Plato as a Proto-Feminist
Edward C. DuBois*
This essay is not an attempt to portray the ancient Greek philosopher as a modern feminist writer, nor to suggest that he held completely enlightened views on women. However, it is an attempt to depict Plato as what I call a "proto-feminist," an ancient or early author/thinker who, despite cultural and societal beliefs to the contrary, promoted or endorsed beliefs dealing with the equality of women to men in key aspects regarding social status and function. In order to do this, I have referenced pertinent selections from Plato's Republic Book V as well as articles from modern feminist scholars dealing with the issue of Plato and women.
It can be said without reservation that the ancient Greeks held a rather low opinion of women. They were expected to be passive homebodies, concerning themselves with domestic tasks as a whole, but especially the bearing and raising of children. Some men, though, would even deny women this vital role. In The Eumenides, Aischylos’ Apollo tells us that: “The parent is he who mounts. A stranger she [the mother] preserves a stranger’s seed…”. Whether this current of thought is accurately represented by this statement, or whether it has been exaggerated for effect, is hard to determine. Nevertheless, it points to an abysmally low estimation of the roles and value of Greek women. We can find sufficient corroborating evidence not only in other Greek dramas (Sophokles’ Antigone, for instance) but also in the comic works of Aristophanes – the idea that women would act to effect political or social change would be ridiculous and unbelievable to an ancient Greek audience. Indeed, much of Aristophanes’ humor draws on the near-absurd boldness of such plotlines coupled with the juxtaposition of accepted gender roles (e.g. Lysistrata, Ekklesiazusai, and Thesmophoriazusai).
However, other literary depictions of Greek women seem to hold them in a higher regard than we might first believe. In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest works of Greek poetry, women are permitted to attend the song recitals and the drinking-parties known as symposia; as Jeffrey Henderson writes, “…indeed the first attested audience-reaction comes from Penelope [the wife of Odysseus]” . Penelope is also shown as intelligent, loyal, and chaste while she awaits her husband’s return from the Trojan War. Moreover, Queen Arete of Scheria (an island which Odysseus encounters in his travels) is granted a high degree of political influence over her husband the king… it is she whom Odysseus must first win over in his search for assistance from the islanders. It is also important for our discussion to realize where Scheria falls in relation to Odysseus’ homeland of Ithaka, which is ruled solely by men, and the islands of the mythical sorceresses Circe and Calypso, which are controlled solely by women. Scheria occupies a unique middle ground, in which a woman is still considered less equal than a man but is far better off than in either of the two extreme examples… they are not totally suppressed, but they are not totally free (and thus considered wicked or immoral) either . It is with this note in mind that I turn to the focus of this essay.
The writings of the philosopher Plato have been analyzed, critiqued, and interpreted in countless ways over the past two millennia. However, his Republic still stands out as an intellectual hallmark of Greek socio-political commentary and a prescriptive utopian vehicle. We need not confine the basic elements of Platonic thought to Platonic times, especially when we consider the roles and status of women in our own modern societies. Regarding this topic, Plato is surprisingly forward-thinking and appears in stark contrast to many contemporary currents of thought (as well as many which preceded and followed him).
Plato begins this discourse in Book V of the Republic by referring to an earlier fundamental principle of that work, namely that jobs and functions in an ideal state ought to be distributed according to one’s nature, inclination, and capability . He then inquires into their natures and capabilities, and asks if anything aside from physiology separates men and women; he soon concludes not. He feels that they are endowed equally with “natural capacities” for all “administrative occupations,” including the Guardianship (rule) of the city as well as its defense, and that there is no sufficient difference between them to justify the exclusion of women from the most important duties of the state . He does believe, though, that since women are traditionally the physically weaker of the sexes, nature also dictates they be given a “lighter share” of these duties in keeping with their (assumed) level of strength .
In order to arrive at this ideal, Plato advocates a system of equal education for men and women being raised as Auxiliaries (soldiers) and Guardians (philosopher-rulers): “‘Well then, to make a woman into a Guardian we presumably need the same education as we need to make a man into one, especially as it will operate on the same nature in both.’” Moreover, he suggests that women ought to be allowed to exercise naked in the gymnasia (athletic training-grounds) alongside the men as part of their physical education regimen, to keep them healthy and fit for military service: “[o]ur women Guardians must strip for exercise, then – their excellence will be all the clothes they need,”. Plato is quite confident that any potential critics will be silenced once they see the quality of women which his system will produce.
