Perspectives on Politics
Plato on Gender: Three Different Views
We’ve seen that Plato insists that justice means exclusive specialization and hierarchy, but we’ve also seen that the Myth of the Metals indicates that Plato recognizes that he cannot prove that nature dictates this hierarchy. Earlier as well we saw that there was reason to question exclusive specialization when Socrates was beginning to found the city of words.
Given all this it might not seem so puzzling, then, that Plato seems to challenge exclusive specialization and hierarchy in one of the forms in which they were most deeply rooted in Greek society, that is in the social role assigned to women. In Book V, Socrates proposes that the ideal city faces a choice. It can either leave the wives of the guardians in the same domestic roles as women in contemporary Athenian society, or else it can allow women to take on all the roles of the guardian class. The second alternative is the one Socrates pursues and since it implies a substantial equality between female and male it has led, over the years, to the view that Plato is the first and one of the few feminists in the history of political philosophy until recent years.
Somewhere – I believe it was in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 -- Marx once said you can get a true picture of a society or an epoch by the way its women and children are treated. It might make sense to apply that to the Republic in order to get a better sense of what Plato is above all pursuing. But first of all, it would be important to get rid of the notion that, like a modern liberal feminist, Plato is appealing to a general notion of equality of opportunity. Plato is not interested in freeing women from the shackles of traditional restraints they might compete for opportunities for self-realization, no matter what these opportunities are conceived to be. Had that been the case, he would have had to extend this principle to the ideal city as a whole, which would then have taken on a radically different appearance.
Yet Plato does here challenge directly one of the most deeply entrenched, if not the most entrenched actual hierarchical practices of the Greek polis, which was as much a part of Athenian democracy as of other constitutional arrangements. Athenian women, “free” women – those who were not slaves -- lived at that time in a situation we today would instantly label domestic servitude. Not only were they denied any public role in the life of the polis, they were kept hidden and secluded at home to manage in a secondary way the work of the household. Beyond this, the law and custom considered women to be virtually a form of chattel property under the authority of fathers and husbands and they were subjected in matters of sexuality to a flagrant double standard. One small indication of the latter: the word for adultery meant a married woman having sex with a man who was not her husband. In other words, men, by definition, could not commit adultery. The egalitarian tendencies of some of the Sophists, although it extended to slaves, did not seem to extend to the conventionality of womanhood.
It is in a context like this that Plato’s modest proposal for equality between male and female guardians appeals shockingly radical and feminist and egalitarian. So what was Plato doing? Following Socrates we can pursue knowing the nature of a thing by looking at its function or purpose. Why could Plato not have left the whole issue alone? Or else have come up with something else?
In the past, whatever reaction male interpreters felt to Plato’s scheme, they on the whole assumed he was a feminist. Recent arguments from women theorists have offered a number of more interesting interpretations. Among such recent interpretations, there are basically three views: 1. Plato was in some sense a feminist, but an inadequate one. This is a view well-expressed by the liberal feminist theorist Susan M. Okin. 2. Plato was not a feminist. His putting forward of apparent feminist arguments in Book V, when looked at more deeply in terms of the esoteric (or hidden) meaning of the Republic as a whole, reveals those arguments to be secondary to his main purpose. His main purpose was to point out the relation between the city and politics on the one hand and those things that permanently cannot be accommodated to them, i.e. nature, the passions, as well as philosophy – or the love of universal truth. This is the interpretation of a conservative woman theorist, Arlene Saxenhouse. 3. Plato was not a feminist, but because he ends up making women into men for the sake of the unity of the ideal city. Women once more, and only apparently not, are subordinated to their reproductive roles in a new form of the family. Two feminist theorists who put forward this view are Linda Lange and Diana Coole, who in different ways could be called radical feminists.
A. -- Let’s look first at the liberal feminist view. According to Okin, Plato is an inadequate or failed feminist, or possibly a reluctant feminist. He is forced to reconsider the role of women only because he has already opted to abolish the traditional family. That family must go because it is one of the primary institutions that would draw the guardians away from dedication to public life and the good of the whole society. But this leaves Plato in a quandary. What is he to do with the women and children of the guardians? Obviously, there must be women and children of the guardian class if this society is to subsist beyond one generation. There can be no families for individual guardians because of the need for unity, so how can this class reproduce itself?
This opens up the possibility of considering that there be female guardians, especially because for the guardian class there will be no domestic role to perform. Child-rearing will be done in publicly organized day-cares. The material needs of the guardians are minimal and are to be supplied by the producing class. Maternity need not be a full-time, but only an occasional occupation.
