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Plato and the Negation of Women

Rebecca Herold

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates, the ever-faithful mouthpiece of Plato, makes bold arguments to convince his friends that women should be educated and included in the political life of the guardian class. A preliminary investigation reveals what seems to be a radical position for someone like Plato, a rich and educated Athenian male. A cursory glance at these arguments could lead one to believe that what we find in the Republic is an early example of gender equality (and perhaps even feminism, an active promotion of women’s equality) in philosophy. While it is true that some of the ideas Plato expresses about women would be considered surprising in his day, a closer study of these ideas reveals a desire to negate women altogether by suppressing their reproductive capacities. The entire treatise on family life in the Republic seriously challenges any depiction of Plato as a contemporary egalitarian hero.1)1 The following essay will explore Plato’s ideas about women’s negation in the city described in the Republic. And since Plato’s ideas do not reside solely in ancient Greece, I will later turn to the connection that I see between this negation and the modern use of contraception, specifically the birth control pill.

Let us first turn our attention to the context of this discourse on gender roles. Plato’s mission in the Republic is to sketch a model of the just city. This sketch is designed to function as a macrocosm of a human being, allowing the reader to understand the organization of the most just soul.2)2 Throughout this dialogue, Plato describes the labor, guardianship, education, and culture of the city. Inevitably, this discussion includes issues regarding the roles of men and women in the republic. While discussing the lives of the guardian class in Book IV, Socrates mentions in passing that wives and children will be held in common by the guardians.3)3 In Book V of the Republic, Socrates’ friends Polemarchus and Adeimantus ask him to return to this statement and explain himself. Socrates warns that what he has to say about this subject will be radical, but his friends eventually persuade him to state his case. His first claim is that women should receive the same education as men if they are to be useful for the same tasks.4)4 To be fair, this is a very unconventional suggestion for an ancient Greek. But what is even more striking at the core of this suggestion is the notion that men and women could actually do the same sorts of tasks. This seems to contradict a claim he had made earlier, namely “that each must do his own work in accordance with his nature.”5)5 Socrates and his friends consider it indisputable that men and women are different in nature,6)6 so to say that two different natures can perform the same tasks presents a real problem.

Plato escapes this conundrum by explaining to Glaucon that it is not so much differences in nature that dictate ways of life, but the forms of difference in nature. To use his example, we can say that a bald man and a long-haired man are different. But it would seem odd to say that if bald men are cobblers, no long-haired man can be a cobbler.7)7 In reality, it is the soul of the person that determines one’s way of life. Long-haired and bald men can each have the soul of a cobbler. And the same argument applies to men and women. Now, the only difference between men and women Plato finds notable is that “females bear children while the males beget them”8)8 This is not something which reflects anything about their souls, so it makes perfect sense that both women and men can have souls fit for music, arithmetic, gymnastics, and war. What does the body matter?

While this privileging of the soul over the body seems to bolster Plato’s standing as an egalitarian, this is the point where his argument begins to unravel. Not long after saying that women have equal share in the activities of the kallipolis, Socrates makes it clear that men are still superior to women in all respects.9)9 It turns out that women’s role in the city is not, in fact, equal footing with men’s. All avenues have been opened to women, but only within a framework in which they are understood to be inferior.

There are different ways to dance around this aspect of Plato’s scheme for gender equality. One response would be that for his time, he was breaking barriers in societal structure. I would be willing to concede this much, but this is still not much of an objection. Yes, he calls for women to be educated, and yes, he grants them an active place in the polis, but these concessions are inadequate. The simple truth is, much to a first-semester philosophy student’s chagrin, the kallipolis never came into existence, nor was it intended to. When investigating the history of women’s place in society, it may be possible to trace seminal ideas back to Plato. But this challenge to the status quo of his time is the only aspect of his argument that can be considered revolutionary.

