At Phaedo 64a, Socrates — who will shortly be given hemlock by his executioner — begins one of many famous parts of this discussion by saying that “those who happen to have gotten in touch with philosophy in the right way devote themselves to nothing else but dying and being dead.”
What follows is a discussion of the philosopher’s relationship to pleasure and to the freeing of the soul from the body. The pleasures of food and drink, sex, too many material goods, and other things are seen as to be indulged in only out of necessity — not completely shunned, as we are embodied and have needs, but placed where they do not become encumbrances on the serious matter of turning towards the soul.
“First then, in such matters, isn’t the philosopher clearly beyond other human beings in releasing the soul from communion with the body as much as possible?”
“And certainly, Simmias, most human beings are of the opinion that the man for whom none of these things is pleasant and who doesn’t have a share of them doesn’t deserve to live. In fact, the man who thinks nothing of the pleasures that come through the body is pretty much headed for death.”Phaedo, 65a
Diving deep into the Phaedo over a long period of time — four months, with others — means nibbling on bits of the text in a process that interweaves with daily life. It has been occupying a portion of my mind as I fuss over my elderly cat and her new hypertension medication, cook my meals, get frustrated with my work-from-home desk’s obviously bad ergonomics, lust over the Bloomscape Hoya plant collection that my appetitive soul is trying to convince me would make my life cheery and calm when I know I need to put more in my emergency savings …
… and my period started.
While menstruating, I sometimes think about passages in Proclus and other thinkers about women, passages that are sometimes othering, farfetched, or that offer correct conclusions based on outdated premises. One of the things that comes to mind often is the discussion in Proclus on the Republic and the Timaeus about the status of men and women in incarnation cycles, both in terms of specific incarnation and the longer cycles driven by each soul’s natural oscillations into and out of generation, where ones taken as more manly are treated as better. At one point, it is said that women often fall farther into generation than men, but when we become holy, we often surpass men in the extreme. That is something I chew on a lot, especially the question of whether “better” means intrinsically or just due to who benefits from how most human societies are structured.
Plotinus tells us to never stop working on our statue. One of the places where my statue needs work is with consumption habits.
So. This is the month that I decided would be the one to end my foolish fears about menstrual cups.
For years, I had assumed the worst about them, as my period would fill a standard cup in an hour or two on my heaviest days. (I use three times as many disposable products as other people because my cycle is long and heavy.) My fear is that switching to a cup would mean having to remove it in the public bathroom at work, creating an embarrassing gore scene. It is a reasonable fear about why I might want to use disposables at work on my heaviest days, but it is a spurious reason to avoid menstrual cups entirely because even halving my consumption of disposables would have a positive impact on the amount of personal waste I produce.
There was also a Guardian article about reusable period products, including underwear, and I learned about Modibodi, an Australian company that produces one of the most absorbent period underwear on the market, trusted by others with heavy cycles. If I still have to use disposables on my heaviest days, would reusable period underwear be enough to at least cut down on the number of pads?
A menstrual cycle makes it impossible to ignore the body. There is blood, there is gore. There is fatigue and occasional — or frequent — cramping, depending on the person. I ordered a menstrual cup, boiled it, and stared at it as I waited for it to cool. I tried to insert it a few times as my cycle was starting (before the heavy flood) and failed.
“And I suppose the soul reasons most beautifully when none of these things gives her pain — neither hearing nor sight, nor grief nor any pleasure — when instead, bidding farewell to the body, she comes to be herself all by herself as much as possible and when, doing everything she can to avoid communing with or even being in touch with the body, she strives for what is.”Phaedo, 65c
It feels shameful and humiliating to be responsible for your body and to realize you have no idea how a part of it works well enough to insert a piece of silicone the size of an espresso cup. It was like a repeat of my 20s when I had vaginismus and couldn’t relax enough for a successful pap smear. I kept the cup visible during the heaviest days of my period — Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday — and frowned at it while dealing with tampons and hyper-absorbent period underwear. Wednesday night, I decided. I was free. I had nothing planned. It would be light enough. I would learn how to use a cup on Wednesday.
There’s a widely-told story about Hypatia and menstrual rags. One of her students was enamored of her, and she tried everything she could to get him to fall out of lust. When all else failed, she produced dirty menstrual rags and told him that that was his desire. The sudden shock worked — he stopped pursuing her.
On Wednesday, when I returned to the bathroom, washed the cup, and tried again, I kept thinking of the Hypatia story and its symbolism. This time, I used a different cup folding method, and it went in. It took a while to open properly, and then it went … up. I could barely reach the stem with my fingers, but I could tell from tugging that the cup had correctly expanded. I made dinner. I Googled videos on how to remove it. I had brief anxiety about how embarrassing it would be if I couldn’t get it out and needed to go to urgent care. Eventually, I made rooibos tea and tried to convince myself I was relaxing while my mind raced about the Timaeus and the cosmos as an agalma. Why do the commentators describe the cosmos the way they do? Why is the feminine/passive element in the system treated in the way that it is?
While enjoying my tea, I considered the model of our lives if they are uninterrupted — menarche, years of menstrual cycles, perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopausal life. Death, then rebirth again. I thought about the cycle of the universe since the beginning of measurable time — first the hot cosmic soup, then the coalescence of the first stars and galaxies, now the steady clustering, the soon-to-come exhaustion of gas and fuel and heat death and (if Penrose is onto something) its renewal. We are forced by embodiment to deal with this.
Eventually, I felt ready to take the cup out, just in time — it was leaking after two and a half hours due to being full. I went into the shower, just as the Internet advised. I could still barely reach the stem. It took about ten minutes of contorting and trying not to panic to even reach the base, and I had to move beyond said base because I couldn’t get a grip on it to release the suction. Option B was to somehow push the side of the cup in. Eventually, it was able to come out, but I dropped it. The shower suddenly looked like murder scene.
I learned after decompressing from this experience that the ordeal was caused by a “high cervix” and that I needed a different kind of cup. I didn’t even know that cervixes had heights. For the past day, my head has been filled with these passages of the Phaedo and how f—ing absurd my entire Wednesday evening was. I spent an hour researching cups for high cervixes and bought two (three, actually, because one of them was BOGO) from competing brands while thinking about Socrates talking about the unphilosophical person acquiring “diverse cloaks and sandals and the other, body-related beautifications” (64e). All I wanted was to be a responsible, environmentally-conscious person doing my part as a citizen to fight climate change and honor the Earth, and here I was, buying diverse silicone cups. (I rejected the menstrual cup style in a “unicorn” tie-dye because that seemed like excessive ornamentation. I mean, it’s not a display piece.)
Sometimes, engaging with our bodies anchors us in desire or in reactive emotions; sometimes, it roots us in intellect and in the more lasting parts of our selves. The body is louder when it does things that we have to deal with, whether it’s menstruation or another in-your-face this-body-is-loud-and-very-present thing. Dealing with the physical while in a philosophical or theurgic school or equivalent is like showing up at the gym when one’s ordinary life already involves a lot of lifting and running, which could be part of why the ancient commentators saw philosophical women as being so impressive.