Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part I The Context

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:
1. Reason, (mind and intellect) which seeks the truth as its excellence;
2. Spirit, (will and volition) which seeks honor as its excellence;
3. Appetite, (desire and emotion) which seeks material goods (safety, food, drink, sex, and money).

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):
1. The Guardians, who love knowledge and truth above all. They rule the State.
2. The Auxiliaries, who love courage, honor, and their homeland above all. They defend the State.
3. The Producers, who love fruits of their labors, security, comfort, and material well-being above all. They provide the material and functional needs of the State.

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.

Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part II The Problem

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;

Socrates: Then women must be taught music and gymnastic and also the art of war, which they must practice like the men?

Glaucon: That is the inference, I suppose.

Socrates: I should rather expect, I said, that several of our proposals, if they are carried out, being unusual, may appear ridiculous.

Glaucon: No doubt of it.

Socrates: Yes, and the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia. (Rep. 452a-c).

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:

We can see that the bodies of men and women are different. Yet, is there anything about those physical differences which require that we treat the two genders unequally?

In the remaining parts of this essay, that is the question I will investigate within Plato's argument.

Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part II The Distinction

Pushing beyond appearances, Plato now addresses the real issue: what do we mean by "same" and "different"?

"....we valiantly and pugnaciously insist upon the verbal truth, that different natures ought to have different pursuits, but we never considered at all what was the meaning of sameness or difference of nature, or why we distinguished them when we assigned different pursuits to different natures and the same to the same natures."

In order to distinguish, separate, or discriminate between two types of things, we need to be able to identify some differences between them. What, then, are "differences?" How can we be sure that we have correctly identified real differences (and not merely apparent differences)?

Plato is not nit-picking here. There are many ordinary circumstances where people fail to perceive differences or perceive differences too largely. For instance, people from one culture sometimes claim that people from another culture "all look the same." This occurred recently when a sheriff in Glasgow Scotland claimed that "all Chinese people look the same" which made it easy to misidentify a suspect (see 'Chinese look same' claim backed, BBC, Monday, 23 October 2006). In defense of the sheriff's claim, a chairwoman of the Scotland-China Association added; "From my point of view, when I look at local people - the indigenous Scottish people - at first glance all of them look the same to me."

Of course, to say "all Scots look the same" is different from saying "all Scots are the same." The first claim is about appearances, the second claim is about reality beyond appearance. In fact, Chinese people do not all look the same, nor do Scots. When someone makes the "they all look the same" statement about people of a culture, they are only expressing their lack of acquaintance with those people. A few days spent in China, Scotland, Africa, or Nebraska will quickly dispel just about anyone's lack of perception of difference between individuals.

So, there are real and meaningful issues about the concepts same and different. These issues are central to Plato's entire philosophical project. Like Socrates before him, Plato was primarily concerned with whether and how human beings could arrive at meaningful definitions of our concepts. A meaningful definition would allow us to separate and distinguish things that are really different from one another, as well as to group and connect things which are essentially the same. This is the problem of the Socratic Definition, which is the heart of the Platonic dialogues. Without meaningful definitions, Plato maintains, we can have no genuine knowledge.

The problem of definition, whether we truly know what makes things different or the same, is being invoked in Book V of The Republic. Read the passage again;

"....we valiantly and pugnaciously insist upon the verbal truth, that different natures ought to have different pursuits, but we never considered at all what was the meaning of sameness or difference of nature, or why we distinguished them when we assigned different pursuits to different natures and the same to the same natures."

The issue is not only sameness and differences, but sameness and difference of nature. By "of nature," Plato is speaking of the set of attributes that define a certain kind of thing. Another word for "nature" here is "essence". Socrates and Plato argue that to know a kind of thing (i.e. to know what justice is, to know what love is, etc.) is to know the essence of that thing. Consider the following example;

Triangles are different from circles. Triangles have three angles. It is the nature of a triangle to have three angles. Circles have no angles. It is the nature of circles to have no angles. But triangles and circles also have some things in common. They are all shapes, they all have area; in these regards they are the same. But triangles and circles have essential differences (no circle is also a triangle). In Plato's terms, triangles and circles have different natures.

If this level of investigation seems deep or perhaps excessive and over-analyzing to you, then that is just a indicator of how serious Plato was about getting to the truth. He wanted to leave nothing to mere assumption or prejudice. He sought to examine every premise in the belief that reason would bring out the truth. Anything less is a tendency to accept appearances and to take the existing state of things for granted just because it seems to be so. This is a common tendency. Perhaps it is intellectual laziness, perhaps it is resistance to change, or perhaps it is an honest reliance on common-sense; but it is not the genuine and relentless pursuit of truth that Plato and Socrates insisted upon.

