown now a social justice issue is so powerful than even the powerful fumble to respond. Men ashamed to be men women all too eager to oblige. Christianity is being turned into soup quelling the fire of God’s truth. We all need that baptism of Fire John the Baptist heralded.

  3. The author left out Paglia’s position on abortion. (If I recall, Plato recommended abortion in his state to keep the population controlled). This subject should have been covered here to give a true sense of Paglia’s consistency (if she considers “procreation to be the single relentless (biological) rule” then how can the fruit of procreation be dispensed with for convenience – i.e. does the equality of the sexes allow for a disregard and disruption of biology?) Also, Paglia asks, “How is it possible that today’s academic left has supported rather than protested campus speech codes as well as the grotesque surveillance and over regulation of student life?” If she is as smart as it appears, she must see that movements born of protest (sit ins, vocal mantras etc.) instead of reason are bound to end up in victimization as their primary motivation and defense. The fact that she wants campus speech codes “protested” and not argued against also shows that she is not a true defender of reason.

    • However paglia is still a Democrat/ Hilary Clinton voter. She is a contradiction within a contradiction. She revels in her rebellious l’enfant terrible persona but is revolted by the results of this intellectual sophism.

  4. While I don’t agree with her, she is intellectually honest. I love her for that! Also has an amazing wit. Invited to dinner at my house anytime.

  5. Imperfect Paglia. OK, fine. She calls a spade, a spade. I disagree, mostly, with her.
    She is spot-on about second wave feminism, bullseye.

  6. “How is it possible that today’s academic left has supported rather than protested campus speech codes as well as the grotesque surveillance and over regulation of student life?”

    Because this is what the academic (or non academic) left does.

  7. She is a thorn. A wonderful thought provoking thorn. If all leftist atheists were like her the world would be a better place.
    She deserves our prayer for a deep conversion. How enriching a faithful Roman Catholic Paglia would be — a Chesterton of sorts!

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