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A Critique of Plato’s Theory on the Status of Women

An Old Essay Discussing Old Platonian Ideas

Photo Courtesy of Muggyrdhousecreative

Despite his arguments for equality among men and women of the guardian class in The Republic, Plato did not offer a theory that in any way liberates women in general. Book Five deals with the status of women; this essay will prove that Plato’s theory is unsustainable by assessing selections from his dialogue and offering insight into gender issues based on modern perceptions.

Before critically analysing Plato’s arguments, it should be noted that women have hardly been mentioned in the first four books. Why not? Plato could have implied that they should be involved in the politics of defining justice throughout The Republic, just like men, while still dedicating a specific discussion to them. 

That discussion can then serve to explain why women should play an important role in shaping this republic, and not be reduced to rigidly defined roles. It seems out of place to suddenly add in that women should have equal training as men in guardianship (456b) without properly establishing and solidifying their roles as political animals alongside men in the previous books. At that point, the reader will not understand the purpose of allowing women in guardianship if women are not free to exercise their rights in politics, and are not educated enough to make decisions for themselves and others.

Another point worth mentioning before the analysis is that while one can make the argument that his theory is way beyond current practice, it is still problematic in that the theory has not been implemented in the way that he may have envisioned it then in modern times. Thus, it may not be relevant to current issues and may not even work in the context of today’s standards.

It must be said, nonetheless, that Plato did actually try to give justice to women in this book by starting off with offering them guardianship (452a), but could not because of the time period he was writing in and the biases in that time period against women. This is understandable to a degree, as it was presumably difficult to sway an audience with conservative and aggressive beliefs. Regardless, what was stopping him from rebelling harder against the norm? Socrates was willing to die standing by his beliefs, yet these beliefs inspired Plato’s theories.

To have a stronger argument for liberating women, Plato needed to demonstrate a better understanding of women themselves. He should have had more discussions with women and gotten their perspectives from all the positions and classes present in that society. It is very unlikely that he did this, in spite of addressing women, as he still spoke about social justice in male terms by solely speaking through male characters throughout his whole dialogue, namely Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. In fact, The Republic consists of his ideas being rallied back and forth without an outsider’s opinion other than the inspiration of Socrates. The scope for discussion is then very limited and biased, as it does not reinforce an accurate depiction from the perspective of someone who is actually experiencing some form of misogyny.

Plato, then, clearly had no modern concept of gender equality, which means that he had no sense of reflexivity, and thus promoting equality was widely understood in male terms. This has troubling implications for how gender issues are addressed and what defines objectivity. He would have not been able to easily recognise his personal biases and how they, along with his writings and presence in the field, affect how women might interact—and how other members in society, particularly men, treat them. It is difficult, then, for women to be taken seriously at all.

Generally speaking, Plato’s concept of justice and criteria look different to us, so we are less inclined to support his argument because of obvious gender inequalities in his writings. He had overall fewer, less effective arguments for the liberation of women in the eyes of modern thinkers. We can now segue into those arguments as well as the arguments against liberating women by evaluating their validity through a critical lens.

Undoubtedly, the initial framing device for this theory is rooted in the notion that women were still seen as weaker than men during Plato’s time. He had admitted to this through the character of Socrates (455e), regardless of even their greatest capabilities in each of the classes. This would have likely created problems for women when membership for higher classes was in question, which is putting a limit on their freedom to exercise such powers. 

Although men have the biological tendency to be physically stronger than women, Plato said that women are able to engage in the same practices as men because it is natural for them to do so (456a), which is already a contradiction to the aforementioned statements. The other issue here is that Plato viewed men as having more strength than women in other areas beyond the physical, like in sciences, the arts, and governance (455e). It is an unfair statement to make, because women were not even given the opportunity for education in such practices, so their competence could not be properly judged.

Women were given classes, and some women may have been able to rule most men depending on power dynamics, but they were still ranked lower in each class when compared to their male counterparts (455c). The only time where they were ranked higher was if the positions themselves were higher in ranking than others (455d). 

This does not make sense, and implies gender discrimination to a degree. If Plato wanted to make the argument that women should be trained and educated the same way as men due to their equal capabilities, why were the parametres in deciding on the ranking system different for both groups in terms of gender (457a)? 

There is nothing else that can explain the difference other than gender distinctions between the two groups, because capabilities and traits always were and still are associated with either masculinity or femininity. Ranking should be based on the nature of the position and overall merit, and have nothing to do with the gender of the individual.

