The Reading Room
In the Reading Room with Plato and Feminism
In previous columns I’ve discussed some reasons why there are insightful contributions from Plato that contemporary audiences might benefit from thinking about. Here’s another: his feminism. For the most part we don’t think of the world of 2500 years ago as especially demonstrative of gender parity. And for good reason: in most cultures of that time, certainly in the Greek world, women lacked most of the prerogatives of men, and were regarded by many as not even being capable of complex thought, let alone running a business or holding political office. This seems to suggest some cognitive dissonance: in the pantheon of Greek gods, the goddesses were as capable as their male counterparts at scheming and maneuvering. Athena was in fact the goddess of wisdom – why would the divine embodiment of wisdom be a woman if actual women were irrational and incapable of becoming wise? Leaving the divine realm aside, the idea of real-world women wielding power was also not unknown. Queen Artemesia, for instance, was known as an effective and intelligent leader and naval commander. One suspects that although there were commonly-known examples of women displaying the qualities they were purported not to have, their subordinate status was nevertheless the rule regardless of the absence of good reasons.
Plato, as it turns out, wasn’t having any of that. In the imaginary perfectly-just city he describes in the Republic, he stipulates that women could fulfill any of the roles in the city men could, whether artisan, merchant, warrior, or ruler. To be sure, not just any woman, but not just any man either. What makes the city function is that every position is filled by the person best capable of doing it. But, Plato reasoned, that sort of complete meritocracy left no room for arbitrary discriminations. And this extended not just to the things that readers of his time could easily imagine women doing, like being the best baker or even the best horse-breeder in the city, but specifically also to skill in combat, and to excellence in philosophy, the ultimate criterion for ruling the city. Lest readers object that it’s easy to be egalitarian in fiction, we know that Plato’s real-life actions reflected his understanding that women could be philosophers. When Plato opened his school for philosophical study, the Academy, he accepted women students.
Perhaps the most famous indication of Plato’s ability to conceptualize a female philosopher occurs in the dialogue Symposium. The Symposium takes place at a dinner party (well, to be honest, a drinking party), during which Socrates and six other characters take turns giving speeches in which they explain what love is. In most of Plato’s dialogues, the consensus among scholars is that the character Socrates, when not holding a position specifically known to be that of the real Socrates, is speaking for Plato. And when it is Socrates’ turn to give his speech, he begins by saying that he didn’t really know anything about this until he met Diotima, a philosopher whom he claims to have learned from. That Plato would have Socrates claim to have learned from Diotima – and indeed, almost the entirety of Socrates’ speech is him retelling to the others what Diotima said – is further indication that Plato did think women capable of philosophical thought. Nor is Diotima the only accomplished women mentioned in Plato’s dialogues; in the Menexenus he praises the philosopher and orator Aspasia.
Unfortunately, Plato’s opinions on gender roles, like most philosophers’ opinions about most things, didn’t receive widespread acceptance in the ancient Mediterranean, and the subordinate status of women carried on as before. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the idea that women could in principle do the same sorts of things men do – commerce, management, battle, politics, and yes, philosophy – is almost as old as philosophy itself.