Paper of Excellence -- by Elon Student Nancy VanHeest
                            submitted to Ancient Philosophy in Fall semseter 1999

                                        Feminism and Plato

        Professor's Note:

            To understand another person requires at least two steps:

First one must sympathetically enter the person's viewpoint and represent the person's thought accurately and fairly (optimally, if the person were present she or he would say:  "Yes, you have understood very well what I was presenting.)

Second, one must be able to assess or evaluate the person's thought and what may have resulted from the thinking if taken seriously and put into action or policy.

Nancy VanHeerst walks that line with Plato and feminism.  Does she give Plato credit where he deserves it and does she point out limitations in his thinking?  Does she do this accurately and fairly?
                                                                        John G. Sullivan
        Before Socrates and his friends began their final discussion before his execution, Plato writes, Socrates excused a woman from the room for bursting into an emotional display. Phaedo, Plato’s narrator, described this as "typically female". When his execution was carried out at the end of the Phaedo, Socrates shamed the men around him for weeping aloud saying this was the reason he sent the women away. Why was this gender stereotype included in Plato’s work? What is the history behind Plato’s thoughts of women and their role in his contemporary culture?

        Literature can tell us a great deal about a civilization and its regard for itself, its property, ideals and its people. The literature of ancient Greece is no exception. Literature in and of itself cannot be accepted as a flawless account of happenings of the past, but can reveal the opinions, at least at the time, of the writers. Ancient Greek literature has been described as highly self-conscious, (Sealey, p. 5) that is, the writers took great care to ensure what they said suited their purpose at the time of the writing. However the more subconscious choice of words, and even the order of the words can reveal some of the move subtle ideals of a society.

        Athens, specifically, tends to be referred to when studying Ancient Greece. Although there were many Greek cities, most were not nearly as large as Athens, (Sealey, p. 6). As a result much of what we believe to know about Ancient Greek thought comes from the literature of Athens. What is found frequently in this literature is the idea of dualism. Pythagoras’ table of opposites, (Bar On, p. 42) demonstrates the mathematical presocratics’ notion that things of the universe are arranged according to pairs of opposing ideas. These dichotomies no doubt inspired Plato in his works involving the notion of the soul versus the body and his proofs of the immortality of the soul.

        When reading the literature of Ancient Greece, or any culture, it is tempting to assume truth in all that is read. The fact is that a statement being written down does not assign a specific truth value to it. A good amount may be learned from reading the laws of the day. Other attitudes may be assessed from reading entertainment or art literature. The prose and tragedies of the day depict women in many different ways. Euripides’ "The Trojan Women" features a chorus of captured Trojan women including Queen Hecuba, who display an unending capacity for suffering and a strength of character, (Robinson, p. 292). Prose of the day indicates that having a wife who does not need to work was a status symbol that many could not afford, but could create the impression of by hiding their working wives, (Sealey, p. 154).

        The laws tell a story of Greek history as much as their poetry and dramas will. Athenian women were given into marriage by the men of their family. Their own choice had no legal bearing on the matter, (Sealey, p. 5). The tradition of a dowry presented by the family of the bride was practiced in Athens, as in many countries then and even today. There is evidence that the women were given consideration not just as property. An account of an arbitration tells of a man found to be squandering the significant dowry he has received for his bride. The father of the bride sets to work dissolving the marriage claiming that "a husband who has received so large a dowry ought to consider himself the slave of his wife." (Sealey, p. 6). Although the women might have been given thought to, they had many restrictions. An ancient Greek woman would have a kyrios to carry out her affairs of property, law and the like. If the father of the woman was not available for this position, her brother, uncle, grandfather or other male relative would take the position until she married, whereupon her husband would fulfil the obligations of the kyrios, (Sealey, p. 154). Although many of her legal matters were managed by men, Greek women could be tried in court for offenses, serve as witnesses to transactions, and inherit property, (Sealey, p. 151). They were, however forbidden by law to carry weapons or engage in organized fighting, (Sealey, p. 152). This exclusion of women from fighting and barring of weaponry is believed to have resulted in a disability to protect their property and land, thus keeping women subject to the men, (Sealey, p. 152).

