Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Deaf Awareness Week: The Ancient World

Disability in the Ancient World

If a child was born with a disability such as deafness in the ancient world, the great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle were very clear: the child should be “exposed” to die.

Plato tells us that the legislation for the ideal States should make medical and judicial provision “ for those of your citizens whose physical and psychological constitution is good; as for the others, it will leave the unhealthy to die, and those whose psychological constitution is incurably corrupt it will put to death. That seems to be the best thing for both the individual sufferer and for society.”

Aristotle, in his politics, says that: “as to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”.

As G. van N. Viljoen noted:

“From the available evidence there is no doubt that after the fourth century B.C. the exposure of infants became increasingly frequent throughout the Greek world, and that in the course of time it was freely and arbitarily praised by parents to get rid of all unwanted children after birth, even and especially from purely economic motives and in particular with regard to baby daughters. It had become a kind of delayed method of birth control”

This was not quite infanticide: the infant was not killed outright, but left to die. Unattended, of course, an infant would perish due to hypothermia, hunger, thirst, or animal attack.

Lest we think ourselves so much better, when two thousand thalidomide babies were born in this country, many were so deformed that they were ‘not allowed to live’ – either suffocated by doctors or left in a cold room to perish by that ancient practice of exposure.

In Rome (c. 450 449 BCE), contemporary Roman custom was codified in a legal document known as the Twelve Tables. Table IV of the Twelve Tables states: "kill quickly... a dreadfully deformed child."

But Bonnie L. Gracer in her study “What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah” notes that:

In contrast to the evidence of infanticide as a response to disability in ancient Greece and Rome, the Mishnah records no debates on whether people with disabilities should be allowed to live; infanticide is never even raised as a possibility. Quite the contrary the rabbis cherish life and see human variety as evidence of God's greatness. This is evident in the Mishnah and later rabbinic literature. For example, M. Sanhedrin 4:5 states:

...whoever destroys a single soul.., Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul.., Scripture accounts it as if he had saved a full world......declare the greatness of the Holy One...for man stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the King of Kings, the Holy One... stamped each man with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow.

Deafness in the Ancient World

So where does deafness come in? It was clearly a disability, and the ghost of Aristotle haunts perceptions of how people perceived those deaf and dumb from birth.

Martha Edwards, in her extensive discussion of disability in ancient Greece, notes:

“Language was the hallmark of human achievement, so muteness went beyond a physical condition. An inability to speak went hand in hand with an inability to reason, hand in hand with stupidity. Plato (Theaetetus 206d) has Socrates say that anyone can show what he thinks about anything, unless he is speechless or deaf from birth.”

“Aristotle made profound connections between hearing, speech, intelligence. In a statement that was to have profound implications for the education of deaf individuals henceforth, Aristotle stated:”

“...it is hearing that contributes most to the growth of intelligence. For rational discourse is a cause of instruction in virtue of its being audible... Accordingly, of persons destitute from birth of either sense, the blind are more intelligent than the deaf and dumb.”

Whatever Plato may have thought of disability, the book Cratylus gives a Socrates who considers that deaf and dumb people can communicate albeit not with their tongue:

“Suppose that we had no voice or tongue, and wanted to communicate with one another, should we not, like the deaf and dumb, make signs with the hands and head and the rest of the body?”

As B. Jowett notes, Plato sees the gestures of those deaf and dumb as a form of communication, albeit deficient when it comes to intelligence, yet sees language itself as a form of gesture. For Plato:

“Gesture is the mode which a deaf and dumb person would take of indicating his meaning. And language is the gesture of the tongue.”

But Plato does not take this analogy further, and the Platonic and Aristotelian view was that anyone who lacked speech and hearing could not be educated.

The same view permeated the Roman world. Elena Radutsky notes that:

“The Romans did not consider deafness a separate phenomenon from mutism and... consequently, many believed all deaf people were incapable of being educated. Ancient Roman law, in fact, classified deaf people as 'mentecatti furiosi' which may be translated roughly as raving maniacs and claimed them uneducable.”

Bonnie Gracer in her study “What the Rabbis Heard: Deafness in the Mishnah” notes that:

The Tannaim appear to have incorporated Aristotelian connections between hearing, speech, and intelligence into Jewish tradition. The Mishnah sets forth two types of categories through which to examine deafness. The first is a larger category, into which deaf people fit, and the second is a series of smaller, more deafness specific categories.

The major concern of the rabbis seems to have been whether a deaf person (cheresh) could develop da'at - knowledge, intelligence, morality, reasoning abilities.38 It is here that Aristotle's pronouncements regarding the connections between speech, hearing, and intelligence seem to be paralleled: voice is connected to soul and imagination; audition is connected to rational discourse; hearing is connected to intelligence.

The rabbis, like Aristotle, seem to have linked deafness with some sort of moral or cognitive deficiency. Rabbinic pedagogy relied heavily on verbal communication. Prime activities included verbal arguing, discussing, and questioning. Without the ability to participate in the discussions and arguments, deaf people may have been seen as having no way to develop or communicate halachic or other reasoning skills.

The Shema is the most important six-word liturgical formula in Judaism–“Hear o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” runs the usual English translation. The obligation to recite the Shema is separate from the obligation to pray and a Jew is obligated to say Shema in the morning and at night (Deut. 6:7).

Someone deaf who could speak could recite the Shema because others could hear him. But someone who was deaf and dumb could not.

How this perspective in Judaism was challenged by other methods of communication is another story and one which showed how teachers in Judaism could challenge the Aristotelean assumptions connecting language with intelligence, with their first schools for the deaf founded in the late 1700s.

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