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Plato: "The Role of Women in Ideal Society" PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 05 May 2010 04:08


In studying Greek philosophy, one particular remains consistent. When referring to an ideal person, be it a citizen, a political leader, a philosopher, or a soldier, a man is used for the model. And the aspiration of all men, virtue is derived from the root for ma, “vir”. These examples alone would lead the attentive observer to ask, “what about the women?” Traditionally, Greek life in general was not in tune with the right of women. Many philosophers, such as Aristotle, were particularly opposed to women having any sort of role in society outside of child bearing. Plato and Socrates, however, were pioneer in pushing for equality of qualified women to play a pivotal role in politics and philosophy. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that women are as capable as men in pursuit of their endeavors, and he puts these observations into consideration. The Republic initiates the discussion of the inclusion of women in Plato’s “guardian class.” Right away the debate is raised as to what capacity a female could fill in the “guardian class.” Glaucon implies that the admission of women to any office violates Plato’s principle of the division of labor. Socrates refutes this opinion sharply when he states the division of labor must be made by aptitude and ability, not by sex; if a woman shows her skills.




The dichotomy of similarities and differences is evident in the depiction of women’s roles in The Republic, by Plato. Plato assigns to women a role that is much more progressive than the role held by women in his contemporary society. However, even with this progressive view, the differences between the roles assigned to men, and those assigned to women clearly reflect the  preconceptions regarding gender roles present in the author’ society as well as those of the author himself. In Athenian society of the 3rd and 4th Centuries BC, women led very sheltered, cloistered lives. Athens is viewed as the earliest model of democracy, and yet fully half of its inhabitants, all of the women, were denied citizenship, and thereby a participation in the governing of the city-state. Within this context, Plato’s depiction of the role of women in his utopia is startling. To make his argument, Plato first brings up the analogy of a watchdog. He argues that one would not exempt a female watchdog from her work as a guardian, simply because she gives birth to puppies. Since Plato sees the upper-class, the Guardians, as the watchdogs of the state, he similarly holds that female Guardians ought to be given the same responsibilities as men. He argues that the only difference between men and women is a physiological one – women are able to give bright. Since in The Republic, children are raised communally, Plato does not feel that reproduction would prevent women from participation in military or Guardian roles. In order for his society to be successful, Plato believes that all members must be productive, the women as well as the men. The Philosopher-King is assumed to be a man, but aside from that, there is no hierarchy among the Guardians based on gender. In essence, Plato assigns to women a role nearly equal to that of men. In designing this unification of genders, Plato had as a model Spartan society. In the military-oriented Sparta city-state, women were trained in physical activities alongside men, even exercising naked, as was Greek custom of the time.


Although Plato can be considered progressive in his view of the role of women in an ideal society, he is still clearly influenced by the patriarchal views of his native culture. When discussing the work that is to be assigned to women, Plato insists that women are capable of the same task as men, but assumes that women will necessarily be inferior in performing them. This seems to obvious to him that it is not worthy of discussion – he make the claim, and it is immediately agreed upon. When dissolving the family and romantic relationships, Plato indicates a prejudice stemming more from his own preferences than from the status quo of his society. Plato, in his own life did not form deep romantic or intellectual relationship with women. His conception of amiable interpersonal relationships centers on friendships and romantic companionships between men. Taking this into account, the ease with which he dismisses the importance of family and romantic pairings is clearer. He reduces sex to state-mandated mating solely for the purpo9se of reproduction because, taking his own life as the standard; he does not perceive it as a hardship for the men and women of his ideal society.


Plato was visionary, and as such, his vision of an ideal society provided for a more equitable role for women than was provided in his own contemporary society. Because Plato bases his society on the necessity for productivity from all of its members, women are expected to work as much as men. In this ideal society, individuals are valued based on their abilities instead of their birth; women are given the opportunity to be valued outside of their traditional roles of mother and wife. However, Plato was product of the paternalistic society of his time, and so it is understandable that his society, although moiré equitable, still did not provide for complete equality among the sexes.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 May 2010 05:02
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