To understand why Plato is not an advocate for women, we must first understand why he considers women inferior. As he never plainly states why this is the case, it is not entirely clear what his reasoning is. However, there are two textual implications we can take notice of. First, Glaucon and Socrates’ other friends do not strongly object when he states that “women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them, women are weaker than men.”10)10 From this, we can assume that inferiority of women was a culturally accepted norm. This would also explain the radical nature of Socrates’ claims about women’s education. The second point to recognize is that only one difference between women and men is explicitly acknowledged – their roles in sexual reproduction. As we shall see, other aspects of the Republic indicate that it is precisely in this difference that Plato considers women inferior to men.

With these two points taken into account, it is reasonable to suppose that beliefs about women in Plato’s time were influenced by how women’s bodies were understood. The literature on this subject is myriad. Our primary understanding of Greek sexuality during the time of Plato is derived from an understanding of the dichotomy of activity and passivity. It is easy even now to understand what this means about women’s bodies. In the reproductive sexual act, men were seen as penetrators, women as the penetrated.11)11 Man dispersed his seed into a woman’s vagina, and she provided the soil for the seed to grow. Aristotle later went on to claim that the woman did not contribute any seed whatsoever to the reproductive act, her body being insufficient for the conversion of blood to semen.12)12 Even in childbirth, women were thought to have a passive role in which the child emerged from the mother’s uterus like a bird breaking out of an egg.13)13 If passivity is something undesirable to an Athenian man, and if women’s bodies naturally display passive qualities, it logically follows that women are naturally inferior. From what we now know about human biology, it is safe to say that we need not come to these conclusions about women’s bodies.14)14 Nonetheless, this was the framework of belief that was likely present during the time the Republic was written.

At first, something seems odd about this account. Perhaps it is true that Plato assumed this paradigm of sexuality, but if he held that the defining part of one’s nature is their soul, why should a woman’s body matter? To put it simply, Plato is not so much a dualist that he thinks of soul and body as occupying separate spheres. We see in the Phaedo that souls can be “permeated by the physical.”15)15 Souls are affected by the bodies they are trapped in, and it is here that Plato could understand the activities ruled by a woman’s soul to be inferior to a man’s. If we’re not already squeamish about our original reading of Plato as an egalitarian, he now goes on to describe the structure of family life in the kallipolis. It is in this description that we see the organization of a society based on Plato’s understanding of gender.

Family systems are notably absent in the city. In Plato’s polis, the process of “family life” begins with a marriage sham. The best men and women will be selected and a rigged lottery will be conducted to give the people an illusion of chance. In reality, the best men will have the best women in common as wives, and will be allowed to have sex more frequently as a reward for being good guardians. This will obviously lead to the birth of many children. Upon their birth, these children will be taken by the state to a “rearing pen,”16)16 a place where children can be raised and nursed without knowing or being known by their mothers.17)17 The reason for the communion of wives and children is essentially to ensure that the city is held together. Natural families pose a great risk to the unity of citizens in the polis. We care about our own children more than anyone else’s, and thus we have a conflict of interests. So, “the best-governed city [is] the one in which most people say ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ about the same things in the same way.”18 This includes even wives and children.

On one level, this societal arrangement is meant to function as a way to unite the city, but it also serves to negate “woman-ness” as much as possible. Biologically speaking, it is possible for a man to beget a child they will never know, thus allowing him to pursue other things in his life besides fatherhood. Women do not have this option, at least not to the same degree. Women become pregnant and must be present for childbirth, and in this way are more likely to know their children, even more so when they breastfeed. Plato’s breeding program does its utmost to ensure that this does not happen – in other words, it tries to make women as much like men as possible, “emancipating” them from filial attachment to pursue other activities. While it can be argued that this is a liberating thing for women, it is actually quite condemning. In Plato’s just city, for a woman to be free, she must become more like a man, and thus she is already defeated. In being forced to become something she is not, she is not freed, but erased.

