Plato’s Republic (2): Women & Men
Plato’s ideal state is not a patriarchy. In a number of ways, it actively promotes a radical sort of equality between the sexes, in spite of Socrates’s insistence that the accomplishments of women will be naturally inferior. This seeming incongruity has, not surprisingly, tied his readers in knots since the Republic was first translated into Latin from Greek; this took a while since early Plato translators balked at translating the Republic due to the discussions of sexually-open relationships. It’s still controversial. Gender and sex, of course, forever tie us in knots.
This came to mind as I’ve been considering an article on the fledgling field of “male studies”, which is intended to supplement the deficiencies of and critique “men’s studies”, itself an offshoot of “women’s studies”.* That saga is worthy of a post of its own (or, at least, an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon); but notice this:“Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology, said the field takes its cues “from the notion that male and female organisms really are different” and the “enormous relation between … a person’s biology and their behavior” is unaddressed in current scholarship.
This is really the issue with Socrates, who advocates a sort of gender-blind social equality, while still believing that biology, specifically sex, plays a role in achievement. I think modern readers make the mistake of thinking his social advocacy should lead him to believe that “male and female organisms” really are not different, aside from reproduction, but, in the end, it does not.
The issue comes up in Book 5. Socrates has created an army of Guardians to protect and rule the city, and detailed their education. They will live a fairly ascetic life in which nearly everything is held in common. Talking of small-c communism is accurate. The class will consist of both men and women. The women will receive the same education and athletic training. Both sexes will exercise together naked and have to get over their embarrassment. They will also wage war together. As Guardians, the women will not be required to maintain a household- the class will live together in something like barracks. They also will not have to raise their children, who will be given to nurses and never know their parents. To avoid jealousy, their relationships will be non-exclusive; they won’t pair off and marriages are sexually open in Plato’s Republic (even more so in Plato’s Retreat). Their kinship loyalties will be to the collective. The system will be set up to encourage full-development of the Guardians, who are the best of the best, regardless of sex.
Socrates allows women to become Guardians because we make guard dogs out of male and female dogs. He recognizes that men and women are different by nature, but not in such a way as to isolate them to separate spheres. He compares this to bald and hairy men: we wouldn’t say that bald men couldn’t be potters, for example. Somewhat at odds with this, he says that women will nevertheless be somewhat inferior in whatever they do. But anything men can do, they can do a bit worse.
Many scholars have pointed out that Plato’s seeming egalitarianism doesn’t jibe with his sexism here and elsewhere. This argument can be a bit forced; it’s sometimes claimed that Plato “could not have conceived” of sexual equality given his era, which strikes me as a claim devoid of meaning. It’s also noted that there is fairly strident sexism elsewhere in his work, although writers tend to blur together everything written by Plato as representing Plato. For instance, Timeus has some strident things to say about women as a lesser incarnation than men; but the character’s a bit of a stock Pythagorean anyway.
The serious criticism is that Socrates clearly thinks that, in a just society, in which women were given all opportunities to prove themselves, they would do everything men can do, but a bit worse. So, they do not differ sufficiently to justify patriarchal institutions; but in the absence of such institutions, they will still differ to their discredit.
It is a glaring contradiction. Here’s how I understand it. The Republic begins with the question What is Justice? Socrates’s answer requires creating a society that will foster real justice in the individual. To do so, he goes to some lengths that we might avoid, such as separating children and parents, which would certainly avoid nepotism. But this doesn’t mean that he is not serious. He supports making both men and women guardians because he simply does not see sufficient natural differences to separate them in terms of the tasks. Therefore, he sets up a meritocracy that would give women the same training as men, and allow them the same opportunities. He still thinks women are “inferior”; just not enough to separate out duties and opportunities by gender.
Allan Bloom argues that this is all a bit of a ruse to keep Guardian men supplied with mates. That’s a stretch, to put it nicely. It seems more likely that readers overemphasize the “inferiority” of women, which could be simply in terms of strength, and miss the radicalism of the argument. Socrates believes, after all, that current Greek societies do not cultivate justice, and that remedying that requires women to be treated differently from birth. Also he suggests that a just reading of nature would require doing away with the patriarchal institutions of Athens.
Lastly, note that the innate differences between men and women are not, by his count, as serious as those between Greeks and barbarians, or between Guardians and Craftsmen. Karl Popper’s hysterical freak-out about “racism” notwithstanding, it’s worth asking if Plato’s opening emphasis on justice isn’t a bit undone by his later attempts to apply animal husbandry to humanity.
1. * Surely, “the Study of Women” would be better grammatically, right?
2. I had intended to get to the soul in the Republic, but veered a bit. I’ll get to that next time. (I’m not sure what it says about me that my interest in the soul was apparently derailed by my stronger interest in the subject of women.)