Plato's Feminism: A Discussion of Women in Ancient Philosophy

When looking at feminist literature on the ancient philosophers there seems to be a recurring question.  That question is, “Is Plato a feminist?” What is interesting is that no one ever asks, “Is Aristotle a feminist?”  Most feminist literature focuses mainly on how poorly Aristotle represents women.  For example, Elizabeth Spelman doesn’t even consider the possibility that Aristotle is a feminist.  Spelman acknowledges immediately that Aristotle considers women to be both biologically and intellectually inferior to men. (Spelman "Who's Who in the Polis" 99) In contrast to her discussion of Aristotle, Spelman suggests that Plato does give equality to some women.  Even though these women are very exceptional and potentially manly, Spelman does suggest that Plato has some feminist views. (Spelman 17)  Spelman is one of many examples of how Plato and Aristotle are considered to be very different in their views of women.  The different approaches to Plato and Aristotle lead us to ask why these two philosophers from the same period of time would have extremely different views on women.  Even while a definite distinction is drawn between Plato and Aristotle, there also seems to be multiple views on whether or not Plato really is a feminist.  These divergent interpretations of Plato's position make it difficult to see what exactly is the difference between the two philosophers and whether or not Plato really is a feminist.

The first part of this paper will look at how contemporary writers evaluate the works of Plato and Aristotle and how they interpret both philosophers' views on women.  I will show how Aristotle is considered to have a negative view of women by all of the contemporary writers I studied.  I will also examine the arguments both for and against the claim that Plato is a feminist.   Finally I will examine the difference between the two philosophers.  In looking at why Plato has inconsistent interpretations, I will argue Plato is not a feminist but instead that he finds certain feminine characteristics appealing.  As a result, Plato has a favorable opinion of certain aspects of females.  He appropriates these characteristics and metaphorically applies them to male philosophers. (Dubois 140) While this does not make Plato a feminist it does give him a different approach to women than Aristotle.  I will argue that this appropriation of feminine characteristics is what creates inconsistency in determining whether or not Plato is a feminist.

The first question one must ask is, what is a feminist?   Maggie Humm in The Dictionary of Feminist Theory defines a feminist as someone who has “both a doctrine of equal rights for women and an ideology of social transformation aiming to create a world for women beyond simple social equality.” ( Humm 74) At the very least a feminist is someone who believes in treating women and men as equals.  A feminist believes that women should be allowed to do what men do, such as politics or jobs.  Considering the society from which Aristotle and Plato both were writing, even thinking of women as equals to men would have been radical at that time.

                  One should look very closely at the society that Plato and Aristotle lived in.  Women in Plato’s and Aristotle’s Athens were not treated with very much respect or consideration. (Pomeroy 58) For the most part women were isolated and secluded within the household, emerging only to do chores such as washing clothes or to attend religious events. (Pomeroy 72, 75) The main purpose of women within Athens was to produce more citizens. (Pomeroy 64) Since this was the primary function of a woman, most of the demands and restrictions placed on women were designed to help with this function.  For example, women were married very young, usually around age fourteen because at the time young girls were considered lustful and troublesome. Also, if a girl were married at a younger age she would have more children before she died. (Pomeroy 64) The question of who was the father of the children was critical, since if either the mother or the father were not a citizen of Athens, the child would not be a citizen.  Because of this, a woman's guardian could sell her into slavery if she was not a virgin. (Pomeroy 57) At the same time it was permissible for a male to commit adultery, but only if he did so with a slave or a prostitute; it was against the law to sleep with a female citizen of Athens because that would jeopardize the legitimacy of her children. 

                  Women were not allowed to be involved in politics and were not allowed any kind of interaction with men in public, including shopping or bartering. (Pomeroy 72) While there were a few women who broke out of this mold, they were definitely an exception to the rules.  In general women were considered unintelligent and untrustworthy.   They were married at an early age so that their husbands could control them and they were confined to the household so that they were less likely to be unfaithful.  Women were only educated in domestic arts such as cooking and cleaning. (Pomeroy 74) Overall one could assess women’s status in ancient Greece as very low.

                  It is from this environment that Plato and Aristotle both wrote their works. It is interesting is that they both came from the same period.  These are not two philosophers from completely different eras.  The fact that Aristotle was at one point Plato’s pupil also makes it surprising that they would have different view of women in their philosophy.  Because women were not held in high regard within the Athenian society, it seems unlikely that either philosopher would break out of this societal mold and give women more credit.    However, there are some feminists who argue that Plato did in fact do just that.

