Victor Nuovo: Plato on male and female
Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of essays or reflections about “The Republic,” a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
The book of Genesis begins with a creation story that culminates in the creation of mankind. It is said that God created man in his own image and immediately adds, “male and female created he them.”’ God is not a man, but “male and female.” Moreover, it is male and female together whom God blesses and commands to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” which is to say men and women should have all things in common, because they are equal. Nothing is said about marriage, they are commanded only to be fruitful.
The third act of Plato’s Republic opens with a similar proposal. The guardians and auxiliaries do not marry, but they are supposed to have children. They have no possessions, no households, no family, but like the first man of Genesis, chapter one, they are male and female and hold all things in common.
It was a daring proposal. Plato has Socrates express discomfort in telling this and anxiety that he might lead his friends into error. If this be so, then men and women would do all things in common. They would be educated together, and do gymnastics together, they would be naked and unashamed, and they would cohabit together. What is proposed here is not free love and unregulated sexual activity. Any lack of restraint is not tolerated in the model city, so like all else, sexual intercourse would be regulated and arranged, the best united with the best.
Socrates imagines a critic accusing him of being inconsistent. Isn’t it the case that women and men are different by nature, and hasn’t Socrates made it a fundamental law of his model city that people of different natures should do different things, and not as in this case do all things in common?
Socrates responds that the differences between male and female are irrelevant to the capacity to rule and defend the city. It would be like saying that because a man who is bald has a different nature from one who has hair only one of them can be fit to be a shoemaker. Likewise, the fact that women and men have different functions in procreation is not a relevant difference. Women as well as men, notwithstanding these and other differences, are as likely to have the same capacity to rule and defend the city. The task is to discover those who seem to have it and to educate them for these tasks, but discovery of aptitudes and education proceed concurrently, so men and women must be educated in common.
Socrates adds, perhaps as a concession to his critics, that women are weaker than men, so that men are superior to women in all things. This is certainly a falsehood that should be cast aside. But even here, Socrates’ point is that women and men may have in various respects different degrees of capacity but still the same capacities. So, in spite of this cowardly old chestnut that men are superior to women because they are stronger, the hypothesis of equality stands. It should be noted that in fifth-century Greece, even in democratic Athens, women led a sheltered existence even in the household. The real Socrates, although twice married, did not show such an enlightened attitude as he exhibits here. He preferred the company of young men and philosophized with them only. So there may be a very complex irony at work in Plato’s representation of him here.
Plato has Socrates carry the matter further. Just as male and female guardians cohabit together in common, so also they have their children in common. It seems that Plato was intent not only in abolishing marriage among the guardians, but the family as well.
This does not mean that children are abandoned to their own devices, rather they live together and are nurtured together in one community with their parents, although without knowing which pair is particularly theirs, they are cared for by all, and when, of necessity, guardians, male and female, go to war, the children that are able go with them and they fight side by side against a common enemy in defense of the city, and because they are all, guardians and auxiliaries, one family, they will stand together and not betray one another in battle. Thus the city is unified at the top. Because its rulers and defenders have all things in common, a shared life, a bond of kinship, and a common task: to promote the welfare of the city and everyone in it.
The question arises whether the realization of this model city is possible to achieve, or whether it is a mere philosophical fantasy that is best left floating in the air like a cloud soon to dissolve, a mere castle in the air. In the next act, Socrates will address this question by comparing the constitution of his model city with all other possible varieties, and he will argue that none of them can be better than it.
But there remains the second scene of the present act, which brings us again to the question of education. Socrates is overwhelmed by the thought that to realize the ideal city, philosophical intelligence and political power must be joined in the person of its founders and rulers, that for the sake of the city either philosophers must become kings or kings must become philosophers. What he means by this, is that fit rulers must be able to distinguish real from unreal, what is from what is not, and — this must seem strange — they must be able to give an account of everything that lies in between these two poles. Making them fit in this way is the task of higher education. These will be the themes of the next two essays.
Postscript: Residents of the town of Middlebury should take pride in the fact that women’s higher education began here, in 1814 by Emma Willard. It was not until 1883 that Middlebury College began admitting women. But here as elsewhere, the principle of separate but equal was adhered to, which is a contradiction in terms, whereas for Plato, there was no separation, even in athletics.