According to Okin, because of all this, Plato is forced to recognize individual women as persons in their own right. Socrates therefore goes back to the main principle guiding the construction of the ideal city, which is fitting a persons function to their nature. The whole question of a female human nature must then be opened up. Are there specific female and male human natures, and if so how do they differ, and what follows from these differences in nature (not differences in education or differences in opinion about what each sex should do). Socrates does agree that males and females differ in their natures, but then introduces the crucial distinction, which is the one concerning relevant criteria. The question is which differences are the ones that matter? According to Socrates (and the other discussants agree) the main natural difference concerns the procreative function. Women bear and nurse children. But this turns out to be irrelevant or at least largely irrelevant to the tasks that female guardians would be asked to perform.
At the very least then, Socrates has shifted the burden of proof to the other side. The other side, the traditionalists, let’s call them, would have to demonstrate how this one difference in nature which is incontrovertible can be used to subordinate all women to a purely domestic role. The upshot is that Plato has introduced the revolutionary thesis that biology, at least the biology of reproductive differences, is not equivalent to destiny. Like the Sophists Plato here makes a clear and sharp distinction between nature and convention and from this perspective all the traditional gender roles can be questioned. And Plato even thought that men as well as women guardians should share equally in the care of the youngest children (460b).
In this reading of Plato, it is his already perceived need to abolish the family that opens up the question about convention and that leads to an at least implicit recognition of sexual equality and to the idea of equality of opportunity. Why then does Plato turn out to be inadequate as a feminist in Okin’s interpretation? For the liberal-feminist, Plato in the end fails basically because he does not push through to all the implications of his own environmentalism. Given the enormous stress that Plato puts, throughout the Republic, on the power of education (see e.g. 455d), and also given the Myth of the Metals (which indicates that actual differences are in reality far from being innate – although that’s not what we’ll tell the lower classes), one should, and legitimately, expect Plato to use environmentalist arguments to simply assert the equality of women and men. In fact, Plato implicitly argues that men and women have the same natures and that therefore there are no differences in kinds of tasks that can be assigned to them. Individual natures should decide the outcome. However, Plato does not go the whole route here. Women are characterized as on the whole being weaker versions of men, some of whom, however will be able to meet the criteria of membership in the guardian class, by nature. Okin does not attempt to explain Plato’s reluctance here. He is simply not yet convinced that women can in fact do anything traditionally assigned to men. In here eyes, Plato then ends up being inconsistent in the ways he argues about men and women. He applies environmentalist arguments to men, but not to women.
B. – Okin’s interpretation is basically built around the question of the degree to which Plato agrees with modern liberal feminism . She sees some essential agreement. Biology is not the source of conventional differences, and women are therefore, however reluctantly, essentially equal to men. But Okin cannot account for how so radical and consistent a thinker as Plato avoids following through on the implications of his own arguments. This leads us to the conservative interpretation. In the conservative interpretation, the whole issue of the equality of women is treated as merely a dramatic and rhetorical device to raise a different question. This is the question of the essential tension between the city/politics on the one hand and women and philosophy on the other. Both philosophy and women share a common alienation from politics. Each therefore brings into question the value of the polity and its pursuits. Its pursuits are supposed to be power, fame, action, glory, war and conquest. Philosophy brings these into question from the point of view of a “higher”, “spiritual” nature. Woman brings these things into question from the point of view of a “lower” or “original” nature.
This approach – Saxenhouse’s – is part of a broader interpretation of the Republic as a dramatic device Plato is using to justify the withdrawal (or at least partial withdrawal) of philosophy from the political arena. From this conservative position, power and knowledge should be almost wholly dissociated, because these thinkers (not only Saxenhouse, but Bloom and Strauss from whom she draws) assume that bringing politics and the pretension to knowledge together will always lead to dangerously radical political experiments. The conservative interpretation therefore tries to establish that Plato could not have meant literally most of what he proposes for the ideal city. This goes beyond his treatment of women to issues of property as well.
As evidence for this reading, which sees a vast difference between the exoteric or manifest meaning Plato communicates to non-philosophers and the esoteric or hidden meaning he reserves for the philosophic souls who know how to read him, such interpreters point to a number of suggestions and possible hints in the text that Socrates is proposing something that is patently absurd in order to point out something else. The something else would be pointed to indirectly.
The patent absurdity they cite with greatest frequency is that for the Athenians of that time, an equal education for men and women would mean that men and women would exercise naked in the gymnasia of the city [because men at that time did so; women did not go into the gymnasia at all, except as servants or prostitutes]. Now, according to the conservative interpretation, this is not an absurdity because of logic. It is a hint about the absurdity of the whole proposal for the ideal city. The ideal city is absurd, for one thing, because of the radical abstraction from sexuality and from the body that it would demand for sexual equality to be made real. In a way, the conservative interpretation is saying that once you start off on this road to the impossible, ridiculous and wrongheaded idea of sexual equality, you will find yourself radically denying nature, the nature of the body and the nature of sexual difference, and this cannot be the intention of a good conservative thinker like Plato. Saxenhouse connects the apparent absurdity of this abstraction from the body to Plato’s proposals about eugenics and breeding. Guardian mothers would not be allowed to know their biological children. Even more than the male guardians, the female guardians would have to extract themselves from all private life and bodily connections.