                  The place in Plato’s writing where most feminists focus their attention is Book V of the Republic.  More specifically, feminists look carefully at Plato’s suggestion that women should be educated for their roles in the class of guardians and later on work next to men in this guardian class. (Plato is of course referring to women who are as qualified as the men are.)  Feminists have both positive and negative things to say about this particular section of Plato’s writing.

                  In Aristotle's writing contemporary scholars focus both on his views on the biological differences between men and women as well as his views on the nature of men and women's souls.  Both of these parts of Aristotle's philosophy have a role in how contemporary writers evaluate his views on women.

     I.           Aristotle on Women

Aristotle focuses on two separate differences between men and women.  The first difference concerns reproduction roles and the second concerns the make up of the soul. Feminist writers look at both the discussion of the soul and the discussion of biological differences in Aristotle’s writings.  The conclusion drawn from studies of both these areas is that in comparison to men, Aristotle had nothing positive to say about women.  I will discuss later in the paper how Aristotle's views on the nature of the soul and biological differences between the sexes contrast to Plato's views on the same subjects.

                                                                          i.  Aristotle on the Role of Women in Reproduction

Aristotle dismissed the idea of his predecessors that women had a significant role in reproduction.   He states that “what the male contributes to generation is the form and the efficient cause, while the female contributes the matter.” (Aristotle Generation of Animals 729a 9-10) Aristotle argues that women contribute very little to reproduction and that the male is responsible for the sex of the child as well as the appearance.  A female child or a child that resembles the mother is a sign of weakness on the part of the father. (Allen 102) Aristotle uses this view to reflect on the nature of women in general.  To begin with, Aristotle immediately associates women with matter and men with form.(Allen 89) To use an example, a woman would provide a block of marble but the man would create the statue.  While both are needed to create the statue, the form of the statue is given higher regard than the material.

                  Aristotle argues that, while men and women are contrary to each other, they are not different enough to be different species.  They have the same form as humans and so they cannot be different species. (Allen 89) Females are more of an inferior version of the male.  They are passive while the male is active.  This is directly related to the role both sexes play in reproduction. (Allen 92) The male actively gives the form to the material provided by the passive female.

                  Another way Aristotle differentiates between men and women is that he considers women to be cold like the earth and men are hot like fire. (Allen 95) Women need the heat of the man in order to create a child.  Aristotle suggests that women are inferior because they lack the heat of the male.  He states that “it is by reason of cold and incapacity that the female is more abundant in blood in certain part of her anatomy.” (Aristotle, Generation of Animals 765b 17-18)  Women are always described as lacking a characteristic or ability of men.  In this case they lack the heat that men have, which makes them inferior. (Allen 97)

The inferiority of women comes in many different forms for Aristotle.  He states “now a boy is a like a woman in form and the woman is as it were an impotent male, for it is through a certain incapacity that the female is female.” (Aristotle Generation of Animals 728a 16-19) Aristotle says that the “male and female are distinguished by a certain capacity and incapacity.” (Aristotle Generation of  Animals 765b 8-9) And finally “just as the young of mutilated parents are sometimes born mutilated and sometimes not, so also the young born of a female are sometimes female and sometimes male instead.  For the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.” (Aristotle Generation of Animals 737a 25-28) There seems to be no question that Aristotle considers a woman to be a lesser form of a man, at least in the physical sense.  Aristotle’s discussion of the biological inferiority’s of women is reflected in his discussion of their moral and political inferiority.  This idea of biological inferiority is also one of the major differences between Aristotle and Plato that will be discussed later.

                                                                                            ii.  Aristotle on the nature of women’s souls

In order to discuss how Aristotle determines the inferiority of a woman’s soul, one must first look at Aristotle’s construction of souls in general.  Aristotle divides the soul twice.  The first division of the soul creates two parts; the rational and the irrational. The second division divides the irrational part further into three parts; the sentient, the nutritive and the appetitive. The sentient part of the soul is the life force and is present in all animals. This part of the soul is what the male gives the female in order to create a child. The nutritive part of the soul contributes to the survival of the embryo inside the woman.  The appetitive part of the soul is the part that contains desires, passion and other senses. The appetitive part is driven by desire and it can make one act without using reason in a pursuit of their wishes or desires. (Aristotle, On the Soul 414b 1-6 and 433a 24-26)  The appetitive part is also the part of the soul that is responsive to reason. (Senack 225) Women are inferior to men not because they lack reason but because their reason has no authority over the appetitive part of their soul.  More than anything else women lack authority or control within their soul. (Senack 227) Women allow their appetitive part to control them; they do only what they desire and do not use reason in determining what actions are right or wrong.  Aristotle compares the souls of women, slaves and children to the man’s soul.  He states “the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority and the child has but it is immature.” (Aristotle, Politics 1260a 12-15) As in his discussion of the biological differences between men and women, Aristotle determines the inferiority of a woman’s soul by the fact it lacks something that a man’s soul has.  Aristotle cites the lack of authority within women as the reason why men should control women in a social or political sphere.  If women do not have authority over the irrational part of their soul, then they need to have authority from somewhere else, this somewhere else must be a man.

