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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 hN ThE Republic, Plato argues that women (at least those in the upper classes ~) must be assigned social roles in the ideal state equal (or approximat&) to those of men. Only one generation later Aristotle, in his Politics, returns women to their traditional roles in the home, subserving men. Plato's position in the Republic is based upon his view that "women and men have the same nature in respect to the guardianship of the state, save insofar as the one is weaker and the other is stronger ''~ (456A). Nature provides no such equality in Aristotle; in the Politics he flatly declares, "as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject ''4 (1254b13-14). Other dialogues of his middle period support the view that Plato was a sexual egalitarian: 5 the Meno, for example, assigns the same virtues to 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 Vlasms 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. ' Plato says nothing about the women of the artisan class in this regard, though he may view his prescriptions as having full generality. On the specifics of this qualification, more below. :~ 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 chau- vinist," 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. [467] 468 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 2~: 4 oct ~983 women as to men (73 A ff.), and Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium provides women with a genetic and biological status equal to that of men (lo9A ft.), a status never disputed as such elsewhere in the dialogue. Aristo- tle, on the other hand, plainly distinguishes manly from womanly virtues (Pol. 126oa2o ft.), and sees biology as demonstrating that the generation of the female is no better than that of a "mutilated male" (D.G.A. 737a28), a reproductive failure the same in kind, though of a lesser degree, as those that result in (other) monstrosities (D.G.A. 767b6-9 ff.). Because of such differences in their views, Plato has lately been celebrated by some as, for example, "one of the few notable exceptions" in our long history of sexism, ~ whereas Aristotle has been angrily dismissed as "a dangerous chauvinist. ''7 Too little attention, however, has been paid to what is common to Plato's and Aristotle's views. Both apply the same principle as their warrant for what turn out to be wholly incompatible policies: both proclaim that justice will only be served where social roles are assigned in strict accordance with nature. Hence, the root of Plato's and Aristotle's divergent social prescrip- tions concerning women is to be found in their conceptions of female na- ture; for if nature were to provide a difference between male and female that is relevant to the assignment of social roles, both would be committed to discriminating on the basis of sex. Plato does not find such a difference; Aristotle does. In the following discussion...



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