Admittedly, though, Plato does exhibit several biases towards women which were characteristic of his cultural and historical situation. Feminist scholars such as Christine Garside Allen are quick to remind us of some of the most salient - that in the Timaeus dialogue, for example, Plato posits that cowardly or immoral men are reborn as women, or that the Republic itself includes education for women not out of any altruistic/proto-feminist standpoint, but rather because their physical weakness and disposition make them resort to trickery and deception, which are dangerous to the cohesion of the state . Allen maintains that Plato holds a consistent (negative) view of women as inferior beings and any questions about his proto-feminism can be answered by appealing to his metaphysics, in which women (considered only in regards to their soul) must necessarily be afforded the same opportunities to strive for the Platonic goal of “Knowledge of The Good” as their male counterparts. Allen also posits a second theory of interpretation, believing that any supposedly feminist statements could be addressed by Plato’s political views; indeed, a central idea of his political schema is that civil discord is to be avoided at all costs . This interpretation states that Plato would only want to include women in order to placate them and avoid any possible sources of turbulence in the city. In addition, Allen holds that Plato's use of myth in the Timaeus is commensurate with an idea regarding mythology advanced by the scholar Paul Friedlander, specifically his “third level of mythological usage” (which states that mythology is intended to clarify some of the mysterious aspects of life, and render as understandable things which cause us considerable consternation) . In this regard, Plato’s Timaeus could be considered just another attempt to explain a “natural” question for the Greeks.
Prima facie, Allen's position seems well-argued. However, it is clear that she overlooks points which scholars like Wendy Brown are quick to pick up on: namely, that Platonic writings refer to "truth" as a female, and that those souls which ultimately reach The Good are female as well. That is, Plato uses the feminine pronoun to refer to them. Brown believes that these are indications of a Platonic attempt to subvert the masculine Greek discourse of the time, though not necessarily from a totally feminist standpoint . Rather, he uses these references metaphorically to bolster his conception of philosophy: "[t]he ephemeral, mad, speechless, erotic, procreative, and blessed nature of true philosophic insight in Plato's account culminates in an opposition to maleness, to socially male characteristics of mind and action.". A supporting idea, advanced by Brown, is that of Sokrates as acting "womanly" in his admonishment and reproach of wayward Athenians and his rejection of the traditional conceptions of power (power which tends to abstract the individual, rather than concentrate on him and his personal development) and justice (the Homeric justice of the strong lording over the weak) .
Plato was by no means a feminist author or thinker in the modern sense of the term. He obviously held women in a lower regard than men, and not just by a "natural" argument for physical strength. Rather, he appears to advocate a “proto-feminist” viewpoint. This term is best defined as "an ancient or early thinker who, despite cultural and societal beliefs to the contrary, promotes or endorses ideas dealing with the equality of women to men in key such as social status and/or function." We need only refer to our above evidence to see this is true. And, it is difficult to believe that Plato would depict his most beloved concepts in this way if he held any meaningful amount of enmity towards women.
Of course, we cannot be absolutely certain of Plato’s views… such knowledge would be impossible without interviewing the philosopher himself. But, through careful analyses of his writings, we can certainly glean out ideas which paint him as a proto-feminist. If this is indeed true, it means that there were serious attempts at promoting at least some kind of social equality for Greek women outside of ridiculous "comedic atmospheres" like those found in the works of Aristophanes. There has been much scholarly activity on the topic of Platonic feminism, and more debate needs to follow in order to fully explore this arena of thought. However, even with the brief analysis contained in this essay, the scales seem to lean in favor of a vein of Platonic feminism, if only in a crude and nascent form.
1. Aeschylus,“The Eumenides,” in Aeschylus I: Oresteia, trans. Richmond Lattimore. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953), lines 660-61.
2. Jeffrey Henderson,“Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals,” Transactions of the American Philological Association v. 121 (1991): 137.
3. Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. p. 55.
4. Plato,The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee. London: Penguin, 2003. 369e-370d
5. Ibid. 454e-457a
6. Ibid. 457b
7. Ibid, 456d and 457b, respectively
8. Christine Garside Allen,"Plato on Women," Feminist Studies v. 2, No.2/3, (1975):135-36.
10. Ibid. pp. 133-34
11. Wendy Brown,"'Supposing Truth Were a Woman': Plato's Subversion of Masculine Discourse," Political Theory v.16, No.4 (1988): 594-598.
12. Ibid. p. 608
13. Ibid. p. 597-99 and p. 596-97, respectively
Aeschylus.“The Eumenides” in Aeschylus I: Oresteia, trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1953. 158.
Allen, Christine Garside. “Plato on Women.” Feminist Studies v.2, No. 2/3 (1975): 131-138.
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Brown, Wendy. "'Supposing Truth Were a Woman': Plato's Subversion of Masculine Discourse." Political Theory v. 16, No. 4 (1988): 594- 616.
Henderson, Jeffrey.“Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals.” Transactions of the American Philological Association v. 121 (1991): 133-147
Plato. The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee. London: Penguin, 2003.
About the Author
*Edward C. DuBois is a senior at SUNY Albany and will graduate in May 2007 with a B.A. in Classical Studies. His interests include Greek and Roman civilization (mainly history, language, and philosophy) as well as classical music, drawing, reading, writing, and humor. He plans to pursue a career in education and politics, but would also like to explore professional options in the fields of drawing and cartooning. [Return]
Edited by Xinxin Jiang and Sarah Whipple.
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