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Women in Plato’s Republic – The Women of an Ideal State

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  • Category: Plato

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Plato, the son of wealthy and influential Athenian parents, began his philosophical career as a student of Socrates. Plato was well educated and had a reputation for being rewarded for his bravery in battle. 1 After the execution of his educator, Plato was discouraged by Athenian politics. In an attempt to improve the political system of his city, Plato published over 30 dialogues examining the positive and negative aspects of different forms of government and the social standards that result from each. His most famous work, the Republic, is a documentation of justice according to Plato and the incorporation of his ideas into forming an ideal city.

Written through various conversations, led by Socrates, Plato examines the foundation of cities and their politics in order to determine which factors needed to be adjusted. Among these, Plato included discussions on knowledge, education and the important virtues (such as wisdom, courage and moderation). 3 Nonetheless, a topic that shocked Plato’s contemporaries and scholars (and remained to do so, until recently), are his proposals of women.

While Book V of the Republic, a section devoted to Plato’s beliefs on the placement of women in society and politics, contains ideas that are more revolutionary than those of any other major philosophical writer, Plato presents the reader with unresolvable enigma. 5 Plato claims that since, given the same education and training, women do not differ from men and in order to produce an ideal society it is mandatory to exonerate men of their private possessions, such as wives and children, that women should be included in the group of guardians; however, these claims are far from an early form of feminism and equality.

Compared to the women of Sparta (the other major Greek city-state),6 the status of Athenian women was minimal. Women of Athens were not expected to be educated, never learned to read or write, and were merely a step above the slaves of the city state. Women’s lives were based around marriage and domestic life. 7 Women were to become wives, not to provide pleasure for the men of the house, but to bear legitimate children and be the faithful guardian of the household. 8 Therefore, women, and their children, were a possession with zero societal influence and political clout.

Plato, unlike philosophers of his time, viewed women as able to contribute to the common good based on his theory that the nature of women does not demand women have different occupations from men. Despite societal standards of ancient Athens and speaking highly revolutionary for his time, Plato argues in Book V that if young girls and boys were trained identically, their abilities as adults would be practically the same. 9 Despite the one obvious physical difference, that “the females bear children while the males beget them,”10 the Republic reminds the reader that each individual should be doing the job they are fitted for by nature.

Through Socrates’ comparison of bald and long haired cobblers and doctors and carpenter12 he shows that the soul of a human in a certain profession has the soul for that profession, no matter what sex. Without acknowledging biological or physical dissimilarity between men and women, for the first time in philosophical writings, Plato groups the two together, simply absorbing the female into male nature. 13 According to Plato, the largest downfall to any society is a man’s concentration on his personal possessions, causing a lack of regard for the body and the whole community.

Plato regarded the maintenance of a temperate attitude towards property as essential for the security and well-being of the state. 14 Not only does extreme emphasis on private property cause issues among a man’s fellow citizens, but also with neighboring states. 15 The Republic suggests that the abolition of possession and a concentration on common interests among citizens is the only way to avoid the dissolve of unity.

“And when all the citizens rejoice and are pained by the same successes and failures, doesn’t this sharing of pleasures and pains bind the city together? 16 Since the guardian class is proposed to lead by example, they must live up to the ideal of common property and interests. 17 As stated prior to the discussion specifically of women in Book V, Book IV suggests, “Friends posses everything in common. “18 Plato suggests that the way by which the guardian class is to set the example of sharing common good amongst friends is through the abolition of their own possessions, meaning the equalization of, in addition to land and wealth, their women and children. 19 Communal ownership is the phrase of Plato’s ideal city.

Plato’s ideal state, based on community, was to be governed by a guardian class, which would encompass the well-educated, mature citizens. 20 This group would be the foundation for the spread of Plato’s ideals. 21 Like earlier discussed, all property would be communal and the ideals of these citizens would be common from one to another. Likewise, women would not be the possession of the men; rather females would also be in the position of guardian. Children would be brought up by the city, via these guardians, as opposed to their biological parents.

From this group, these ideal offspring, all well educated and unattached from materialism would spread until eventually they became the basis of the population. 22 It is not necessarily this, as Plato’s idea, that was as revolutionary as the promotion of women to the same level of guardians as their male counter-parts. “Then women of this sort must be chosen along with men of the same sort to live with them and share their guardianship, seeing that they are adequate for the task and akin to men in nature.

