BEYOND POWER; On Women, Men, and Morals. By Marilyn French. Summit. 640 pp. $19.95.

MARILYN FRENCH is known primarily for her best-selling novel The Women's Room, which describes the emerging feminist consciousness of a group of middle-class women in the 1960s. She has also written studies of Shakespeare and Joyce. Nothing in her previous books, however, prepares one for the intellectual range and scholarly energy of Beyond Power, which is nothing less than a history of the world (from the cavewomen to the Sandinistas) seen through the critical prism of contemporary feminism. Indeed, "a history of the world" is too modest, since it is also a work of prescription and speculation. In reading it I was reminded of the grand metahistorical essays of Rousseau, Hegel, Freud, and, more rcently, Michel Foucault. Such undertakings can't be judged by the usual empirical criteria. They demand a more latitudinarian standard, one that measures their ability to reshape our assumptions and suggest a new vision.

In the time-honored tradition of metahistory, French's book begins with a foray into speculative anthropology, which aims to reconstruct our cultural origins. The central drama in this story is the transition from "matricentry" to patriarchy. Matricentry was characterized by close ties between mother and child, a non- hierarchical social order, and harmonious relations between human beings and their environment. French's account of it sounds remarkably similar to the state of nature described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Patriarchy, by way of contrast, disrupted the tie between mother and child, placed men in authority over women, established hierarchical institutions, and, most important, subjected nature to domination. Unlike Rousseau, French does not link this crucial differentiation to the advent of private property, but her emphasis on the altered relations between human beings and nature is very much in the Rousseauist tradition, as is her linking of the new order to the ascendancy of language, abstraction, and linear rationality.

What explains this fateful transformation? French answers that it was caused by a change in values. Matricentry gave way to patriarchy, she argues, because one set of ideals -- one sensibility -- was ousted by another. To be precise, a "masculinist" ideology of control displaced the matricentric values of pleasure and mutuality. "Humans came to see themselves in a new light . . . Their self-definition changed. And the new definition was the foundation stone and the raison d'etre of patriarchy."

Most modern historians, even those who aren't Marxists, will find this insistence on the primacy of ideas naive. They are almost constitutionally averse to the notion that ideas might exercise a decisive role in history. Rather, they prefer to trace changes in the intellectual realm to structural changes in the economy and society. French will thus have to look for support to the metahistorians of an earlier era -- to thinkers like Hegel and Nietzsche -- who also were unashamed to attribute great historical transformations to developments in the realm of thought. Nietzsche's notion of a "slave revolt" in morals, to which he ascribed the rise of modernity, may betray misogynistic attitudes distasteful to French, but (as she herself recognizes) it is structurally analogous to her own theory of a patriarchal revolution.

One of the difficulties of her argument is that after the patriarchal regime has been established, the rest of history seems like little more than a footnote. The course of Western civilization involves only a replaying in ever intensified form of the original revolution. Her account is nonetheless startling in so far as it reverses our familiar assumptions about the accomplishments and failures of Western culture. What we have traditionally regarded as the high points of our history turn out, when passed through this critical feminist grid, to mark unhappy reassertions of the patriarchal ideal, while some of the darker moments get rehabilitated, because during them patriarchy was temporarily in disarray.

Thus the rise of Athenian culture in the 5th century B.C. -- the usual launching pad of Western civilization -- becomes for her an especially regrettable moment in the progress of "masculinization," since Greek thought celebrated the triumph of reason over nature, and with it the triumph of men over women. Likewise, the scientific revolution of the 17th century saw the emergence of a uniquely instrumental conception of nature, and it further diminished such feminine values as associative thinking and emotion. Indeed, French traces most of the repressive practices and institutions of the modern world -- notably, industrialization, capitalism, and the technological ruination of the environment -- to the scientific ideals of Bacon and Descartes. Here her account self-consciously echoes that of Michel Foucault, who also urges us to reconsider the price we have paid for modern rationalism. By way of contrast, the so-called Dark Ages, when central control collapsed throughout Europe, marks for her one of the better times for women (and, by implication, for men and nature as well), precisely because patriarchal ideals were in retreat.

ALTHOUGH the history of the world has been largely a story of unremitting sameness, French recognizes certain moments of protest when feminine values were able to find expression. Such protests occurred, for example, in the origins of Christianity, Protestantism, and socialism. Voices of opposition can also be heard in the poetry of courtly love during the Middle Ages, the salon culture of ancien r,egime France, and the 19th-century cult of domesticity. But the feminizing Jesus quickly gave way to misogynistic St. Paul, just as Protestantism prepared the ground for modern science and capitalism. Likewise, socialism, though often hostile to patriarchy, was compromised from the beginning by its exploitive attitude toward nature and its commitment to revolutionary violence, the very essence of the masculinist ethos.

Only in modern feminism does French detect a sensibility that might finally overthrow the patriarchal order. Her optimism is guarded, however, because she recognizes that feminism is hardly of one mind, and there is no guarantee that it will succeed where earlier oppositional movements have failed. Still, she remains persuaded that the way out, like the original revolt, must lie in a transformation of values. "Only a fundamental moral revolution," she writes, "can provide what is needed for real change in human institutions and behavior." he most interesting aspect of her book is its evaluation of the different strains within contemporary feminism. One of these -- the mainstream, in fact -- is committed to the ideal of equality, and it measures success in terms of women's ability to win entry into the male power structure, whether in the economy, intellectual life, or politics. Not surprisingly, French takes a dim view of this egalitarian project. "Assimilation is death," she asserts, and she identifies her own work with the anti- assimilationist tendency that has become increasingly prominent in feminist theory (Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice, on which French draws extensively, is a representative document of this school). The anti-assimilationists take as their goal the "revalorization" of feminine qualities, arguing that only when patriarchal ideals have been rejected will we transcend the antagonisms that set us apart from one another and from nature as well. Moreover, French has the intelligence to recognize the similarity between her own position and that of certain female opponents of feminism, such as the adepts of the right-to-life movement, who seek to purchase a realm of security for themselves and their children -- an enclave of feminine values within a patriarchal universe -- by abdicating all claims to power. Of such women she writes: "In the distant future, they may be seen more as part of the feminist struggle for a more felicitous world than as antagonists to it."

French would probably resist the idea that her vision is reminiscent of St. Augustine's in The City of God, but I am nonetheless struck by their affinity. Between an Edenic past and an eschatalogical future stretch for both the unchanging millennia of the "city of man," an era of sustained alienation during which all hopes of release must be satisfied with a furtive, underground existence. Like Augustine's, her history is exhilarating in its boldness, but ultimately numbing i its relentless catalogue of atrocities. I, at least, found it hard to sustain the prospect of redemption through 600 pages of closely argued and richly documented misery. And while I appreciate her corrective to the standard version of Western civilization, I can't shed the prejudice that humanity has been served (as well as abused) by those intellectual and cultural movements -- such as Greek rationalism and modern science -- that have sought to place us in control of our destiny. Put another way, I prefer the ambivalent judgment rendered by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, where the achievements of our heritage are carefully weighed against its psychic costs.