                  Women, while extremely different from men, are not opposites according to Aristotle.  They are a privation of men.  A privation is the absence of something or the lack of something.   By being a privation of a man, a woman is described “in terms of what she is lacking to be a man, not in terms of what she has or lacks independently of man.” (Senack 228) Men do not lack anything that women have, for example, it is not that men are less emotional than women are, women are more emotional than men are. Women lack the control that men have and that is what makes them more emotional.

                  The lack of authority of the deliberative faculty in women is one of Aristotle’s main criticisms of women.  However, Aristotle states in the Nicomachean Ethics that ‘intellectual excellence in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time).” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1103a 14-15) Since deliberation is part of intellectual virtue in the sense that deliberation is the major factor in the acquisition of practical wisdom, it must also be the result of education.  However, this implies that the only reason that women do not have authority over their deliberative powers is lack of education or training.  With this in mind, one would think that women should be educated in order to increase their practical wisdom.  However, Aristotle does not draw the conclusion that women should be educated.  Eve Browning Cole claims that the reason for this is that women are a definite part of the economy and do their part well enough so there is no need to educate them. (Cole 139) It is economically beneficial to maintain that women lack the authority that men have over their souls and because of this are only qualified to do the work they do in the home. 

                  Overall, Aristotle seems to focus on two major deficiencies in women.  The first is biological and refers to their lack of participation in the creation of a child.  Aristotle returns again and again to the idea that men provide the form of the child while women only provide the matter.  The second major deficiency is the lack of authority within the deliberative faculty of women.  Women have reason just as men do, but it does not control their irrational parts as it does in men.  From these two deficiencies Aristotle is able to show over and over again how women are inferior to men. Because of his emphasis on the inferiority of women, it cannot be claimed that Aristotle is a feminist. This supposed inferiority of women is also a sharp contrast to Plato's views on women.

        II.          Feminist Interpretations of Plato

Feminist writers have a variety of views of Plato's discussions of women.  Some writers argue that Plato is an early feminist and was an advocator of equality for women. Other writers argue that Plato was as anti-women as Aristotle, and still other writers claim that Plato creates a controversy in his writing because of his ambivalent views on women.  I will attempt to offer a solution to this inconsistency later in the paper; however to understand the controversy one must look at both sides of the argument.  The majority of the discussion of Plato revolves around Book V of his Republic.  It is at this point that writers disagree on whether Plato was a feminist or not.

                                                                                   i.  Feminist Interpretations of Plato's Feminism

There are many different interpretations of what Plato means when he claims that women as well as men should be trained to be guardians.   Plato states in Book V that “if we use the women for the same things as the men [specifically the guardian class], they must also be taught the same things [as the men].” (Plato, The Republic, Book V (451e) Plato is claiming here that certain women should be educated and trained along with men if they are going to be ruling the city side by side with the men. This argument comes from Plato's overall contention that both men and women should be guardians. This has caused feminist writers to consider Plato, if not a feminist, a thinker well ahead of his time.

  One of these thinkers is Janet Farrell Smith.  Smith claims that Plato in fact thought that the difference between the two sexes was not that extreme. (Smith 25) Smith doesn’t try to prove that Plato is a feminist according to today’s definition of a feminist.  However she does argue that Plato sees that women have an important role in society, such as childbearing. (Smith 27) Plato recognizes the necessity of women within the family and their role in the society as a whole.  While Plato does suggest that women are weaker than men are, Smith argues that he probably only meant that women were weaker in a muscular sense than men. [1] (Smith 28) Smith suggests that the concept of women being weaker was a direct result of the fact that the citizen women of Athens were generally physically weaker and more delicate than the men were.

Smith also discusses Plato’s view of function.  Plato argues that, in order to have justice; “each single person must do his own business according to nature.” (Plato, The Republic, Book V (454a)) Plato thinks that every person has a certain nature and they should do what their nature is meant to do.  For example, it might be in someone's nature or function to be a doctor and so that is what they should do.   Using this argument, the question of the difference in nature between men and women comes up.  One could argue that if men and women have differences in their natures, they should do different things.  However, according to Plato the only differences between men and women are procreative differences. (Plato, The Republic, Book V (454e)) As Smith points out, procreative differences are not critical enough to keep men and women from doing the same things. (Smith 31) In this way Smith shows that, while Plato doesn’t adopt the interests of women or argue against the view that women are objects that can be possessed, he does at least offer the possibility that there are few significant differences between the nature of men and women. He goes on to claim that these differences should not separate the two sexes into two groups with two very different natures.  

