Plato’s Philosophy On Women
In an excerpt from Book V of the Republic, Socrates engages in conversation with a character named Glaucon about a supposition made by the former regarding the birth and education of their women. Socrates wanted to know for the sake of argument whether or not it would result in an equal distribution of work and rank for both men and women in society. As is wont with the Socratic method, Socrates was able to pronounce his arguments through the use of Glaucon as a metaphorical ox who is responsible for pulling the cargo to its destination by means of providing the reply-questions so often associated with the aforementioned method.
So it goes that it is one of Glaucon’s questions which began the discussion on Plato’s philosophy on women as found in the Republic; Socrates answered Glaucon with an inquiry which sought to provide that male and female alike are basically capable of the same responsibilities however stronger the former may be when compared with the latter. This produced the argument that if women are capable of performing the same duties as men, then they ought to have the same upbringing as pertain the education and nurture that is bestowed on the men of their society. Afterwhich Socrates proceeds to reflect on the nature of woman: “Is she capable of sharing either wholly or partially in the actions of men, or not at all?” The answer to this question was beautifully unraveled after coming up with a possible counter-argument about the inconsistency in Socrates’ notion that two natures of so pronounced a difference are called to perform the same actions, with that of the concept that speaks of how everybody in the State ought do the work best suited to his own nature.
It is with the above-mentioned that Socrates delves into that psychological habit of mankind which is characterized by our eagerness to “pursue a merely verbal opposition in the spirit of contention and not of fair discussion,” that is to say, bringing forth an argument for the sake of argument — hence, the so-called Art of Contradiction whose power is glorified by none other than Socrates himself. Furthermore, when Socrates pointed out the all-too-human propensity to conjure arguments for the sake of debate, it shows another face of Plato’s leanings towards what he calls the world of ideas. Such verbal opposition merits here vanity for the real predicament lies in never having considered the meaning of sameness or difference in nature as they were in the process of making a distinction of the pursuits assigned to those of different or same natures.
Socrates goes on to clarify that it was never the intention of the Republic to promulgate that the difference in natures should apply to every aspect of an individual, but only to “those differences which affected the pursuit in which the individual is engaged”. This being the case, while the most obvious difference of a woman with a man lies in the former’s and latter’s respective ability to bear and beget children, this difference does not tantamount to an evidence suggesting that women should differ from a man in respect of the sort of education and nurture she ought receive.
I agree to the extent that a difference in one aspect of men and women’s nature should not become a hindrance should they decide to pursue an action that is oft-associated with a nature distinct from that of their own; however, as was spoken of by Socrates himself, it is an indefatigable fact that men are superior in terms of strength compared to women who are as we all know are regarded as the fairer sex.
The truth of this should not be dismissed for merely the sake of equality as it shall play an important role in the stability of the Republic. For should there be an insistence in a total delegation of work apt for a certain nature, to those of a different nature but is more or less capable of doing the same action, the outcome would inevitably be a substandard version of what could have been a proper result should the rightful nature be utilized for the task. This is not to belittle the abilities of women, as it only seeks to explain that there are more than a few factors to be considered other than the physiological distinction between man and woman.
Then again, Socrates tells Glaucon that there being “no special faculty of administration in a State which a woman had because she is a woman, or which a man has by virtue of his sex,” therefore the endowments provided by nature are diffused alike in both. However, the philosopher does point out that in all these pursuits, albeit women are more or less capable of doing the same, they are comparably inferior to men in manners of strength.
This argument is further cited in the process by which a male guardian is selected, that is, the differences to be distinguished must be of the sort which should be closely aligned with the work to be pursued. Again, women are said to be comparably weaker than men regardless of the former possessing the same qualities which make a man a guardian. In spite of this, we should go back to the principle that similar natures ought to have the same pursuits — for in the long run it will be in the best interest of the State that its citizens, regardless of gender, are at their fullest potential when engaging in work.
Therefore what difference men and women may have, along with the possible outcomes should they go through with pursuits not akin to their natures, are overshadowed by the pursuit of justice which is vital to the concept of the Republic. Ultimately, Plato exhibits through Socrates a philosophy on women characterized by an outlook subsisting between the lines which separate reality from the ideal.
It is realistic to the extent that for the concept of justice to flourish in a Republic, which is supposedly founded upon said virtue, the assignment of pursuits should be grounded on the similarities of distinct natures, as it looks beyond the physiological. Meanwhile, it is idealistic in so far as it relegates the various effects of these physiological difference to that of mere “comparable weakness,” when in fact we may infer quite easily that nature endowed man and woman with distinct natures that they may have the upper hand in the pursuits which, again, nature had intended for them. Suffice to say that this idealism is proposed for the sake of another idealism– The Republic.