Plato’s social plan puts the final nail in the coffin. At this point, we would be hard- pressed to describe him as someone who saw women as equal to men. While it is true that he calls for them to be educated and integrated into society, this is not without stipulation. Women are always to be regarded as inferior in all areas of life, and this was not an uncommon attitude during Plato’s time. Far from being revolutionary, it is more likely that Plato was firmly rooted in a tradition that saw women’s bodies as inferior. We see further hints of this in how he proposes to run the city – with a breeding program that eliminates both the family and the woman. In essence, he seeks to make all capable people as much like free Athenian men as possible, even at the cost of sexual difference. Plato cannot be claimed as an ally to women because his “equality” comes at the price of their negation. As it stands, this is my evaluation of Plato’s treatise on gender roles, but the conversation does not and cannot end in ancient Greece.

Sex, reproduction, and childbearing have continued to be emotionally and culturally charged topics long after Plato was gone, and his ideas have not passed away. In fact, they are being echoed strongly in modern attachments to reproductive technology. Innovations such as contraception, the birth control pill, abortion, in-vitro fertilization, and even daycare are all products of a society that seeks to make reproduction and child-rearing as convenient as possible, especially for women. While each of these modern developments evidences a connection to Plato’s ideal, it is the Pill that I believe to be the most conspicuous in this regard. What is most notable about this form of contraception is not only its differences from barrier contraceptives, but its connection to the second-wave feminism of the 1960s.

18)19 The Pill was (and is) heralded as that which would finally liberate women from their former destinies as bored housewives. Being able to control when to have children and how many children to have meant that women would no longer need to succumb to social pressures to marry and then take care of multiple children. They could spend time focusing on their education or careers instead. In a time when women’s representation in society was scarce, this “liberation” seemed enticing.

Is this starting to sound familiar? Talk of women being set free to study and work sounds a great deal like what Plato was seeking in the Republic. In his city, women were called to do what most Athenians would consider “men’s” work. They were free to do this, but only because the process of women’s reproduction was changed to more closely resemble men’s. I reiterate Plato’s scheme now to make a point – we see exactly this in the early push for use of oral contraceptives. They provided a way for women to advance in education and society. But these contraceptives suffer from the same problem as Plato’s breeding program. Consider the mechanism of the Pill itself. It is specifically designed to suppress the hormones that are responsible for the female fertility cycle.19)20 When these hormones are not released, women do not ovulate or menstruate. They are rendered almost completely sterile, and this sterility is marketed as a kind of “control.” The meaning of the Pill in itself is quite startling. Plato could only think of external ways to negate women’s bodies, but contraceptives manage to do it internally. The natural processes of a healthy woman’s body are literally crippled. Conception and birth may be controlled, but the integrity of a woman’s fertility is ultimately harmed. If we were to bring Plato into modern day, he would likely be comfortable with what the birth control pill is and what it has accomplished.

But what is even more insidious about the Pill is not only its mechanism, but how it is promoted as expression of a woman’s choice. The business of women’s contraception is inextricably bound up with language of “control” and “family planning.” These words reveal that the real push for the use of contraceptives is also caught up in our conceptions of American freedom and especially the notion of choice. But even if something is freely chosen, it does not mean it is beneficial or edifying. If we are to understand the Pill as a medical agent that negates the female body, then it is clear that the “choice” to use it is inherently misguided. Janice Raymond notes in her critique of reproductive technology that “the language of choice is compelling because it highlights a freedom that many women seldom have and a cafeteria of options disguised as self-determination.”21 Feminist movements have made great strides in affording women new choices, but not all of them are fruitful. Just as Plato’s ideal for women to be unfettered by child-rearing seems appealing at first, it is actually revealed to be anti-woman. The same holds true for the birth control pill, even if a woman freely chooses to take it.

