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Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women
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Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women
Nicholas D. Smith
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

I am indebted to David Keyt, Charles M. Reed, Carol White, Julie Murphy, George Lucas, and the editors of this journal for their criticisms of various drafts of this paper, and to Gregory Vlastos for first arousing my interest in this topic and for making numerous suggestions that have helped clarify my thinking about it. I am also indebted to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Center for Programs in the Humanities at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for their help in funding this research.


1. Plato says nothing about the women of the artisan class in this regard, though he may view his prescriptions as having full generality.

2. On the specifics of this qualification, more below.

3. This and all other translations of the Republic are by P. Shorey.

4. This and all other translations of the Politics are by H. Rackham.

5. I use the term "sexual egalitarian" with some trepidation, given the various ways in which Plato qualifies his relevant prescriptions. Similarly, terms like "feminist" and "male chauvinist," so frequently employed by scholars in this discussion, are arguably anachronistic over-simplifications, at best, given the cultural and temporal gaps between our culture and that of classical Athens. Finally, I shall not refer to Plato's "emancipation" of women at all, since that appears to be inaccurate as well as anachronistic: there's little freedom given to anyone in Plato's state, and his making women roughly equal to men merely allows them to share the same quite high degree of non-freedom in their civic roles.

6. William Jacobs, "Plato on Emancipation and the Traditional Family, Apeiron 12 (1978), p. 29.

7. Peter Tumulty, "Aristotle, Feminism and Natural Law Theory," The New Scholasticism 55 (1981), p. 451.

8. Cf. John Gould, "Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women," Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980), pp. 38 ff., for a balanced assessment and replies to many of the more excessive claims.

9. Cf. Aristophanes' Lysistrata, and especially his Ecclesiazousae, for examples. It is sometimes claimed that Euripides and even Sophocles show an untraditional degree of sympathy for women's unequal position in Athens, but I see little support in this for Zeller's surprising claim that there was a "movement for the emancipation of women in the last third of the 5th century ..." (Cf. Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, trans. L. R. Palmer (New York, 1957), p. 107.)

10. Cf. Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato (New York, 1968); Arlene W. Saxonhouse, "The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato," Political Theory 4 (1976), pp. 195 ff.; Sarah Pomeroy, "Feminism in Book V of Plato's Republic," Apeiron 8 (1974), PP. 33 ff., for examples. The same view is at least suggested by Dorothea Wender, "Plato: Mysogynist, Paedophile, and Feminist," Arethusa 6 (1973), pp. 75 ff.

11. Bloom, Republic of Plato, p. 383.

12. Saxonhouse, "Philosopher and the Female," p. 196.

13. Ibid., p. 211.

14. This point is explored in some detail in Wender's essay.

15. Susan Moller Okin, "Philosopher Queens and Private Wives: Plato on Women and the Family," Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977), PP. 345 ff.; see also Marcel Pierart, Platon et la Cite Grecque (Brussels, 1974).

16. This point is made against Okin and Pierart by a number of scholars. Cf., for examples, Nicholas D. Smith, "The Logic of Plato's Feminism," Journal of Social Philosophy 11 (1980), pp. 5 ff.; Gregory Vlastos, "The Status of Persons in Platonic Justice: Women," Interpretations of Plato: A Swarthmore Symposium (Supplement Mnemosyne 50), 1977; and Jacobs "Plato."

17. Cf. A. E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (Cleveland and New York: 1956), p. 278; Vlastos, "Status of Persons"; and Wender, "Plato," for examples.

18. Cf. Smith, "Plato's Feminism," (pp. 8–9) for a fuller dispute of the importance of the Socratic precedents.

19. Not necessarily a smaller percentage of them than of men, however: only a small percentage of either sex will qualify.

20. It is disturbing...