Another feminist, Prudence Allen, offers the interpretation that while Plato viewed men as being physically superior to women, he considered men and women's souls to be essentially the same. (Allen 63) Allen looks at both Republic and the Phaedrus to determine this.  In the Republic Allen discusses how Plato demonstrates that the female is physically inferior to the male.  Plato has his Socrates character raise the question in the Republic; “do you know of anything practiced by human beings in which the male sex isn’t superior to the female in all these ways?” (Plato, Republic, Book V (455c)) When the answer given to the question is "no," It seems that Plato is claiming here that men do everything better and are superior to women.  However, Allen contends that what Plato really means is that women, while similar to men, are weaker than men in a physical sense. (Allen 63) Allen also concludes that Plato sees the main goal of human beings to be separating their souls from the body.  Because women are just as capable of doing this as men, men and women both have the same goal. (Allen 63) Allen brings up the fact that, in the Timaeus, Plato claims that men who are bad in their first life are punished in their second life by being women.   This suggests that women are definitely inferior to men, otherwise being a woman would not be punishment for a weak man.  However, Allen claims that this just shows that, though men and women have the same goal and potentially have equal souls, the female body is inferior to the male body and therefore being reborn into an inferior body would be punishment for a man. (Allen 62) Allen claims that Plato gives women some equality in the sense that he doesn't consider souls to be gendered but not complete equality because men have superior bodies than women.  The idea that Plato considers souls to not be gendered will contested later on by Elizabeth Spelman who argues that in fact Plato does consider souls to be gendered and that the feminine soul is inferior to the masculine soul.

Another writer who considers Plato to have enlightened views on women is Christine Pierce.  Pierce claims that Plato gives women "a limited, but important type of equality." (Pierce 27) Pierce contends, like Smith, that Plato does not give the genders separate natures.  What Plato does say is that humans have a different nature from other animals and this nature is rationality. (Pierce 27) According to Pierce, Plato claims that rationality is dispersed amongst both sexes.  When Plato discusses women being guardians as well as men, he is talking about women who have been given great rational ability and are therefore very good at philosophy. (Pierce 28) Pierce goes on to say that while Plato does put a lot of emphasis on homosexual love as a way to achieve the Forms, he isn't actually excluding women.  Pierce claims that Plato puts a lot of emphasis on the closeness of homosexual relationships, not on the fact that they are relationships between two men.  In fact Pierce argues that, since women are capable of homosexual relationships as well, they are just as capable of using Eros to achieve the Forms. (Pierce 33) Pierce concludes that Plato was a very enlightened thinker for his time and criticizes writers who claim otherwise. 

In contrast to Pierce, Gregory Vlastos argues that Plato gives equality to only certain women and discriminates against all other women.  Vlastos starts out by defining feminism as "advocacy of the claims and the rights of women." (Vlastos 11) Vlastos goes on to list rights that, while denied to women in the Athenian society, would be given to women if they were guardians.  These rights, such as a right to education, vocational opportunity, property ownership and sexual choice, are either given to female guardians or withheld from both males and females.  In this way the guardian class would demonstrate the equality of sexes. (Vlastos 12)

Vlastos offers an explanation as to why Plato appears to be inconsistent.  He states that in the guardian class, women without a doubt are given equality.  However, women in the other classes are not given the same rights and equality as the guardians. This however is not discriminating against women but discriminating against other classes.  Vlastos also points out that, in the Laws, Plato gives women a sort of hybrid position which allows them more rights than the city of Athens gave them but not as many as Plato had offered women in the guardian class.  Finally Vlastos claims that in general Plato didn't like the women in contemporary Athens and so a lot of the negative remarks towards women are just Plato's personal opinion becoming apparent. [2] (Vlastos 12)  Since presumably in an ideal society women would not act in the way they did in Athens, Plato has no problem giving them equal status in that ideal society.(Vlastos 18)

While Pierce and Vlastos are the only two writers discussed that actually claim that Plato was a feminist, Smith and Allen at least try to show that Plato was thinking ahead of his time.  However, there are just as strong reasons for defending the opposite side of the argument, which is that Plato was extremely anti-feminist.

                                                                           ii.  Feminist Interpretations of Plato's Anti-feminism

While some feminists see Plato as being ahead of his time in his opinions on women, others are not as complementary of Plato’s treatment of women in his philosophy.  There are many different arguments for why Plato was not a feminist.  Contemporary writers argue that Plato did not think men and women were equal nor did he want to give women a larger role in society.  I would like to focus on two major points of this debate.  The first point is that Plato alters the nature of the women that he puts in the guardian class (and also Diotima to a certain extent) in such a way that they appear to be more like men than women.  The second point is that Plato is inconsistent in his comments on women and at times criticizes women severely.

