A Discussion of Whether Plato Was a Feminist

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Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 1433|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Plato’s Republic proposes an ideal city, in which there are three major classes of citizen; first, the city is governed by a guardian class, also known as philosopher-kings, whose ruling is enforced by the auxiliary class; warriors who defend the state both from external attacks and internal disputes. Finally, the largest class of society, the producers; a group of citizens who perform every job excluding warriors and rulers. The producing class, for instance, includes doctors, lawyers, carpenters. This division of citizen was intended to represent Plato’s ideology of the tripartite soul; reason, spirit, and appetite, whereby each class is dominant in one element of the psyche. The producing class are dominant in appetite, the auxiliary class in spirit, hence their ability to defend the state, and guardians dominant in reason, meaning they are best able to govern the city. What is interesting about this proposal, is that Plato argues there is no reason for women not to be accepted into the ruling classes. 

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Plato uses Socratic dialogue in Book V of the Republic, to argue that insofar as they meet the same requirements as men, women can become part of the auxiliary or guardian class, and therefore should receive the same education and training as men. This was an incredibly radical position to take in contemporary Athenian society, so in his dialogue, Plato depicts arguments that would be put forward against his proposals, which Socrates then negates. The first argument proposed against Socrates’ suggestion of female auxiliaries and guardians is that women and men have different natures, and as societal roles are determined by nature, women and men should play different roles in society. However, Socrates cleverly points out the futility of this argument with the analogy of bald and hirsute men. Socrates notes how (by the same line of reasoning) if bald men become cobblers, as they have different natures to long-haired men we ought to forbid long-haired men from cobbling. This illustrates how differences in nature have no bearing on the ability to rule in the same respect as hair (or lack of) has no impact on cobbling ability. Socrates goes on to discuss two kinds of difference in nature, in which he highlights that the difference between a male and female doctor has no impact on ability, in comparison to the difference between a male doctor and a male carpenter. This is an important distinction, as the difference in nature is only relevant in regards to being able to fulfil a particular job. In regards to this dispute, Julia Annas argues that Plato’s argument is not valid against an anti-feminist, as he agrees with their ideology. For instance, Socrates asks ‘are there any occupations which contribute towards the running of the state which only a woman can do?’, assumes the answer to this is obviously ‘no’, and so claims that ‘the one sex is, so to speak, far and away beaten in every field by the other’. Annas points out that it is not a feminist argument to claim men can outdo women at everything. I think this willingness to accept that women are less able than men is intrinsically anti-feminist, and it is hugely important that Annas points out this gap in Plato’s line of argument. He fails to assert that there are no specifically male competencies, whereas a true feminist would deny the assumptions this argument relies on. 

Lesser, however, argues that Annas’s point does not harm Plato’s case, as Plato is not intending to argue that females are as good as males, but rather is claiming that gender differences have little effect on differences between individuals’ ability to perform certain tasks. I agree with Lesser to an extent; in regards to this particular section of Plato’s argument, perhaps Annas’s critique is somewhat misplaced. However, it seems that Lesser is focusing rather too much on the content of Annas’s argument, rather than the key issues it highlights. The way Plato forms this argument highlights his intrinsic misogynistic ideology, and although Annas’s dispute doesn’t harm the argument directly, it does demonstrate the anti-feminism in Plato’s ideals. A further dispute discussed is that women carrying, birthing, and raising children would affect their ability to rule as the guardian/auxiliary class. This argument enables Plato to introduce his proposal of communal living, which included the abolition of a nuclear family so that women wouldn’t raise their own children themselves. The ideology behind this proposal was that the most important contribution for the organisation of a community is unity and that concepts such as ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ promote individual goals, which breaks this unity. Socrates claims the destruction of the nuclear family will orient us towards unified goals, as people would assume every child is theirs, which would encourage people to partake in a collective relationship. Removing the privatisation of feelings would coordinate the city towards a shared invested interest in the betterment of society, in which individual desires are of secondary importance. I think it is important to point out here that Plato’s admission of female guardians is clearly not a feminist stance, as it does not consider the desires of women, nor is it done with the intention of liberation. Julia Annas calls attention to the fact that Plato discusses the liberating effect that communal life will have on society, but does not depict the liberating effect on women’s position in the household – rather, it is presented as something the man is liberated from. It is wholly obvious that Plato’s reasoning behind the abolition of the nuclear family is not based on the grounds that women currently suffer from being denied opportunities; rather the state would benefit from having the best possible citizens, and so it logically follows that potential attributes/qualities are being wasted if half of these citizens sit at home (as is represented by the nuclear family). 

