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The Nature of Women in Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle's view of the nature and capabilities of women.

Having dispensed with the individual family in his system of government, and not knowing any longer what to do with women, he finds himself forced to turn them into men?.

Plato and Aristotle, two of the most influential philosophers in the Ancient World, both had radical views on the nature and capabilities of women. Many of these views were similar, yet somehow Plato became a champion of the female cause, while Aristotle was labelled a male chauvinist. This essay will look to discover whether Plato really was an early feminist, or whether we are looking too far into his ideas.

Plato, in the Republic, argues that women should be able to take on the same social roles equally with men in his ideal state. His ideas are based upon the view that women and men have the same nature in respect to acting as guardians of the state, except that the one is weaker while the other is stronger . However, just one generation later Aristotle returns women to their traditional roles in the home, being subservant to men. There is no equality in nature for Aristotle, and in the Politics he declares:

..as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must necessarily apply to all mankind.

For now, however, our thoughts will concentrate on Plato and what he really thought of women and their capabilities.

Firstly we should make clear that at no point does Plato deny that there are differences between the two sexes - his ideas on equality lie solely in the nature of humans. He does not pretend that women are as physically capable as men, nor does he deny that women are better at tasks like weaving. He does not say, though, that one could not be better than the other if they?d had the same training. And this is precisely his main argument in the Republic - that given the same training, education and opportunities, suitable women could be equally suited to the position of guardian as their male counterparts.

Plato informs us that women are physically weaker than men, yet he implies that this is not a sufficient reason to prevent women from being trained in warfare. In his Laws he mentions women from Pontus who are trained in weapons, so he can hardly be saying women are incapable of learning these arts, even if they may not be quite as good at them as men. However he does believe that even if women are trained the same as the men, it would be better for them to do the easier tasks:

..they will receive lighter duties than the men, because of the weakness of their sex.

This is not a derogatory comment, rather it is a fact. Plato knows that physically the male is naturally stronger, and while women can be trained to be strong, it is physically unlikely that they could be as strong as a trained male. It would, though, be useful to have women trained in warfare, to act as a backup to the city in times of trouble.

In Plato?s ideal state both capable men and women would be allowed to act as guardians of the state. They would be trained in the same skills, for human nature would allow that either sex would be able to do most things if taught, and they would have the same role:

After all, it?s the same nature the educational system takes on in both cases.

The women that are good at sports and warfare, and who are philosophically inclined, would make the best guardians. He also agrees, that as in the case of men also, some of the women would not be suitable:

Some women may make good guardians, then, while others won?t, since these were the innate qualities we selected as the marks of men who would make good guardians.

Although Plato here appears to be showing belief that women can be men?s equal, he denies that they could ever be as able as men:

The one gender is far superior to the other in just about every sphere.

Plato?s best women, then, must be those who are only level with the second best of men. They would be better than all those men below second best, yet they could never be as good as the best of men. Perhaps, as Calvert says, Plato means that ?while men and women have corresponding ranges of talents, men possess these talents to a greater degree.? Although this may not necessarily be flattering to women, it was certainly better that what Aristotle believed.

Aristotle thought that this was how life ought to be, with women in subjection, while Plato at least had the idea that it could, or should, change. When saying how men were superior to women, perhaps we should consider that Plato may just be telling us how it was in those days. Middle class women would have been married off in their teens, and if they did not then die during childbirth, they could look forward to a life shut away in the house weaving cloth. Plato must have recognised the waste of human resources in this social system, and thus opposed it. It would have been difficult for him to present his revolutionary ideas, though, without incorporating at least some of the traditional views, for a typical Athenian man would certainly not have been convinced by Plato?s appeal to the idea of relative difference. The general view of the day appears to be as follows:

..the virtue of a man consists in managing the city?s affairs capably, and so that he will help his friends and injure his foes while taking care to come to no harm himself. Or if you want a woman?s virtue, that is easily described. She must be a good housewife, careful with her stores and obedient to her husband.

Yet it is also possible that Plato really did believe that women were inferior. The derogatory comments that he occasionally slips in - where he still sees women as sex objects given to brave warriors - may show he has a misogynistic tendency. However, unlike most men of the period, perhaps Plato was prepared to advocate equality because of the demands of his form of justice. Several of his other works are quite disparaging towards women, though, with only the Republic really showing any inclination towards true equality. In the Apology Socrates call those who plead in court ?no better than women? ; and in the Phaedo he talks of the distractions of female lamentations. Perhaps the most damning thought of all occurred in the Timaeus (42b-c) where Plato clearly stated that if men lived immorally then they would be reincarnated as women.

If Plato really was a misogynist then his work would not have aroused such severe criticism from Aristotle, who thought Plato?s revolutionary ideas were disgraceful. Perhaps, therefore, we need to look at his change in opinion of women from the Republic to the Laws.

In the Laws Plato returns to the traditional view of women. He states the relative differences - which he had previously made out to be equal - would prevent women being in any way equal to men. He points out, for example, that women have an inferior virtue than men , and that it is necessary for women to listen to different music . Music was inspirational for men, especially in battle, yet it was more apt for women to listen to emotional music because they were emotionally inclined. He also shows how he was aware of the danger of freeing women from their confined, domestic role without giving them an alternative function. He has Socrates give the example of the Spartans to discourage any legislator from:

...letting the female sex indulge in luxury and expense and disorderly ways of life, while supervising the male sex.