                  The claim that Plato’s women have an altered nature in comparison with their Athenian counterparts is based on two of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium and the Republic.  One suggestion about the altering of women's nature is that they are desexed; or their femininity is diminished or even removed so that they appear to be more like men.  For example, in the Symposium Socrates gives his view of Eros through the voice of Diotima, a Greek priestess.  She offers an explanation of the relationship between Eros and the Forms.  While many feminists use Diotima as an example of Plato holding women in high regard, some also claim that Diotima is barely a woman and is hardly given the same regard as the men who offer speeches in the dialogue.  To begin with, Diotima is not present at the party where the speeches are being given.  Her speech is given through the voice of a man and that is the only reason she is able to have a voice within the discussion.  Secondly, she is given no feminine characteristics in the writing at all.  The only way the reader knows she is a woman is because Socrates states that he got the speech from a priestess. [3]

                  Some scholars such as Arlene W. Saxonhouse argue that women are desexed in the Republic as well. (Saxonhouse 68) The women chosen to be in the class of guardians are exceptional women in Plato’s view.  They were nothing like the typical Athenian woman. (Buchan 10) When Plato discusses women being in the guardian class along with men, he gives them manly characteristics.  The importance of motherhood is reduced, since everybody raises the children. (Saxonhouse 72) This takes away female characteristics from the women in the guardian class.  Plato discusses women training in the gymnasium along with the men and states that this would not be a problem since erotic needs among the guardians are very controlled. (Saxonhouse 73) The women would no longer be viewed as objects of sexual desire but would be viewed as other men who are not desirable.  In this way, Plato is apparently changing the characteristics of women in order them to be in the guardian class. It seems that, in order to make females equal to males, the females must be desexed. (Saxonhouse 70) Like Diotima, women in the guardian class have nothing to distinguish them from men other than the fact that Socrates calls them women.

                  Elizabeth Spelman also suggests that women in the Republic are altered.  However, unlike Saxonhouse, Spelman doesn't think that the women's bodies have been altered but their souls are altered.  Spelman's argument runs in a similar manner as Janet Farrell Smith's argument. Spelman follows Plato's argument that different natures have different functions and that justice is when everyone performs the correct function. (Spelman 4) The main difference between men and women is their sexual identity. (Spelman 6) This difference is a bodily difference and doesn't necessarily affect the soul as well as the body.  If this is the case, then men and women could have the same soul.  

The soul, which is the core of the person, can be separated from the body.  In fact, this is how the soul achieves knowledge of the Forms. (Spelman 7) However, at the same time, if the body is not controlled, it can interfere with the soul's search for knowledge of the Forms.  Because the main function of the guardians is to gain knowledge of the Forms, it is critical that they control their bodies.(Spelman 9) Plato suggests that allowing one's body to control their soul is to be like a woman.  Women live according to their bodies and let their bodies interfere with their soul's ability to achieve the Forms. (Spelman 15) This lack of control in women shows a weakness in their souls. 

A man's soul goes to a woman's body only if he has committed unmanly or weak behavior, such as being cowardly.   A cowardly man allows his body to control his soul so his weak soul is reborn into a woman's body.  Spelman claims that this shows that Plato considers souls to be gendered. (Spelman 16) By gendered, Spelman means that souls are either masculine or feminine.  If a man has a feminine soul it makes him a coward and consequently his feminine soul is reborn into a female body where it belongs.  If souls are gendered, then that creates the possibility of four different types of people.  These four types are men with manly souls who are the guardians, men with feminine souls who are cowards, women with manly souls who are the female guardians and women with feminine souls who are typical Athenian women. (Spelman 17) According to Spelman, Plato admires only those with manly souls and allows only those people to be guardians.  In this sense, only atypical women become guardians. (Spelman 19) By this interpretation, female guardians do not have the same nature as the typical Greek woman. Plato alters the nature of a woman in order for the woman to be accepted as a guardian.  Spelman's claim that Plato considers souls to be gendered is a definite contradiction to Allen's earlier claim that, unlike Aristotle, Plato doesn't consider souls to be gendered.