It would have been entirely possible for Plato to simply include females in the ‘community of wives and children,’ without granting them the position of guardians. 24 However, it is their given title that makes Plato’s challenge of Athenian life appear as a protest against women’s subordination. After examining Plato’s description of like souls in men and women and his desire to have female guardians in the ideal state, the reader may lean toward the belief that Plato produced an initial movement toward feminism, or the incorporation and equalization of women in all aspects of a community.

However, it is apparent upon further examination that this may not be the case. According to Plato, the aim of the true art of ruling is not the welfare or in the best interests of any single class or section, but rather the greatest possible happiness of the entire community. 25 Throughout Book V it is mentioned that, undoubtedly, women are the weaker sex, inferior to men in every way, even with traditions that have always been female-oriented. 26 To Plato, women are simply, to that point, an untapped supply with which the use of would produce a heightened resource base for the community.

By no means is Book V an attempt to improve the life of Athenian women, it is simply a description of one possible alteration to society that could help lead to Plato’s ideal city. As previously observed, Plato discusses the alike souls of men and women; however, he at not point claims the lone usefulness of any woman. According to Plato, men are better equipped mentally and physically, and can beat women in all fields, debating this by asking in such a way that the reader would never dispute.

“Do you know of anything practiced by human beings in which the male sex isn’t superior to the female in all these ways? 27 While Plato does allow that not all men are better than all women,28 he not only belittles the female presence in more traditionally male-oriented positions (referring to a poor soldier as “small-minded and womanish”29), but also claiming the conventional domestic roles of women (“weaving, baking cakes and cooking vegetables”)30 are better performed by the ‘less weak sex. ’31 It is obvious that Plato is not intertwining women in his society based on ability, because, as shown, Plato thought females had very little.

Initially, it would be acceptable for a reader of Book V to be overwhelmed by Plato’s apparent generosity toward females, stating their necessity in the kallipolis as guardians. To Plato, it was clear that conventional marriage and women in her traditional role as guardian of the private household was intimately bound with the system of private possessions, which was the greatest impediment to the unity and well-being of the ideal city. 32 “Have we any greater evil for a city, than what splits it and makes it more than one?

According to the Republic, women were only to gain a level similar to that of equality in order to prevent the negative influence of private property on citizens (men) in Plato’s ideal state. With the reintroduction of private property, women return to the oppressive nature of the household and lose their position in society and politics. 34 Therefore, the use of women as guardians by Plato was not as a reward for female merit or ability, but rather to put an end to the manipulation of society caused by men’s private possessions.

Ancient Athens was hardly a hot-bed of equality. However, Plato’s Book V of the Republic is radical in its’ suggestions. Until less than 100 years ago, in almost every state of the world, no matter how modern, women were a mere possession of men, lacking any social or political influence. Even today, in dozens of countries women are viewed as disposable property. However, a very-well educated, philosophic Plato over two-thousand years ago suggested more for women.

In Book V, Plato examines the oppressive lifestyle of Athenian females and suggests reasons as to how an ideal state could be formed, partially on the readjustment of their societal position. By acknowledging that with the same availability of training and education that is presented to young men, it is possible for women to be a man’s counterpart. Throughout the Republic, Plato also emphasizes common interests and goods among the citizens of a state in order to avoid jealousy and seclusion and, in the long term, the dissolve of the ideal state.

In combination of the destruction of emphasis on personal property, such as women, and the realization of the possible ability of women, Plato suggests the idea of female guardians. At first examination it would appear that Plato represents an introductory movement of feminism and equality of the sexes; however, this is not the case. Throughout his discussions on the incorporation of women it is important to remember Plato’s main goal behind his theories of producing the ideal state.

The Philosopher’s, like many others, propositions aim at creating widespread happiness through community, as opposed to improving society by eradicating injustice and inequality. While Plato’s discussions in Book V of the Republic suggest that there was finally a realization of the oppressive nature of Athenian society; however, this is not the case. Plato does not look specifically to help women, rather than to help the whole excel in an ideal state that will not dissolve.

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