Plato and the Equality of the Sexes, Part II

Written by on August 20th, 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.|||

Leonidas at Thermopylae 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

Is Gender Equality in Plato’s Republic Even Possible?

Continuing our discussion of the equality of the sexes from Part I of our study, we search now to discover whether or Socrates’ proposals are possible. Once Socrates determines equality of the sexes is necessary in the guardian class, he focusses his attention on whether or not such an idea is possible. Essential to this inquiry is the definition of justice he gives in Book IV. Part of that definition states that each unit minds his own business according to nature, (453b). The question that naturally must be asked now is how, if there is equality of the sexes, does each group mind its own business according to nature, if their different natures are now one? It appears we have been led into an apparent contradiction. Socrates, however, does not think so, at least, his rhetoric does not suggest so. In their discussions about certain natures doing certain arts, the inquiry only stopped at the art, i.e. a male doctor and a male carpenter, (454d-e). Both have the same maleness, but their natures are determined toward some particular art or techne, and this determination in no way implies a contradiction. Thus, I interpret this to mean a man can have a nature suited to guard and a woman can have a nature suited to guard and there is no problem with the definition of justice Socrates proposes. That is, the art of guarding is sex neutral. Furthermore, each can, by nature, have a certain aptitude toward the things of the city, since there is nothing in the city which is particular to either male or female, (455c). Thus, despite the fact that women are weaker than men by nature, their lack of strength has nothing to do with their ability to guard the city. Likewise, just as there are men suited to the art of doctoring and others to the art of sailing, so too are there women suited to the art of guarding, and others to the art of doctoring and so on, although not all are so, (456a).

Socrates’ long discussion about the fittingness of male/female equality in the guardian class has at last come to whether it is indeed possible that such equality exist at all. That women fight alongside men to defend the polis is not the issue. Equality, as stated above, serves no other purpose for Socrates than to have men and women guarding together. According to Halliwell,1 The case for female Guardians involves two major components: a rebuttal of the belief that men and women have distinct natures, and should therefore fulfill separate social roles; and an appeal to the paramount value of the city’s unity, to support the contention that it is in the interests of the society as a whole that the best women should perform the functions for which they are fitted. Plato incorporates into his case an emphatic denial that existing traditions and institutions are an authoritative guide to either what could or what should be the case. Instead, Plato relies on an alternative understanding of ‘nature,’ to reveal the potential for different forms of life from those currently practiced…and upon this to establish what is best for a city.

Having women guardians is essential to the justice of the city and to the education that the male guardians need. According to Bloom,2 Socrates, again drawing upon the notion of justice he proposed, believes that without women, men would be fiendish brutes. Without women, men cannot be completely whole. He states,

In the second place, the exclusive maleness, so much connected with battle, is not the whole of human nature, although it may appear so to the men. The female represents gentleness, and the complete soul must embrace both principles. …Full humanity is a discrete mixture of masculinity and femininity…

What Is Good For One, Is Necessarily Good For All?

According to his logic then, male/female equality is not ridiculous, despite its disregard for social norms, and that it is possible, (456c). The final question he has to address is whether it is best. Is it really better that women, who are suited more toward nurturing, be trained along with men in music and gymnastic for the purpose of filling positions in the guardian class? To answer this, Socrates proposes a question. Is the warrior education they established the best education possible? We have, yet again, a loaded question from Socrates. His conclusion is, of course, that the education they established is superior, and this superior education will be best at producing the best men, (456d-e). Extrapolating this conclusion about the training of the male warriors and placing it on the female warriors, Socrates believes he has proven that it is the education they receive, not their sex, that makes one a warrior. Thus, their sex is not the issue; it is their education, their training in gymnastic and music which will make the best possible warriors, male and female alike, (456e). According to Julia Annas, what Socrates is concerned with is the “production of the common good,”3 making available all of the resources in the city so that not only is it the ideal or best city, but is also the most just. She states4,

Nor is Plato concerned with women’s rights; as we have seen, he lacks notions of equal human worth and dignity that stand behind theories of human rights. He sees women merely as a huge untapped pool of resources: here are half the citizens sitting at home wasting effort doing identical trivial jobs! The state will benefit if women do public, not private jobs, (if this does not flout nature, as it does not. Benefit to the state is the sole, frequently repeated, ground for the proposals… (emphasis mine).