                  The second argument offered against the view that Plato was a feminist focuses on the inconsistency in Plato’s writings in regards to women.  Many different scholars point out the slurs against women in Plato's writing. [4]   While Plato does claim that women should be part of the guardian class, he makes derogatory comments about women in other parts of his writing.  For example, Plato states “isn’t it small-minded and womanish to regard the body as your enemy.” (Republic, Book V, 469d (italics added)) He also states “one finds all kinds of diverse desires, pleasures, and pains, mostly in children, women, household slaves, and in those of the inferior majority who are called free.” (Republic Book IV, 431c ) Comments like these, which suggest that being womanish is a bad thing, seem to indicate that Plato doesn’t consider women to be equal to men. If Plato doesn't admire women, it is hard to believe he argues for their equality.  However, these observations also support the idea that the women Plato supposedly holds in high regard are desexed to a certain degree.  Plato seems to have removed the characteristics that he doesn’t like in women in order to make them manlier and more acceptable for the role of guardian. 

                  There are other arguments that suggest that Plato is not the feminist that some people try to make him out to be.  For example, John Darling argues that, even though gifted women are allowed to be guardians, they are only in the ruling class so that they can produce children. (Darling 124) He argues that women are reduced to sexual objects since male guardians are given more sexual rights if they demonstrate bravery in war. (Darling 126) Darling also points out that the women discussed in Book V of the Republic are too young to rule (Plato does state that rulers should be over fifty.) [5]   (Darling 126) Darling claims that while some women are given the privilege of being in the guardian class, they are not equals to the male guardians because they are considered sexual prizes of war.  (Darling 126) C. G. Allen reiterates Darling's argument.  Allen argues that Plato has a great deal of inconsistency in his writings about women.  This inconsistency is apparent when Plato makes negative comments about women but at the same time puts women in the guardian class. (C.G. Allen 131) Allen concludes that Plato considered a woman to be an "inferior incarnation" of a man. (C.G. Allen 136) As a result, Allen agrees with Darling that, while female guardians are considered better than women in other classes are, they are not equal to the male guardians. (C.G. Allen 136)

                  The arguments of Saxonhouse, Spelman and Darling offer a very impressive counterposition to the arguments for the view that Plato is a feminist.  These contradictory interpretations clearly show that there is a significant difference between Plato and Aristotle.  While feminists who study Aristotle focus on different aspects of his writings, they all come to the same conclusion about his attitude towards women.  Hence, there must be a crucial difference in the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato that allow for these difference interpretations.

            III.        Differences Between Aristotle and Plato

There are significant differences between Aristotle and Plato that help explain why Plato is interpreted in so many ways in comparison to Aristotle.  These differences come not as much from the philosophers' views on women as from their views on human nature and function.

                  Nicholas Smith contends that for Plato, women and men have the same nature, but for Aristotle men have a superior nature than women. (Smith 467) According to Smith, Plato sees women as at least potentially equal to men whereas Aristotle sees women as mutilated males. (Smith 468) As discussed previously, Aristotle has many reasons for viewing women as having an inferior nature to men.  At the same time Plato claims that men and women have similar natures.  Both Aristotle and Plato argue that social roles should comply directly with the nature of the person.  Because they have different views about the nature of men and women, Aristotle and Plato think women should have different societal roles. 

                  Aristotle and Plato are similar in the sense that they both find the female body at least slightly inferior to the male body.  However, as Smith points out, Plato doesn't think that biological differences necessarily mean that there are differences in the nature of the person. (Smith 470) Plato gives the example of the bald cobbler, arguing that a bald cobbler and a longhaired cobbler have the same nature, even though they have biological differences.  Plato goes on to state about men and women that "if it's apparent that they differ only in this respect, that the females bear children while the males beget them, we'll say that there has been no kind of proof that women are different from men with respect to what we're talking about, [different natures needed for different jobs] and we'll continue to believe that our guardians and their wives must have the same way of life." (Plato, Republic, Book V, 454d ) In contrast to Plato, Aristotle considers biological differences to be one way of showing that women are inferior in every respect.  Aristotle feels that the biological differences between men and women keep them from having the same natures.  He also claims that the  biological aspects of both sexes determine what role they will have in society and so the fact that women are biologically inferior makes them socially inferior as well.

                  Aristotle also considers women to have inferior souls.   By claiming that women have inferior souls, Aristotle is also claiming that there are masculine and feminine souls or gendered souls. He believes that the rational part of a woman's soul has no authority over the irrational part and hence her soul is not as good as a man's soul, which does have the authority. (Senack 227) In contrast, Smith argues that Plato views souls as not gendered, since he allows for the possibility of a man's soul being reborn into a female body. (Smith 477) The view that Plato considers souls to be ungendered is somewhat controversial.  Elizabeth Spelman gives an argument that Plato in fact does believe that souls are gendered. However, even if Plato considers souls to be either masculine or feminine, he acknowledges that either one of these souls can be present in a female or male body.  Regardless of Plato's opinion on a feminine soul, he does not hold Aristotle's view that women all have one kind of soul and that it is inherently inferior to the soul of a man. 