The relevance of this metaphysical inquiry to the question of gender equality is this:
     If different natures ought to have different pursuits
     Men are of a different nature than women
     Men and women should be treated differently, not equally.

So the all important question is:
  Is the nature of man different from the nature of women?
  Are the differences between men and women, actually differences of appearance?

Next, as he so often does, Plato illuminates this fuzzy philosophical problem with a clarifying example.

Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part IV The Analogy

If you are willing to accept that it would be a mistake to discriminate between groups of people on the basis of merely differences of appearance, and not differences of nature, then we are left with the question as to whether we can tell which kinds the differences between people are. Plato provides a clear example that helps to see this distinction;

"Suppose that by way of illustration we were to ask the question whether there is not an opposition in nature between bald men and hairy men; and if this is admitted by us, then, if bald men are cobblers, we should forbid the hairy men to be cobblers, and conversely?" (Rep. 454c)

There are certainly differences between bald men and hairy men. But are those differences at all relevant to the pursuit of cobbling (shoe-making)? It is hard to imagine making the state of one's head hair a qualifying factor in the profession of cobbling. Note that the baldness and hairiness are again instances of appearance, not of the nature of the cobbler. Or at least that is our intuition. Shortly, Plato will explain why it is that baldness and hairiness is not of the nature of the cobbler.

Plato is so resourceful in his use of imagery that he accentuates the opposition aspect of the analogy by placing the differences at one extreme of the human body (top of the head) and the objects related to the relevant pursuit at the other extreme of the human body (the feet). Nothing in Plato is superfluous and the alert reader may gain much by close attention to the textual details.

Thus, we have an example, though a trivial one, of apparent differences that are not of the nature of the pursuit in question. Please note that Plato often turns to trivial examples just because they are so easy for us to reach agreement upon. Once that agreement is gained, he uses analysis to draw out a a general principle that may be applied to non-trivial cases. Indeed, the next step that Plato takes is to posit a principle by which relevant differences may be judged

Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part V The Principle

Having given a clear example of opposite differences (bald vs. hairy) that are not relevant to qualifications for a pursuit (cobbling), Plato then draws a general principle that explains our intuition about that example;

"....we never meant when we constructed the State, that the opposition of natures should extend to every difference, but only to those differences which affected the pursuit in which the individual is engaged; we should have argued, for example, that a physician and one who is in mind a physician may be said to have the same nature." (Rep. 454c).

The differences that matter to the qualifications for a pursuit (e.g. a job, a profession, a responsibility) must actually have an impact on the pursuit in question. Being bald or hairy has no logical or practical connection to cobbling (shoemaking). Plato now gives an example of a sameness of nature, in which the opposition of differences does have impact on the pursuit. The example involves the qualifying characteristics of a physician. A person who seeks to perform as a physician should also be a person who has the knowledge and skill of a physician (one who is in mind a physician). Knowledge of the physician's craft is relevant to the pursuit of the physician. Most other differences between individuals are not relevant to the pursuit of the physician; not baldness, not shoe size, and not appearance. When your life is on the line, you want the person who knows what to do. Other differences will be trivial, if that person is qualified to save your life. The relevant opposition of differences in this case is knowledge of healing vs. ignorance of healing.

It is interesting to note that this example has direct relevance to the history of women and the history of medicine. Throughout history the role of the physician has been tightly controlled by authorities. In their 1972 book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English document cases in which women were punished (even killed) for practicing medicine, often on the basis that their treatments were successful! In Plato's terms, a person who has the knowledge and skill of a physician (one who is in mind a physician) could be punished because she was a woman.

"The establishment of medicine as a profession, requiring university training, made it easy to bar women legally from practice. With few exceptions, the universities were closed to women (even to upper class women who could afford them), and licensing laws were established to prohibit all but university-trained doctors from practice. It was impossible to enforce the licensing laws consistently since there was only a handful of university-trained doctors compared to the great mass of lay healers. But the laws could be used selectively. Their first target was not the peasant healer, but the better off, literate woman healer who competed for the same urban clientele as that of the university-trained doctors.