Plato had no intent to make women more free. He still viewed women as possessions of the city, as they belonged to everyone and not just to men respectively (457d). The point of freedom is to be able to live, think and work independently, though keeping in mind that people are still able to live in cohesion with others. 

Having women belong to the city prevents them from deciding for themselves what kind of relationships they want to and should have, and this argument goes for everyone else as well. It is unrealistic to assume that all people will get along perfectly and will get to know every last person in the community (458c). This can only potentially work if the population is miniscule and if one is able to access information for all citizens.

Female slaves were not included in this section. In fact, slaves in general were not even mentioned once in this specific discussion. This suggests that Plato disregarded them as a class of individuals, who were unable to develop virtues like the rest of society. It would mean that he isolated and undermined perfectly capable human beings that are being stripped of equal opportunities. If Plato wanted to make a case about improving life for women, then he needed to take into account all women, regardless of what position they held in society. He could have potentially been doing slaves a favour as well, given their submissive roles and limited freedom during that time.

Men were encouraged to have as much sex as possible (there did not need to be that many women) in order to reproduce the best individuals (potential guardians) as possible according to class (459e). What about women’s needs, goals, and desires? This is a double standard, and it is once again ignoring women’s issues as this is recommending what is best for the man as opposed to the woman. Also, on a side note, it is the upbringing and inherent personality that shapes the child, not the class they belong to. Therefore, it is not enough for the parents to be of a particular class to determine the child’s success in their position (460c).

Plato never mentioned anything inside the relationships of gender roles in other classes besides those within the guardian class (458d). He cannot make an argument for equality among the entire population, without observing and understanding the power and relationship dynamics between parties of all existing cultures in society. Whatever may be applicable for the guardian class may not be feasible for the other classes. It cannot be assumed that such dynamics will flow the same way across all interactions (462a), especially when it comes to gender conflicts where different forms of potential oppression and discrimination can be present within any social class.

Plato changed the role of women to guardianship because the class needed to have a unity that does not allow for the plurality of families, which could be in tension with each other over power and privilege (465b). It had nothing to do with progressively redefining the role of women themselves, and this would limit their characteristically strong attachment to the household and the more private, freer life in it (462d). It is also, in a sense, controlling women based on their ability to procreate and limiting their say on the matter (460e). 

One of his primary goals was that he needed to transform the ruling class into one single family (460a). This does not address specific gender issues at all. It would also mean that there needed to be fewer women in the ruling class to avoid overpopulating it. This would limit some women in their choice to apply for guardianship based on how many members are needed, not on their tested abilities and the kind of skills needed for the class.

There was also the glaring problem of reproduction; women seem to be put in the role of guardianship for the sake of reproduction of the ruling and guardian class (460e). What about other duties in the position? What about women’s duties in other positions and classes? Plato’s statement seems to make it clear that women were admitted into the guardian class because of their ability to reproduce (464a), which men cannot accomplish, and not because they shared the same potentials for the position as men. Had it not been for reproduction and that as a determining factor for the consideration of women in guardianship, there is the likelihood that women may not even have been brought up in this discussion in the first place.

Plato said that men and women must be equal in the class of guardianship in order to aim for equality in the whole population (461e). It seems that he completely disregarded the role and importance of women (and potentially men as well) in other positions and classes. He then disregarded their importance as individuals in general (467d). There can never be true equality among people if we are to go along with this idea, especially if the needs and concerns of all the specific types of individuals are not addressed. Focusing and depending only on one class to equalise the population will not have a domino effect on the other classes, as the context is different for all of them.

Plato ignored male victimization and other men’s issues. He overgeneralised the capabilities and traits of men (455c), while perhaps inadvertently undermining those of women (455e). He failed to realise that people of all genders are born in varying shapes and sizes, and so it is unrealistic to categorise men or women as all being equally good or bad in a discipline. He also did not take into account the internal struggles of men (and women) and the conflicting thoughts they may have had towards the customs in Athens. Examples can include how some might have felt about warfare, the political and legal system, and so on.

Using arguments based on a modern understanding of gender issues to refute Plato’s viewpoint on liberating women in Book Five of The Republic has shown that his theory is outdated in many respects. While it is understandable that a lot of the terms discussed in this essay were not conceptualised in Plato’s time, the problems with his ideas that are only recognisable through a modern perspective simply cannot be ignored, because there has been much social change between then and now. Trying to ignore that aspect to look at Plato’s theory as objectively as possible would make this essay’s interpretation lose credibility with the readers of today.

Works Cited

Bloom, Allan. "Book V." The Republic of Plato. Second Edition ed. New York: Basic Books, 1991. 127-46. Print.

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