We have thus come to understand the idea of equality in Socrates’ mind. In short, male/female equality in the guardian classes contributes more people to the regime, i.e., it makes available more individuals who are suited towards guarding and hence available to fight for the city, indiscriminate of their sex. We have also discussed some of the difficulties that are likely to be encountered, the greatest of which seems to be the idea that in order to make this regime possible, the common social norms of traditional Grecian/Athenian morality had to be radicalized or revised. How then do our answers help us understand Socrates’ original intention of revealing through the city the nature and problem of justice in the individual and in the city?

Once Socrates defines justice in Book IV, his premise or goal is to show how this relates to the city first and to the soul second. A truly just city, one in which everyone is doing exactly what he or she is supposed to do, would in theory at least, be sex neutral. If this is his definition of justice to this point in the Republic, then gender should not be involved. Socrates’ definition only says that everyone does his particular art and minds his own business. That settles some, but not all, of our problems.

In order to understand Socrates’ argument, I think we are forced to reject certain suppositions we may have. The first is regarding the warrior class and their purpose of existing to defend the polis. There is not much of a discussion about whether or not allowing women to fight is within their own best interests, or rather, if by doing so they are not, to use Socrates’ terminology, minding their own business. He separates the art from the individual in a troubling way. He spends much time in Books II and III censoring poetry as there are things in the myths which are not fitting for the guardians to hear. Yet, the fittingness of certain art for men and women is neglected. In response to this problem Haliwell suggests that it is Plato’s radical collectivism in the best city which causes this to occur. He is only concerned with the common good, not the good necessarily of the individual. According to Halliwell,5

What is true of the entire guardian class is necessarily true of the women, both rulers and auxiliaries. Plato’s female guardians, it has to be stressed, will not choose their form of life. For these women, individual satisfaction, as something peculiar or distinctive to a particular person, is not only not provided for, but utterly contrary to the ideology of their group. Everything about their upbringing…is designed to instill in them, as in their male counterparts, a collectivist spirit and the denial of the individual.

Thus, even in the best city, a city so carefully created to find the true idea of justice, there are major problems with the actual implementation of the regime. No matter how carefully it is crafted, the city where everyone minds his own business and does his own job is not perfect, at least not in all of its considerations.


The goal of this essay was to discuss one aspect of the best city, as proposed by Socrates, and investigate how that particular proposal contributed to the overall justice of the city. The equality of men and women is an important part of Socrates’ argument. With equality of the sexes, he is able to consider the function of a group of individuals who traditionally only had certain roles in Athenian Society, and acclimate them into the conversation of the city and its overall success. I assert again that Socrates is really only interested, as Julia Annas suggests, in getting as much from the citizens, male and female, as he can. In this way justice in the city is preserved and protected for each subsequent generation. I think his overall point in the radical reforms of Book V is for unity. Unity for Socrates is the number one purpose of the city. There must be unity in purpose, function, and even in persons. That is the best city, the most just city, the city so unified that it does what it is supposed to do, and each of its parts mind their particular interests for the common good. Whether or not this unity is achieved with traditional barriers destroyed is perhaps a topic for another discussion. What is certain, at least in the Republic, is that it poses an ideal that on paper works, but in reality is unachievable. And this is, in my humble opinion, one of the most maddening problems of the Republic.

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].

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  1. S. Halliwell, “Introduction,” Plato: Republic 5, trans. S. Halliwell. (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1998), p. 13. 

  2. Allan Bloom, “Interpretive Essay.” The Republic of Plato. 2nd Ed. (New York: Perseus Books Group, 1991). pp. 383-384. 

  3. Julia Annas, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 181. 

  4. Annas, An Introducition to Plato’s Republic, p. 183. 

  5. Halliwell, “Introduction,” Plato: Republic 5, p. 14.