Is Plato a Feminist?
Plato and Feminism
Plato to a certain extent espoused the feminists’ view of women being equal to men. Some of Plato’s views on The Republic support this claim particularly in book 5 where Plato tackles on Socrates’ view that women make potential good guardians or philosopher-rulers of the state. His assertion that a person should be judged on his or her soul and not on external appearance is the basis for this claim.
Plato’s view on feminism is further entrenched by the views he held 1) that woman’s biology ought not to settle the question of her destiny and (2) that women’s intelligence and reason ought to be called upon in the running of the state. These two served as the basis for believing that to a certain extent Plato supports the feminists’ views.
In book 5, Plato discusses the possibility of equality among men and women. He does not want to limit the woman’s role as merely inferior to that of man. Just because the women’s bodies are made differently do not necessarily follows that it would make them different from and inferior to men. As a matter of fact, Plato believes that some women are capable of being equal to the best of men if not superior. Due to that, the best state must provide women the opportunity to govern. This chance should not be withhold upon women on the basis of gender alone.
In Book 5 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that women have the makings of becoming effective guardians or having the ability to fulfill the role of philosopher-rulers of the state just like men. This view might be unpopular even opposed by most men during Plato’s time because this was not the custom uphold in that period of Athenian society and history. Women were then treated as properties and often viewed as inferior to men in status.
This view on the equality of men and women preached by Plato must have took his contemporaries by surprise. What makes it even more surprising is the fact that those who are familiar with Plato know his tendency to be undemocratic and antiegalitarian. This simply means that Plato does not believe in equality in social functions. He explicitly adheres to the view that one class of people is presumably superior to other classes. Plato’s inegalitarianism view further stresses that some people are by nature equipped to rule, others assist them, and still others to be ruled. This concept entails that there are different natures, found in different kinds of souls.
In keeping with Plato’s view on inegalitarianism, he delineates the principles behind a society rooted in justice: 1) different kinds of people have different natures and 2) both individuals and the state are best served if people perform the functions for which their natures, complemented by the appropriate education, best suit them. People need other people because one could not everything well. As a matter of fact, everyone can only do one thing well. Justice is existence of harmony in such conditions. It necessarily follows then that Plato believes that by virtue of justice men and women are supposed to fulfill different responsibilities and functions which are not necessarily determined by their gender. Gender therefore is irrelevant to the state of soul of a person. The soul is an innate aspect of the person, one which is not dictated upon by society or gender but by the individual inclinations or the manifestations of the soul. The person is born with the kind of soul he or she has and her/his amount of responsibility depends on the type of soul he/she has whether ruler, auxiliary or multitude. For instance, if a man and woman have a physician’s soul then they have the same nature regardless of the fact that they don’t have the same gender.
In book 5 of the Republic Socrates maintains that there is no reason women should be excluded among the philosopher-rulers. This is in consonance with the principle that “different pursuits to different natures and the same to the same”. A man’s virtue then is not brought about by his sex. Virtue is virtue regardless of the person’s gender.
Plato asserts that no facts about a person’s body imply facts about the person’s nature or soul. Even if some bodily facts reveal something about the person’s nature, their sexuality is not one of these facts. Plato then believes that the soul/body distinction allow him to “see beyond” a person’s sex. The soul and body then are two different kind of things.
The reason why this statement is considered contradictory is due to the fact that he often makes comments on what he viewed as the shortcomings of womanhood. Plato often utilizes the female gender as a way to stress his philosophical point. Plato adheres to the belief that the soul is more important than the body. Paying too much attention to bodies will corrupt the soul. As an example to this he points to the women as the embodiment of corrupted souls. Women are believed to be the vain kind. They are believed to be more interested in the pursuit of beautifying one’s appearance instead of enriching the soul. Women also, more often than not, allow emotions to overpower their reason. This is the weakness Plato is pointing out in his examples that he believes is often embodied by a woman. Women have the tendency to use emotion rather than reason. “A woman , young or old or wrangling with her husband, defying heaven, loudly boasting, fortunate in her own conceit, or involved in misfortune or possessed by grief and lamention” provides a poor role model for a young man and the worse model is “a woman that is sick, in love or in labor” (Republic 395).
According to Plato to have more concern for the body than the soul is to act like a woman. The opposing views that Plato holds on women are due partly to his drive to make a clear distinction between the soul and the body and not necessarily on the gender of the person. It is not an assessment of the sex of a person but rather on preaching on the significance of soul as personalized by the characteristics of men and women.
In order for Plato’s pronouncements to be consistent it necessary to separate Plato’s prejudice against women from other forms of oppression. This is the irony that Plato presents despite being dubbed as the first feminist philosopher.
As previously pointed out, Plato sees the soul and body as two different things. Souls are not visible, cannot be observed through senses and could not be decayed. Bodies on the other hand are visible, seen by the senses and undergo decay. Socrates summarizes this distinction in Phaedo
“(The soul is) most like that which is divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble and ever self-consistent and invariable, whereas (the) body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, dissoluble and never self-consistent.
