Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part II
Given the necessity of addressing the status of woman in the Ideal State, Plato presents an extended argument from which he concludes that women should be educated in the same subjects and degree as men. You may follow this argument in the text of Book V of The Republic (only the section of Book V that deals with women is given here. For the whole text, see the resources on the left).
That women should be educated equally with men is a shocking conclusion, relative to the conditions of ancient Athenian culture. Indeed, this was a radical idea in Europe and the United States, until very recently. Note that in the U.S., the role of women in the military is still being debated. 2,300 years ago Plato boldly asserted that women may take full military duties along with all other aspects of society. Simply ask around and you will be able to find numerous people today who reject Plato's claim of gender equality.
In this brief analysis, I want to consider the structure of part of Plato's argument and the relevance of this argument to his over-all theme of contrasting appearance with reality.
Plato (speaking through the character of Socrates) recapitulates the main assertion;
Plato realizes that reasoning is not sufficient to bring most people to recognize a truth. Thus, he inserts the idea of appearance into the issue. He says; "several of our proposals, if they are carried out, being unusual, may appear ridiculous." If we follow the argument that he has given up to this point, we may be able to see that the proposals (e.g. educating women) are logically not ridiculous. Yet people are often more influenced by appearances than by reasoned truths. Plato's proposals will appear ridiculous because they conflict with the conventional practices and prejudices of the existing culture (i.e. appearances). Plato further emphasizes this theme by making a point of the appearance of naked women in the gymnasia. Exercise was part of Athenian education. Men frequently exercised together in the nude. If women were to join the men in education, then presumably they would exercise nude as well. Athenians, as most Americans, would think this absurd.
Now, whether men and women exercise together in the nude is not by itself the important question. If this is a problem, then solutions can be easily found (e.g. wear some clothes). Rather, Plato is making an important point by using an image, as he so often does. By focusing on the nakedness of men and women (especially as they strive to improve their bodies), he is emphasizing the role of appearance in the issue of equality and difference. When we strip male and female down to the skin, we have only the differences of appearance and body before us. Stripping away the clothes is symbolic of removing all of the assumptions that the culture puts upon the genders. This leaves us to question the real differences between woman and man, setting aside the differences that are created by appearance.
Stripped bare, the central question (as I construct it) that Plato gives to us is this:
In the remaining parts of this essay, that is the question I will investigate within Plato's argument.
|2002© Jon Dorbolo|