I completely agree with Annas’s position; Plato is not a feminist based on women’s rights or liberation, rather he simply promotes the use of women to provide utility to the state. This point is further emphasised by Plato’s authoritarian ideology; if a woman didn’t want to be a guardian, Plato would still compel her to serve the state. This only highlights the lack of feminist intention behind Plato’s ideals; he clearly doesn’t consider the liberation or desires of the women whose lives he intends to change, but merely views them as a by-product to the health of the state. However Lesser argues that Plato would deny Annas’s criticism that personal fulfilment and public efficiency are mutually exclusive. He suggests that if women knew that their skills had been used for the benefit of society, this, in turn, would increase their sense of self-fulfilment; the two would improve each other. Although I understand the point Lesser is making, and to an extent, it seems logical that contributing to society would increase women’s personal sense of self-fulfilment, personally, I believe that Plato’s obvious attitude that women are intrinsically inferior seriously degrades the argument. Lesser’s suggestion of positive feedback is more of a convenient coincidence than Plato’s ideology behind the abolition of the nuclear family. 

To expand; Plato consistently refers to women in such a way that it heavily implies he believes women are intrinsically inferior to men. For instance, Plato argues that the major failing of democracy is that it treats the unequal equally; women are inferior/unequal to men and should be treated accordingly. Furthermore, he constantly makes disparaging remarks about women, for example suggesting it is ‘small-minded and womanish’ to regard the body as your enemy, obviously revealing that he associates stupidity with women. Vlastos attempts to explain this whilst maintaining the argument that Plato is a feminist, by explaining Plato’s remarks were probably influenced by his experiences of women oppressed by Athenian culture. These negative traits are viewed by Plato as consistent with the society the women are in; in his ideal city perhaps these traits will not exist. Similar lines of argument are taken by Levin, who argues that if derogatory comments are evaluated with a distinction between current and ideal circumstances they should not be viewed as sexist, and Levinson, who suggests it is only fair to judge Plato’s comments to the standards of fifth-century Athens. 

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To an extent, I agree with the main point the above scholars are making. It would be unfair to attack and judge Plato against modern feminist ideals, for comments and ideas that were entirely accepted in contemporary Athens. However, this still does not render Plato a feminist. A true feminist would question the assumptions that Athenian society relied on, however, this is clearly not the path he took.  

Works Cited

  1. Annas, J. (1995). Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Cornell University Press.
  2. Levin, S. (2002). Plato’s Rhetoric of Feminism. Southern Journal of Philosophy, 40(2), 229-252.
  3. Levinson, R. (1989). The Demands of Liberal Education. Oxford University Press.
  4. Lesser, G. (2018). Plato on Women: Revolutionary Ideas for Gender Equality in an Ancient Society. Oneworld Publications.
  5. Plato. (2003). The Republic (A. Bloom, Trans.). Basic Books.
  6. Vlastos, G. (1995). Platonic Studies. Princeton University Press.
  7. Devereux, D. (1995). Plato and Freud: Two Theories of Love. Philosophical Psychology, 8(2), 161-181.
  8. Irwin, T. H. (2007). Plato’s Ethics. Oxford University Press.
  9. Morrison, D. R. (2011). Women and Friendship in Plato. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Nehamas, A. (1999). Plato: The Good as the Object of Love. Princeton University Press.
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