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In Book V of The Republic, Socrates discusses the state of nature in reference to men and women and the seeming equality between the genders. Socrates emphasizes that the decisions made for the city, more specifically the guardians that are to live there, are within the best interest of the women. While it appears on the surface that Socrates believes in teaching men and women the same skills, he does not truly agree that the genders are equal. During the course of Book V, Socrates’ argument and women and men are naturally equal becomes weakened, and it is evident that perhaps Plato has very little respect for women, not just within the ideal city, but overall.

The main argument that Socrates maintains throughout Book V is the fact that it is not going against nature or any natural laws for women to learn the two arts of music and gymnastics. He is actually a proponent for the education of women and agrees that within the classes, specifically the guardian class, must be as equal as possible specifically in reference to war and during war times, and women have the right to learn the same arts as their male counterparts. “Then these two arts, and what has to do with war, must be assigned to the women also, and they must be used in the same ways,” (130, 452a). It is important to note what Socrates means when he addresses the issue of nature in order to fully understand what is meant by the issue of equality in a natural sense. “For example, we meant that a man and a woman whose souls are suited for the doctor’s art have the same nature,” (133 454c). Socrates admits that women and men can have the same skill set and by honing in on their strengths and capitalizing on them as opposed to trying to fix their weaknesses can create a better society. He goes on to note that a male doctor and male carpenter have very different natures, which is absolutely true. What I find most interesting about the difference in natures is that here it appears to differ from profession to profession, yet a female doctor to a male doctor are agreed to have the same natures. So far in Book 5, women and men are comfortably seen as equals.

As the book continues, however, Socrates’ opinion on equality begins to shift. It is not so much that he believes women are totally inferior to men, but that women within the guardian class are superior to the women and men of the other two classes. But this is the only instance in which women are in some way superior. Even though the guardian women are viewed as the best of the women in all three classes, they are still inferior to the guardian men. Overall, women are weaker than men according to Plato and Socrates, but it is a fact that men in the lower classes cannot possibly be superior to any person that is above him. “Men and women, therefore, also have the same nature with respect to guarding a city, except insofar as the one is weaker and the other stronger,” (134, 456b). Despite the fact that women are taught the same arts and educated in the same way as the men, the women are struggle to gain any respect from the males within their class.

Whether it is intellect, courage, strength, respect, or skill, women are the weaker gender to Glaucon and Socrates. No matter how much education she receives or gymnastics and athletics in which she participates, there is no flexibility in the societal structure to allow women to take control or be viewed as an equal to a man. Women can learn the same things, train the same way, and grow as a whole with the same ideals and skills as a man making her ‘equal’ in training and experience, but this by no means constitutes equality of the genders. “All these women are to belong to all these men in common, and no woman is to live privately with any man […]” (136, 457d). Women are still viewed as property to the men in the ideal city and familial life is nothing sacred. The women are chosen by the men, and the families are put together depending on who is the ‘best’ by the standards of the city and who will create the most brilliant and knowledgeable offspring. There are to be designated times for intercourse and there are very strict rules regarding the structure of marriage that are to be in place. “Then it’s plain that next we’ll make marriages sacred in the highest possible degree. And the most beneficial marriages would be sacred,” (137, 458e). Plato has a talent for writing in such a way that makes his audience want to believe that his idea of marriage is sacred, but what he is really saying is that only ‘beneficial’ marriages are the ones which will be truly considered sacred. “There is a need for the best men to have intercourse as often as possible with the best women, and the reverse for the most ordinary men with the most ordinary women […]” (138, 459e). The idea of classes is just as slanted as the idea that women are weaker than men. However I appreciate that Socrates is not just showing favoritism to the male gender and specifically discusses the biases he holds between the classes themselves not just of women versus men.

Plato is not a disrespectful, chauvinistic pig by any means. While his lack of respect for women does bother me, his whole idea surrounding the ideal city is to create the ideal citizens to live in the city and in order to do this, there needs to be an order that is maintained and controlled by the general populus. Should women find themselves on the same level as men, there would be arguments abound in reference to arranged marriages, work in and outside of the home, child rearing, and so on. If the people, men and women, are given standards from birth which they must uphold within their classes, they will never stray from what they know because it is their duty to fulfill them and maintain the status quo which happens to be a very similar idea to that of the cave in Book VII. However, the intent of Socrates and Glaucon was not to bring women down or show a distinct disdain for them. The reason behind Socrates’ beliefs that women are inferior stems from his knowledge of what is best for women, and he felt that women would be best appreciated and utilized in the ways that the men constructed for the ideal city. It is highly doubtful that neither Socrates nor Plato in his writings was attacking the female species in any sort of manner but there is a definite noteworthy lack of moral respect towards women that is maintained throughout The Republic.

21 Responses to “The State of Nature of the Genders in Book V and Inferiority of Women in the Ideal City”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Some thoughtful suggestions here. Let me respond as best as I can while also being concise.

    First off, I think “state of nature” is probably the wrong phrase to use. I know you have Hobbes and Locke on the brain from WPJ, but I don’t think Socrates is using “nature” just to mean the normal state of things. I think for him “nature” also includes the potential for being something (e.g., a saddle maker or a philosopher queen). There are different natures that make us suitable for different arts, but, as you point out, this holds across both sexes.

    Part of the issue re: women and men here is that it’s hard to figure out what is being claimed. At first glance, the ancient biological claims look offensive to us, and perhaps rightly so. But on the other hand I think Plato is much more a proponent of “gender equality” than many thinkers today are.

    For example, something like “standpoint epistemology” is held, largely unreflectively, by a lot of thinkers today. In other words, it isn’t just the case for these thinkers that we know different things; we in fact know differently based on who we are and where we are from. So men and women literally experience the world differently, and the question is whether we should take men or women’s experience as the point of departure or as the standard. I think Plato’s point is that when it comes to the really important stuff, there is only one way to know. And that way is open to both men and women. In other words, when it comes to philosophy, neither men nor women are “superior” in terms of the soul. It is reasonable to claim that Plato’s suggestion is actually much more gender equal than the standpoint one.

    It is true that Socrates and the others agree that women are weaker. But how? In terms of the body. In other words, there are clear biological differences between men and women. But is this the same thing as saying that there are clear philosophical differences between men and women? Remember women can be philosopher queens; to Athenian men, this would be an outlandish claim. And yet it is being proposed.

    So I think the deeper issue here is not that Plato/Socrates is suggesting that women are inferior. What is more problematic, perhaps, is the suggestion that women are inferior due to natural causes (e.g., the body) rather than conventional ones (e.g., patriarchy or male dominance).

    On the one hand, Socrates is much more radically gender egalitarian, it seems to me. On the other hand, he locates the differences that are there in nature and not in convention; however non-essential those differences are, they are thus not due to male injustice. Perhaps that is what disturbs contemporary readers more in the end, because such a stance requires an acceptance of certain human limitations. And accepting limitations on who we can be is not the mantra of modernity, to put it mildly.

    KH

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