Take, for example, the case of Jacoba Felicie, brought to trial in 1322 by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, on charges of illegal practice. Jacoba was literate and had received some unspecified "special training" in medicine. That her patients were well off is evident from the fact that (as they testified in court) they had consulted well-known university-trained physicians before turning to her. The primary accusations brought against her were that she would cure her patient of internal illness and wounds or of external abscesses. She would visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine the urine in the manner of physicians, feel the pulse, and touch the body and limbs.

Six witnesses affirmed that Jacoba had cured them, even after numerous doctors had given up, and one patient declared that she was wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than any master physician or surgeon in Paris. But these testimonials were used against her, for the charge was not that she was incompetent, but that—as a woman—she dared to cure at all." (Ehrenreich, Barbara and English, Deirdre, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1972).

This is the complete inverse of Plato's argument. Knowledge and skill at healing are of the nature of being a physician. Gender and matters of appearance have no weight at all, by Plato's principle.

Ehrenreich and English argue that the long and brutal persecution of women healers in Europe and America resulted in the modern dominance of men in medicine; a situation that is only now starting to change.

Next, Plato applies his principle to the situation at hand, the status of women in the ideal State.

Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part VI The Application

From his argument and examples in Book V of The Republic, Plato has establish a principle of relevant differences;

"the opposition of natures should extend...only to those differences which affected the pursuit in which the individual is engaged." (Rep. 454c).

He then sets to the task of applying that principle to the question of whether women should follow the same pursuits (careers, activities, responsibilities) as men.

"And if the male and female sex appear to differ in their fitness for any art or pursuit, we should say that such pursuit or art ought to be assigned to one or the other of them; but if the difference consists only in women bearing and men begetting children, this does not amount to a proof that a woman differs from a man in respect of the sort of education she should receive; and we shall therefore continue to maintain that our guardians and their wives ought to have the same pursuits." (Rep. 454d-e).

Look back to the example that Plato uses as an analogy and you will see that the relevance of baldness/hairiness to cobbling is like the relevance of bearing/begetting to education. Neither of these oppositions of difference has any essential affect upon the pursuit in question. Both oppositions must be ruled as mere appearances by Plato's principle.

Unless someone can demonstrate an essential opposition of differences between men and women that is relevant to higher pursuits, then it follows that the relevant capabilities for all forms of education, all careers, and all levels of social responsibility are as potentially present in woman as they are in men. From this point Plato concludes that women should be able to serve in all functions of society, including the defense of the State and top political leadership.

Plato's reasoning is sound. Especially so since the possible grounds for refuting his conclusions are made clear (great thinkers always provide readers with the means to test and refute them). Still, most of Western history has rejected Plato's conclusions without honestly refuting his arguments. For me, this stands as stark testament to the grip that appearance has on our cultures throughout most of history. Plato's radical message remains powerful to the present: unless we reform our personal lives and our societal structures, we shall persist in a state of ignorance and injustice.

And yet, what of the naked women in the gymnasia?

Plato: Women in the Ideal State - Part VII The Conclusion

Recall in the beginning of this investigation Socrates and Glaucon were noticing how ridiculous it would be to have women exercising naked along side of men in the gymnasia. The oddness of that image seemed to rule out the equal education of women. But then, Plato (in the voice of Socrates) began his argument. Here, then, is the result of that argument;

"Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defense of their country; only in the distribution of labors the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking a fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; --for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base." (Rep. 457a-b).

Please read that passage aloud at least three times. No analysis or commentary that I could offer will convey these complex ideas and images with the power that Plato imbues in them.

"their virtue will be their robe"

"in his laughter he is plucking a fruit of unripe wisdom"

"he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about"

"the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base"

Do these words resonate for you with insight and mastery of communication as they do for me? If so, then you share with me an experience of the richness that Plato brings to thought and that philosophy creates for human potential.

The metaphor of nakedness as the striping away of appearances and prejudices imposed by society upon nature reveals Plato's deep intent. This position of total gender equality is a radical claim bound to be dismissed by his contemporaries. In anticipation of that rejection, Plato is asserting that it is society itself that must be challenged. It turns out that not just Plato's society needs challenge, but yours and mine. The norms and conventions of our culture are based in appearances, not natures (reality). Enforcing such norms creates an unnatural and corrupted society. Only by the courage to face truth through reason and to accept the consequences of change based in reason, can the society be redeemed. Otherwise, the culture and the people in it are doomed to ignorance, injustice, and repression of the fulfillment of human potential.

The theme of appearance vs reality is pervades The Republic and Plato's work generally. The most famous statement of that issue is The Allegory of the Cave which is also in The Republic.