Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part I
Plato's book, The Republic, deals with practical issues such as the nature of justice, the human condition, and the basis of societal order and political power. It is a treasure trove of ideas and has long been a central work in Western literature.
In The Republic, Plato speaks through Socrates who is holding forth in discussion at a dinner party. In the course of the discussion, Socrates and his young companions, Glaucon and Adeimantus, establish by careful argument that Justice is something real and objective (not merely a social convention or personal convenience).
Present throughout this work is the juxtaposition of appearance and reality. Plato is ever eager to show us that we cannot judge truth on the basis of what appears to be so. We need reason and questioning to get beyond appearance and closer to truth. Often in the dialogues it becomes clear that getting beyond appearances will require reforming our lives. For Socrates and Plato, the search for truth is not an idle intellectual game; it is the proper pursuit of a being endowed with intellect and a soul. The nobles of Athens seem to have understood the seriousness of Socrates' project as well, for they executed him rather than allow his arguments concerning the need for personal change.
In The Republic, Plato presents a political theory upon which the ideal State (i.e. society or political order) should be based. That theory posits that any human individual is at their best when they are pursuing what they are most capable of; for instance, an athlete should pursue physical excellence, an artisan should pursue excellent in their craft, and a leader should pursue justice.
In order for an individual to pursue their personal excellence, it is crucial that the parts of their soul are in proper balance. Plato argues, there are three major aspects of the soul:
The well-ordered State, reasons Plato, is a larger instance of the model provided by the soul. The most excellent or ideas state is one in which the basic parts are in proper balance with one another. In Plato's model, there are three main classes in the ideal State (note how they correspond to the parts of the individual soul):
We could tell that the parts of a State were well balanced when all of the citizens within the State were pursuing their personal excellence. Conversely, if we find that some people ruled by the State are prevented from pursuing what they are naturally endowed to do, then we must conclude that the State is out of balance and the society needs reform.
Thus Plato establishes his theory and description of an ideal State. It is not a democracy and it has a strict class system. The question soon arises in the discussion as to what the proper role of women in the society must be. This comes up because it seems obvious that men of all three classes must have wives. How could those women belong to any of the social classes stipulated unless they were endowed with the capabilities for the pursuits belonging to that class? In other words; how could a woman belong to the Auxiliary class unless she had sufficient courage and honor? How could a woman belong to the Guardian class unless she had knowledge and wisdom? Perhaps women make up a separate class or several separate classes.
Plato's answer to this question must have been extremely shocking in his time. Indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century, Plato's views about woman can only be seen as radical. In ancient Athens, women were not considered citizens at all. Some women were mere property. There is little to indicate that women were accorded any equality, respect of intellect, or civil rights. All the same, we know of ancient women who were highly intellectual, creative, or powerful. Those that did succeed must have done so in spite of their social environment, and not by any fairness or enlightened attitude on the part of the culture (see The Historical Women of Philosophy resource at the left for an investigation of ancient and later female philosophers).
One might answer Plato's unusual inquiry into the status of women by pointing out that 'things just are the way they are and, so far as we know, have always been so.' This is an appeal to tradition. Many people favor this form of reasoning. It seems to such people that to even question the structure and practices of society is presumptuous. They sometimes call themselves Realists and ridicule those who challenge the status-quo as starry-eyed Idealists.
Plato is certainly an idealist. On his view, neither tradition nor social agreement is sufficient to justify our social rules and conventions. This is why Plato seeks a description of the Ideal State. The ideal society is a conception of what might be and what ought to be. Such a conception cannot be grounded merely in observations of what is and what has been. Therefore, Plato's inquiry into the status of women in society is not an incidental or side issue in Plato's political theory. Rather, he is forcing the issue in a radical way in order to challenge the foundations of his contemporary culture.
Next, consider how Plato sets up the problem to be investigated.
|2002© Jon Dorbolo|