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Gender Equality from Plato's Perspective

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Plato employs a meritocratic logic in his proposal for gender equality in Book V of The Republic. In his ideal community, the kallipolis, comprised of producers, guardians, and rulers, Plato advocates a specialization of employment and status based on inherent nature and not on gender-typing. Allowing for slight modifications resultant from indisputable physical differences between the sexes, Plato’s ideas are remarkable enlightened for his time, providing a Classical backing for the feminist movement, although his theories on eugenics anticipate Nazi tactics and are, from a modern perspective, unjust to both men and women.

Plato recognizes the contradictory qualities of his statement that “one nature must practice one thing and a different nature must practice a different thing, and that women and men are different. But at present we are asserting that different natures must practice the same things” (453e). After using an analogy that exploits the absurdity of positioning bald-headed men and their coifed brethren in different employment, Plato distinguishes between a truer difference of natures, those of a male doctor and a male carpenter. In his meritocratic society, “if either the class of men or that of women shows superiority in some art or other practice, then we’ll say that that art must be assigned to it” (454c). Plato concedes that, on the whole, “woman is weaker than man,” although Glaucon notes that “many women are better than many men in many things” (455e; 455d). Under the Platonic system, women are allowed, according to their nature, to develop as musicians, doctors, or warriors, since such a specialization is “not only possible but also best for a city” (457a). In recognition of women’s slight physical inferiority, Plato assigns them “lighter parts of these tasks” (457a). The sexes are given equal living standards, with “no one privately possessing anything,” including lodging, and sexual interaction will be governed by the rulers (458). The best men are made to procreate with the best women, and the reverse for the opposite. The children of the elite citizens are tended to by government workers, rather than by their own parents. Parents are not permitted to know the identities of their own children. The procreative period is extended to different ages for men and women (up to 55 and 40, respectively), after which they may copulate as they wish, so long as no children are conceived (and if they, they are to be dealt with “on the understanding that there’s to be no rearing for such a child”) (459c).

Most of Plato’s argument is difficult to grapple with in our time and democratic society. Few would dispute that the best arbiter of employment is ability. However, the kallipolis only gains this measure of gender equality through its elitist brand of meritocracy. Government control should only extend so far as to ensure a level playing field, and not to assign positions without compliance and competition from its citizenry – an unfair policy for both sexes. Furthermore, the eugenics present in the kallipolis are unthinkable in our age, depriving citizens of basic human rights to procreate and care for one’s own, and are reminiscent of Nazi philosophy. Despite these qualms, I believe that the most debatable passage in Book V from our perspective is the argument that women should be assigned lighter tasks because of “the weakness of the class” (457a). Much current scientific experimentation tackles this problem. Even in the more straightforward debate over women’s presence in the military or on the police force, questions come up: a female cop may not inspire the same commanding authority on a neighborhood beat, but is this compensated for by a less intimidating relationship with the community? Does a female soldier make up for less muscle mass by possessing greater flexibility? Does physicality even matter much anymore in a technological society? In questions of biological difference in the brain, the situation is more sticky. Some studies suggest that males have better spatial-dimension skills from birth, while others reverse this statement; similar results yield for “care-taking ability,” whatever that term means. Even if science does discover gender advantages, all of one sex will never be better than all of another sex in one field, and allowing that to continue only promotes stereotypes that reinforce the differences (i.e., women as better teachers for young children). We should stick with a modified Platonic system of permitting, and not assigning, employment by nature, and banning the practice of eugenics so long as we call ourselves a democratic society.

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Gender Equality from Plato’s Perspective. (2018, April 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from
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