So why should Plato change his views? Perhaps the most obvious answer here is that the Republic is an ideal situation, predominantly unachievable, whereas the Laws has moved to a conventional and practical situation, one that is recognisable and believable. If this is the case, then perhaps Dickinson was right when he said ?the claim of male superiority should simply be understood as a remnant of masculine prejudice.?

This masculine prejudice manifested itself most potently in Plato?s pupil Aristotle. Aristotle could not conceive under any circumstances that women could ever be men?s equals. He saw the male as naturally superior, and this was a superiority that could not be equalled by any form of culture or education. He saw the female as not only naturally physically weaker but also weaker of soul. And this weakness of soul was as important in the nature and capabilities of woman as was physical weakness. Aristotle, like Plato, believed that social roles should be filled according to an individual?s nature, and this relevant nature was psychological. Therefore, when he looks to find roles for men and women in the polis, he appeals to the relevant features of the soul:

For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.

Therefore a woman?s soul lacks the essential qualities to be able to make informed decisions about anything. They lack moral virtue in the same moderation, and have different levels of temperance and courage:

..the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman
in obeying.

What we have here with Aristotle is a situation whereby the soul takes on the characteristics of the sex of the body. So a female soul has the nature ascribed to the female body, and the male soul that nature for the male body. Why this is important is the main difference between Aristotle and Plato, for Plato believed that the soul was essentially ?sexless?, that it was external influences that cultivated and educated the soul, and not the sex of the body that determined roles.

Other than the weaker female soul, Aristotle?s main line of argument is concerned with biology and the act of procreation. It appears that Aristotle believes that women are in some way biologically deficient , and that this has some sort of profound effect on their psychological deficiency. In his Generation of Animals he comments that where a lack of heat affects the male semen the result will be female or deficient offspring . This appears to be because in the conception of a female, the form (semen) takes an imperfect hold on the matter (female egg), and therefore the soul is taking an imperfect mastery of the body. He also comments that the generation of the female is no better than that of mutilated male.

The fact that a child is born female does not necessarily make it totally deficient, though, for the female does have some uses for Aristotle. Actually, the woman has one use, for nature only gives things one special function, and that function is the procreative one. The female will carry the foetus, give birth and suckle the young, and this role is reserved by nature for women. As the male role in procreation is short, men are obviously designed by nature to deal with the out-of-house activities, such as politics. To have women doing anything other than ?homely? activities would be to go against nature, and with women being emotionally susceptible they must therefore be ruled by men, who are emotionally steadier. Women were only fit to be subjects of male rule.

Plato, however, does not see the bearing of children as a problem in the education of women, nor is it a hindrance to their role as guardian. He sees it as totally plausible for nurses to take on the role of looking after the child , after an initial period of suckling, in order that the chosen women could continue their duties in the civic arena. Yet not all scholars believe Plato?s intentions were true. Moller-Okin believes that he was forced to regard women as equals by his abolition of the private household, which took away their traditional role . Yet this is unfair, for he could just have easily assigned women to male guardians ?as breeding partners and nurse maids? . Another attack on Plato comes from Pomeroy , who insists that Plato did not intend for women to ever be equal in status to men. She notes that female guardians are referred to nine times as communal property, presuming that Plato could not conceive women living without make tutelage; perhaps more interestingly she points out that at no point does Plato bring about the idea of husband-sharing. Excellent male guardians could have many women in order to find the best mother of his children, whereas the same should have applied to female guardians if Plato really wanted to improve the race of guardians genetically.

Fortenbaugh refutes the claims made by Pomeroy above. Against women being communal property he brings to mind Socrates? second wave. This asserts that women are to hold house and mess in common with male guardians (458b), are provided assistance against the disabling labours of child care (460d), and are even allowed sexual freedoms similar to those granted to male guardians (458c-d). In 459d Socrates also insists that the best men and the best women are brought together as often as possible to create strong offspring. Clearly Plato must think that eugenics demands excellence on both sides, and that the female has something to offer to the process of procreation - which is more than can be said about Aristotle.

So we have arrived at a scenario which is familiar when reading into Plato?s ?feminism?. There are cases where Plato appears to advocate complete equality between certain men and certain women, to allow them to participate in the same upbringing and education, to give them the same opportunities to achieve success in guardianship; yet there are also cases in later works whereby a typical male misogynistic tendency - of the time - creeps in. We cannot blame these comments on carelessness and inconsistency, for they arise out of a deep-rooted belief that women are inferior to men. By seeing this we are not rejecting Plato?s views, rather we are recognising his vulnerability to prejudices of his age. His errors cause him to become somewhat less of a feminist, although his considered proposals remain revolutionary for his time. Plato recognised that women had something to offer the state, and although the scenario in the Republic was predominantly unrealistic, the very fact that he considered a new role for women implied he was prepared for change.

Aristotle, on the other hand, had a typical view of women. They were little other than incubators and were certainly not capable of doing anything other than household chores. They had to be ruled by men to be kept in line, and it was their nature to be subordinate. Their souls were inextricably linked to their sex, and this in turn made them psychologically deficient. Plato?s ?sexless? soul in a sexed body allowed him to persuade that essentially the nature of men and women was the same, as their souls did not in essence differ. In nearly every way Plato?s view of women was by far the better of the two. Aristotle?s woman was an object, Plato?s woman was a human being with a capacity to be educated. She was ahead of her time.


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