                  In conclusion, there are two main differences between Aristotle and Plato. First, Plato doesn't consider biological differences to have an impact on what kind of societal role a person should have.  Secondly, while Aristotle sees a definite difference between a man's soul and a woman's soul, Plato sees all the souls as essentially the same, only that some, regardless of sex, are weaker than others are.  While the differences between Aristotle and Plato are clear, it is still unclear whether or not Plato is a feminist.  One has to consider if these views of Plato make him a feminist as well as distinguish him from Aristotle.

             IV.       Plato and Feminine Characteristics

After looking at many different interpretations of Plato, one is still left with the question of what Plato really thought about women.  Plato puts slurs about women in his writing but at the same time proposes allowing some women to rule a city-state.  If Plato is a feminist, one has to explain the slurs, and if Plato doesn't respect women, one has to explain why he allowed women in the guardian class.  However, there is always the possibility that the truth about Plato's view of women falls somewhere in the middle. I will argue that Plato respects only certain characteristics of women.  I will also argue that Plato appropriates these characteristics to male philosophers and as a result gives them more importance than they had when they were associated only with women.

                  A good example of this appropriation can be seen in Diotima's speech in the Symposium.  In her speech, Diotima is describing how one comes to know true beauty and love.  In this process she uses female metaphors to describe the search for the Forms of beauty and love by the male philosopher.  According to Hawthorne, Diotima uses "the female body metaphor for understanding the nature of love." (Hawthorne 83) While this seems to be a positive account of women, the end result is that men are given what Plato considers to be the better characteristics of women.

Diotima discusses the idea that reproduction brings immortality and happiness.  However, according to Diotima, women are not the only ones who can be become pregnant.  She states "when someone has been pregnant with these [seeds of wisdom] in his soul from early youth, while he is still a virgin, and, having arrived at the proper age, desires to beget and give birth, he too will certainly go about seeking the beauty in which he would beget; for he will never beget in anything ugly." (Plato, Symposium, 209b-c ) So according to Diotima, men can become pregnant with ideas and give birth to wisdom.  Not only can men give birth to wisdom; this "child" is more desired than a human child is.  Diotima states in reference to this newborn wisdom, "everyone would rather have such children than human ones." (Plato, Symposium 209d ) In this speech Diotima takes the power of creation from women and gives it to men.  Not only does she give it to men; she gives it more worth once it is in a man.

These same metaphors are used as well in the Phaedrus where many comments are in reference to field and seeds so as to suggest fertilization and reproduction.  The philosopher replaces the husband in the ploughing of the field; however the philosopher is planting the seeds of philosophy in a field of potential wisdom that comes in the form of his students.  In the Theaetetus Socrates refers to himself as a midwife and describes his patients as suffering from labor that is worse than a woman's. (Plato, Theaetetus 149a- 151e and 151a)

Socrates claims that his purpose is to help young men give birth to wisdom just like his mother (who was an actual midwife) helped women give birth to a child.  However, Socrates claims that his task is greater than that of his mother's and the labor the young men go through is much worse than that of a woman. (Plato, Theaetetus 151a-e)

                  It becomes obvious that Plato admires and likes the ability of women to reproduce and create something.  He takes that idea and applies it to philosophy, giving male philosophers the ability to give birth to wisdom.  However, it is just as obvious that Plato doesn't like other feminine characteristics.  For example, Plato clearly sees women as overly emotional.  In Book III of the Republic he states that guardians must imitate only "people who are courageous, self-controlled, pious, and free." (Plato, Republic, Book III, 395c ) Therefore they should not "imitate either a young woman or an older one, or one abusing her husband, quarreling with the gods, or bragging because she thinks herself happy, or one suffering misfortune and possessed by sorrows and lamentations, and even less one who is ill, in love or in labor." (Plato, Republic, Book III, 395d ) In other words, women have the tendency to not be courageous, self-controlled or pious in most situations.  Plato makes other comments in his writing that suggest that women are overly emotional or at least have a weak character. [6]   (Plato, Republic, Book V469d)

                  By given male philosophers the positive attributes of women, Plato leaves women with nothing to redeem themselves.  He leaves them as weak and emotional creatures, nowhere close to the equals of men.  However, these are just the women of Athens.  The subject of the female guardians is a different matter. It is impossible for men to reproduce in the true sense without women.  Therefore there have to be women in the perfect city.  Plato attempts to get only the positive characteristics of women in the female guardians.  If one looks closely at the characteristics of the female guardians, one realizes that Plato has allowed for only the best possible woman to be a guardian.  He has taken away much of the emotional part of the woman by removing factors such as personal belongings and children that typically make women emotional.  The guardian women are also trained along with the men so they can be just like the men, even if they are always weaker. [7] (Plato, Republic Book V 451e)

 Even while the guardian women are being educated to be like men, their main purpose of is reproduction.  Plato has an elaborate system for making sure the right guardians conceive children together.  He clearly states that he wants the best woman to mate with the best man. Women are also given to men for sex if the men are brave in battle.  The duties that women typically perform the best, such as raising children and maintaining a family, are nonexistent in the ruling class, since the whole class raises all the children and no one is married.