The soul not is different kind from the body, it can exist without it. At death, the invisible, indissoluble soul separates from the visible decaying body (Phaedo 64c, 67d; Gorgias 524b; Laws 828e, 927a).
The dialogues point out important lessons about the soul and the body that supports the fact that Plato does not judge a person’s soul through gender. Being a philosopher-ruler is not determined by the kind of body one has which is either male of female. This is so because as what Plato pointed above, the state of one soul is separate from the body and the former can exist without the latter. The soul is independent from the body. The state of the body does not and will not determine the state of the person’s soul.
This position suggesting that women be allowed to govern the polis, as expected, elicited unfavorable response even for the democrats of Athens. Plato does not attempt to make political assertions though. The premise of such concept is based on its logical and metaphysical implications. In short, he was merely pointing out a basic truth otherwise overlooked by his contemporaries and that is, the sex is irrelevant to the state of the soul of the individual.
It does not subscribe to existing arguments on equality. Plato never attempted to convince the democrats to allow women to help formulate the policies of the state. Ironically, his assertion is derived from two metaphysical arguments that emphasize inequality: 1). People are by nature different and because of that should be educated separately to be able to assume different roles in the polis. 2). People with special skills can spot particular talents or skills that are vital in a specific pursuits, these people should become leaders. To sum it all up, the arguments that support equality of some women to some men are the same arguments needed to establish the inequality of some women to some men.
Plato’s eqalitarianism may stress that women are as fit to rule as men. Yet his inegalitarianism view points out the fact that people play different roles as some are made to rule, others to help the rulers and still others to be ruled. This means that souls may be equal and distinct such as being a male or female but that does not discount the fact that there are different kinds of souls. Or that the souls are made for different functions but not necessarily affected by the gender of the person.
This simply means that we cannot tell from the kind of body a person has the kind of soul he or she has. Both souls of men and women maybe meant to rule, others to help rule and still others be subject to rule but the body does not reveal the kind of soul by virtue of his being male or female alone.
Being male and female therefore is irrelevant to the soul you have. The physical self does not reveal the kind of soul one has. This argument stressing equality between men and women could undermine his own inegalitarian view which espoused the inequality among the philosopher-rulers, supporters and the majority. Pointing out the irrelevance of sexual identity is a contradiction to the idea that people could belong to groups. Since Plato believes that souls need to be grouped according to their skills or natural abilities, the elimination of gender in choosing the grouping somehow contradicts the idea of grouping.
The dialogue in The Republic provides a way to escape this perceived dualism or the irony in Plato’s preaching. Firstly, the philosopher-kings and queens are equipped with the special skills from training and nature “to distinguish the baseborn from the trueborn” (Republic 536), and the welfare of the state depends on this capacity.
For when the knowledge necessary to make such discriminations is lacking in individual or state, they unawares employ at random for any of these purposes the crippled and baseborn natures, as their friends or rulers (Republic 536).
The rulers’ duty to “assign(ing) to each the status due to his nature” is described as a delicate task and should be handled with the greatest care. As a matter of fact, they must be ready to confront the painful and even “thrust (their own sons) out among the artisans or the farmers” if they do not have their parent’s nature (Repbulic 415).
To put it simply, philosopher-rulers have the skill and nature to spot potential guardians or philosopher-rulers. They can also tell which talents are needed to accomplish a certain task.
Secondly, even though Plato stresses that we can’t see from the person’s gender the kind of soul he or she has but still, how one conducts himself or herself is revealed by his/her body. Thus, although nature is not revealed through gender, it is revealed through the activities a person does.
Plato always looks into the way philosophers should conduct themselves and what activities they accomplish. This is a crucial requirement in the development of a philosopher’s souls. He believes that those with special skills behave differently from others that is why he continuously stresses the need for education. Philosophers-in-training need to be tested over and over again to see if their souls are up to the task from the littlest to the biggest things. They must continuously check themselves or subject themselves to discipline to be able to develop their natural skills. For instance, to see if they remain “immune to such witchcraft and preserve (their) composure throughout,” demonstrating their skill to become good guardians or rulers of themselves and the culture they received (Republic 413).
While one’s body can be an obstacle to the proper functioning of the soul of a philosopher, a woman is a philosopher will by her nature avoid the entrapments brought about by her own body; and her education, which is the same as that of her male equals, will strengthen her natural resolve. Thus whatever differences there are between men and women are irrelevant when it comes to qualification for the guardianship of the state. The following quote from Book 5 of Plato’s The Republic best captures the essence of Plato’s view on feminism:
“We see now why Plato’s example of carpenter (Republic 454) is so telling: Socrates is trying to get Glaucon to understand that if we think carefully about who is fit to be a ruler of the state, what matters is not whether you are male or female but what kinds of pursuits you are suited for, what kinds of activities you can do well, and how you respond to challenges to self-control. What matters is not what kind of body you have, but what you do with it, and how well you can control it. If you have the kind of soul that a carpenter does, you don’t have the kind of soul a ruler does; both rulers and ruled might be male or female. We can only tell that some women have the souls of philosopher-rulers if they do what philosopher-rulers do and not what carpenters say or male or female slaves do.”
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