Plato and Socrates? View of Women?s Roles 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 man, “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 rights 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, where pioneers 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 in Book V.
The Republic, Book V 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 “that division of labor must be made by aptitude and ability, not by sex; if a woman shows herself to be capable of political administration, let her rule.” In other words, if it is a woman?s destined role to lead, then she must be presented the opportunity. If a woman shows herself able to guide a society and a man shows himself only capable of washing dishes, let the woman rule and the man clean the plates. “Socrates is willing to accept the fact that, generally speaking, women are inferior to men with respect to the best pursuits, but does not feel that this precludes the possibility that some women are better than most men even with respect to what is best.” It is obvious that Socrates? discussion in Book V is radical in its incorporation of women in such high positions.
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Including women in society at all directly contradicts previous Athenian thought. But Plato “grants woman importance merely because the psyche in itself has no sex and is capable of dwelling in a body of either sex.” Socrates stresses in Book V that women are to be given all the opportunities in improving themselves as men are allotted. There should be no consideration of sex as far as education is concerned. “In elaborating the psychic and social structure of justice in the ideal state of the Republic, [Plato] explicitly argues against sex discrimination in education for guardian women. He also argues for giving qualified persons full opportunity for guardian training regardless of whether they are male or female.” Plato continues to insist that women stand on equal foot with men in the guardian class by insisting they train and exercise with the men as they prepare to become warriors. They are to also eat and act communally with the men. Yet, with all the inclusion of females in Plato?s upper-echelon class, he is not in total agreement that the genders exist equally.
Plato is at times confusing in his opinion of women. While it cannot be argued that he, along with his mentor Socrates, were the first to acknowledge women as capable members of the state, they were definitely not admitting that males and females were equal. “Plato was genuinely ambivalent about women. He makes seriously misogynistic and derogatory comments about women within the same dialogue in which he argues that (some) women should be educated ?the same? as men. Although his feelings are not as strong as Aristotle?s, who felt that the male was superior by nature and the female inferior, Socrates does denigrate the female in the same work in which he somewhat praises them. “While Socrates allows women to enter the ruling class, he affirms that they will always be weaker than men. While he argues that they are not by nature necessarily different from men, he calls the plundering of a corpse the work of a small and ?womanish? mind.” In fact, in Book VII, when the “degeneration of the political system” is considered, it is the woman who is supposed to lead the society to its ultimate fall. Therefore, it is extremely hard to verify Plato and Socrates as true advocates of women?s rights.
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Although they did consider the woman much more than the Athenians did, they can not be labeled as verified “feminists.” In the sense of modern-day feminism, Plato and Socrates would not hail high on any list. But they did make a major stride in pursuing equality for the female gender, one that set the pace for the movement which has quite possibly not even culminated. Plato?s belief that the just man has a predetermined destiny to achieve was the primary basis in which he decided to include women. Women also had destinies, Plato argued, and if their destiny was to rule, then so be it. Conversely, it can be said that Plato and Socrates did not recognize the importance of their reasoning. “Plato did not use terms such as ?equality,? ?fairness,? ?equality of opportunity,? and of course, ?feminism.?” Although they did not use these terms, and despite not fully recognizing females as equal as to males, there is no denying the role these two ancient Greek philosophers played in the rights of women. As unrecognizable as this fact may be, due to its hiding in the shadow of the other philosophy these two introduced, it is a great accomplishment in itself.