The conservative interpretation ties Plato’s treatment of women and his treatment of communism to the apparent elimination of all private life from the city. All individual distinctiveness is destroyed for the sake of unity. “By equating the male and the female,” she says, “the public and the private are made one”. Females are integrated into the unified city not in their specificity as females, but as “weaker men”.
But what is the point of this elaborate charade on Socrates’ part? It would be to convey the esoteric doctrine that philosophy must not try to become political; that the political values of honour and manly prowess and glory are exclusive of both philosophy and the love of universal truth on the one hand and of the unavoidable bodily and privatistic basis of human life on the other.
The advantage of this sort of interpretation is that it tries to read the Republic as a dramatic narrative, as a story in which things are happening to complex characters. [Glaucon is being led here from harboring a certain contempt for philosophy and goodness into at least a respect for the value of philosophy and a recognition that the life of the just man is its own reward --- but we are still too early in the book to see well how something like this is working] This sort of interpretation also tries to avoid reading back certain modern or liberal ideas into Plato. On the other hand, it becomes a little too easy to have Socrates believing the exact opposite of what he clearly asserts: that a large amount, if not all of what was commonly believed to be female human nature is simply the product of convention and education. In this way, the conservative interpretation also tends to take certain assumptions [not so widely held now] about what is possible and natural in human life and read them back into Plato’s true though hidden intentions. For this interpretation, the ideas that Plato presents about sexual equality can be dismissed because Plato is not talking about sexual equality at all. He is only using the idea of the body or privacy to outline the nature of politics as corrupting – something that philosophers may criticize, but not engage in.
C. – The third kind of interpretation manages to avoid much of the question begging of the first two. In this “radical feminist” interpretation it is clear, like in the conservative one, that Plato does not represent an early flowering of liberal ideas of equality of opportunity. His main concern in introducing the possibility of female guardians is not one of equal participation from women in any and all of the functions of the ideal city. His theoretical concerns are not those of a feminist. And his proposals in fact do not require a belief in the equal worth of both sexes. They also do not require strict equality even within the guardian class between males and females. For example, many passages indicate that Plato did not in fact believe that women were as good as men. Especially in books VIII and IX they are identified (along with children and slaves) as being dominated by the irrational, appetitive, weak part of the soul. (see also 431)
Why then is Plato concerned to argue on behalf of the inclusion of women as equal partners in guardianship. Well, the first thing you might notice is that although Plato does argue forcefully that individual women might qualify for guardianship, it turns out that there is no real need for anything like an equal number of men and women in the guardian class. There are no monogamous relationships. Sexual intercourse is to be strictly controlled (up to age 65) (!!) The best age for women to bear children is held to be between the ages of 20 and 40; the best age for men Plato holds to be between 30 and 55. This means that women are finished with bearing children before the age of rulership. Therefore, Plato may intend older (ruler-type) male guardians to mate with promising females who may or may not go on to become rulers themselves.
So why, if he is not concerned with justice between the sexes, is Plato arguing for treating women as equals in this peculiar set of arrangements? The answer is in the whole set of institutions that define the guardian class. Above all the guardians are to be denied those elements of private life that could separate them from each other, turn them against each other and therefore against the polis. They are to own no houses, land or productive property. Also sex and love are to be separated in such a way that individual guardians should not find it possible to develop exclusive bonds that might lead to disunity within the guardian class. Plato was so insistent that no factions threaten the unity of the ideal city that, seeing the relations between exclusive sexual relations, private property and the family, he wishes to transform this force for disunity into a unifying force. He will do this by making the guardian class as a whole as much as possible into a substitute for the traditional family. The conflict between private and public life and the conflict between the irrational and exclusive passions and reason are overcome by making all private life public. Or, more accurately, they are overcome by eliminating any distinction between the public and the private.
The guardians’ “private life” is totally subordinated to the need for unity; but the public life of the city is contained within the quasi-familial private life of the guardian class. Here, once again, women are subordinated to the reproductive function. Except here, in the guardian class, this subordination is expressed through a denial of of the mother-child bond and by a strict regulation of fertility. The particular reproductive role is a different one than in the traditional family. It is reproduction of familial/quasi-familial unity as well as biological reproduction . But the female guardians are every bit as subordinated to their new reproductive function as were the traditional mothers, some of whom Plato may appear to be emancipating. For this third approach, turning women into bearers of the traditionally male virtues and functions as well as bearers of babies does not amount to an emancipatory intent for women.
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