Plato and the Equality of the Sexes

Written by on August 12th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Politics, about Plato Greek The Republic

|||Plato, and Allan David Bloom. The Republic of Plato. [New York]: Basic Books, 1991.|||

The Goddess Athena Then, I said, I must now go back again and say what perhaps should have been said then in its turn. However, maybe it would be right this way—after having completely finished the male drama, to complete the female, especially since you are so insistent about issuing this summons. For human beings born and educated as we described, there is, in my opinion, no right acquisition and use of children and women other than in their following that path along which we first directed them. Presumably we attempted in the argument to establish the men as guardians of a herd…So let’s follow this up by prescribing the birth and rearing that go along with it and consider whether they suit us or not…451c

Plato’s discussion of gender equality in the Republic is one of the most interesting segments of the whole work. It is fascinating to see how even so long ago, the equality of the sexes was an important and divisive issue. By equality, Plato does not simply mean a comparison of like things with like things. For instance, the equality of this apple and this apple (both are apples and hence equal). By equality, he means the insistence that unlike things are really like things. The question he is trying to answer is whether or not men and women are like things. Of course, they are both rational animals equipped with emotions and passions, likes and dislikes, and they both contribute, in some way or another, to the polis. But are they equal in the same respect, at the same time, in the same way to one another? This question presents one of the more puzzling assertions in the Republic, namely the idea that the perfectly just city is only possible by eradicating gender inequality in the warrior class and training men and women together.

How is it possible that the unity and justice of the city depends on there being male and female equality in a group of warriors, who, traditionally, were only male? How does gender integration in the Republic contribute to the overall regime, and what difficulties are likely going to arise by trying to bring it into existence? How do answers to these questions lead us to understand Socrates’ original intention in the text of revealing through the city the nature and inherent problems of justice in the individual and the city? In short, what does gender equality have to do with justice in the soul and is this possible only by removing all traditional distinctions between men and women? The first part of this essay will explore the overall argument of Socrates regarding gender equality in the warrior classes and its implementation in the just city. The next essay will focus on whether Socrates is being serious or not. If he is being serious, how does he intend to do it, if not, why does he propose it in the first place?

Socrates’ Vision of Gender Equality: How Did We Get Here?

The issue of gender arises in the discussion between Glaucon and Socrates after it is asserted that there is a problem of what to do with women and children concerning, primarily, their education in the city, (451c-d). Until this point in the dialogue, they have only focused their attention on the education of men, since they, naturally, would be fitted more toward the warrior class than either women or children. But their inquiry has discovered an overall problem in the city, as women and children cannot be left alone to do nothing. If left to their own pursuits, Socrates’ definition of justice in Book IV becomes irrelevant, as it is predicated upon the fact that everyone must do what is his particular art and mind his own business. Socrates has no hesitation in asserting that women and children should be taught all things in common with the men and Glaucon agrees, with certain reservations–understanding that women and children are, by their nature, weaker than men, (451e). The question they propose then, is does their weakness prohibit their being educated at all or only in some things.

All warriors, they agree, are trained in music and gymnastics, thus enabling the spirited and philosophic parts of their souls to be properly formed. Glaucon has no issue with their training in music, as this would involve the use of harmonies to discipline the spirited faculties, and hence their education in music does not radically depart from Athenian custom. What concerns Glaucon, and the reader for that matter, is the gymnastic education the warriors receive and how that education would be offered to inculcate the female warriors. In Socrates’ understanding of gymnastic education, men and women train side by side, completely devoid of clothing, as this, traditionally was the way training was done in Greece. Glaucon’s concern obviously, is the complete disregard of traditional Athenian morality regarding public decency. Socrates is not moved by Glaucon’s misgivings, and, instead, continues pursuing his intended goal of Glaucon’s agreement. What is interesting to note here is that Socrates begins with nakedness as the basis for male/female equality, (452c-d). This is, I believe, critical to his overall strategy, wherein equality of the sexes–a completely new and radical proposition–trumps traditional standards of modesty and comportment in Greece. By focusing on the need for physical equality first, Socrates goes to the heart of the problem, i.e., the need to address those physical distinctions which logically go contrary to his overall argument. If he can prove that gender equality is what is best for the city and that this equality is only possible by treating men and women exactly alike, he must destroy that barrier which makes men and women so different, the one tangible distinction which is so obviously contrary to his overall assertion. The equality Socrates wants is a radical equality, where there is neither a male nor a female, but only warrior. Many of the listeners present indeed find this proposal troubling, if not absurd, but Socrates reminds them that it was not long before that even their training naked was discouraged, (452d); yet, in spite of this, training naked was now a widespread and acceptable practice. The issue is not nakedness for Socrates. Being clothed or not clothed is not, in and of itself, a moral action; it is neutral. The problem, of course, is when the sexes are mixed together, as he is proposing here. There is no doubt, as can be gathered from Glaucon’s response, that Socrates’ proposal is contrary to the social norms of Athens and hence not appropriate for the overall common good of the city. But, Socrates is unmoved by his concern. He does not address it, I think, because it is not a concern necessary to his overall argument, namely that men and women must be trained together and that equality will only exist if this is the case. Hence, to ensure that their training is the same, they must train together. This necessity, he believes, trumps all of their concerns, especially the “ridiculous” claim, since nothing is ridiculous other than the “bad,” and what he is striving for is the good of the city (452d).

Their mutual education, in both music and gymnastic, is essential to creating a harmonized unit in the city, and this point is Socrates’ only concern thus far in his argument. There is no possible way for women to endure the terrors and grueling demands in the warrior class, if they are not trained exactly like their male companions. The irony in the whole argument, however, is that Socrates’ proposal is so contrary to Athenian custom that it begs the question of whether or not Socrates was being serious. S. Halliwell1 states that The comparison yields a picture of extreme divergence; in all the following respects, the proposals of Bk. 5 form a radical contradiction of general Athenian practices (practices which, to a considerable extent, were typical of the Greek world as a whole).

Allan Bloom2, in his Interpretive Essay goes one step further in claiming that what Socrates is attempting to do is to take all things that were private and make them public concerns. Now Socrates proceeds to try to make public or common everything that remains private. Full communism is, from Socrates’ point of view, the only just regime, and requires not only the abolition of private property, but also the sharing of women and children and the rule of philosophers.

If this judgment is correct, and I think that Bloom is correct here, then all forms of traditional Athenian custom must be discarded for the best city to come into existence. One problem completely ignored by Socrates is the point that nakedness between the sexes was not deemed inappropriate solely on the basis of convention, but more immediately, to prevent licentiousness,3 because civilized men need some mastery over their sexual appetites. Public nakedness is permissible where sexual desire is not likely to be aroused by it. Men can be naked together because it is relatively easy to desexualize their relations with one another; but the preservation of the city requires mutual attraction of men and women.

How are the warriors to control their sexual desires when they for whom those sexual desires exist are standing naked next to them? The only logical answer is that Socrates doesn’t really believe what he is proposing. If he does believe what he is saying, it is only for the purpose of diminishing any and all hierarchy to make his point more palatable to his audience. It is his way of eliminating all that separates men from women, including sexual desire, thereby making possible the idea that women ought to be in the guardian class.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. S. Halliwell, “Introduction,” Plato: Republic 5, trans. S. Halliwell. (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1998), 9. 

  2. Allan Bloom, “Interpretive Essay.” The Republic of Plato. 2nd Ed. (New York: Perseus Books Group, 1991) 386. 

  3. Bloom, “Interpretive Essay.” The Republic of Plato, 382.