  While many scholars interpret female guardians as manly, I think that they are not so much manly as they are minimum women.  Plato has allowed them only the characteristics that he likes and has removed all other characteristics or attributes from the female guardians. As a result, the female guardians are not really women.

Maggie Humm defines a feminist as someone who has “both a doctrine of equal rights for women and an ideology of social transformation aiming to create a world for women beyond simple social equality.” (Humm 74) If we use this definition of feminism, then Plato is not a feminist.  To begin with, Plato does not offer equal rights to women, even though it appears that way in the guardian class.  The guardian class does not have genuine women in it; it has female guardians who are almost a cross between a male and a female.  Plato does not offer equality for the women that exist in his society.  Instead he creates the perfect, atypical or extraordinary woman and gives her the same rights as the men have.  Plato dreams of having women whom are capable of being equal, but he certainly does not consider equality for the women of his society. (Schott 6)

Instead of creating a society that gives women equality, Plato is creating a woman that can fit into his ideal society.  However, to give Plato credit, he does allow for the possibility that some women could become equals of men.  This is one of the crucial differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Aristotle sees women as naturally inferior to men and therefore incapable of ever being men's equals. Plato acknowledges that biological differences do not interfere with the function of humans.  For Plato, women have differences in character that do interfere with their ability to be rulers.  However, he allows for the possibility that these characteristics could be trained out of women, after which they would become acceptable guardians and rulers.

In conclusion, while Plato is definitely not a feminist, I do not think he deserves the negative reading that some feminist scholars give him.  Plato definitely did not like or respect the women of Athens.  However, he had good reason to not like them since women of classical Greece were not educated and were kept in the house.  They were not capable of having an educated conversation like most men.  Plato was able to see past the restrictions of society and recognize that there was really no biological reason that women were not involved in politics.  Just by putting women in the guardian class, Plato opened up the possibility of women being equal to men.  The fact that Aristotle and his biological writings immediately destroyed this possibility is irrelevant.  Plato has one of the most charitable philosophies on women of any of the ancient philosophers.

So while Plato cannot really be considered a feminist in any sense of the word, he is not completely negative about women either.  He doesn't particularly like women, but he admires certain abilities and characteristics of women.  He takes these abilities and characteristics away from women to give them to male philosophers, but in doing that he acknowledges that women do have something positive to offer to society.  He also allows for the possibility of women being equal to men with the right kind of education and training.  While Plato's views of women seem hardly impressive by today's standards and in comparison to modern feminism, in comparison to other ancient philosophers his views are very much ahead of their time.

In summary, there are many good reasons for why contemporary writers evaluate Plato and Aristotle in different ways.  Plato and Aristotle have critical differences in their philosophies that affect their views of women.  Plato's philosophy approves of certain feminine characteristics and this keeps him from eliminating women completely from his idea of how society should be.  In conclusion, the answer to the question "Is Plato a Feminist?" is no.  However one can acknowledge that in comparison to Aristotle, Plato was ahead of his time with his views on women.


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[1] Smith is referring to the place in Book V where Plato states “everything should be in common, except that the females are weaker and the males stronger.” (The Republic, Book V, (451e))

[2] Vlastos condenses this argument against inconsistency into four propositions which are listed on page 12.  He explains them in more detail throughout his essay.

[3] Ideas about treatment on Diotima pulled from Hawthorne text.

[4] Saxonhouse points out definite insults against women.  Vlastos also points out these insults, although he suggests that they are just Plato's personal opinion and don't affect his philosophy towards women.   C. G. Allen is yet another scholar who points out the inconsistency in Plato as a result of the insults directed at women.  All of these scholars bring attention to the fact that Plato at times says very negative things about women even while he is supposedly suggesting equality for them.

[5] Plato gives age of rulers in Book VII of the Republic  (540a).  He also gives the prime breeding for women in Book V (460e).  This breeding age is 20-40.  The women Plato discusses in Book V are young to be breeding but not old enough to rule. 

[6] Plato talks about people being "womanish" if they strip a corpse after battle.

[7] Plato states that "everything should be in common, except that the females are weaker and the males are stronger."

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