What can be done to change circumstances for women in modern day? There are many different approaches to this question, and it will take serious thought to change our cultural assumptions about reproduction. A redefinition of “success” is where I would start. For so long, success has revolved around career and wealth, but our lives are too large for such a narrow definition. In fact, such a definition may be a contributing factor in the push for women to become more career-oriented. I wish to be clear that I am not criticizing the advancement of women in education and the workplace, but it would likely be better for men, women, and children if our definition of “success” were broad enough to acknowledge family. If loving, attentive mothers were considered to be as successful as working women (or even working mothers), the need to choose between family and career may not be as difficult. This would also be beneficial for men as it would acknowledge the importance of fatherhood, and break down some of the stigma directed towards stay-at-home dads. Nurture and childcare are often considered to be “feminine” responsibilities, but this is an ideology that devalues men’s ability to love and raise children. Putting family and career on equal footing would allow for a new middle ground, especially in marriage. Husbands and wives can enter into conversation that holds both accountable to how they would like to balance family and career.

It is good and just for women to be actively involved in every area of society, and of course women should have a say in how many children they wish to have. These are all things worth striving for, but equally important is how we strive for them. Plato’s desire to bring women into full societal participation is overshadowed by the implications of his breeding program. We cannot claim that he has proposed something good if it is aimed at subtly destroying women and then making them more like men. We see this repeated in modern day with the Pill – women’s bodies are being treated as problems that need to be fixed in order to be as competent as men. And it is not just the birth control pill that enforces this idea. Abortion on demand continues to allow women to avoid pregnancy by providing a fix for failed birth control. Daycares provide a place for children to be raised while their mothers are working. Such practices reveal exactly what we see in Plato’s breeding program: success for women in the public sphere comes at the cost of changing and devaluing their bodies. One can even go so far as to say that success is a standard defined by what is “male.” To become successful, women must become more and more like men. This can be branded as egalitarian freedom in Plato and modern discourse, but it only serves to negate women from the inside out. Until we change our society’s definition of success, this negation will continue.

 

Notes:

1 Here and throughout, I understand “egalitarianism” as a basic belief in the equality of men and women in the social and political spheres of society.

2 Plato, The Republic, 369a.
3 Ibid., 423e-424a.
4 Plato’s discussion of women seems to focus solely on the guardian class in kallipolis, ‘the beautiful city,’ and so this is assumed for the rest of the essay. Plato’s views on the societal structure of the working class are difficult to determine.
5 Plato, The Republic, 453b.
6 This does not mean that men and women are a different “species,” to borrow Aristotelian terminology. In section 453a of the Republic, Plato specifically asks whether “female human nature can share all the tasks of that of the male …” Here male and female are being used to describe a difference in the “kind” of human nature that one may have. But Plato and his friends do consider this difference to be undeniable. In section 453b, we read “‘Can you deny that a woman is by nature very different from a man?’ Of course not.”

7 Ibid., 454c.

8 Ibid., 454d.

9 Ibid., 455e, 456a.

10 Ibid., 455e.

11 Ruth Mazzo Karras, “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities,” The American Historical Review 105, no. 4 (2000), 1250-1265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2651412 (accessed November 5, 2013), 1255.
12 Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium, 727b7-12, 775a14-20. Paraphrased in Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the female body in ancient Greece, (New York: Routledge, 1998), <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/easternuni/docDetail.action?docID=5003556>, 10.
13 Ibid., 124.
14 In addition to what we now know about genetics, alternative descriptions for intercourse have also been offered that acknowledge passivity and activity in both genders, i.e. sexual intercourse as the ‘envelopment’ of the penis by the vagina.
15 Plato, Phaedo, 81c.
16 Plato, The Republic, 460c.
17 Ibid., 457c-460d.
18 Ibid., 462c.

19 There are a myriad of forms that feminism can take, but second-wave feminism refers to both general beliefs and a specific period of time. First-wave feminism is usually understood as the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Second-wave feminism as a movement pushed for women’s inclusion in the workplace, reproductive rights, and greater sexual freedom. It is generally agreed that time period of these “waves” have passed, but their ideals have lived on in modern feminist movements.20 Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Oral Contraceptives,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430752/oral-contraceptive.

21 Janice Raymond, Women as Wombs: Reproductive technologies and the battle over women’s freedom. (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), quoted in Reproductive Technology, ed. Clay Farris Naff, (Farmington Hills, MI: Greehaven Press, 2006), 213.

 

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