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In Book V, Socrates and Glaucon discuss the ways to make the city more unified by having common wives and children; however, their way to achieve a sense of community is not possible or desirable. A community consists of men, women and children, three groups of people that they discuss. Initially they agree that “men and women… have the same nature with respect to guarding a city, except insofar as the one is weaker and the other stronger” (V.456a). This entitles them to the same education, and I assume the same respect. On the contrary, Socrates does not seem to believe that women ought to receive the same respect as men perhaps because of men’s superior physical strength. He states that “all these women are to belong to all these men in common, and no woman is to live privately with any man” (V.457d). The key to his message is the way he claims that women are to belong to men and not “men are to belong to all these women.” Regardless to his acknowledgement that they have the potential to be talented guardians just like men, the way he arranged the words in the sentence proves that he does not consider them equal. He seems to view women as a possession, an object that can be handed to another man at any time. In fact, his sense of community is most likely impossible because Socrates does not place enough importance on relationships between men and women, and child and parent.

When considering whether it would be beneficial or possible for the city to have common wives, he argues that “I don’t suppose it would be disputed that the community of women and the community of children are… the greatest good… but I suppose that there would arise a great deal of dispute as to whether they are possible or not” (V.457d). This shows that he assumes it would be best for the city if children and wives are communal, but might not be possible. On the contrary, Socrates fails to recognize that the reason for which it would be disputed that it is not possible is because it is not desirable or beneficial.  Instead, he attempts to adjust his argument by proposing that we “make marriages sacred in the highest possible degree” (V.458e), after he argues that “to have irregular intercourse with one another, or to do anything else of the sort, isn’t hold in a city of happy men nor will the rulers allow it” (V.458d). However, he never defines his meaning of marriage or specifies if men can only marry one women or more, nor does he explain what he means by “irregular intercourse.” It is unclear whether he believes men ought to have regular intercourse with multiple women after marrying them, or ought to marry one woman and regularly have intercourse with only that one woman.

As Socrates and Glaucon proceed with their discussion, it seems that the former avoids addressing the loophole of his argument supporting communal wives by continuing to make either vague or contradictory claims. He compares human beings to breeding dogs (V.459) and concludes his analogy arguing that “there is a need for the best men to have intercourse as often as possible with the best women” (V.459d). He assumes that the best women or men will be attracted to one another and both desire to have intercourse. It is unclear how he plans to make them procreate unless he plans to make the rulers enforce this insensitive law. To expand on my argument above regarding Socrates’s lack of respect for women and his disregard for relations between men and women, he plans to reward “young men who are good in war” (V. 460b) with “the privilege of more abundant intercourse with the women” (V.460b). Once again this shows that women are seen as a possession, rather than a human being with emotions and desires. He continues to assume that they will be willing and Glaucon does not question how Socrates plans to offer a woman to a man without her consent, or whether that would even be holy or just. In fact, the objective of the entire discussion from book one has been to understand justice, but they do not seem to question enough whether they propositions are just.

Focusing more on the children, Socrates does not seem accepting or respectful towards some children. He argues that “those of the worse, and any of the others born deformed, they will hide away in an unspeakable and unseen place” (V.460bc), which also seems far from just treatment. As Glaucon states, they are attempting to keep the “guardians’ species… pure” (V.460c), which slightly reminds me of Hitler’s desire to want only blond and blue eyes children to be born. I am not arguing that Socrates is like Hitler; I simply want to highlight his lack of respect towards diverse children.

I admire Socrates’s desire to create a sense of community without the city; however, the city will not survive if women are only valued instrumentally by men and rulers and if children are hidden in “unseen places” because it will eventually lead to a revolution of women who feel unjustly treated. However, this is the opposite of their desired results because they believe that men will “live in peace with one another in all respects…as a result of the laws” (V.465d). Peace will be difficult to achieve if they implement laws that state that “when a men still of the age to beget touches a women of that age if a ruler has not united them. We’ll say he’s imposing a bastard, an unauthorized and unconsecrated child on the city” (V.461b). He does not make it clear whether Socrates is proposing that such child will be unloved even though it is a community of fathers, mothers, and children that are not emotionally attached to a small family where every child is cared for and loved by multiple parents.

Socrates makes good arguments that could be supported better, but he seems to make too many assumptions. He assumes that women will consent to have intercourse with any man that desire them, and that mothers will be able to treat multiple children equally without recognizing the resemblance in the child to whom they gave birth. Glaucon fails to question Socrates when he is arguing while using vague terms, such as marriage, and fails to challenge him regarding communal wives and children. While I did not cover the relations between parents and children as much as the one between men and women, it is important to acknowledge that children need stability and it is close to impossible for one child to be raised by many parents. Although, the sense of community could be desirable, his way of achieving a unified city is not. Disagreements among men and women regarding the ways to raise a child, and among women who are not willing to be treated as “prizes or rewards” (V.460b) will tear apart the community, resulting to the exact opposite that they hope to achieve: chaos.

20 Responses to “A Sense of Community in Book V”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    I agree with you that the breeding program sounds a lot like eugenics, which most people find distasteful today. (However, as a sidenote, we should not forget how many prominent Americans and Europeans supported eugenics up until WW2 and even beyond it. As late as the 1960s, various Nobel laureates, including Crick of Watson and Crick fame, were supporting various forms of eugenics, alas…) Maybe what really makes us uncomfortable is not the idea of quality people having a lot of kids but of the destruction or hiding away of the “non-quality” children (I want to make clear these are not my ideas; I am just trying to take up the Platonic scenario on its own terms).

    I am not sure, though, that you are correct re: the point about desire at 459d. I don’t think Socrates is assuming the best men will be attracted to the best women and vice versa. I think the point is that we only want those people to breed with each other. Remember that breeding will be very tightly controlled, although the inability of the guardians to properly implement the “nuptial number” and to properly restrain eros means that things will fall apart eventually.

    I think you have a good eye when you point to the passages at 460b and 457d re: the language. It certainly does sound there that women are the common property of men, and indeed that is how Aristotle analyzes the problematic in Politics 2. A real equality of men and women would presumably make them the common property in a common way, so to speak. Again, though, we should recall the radicality of the proposal: we are shocked at any claim that makes men and women unequal, but Socrates’ point is that precisely on the level that matters–that of the soul–men and women are indeed equal. If women are inferior in war and are responsible for bearing children, that is a fact concerning their bodies and not their souls. Of course, maybe this is just abstracting away the important issue. Or maybe the suggestion is that men and women are never equal as men and women; the important thing to consider not gendered beings but human beings. I don’t know.

    It may be worth examining Aristotle’s critique of the Republic in Politics 2, as I have mentioned before; it is short and illuminating. His basic point is twofold: the Socratic city would not achieve the unity that it sets out to achieve; and it sets out to achieve the wrong kind of unity, anyway. And a large part of the problem with both issues is the treatment of women.

    It is true that in both the Odyssey and the Republic women are sometimes portrayed in an unflattering light. However, I think it is also important to remember how positively women are portrayed in these two works, too. Perhaps this range illustrates a fuller portrait of the human condition than one would find in many works. Any child can see that there are differences between men and women. The question is what exactly those differences are and how they are important (or not).

    There’s more to say about children but check out Politics 2 for the better version (i.e. Aristotle instead of me).

    KH

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