        Plato could not ignore the influence of all this background, yet he seems to have broken the boundaries of the time in regards to his treatment of women. Plato believed that the possession of virtue is a consequence of knowledge of the Good, (Gould, p. 125). In the Republic Plato makes the assumptions that different people have different natures and it is in every person’s best interest to do what his or her nature best suits them to do, (Bar On, p. 4). He also makes the point that certain attributes are irrelevant to the nature the person must follow. Plato, speaking though Socrates, makes the analogy that if a man with as a full head of hair is known to be a good cobbler, it does not necessarily follow that a bald man s not suited to the same profession, (Bar On, p. 5). He is again making the distinction between mind, or soul, and body. His claim is that the body is irrelevant to the nature of a person to be proficient in a profession, and thus concludes that a woman could be a philosopher as well as a man. Indeed, if one were to accept the notion that Socrates proclaims in the Phaedo, that the soul exists after death and is used in crating new life, one must accept the possibility of the soul of a philosopher entering the world as a female with the same nature and ability. He does not preach equality, but the potential for equality. He does not claim that all woman can and should practice philosophy, merely that the possibility exists for a female with a philosophical nature, (Bar On, p. 5). In his dialogue, Meno, Socrates asks for the meaning of virtue. The response he receives is that virtue for men consists in managing affairs of the city, and a virtuous woman is obedient to he husband. Socrates argues that virtue can not change because of who carries it, (Bar On. p. 6). A quote attributed to Socrates by Xenophon, wherein Socrates comments on a female juggler entertaining at a party suggests a slightly different view of women. "In the performance of this girl, as on many other occasions, it is evident that female nature is not in the least inferior to that of the male. It only lacks intellectual and physical strength." (Sealey,. P. 4). Although many a feminist eyebrow will be raised at the final sentence, the statement was probably a bold one for the day.

        For all of the leaps Plato seems to have made in the direction of feminism, many of his writings suggest otherwise. A big part of Plato’s works is the distinction between soul and body, the body being seen as inferior and as a hinderance to the ambitions of the soul. In the Apology he urges philosophers to abandon the needs of the body as much as possible to allow for growth of the soul and a promising afterlife, (Bar On p. 8). In the realm of Pythagoras’ ideas men are seen as the opposite of women, the men being of a spiritual nature and the women of a material nature. Indeed women are seen, especially in the areas of reproduction and child-rearing, as having more of a connection and dependence of a bodily nature. Men, in this method of thought would be seen as being more connected to the soul and things of a spiritual nature. Plato embraced this idea as did many of his contemporaries. Plato went so far as to say that men and women have different types of souls and a female body may not necessarily contain a female soul. He went on to explain that a soldier who is more concerned with protecting his body than fighting has a more body-centered soul and will return to life as a woman. Conversely, a woman who displays skills of a philosophical nature and cares not for things of the body will re-enter life as a man, (Bar On, p. 17). The notion that life in a female body is punishment for cowardice is a hard one to swallow and begins to break down Plato’s heroism as a pioneer for feminists. It begins to seem as though Plato is saying that the ultimate goal for any person is manliness, but it is possible for a soul in a female body to achieve it. He also says that the soul being in a male body does not automatically infer the desired quality of soul. It appears that Plato is using the terms man and woman in such a manner that no longer concerns the gender of the body. He suggests that "female" refers to someone who is connected to the world on a bodily level, and "male " is someone who has risen above to a higher philosophical level, (Bar On, p. 17). In essence, anyone can be either female or male, depending on his or her nature. It is a shame for students of Plato that he used these terms in a way that could be so misinterpreted.

        Plato’s pupil Aristotle was far less sympathetic to women. He described women has having lack of reason to determine the Good and therefore obligated to be obedient to achieve virtue, (Bar On, p. 145). He described women as being the physical opposite to the spiritual male. He claimed that women were merely passive receptacles who bore and nurtured the life created by the semen supplied by the spiritual male, (Gould, p. 125). He shared Plato’s notion that women are the opposite of men and connected to the body, but not his belief that there was potential for growth beyond that state. He described women as "children who never grew up." (Sealey, p. 151).

        Perhaps Plato’s greatest expression of his attitudes towards women is in his Symposium. Like many of his works, it is a dramatic account of a meeting of philosophers in which women are excluded for the express purpose of keeping the subject matter at a serious level, (Bar On, p. 83). Although Diotima is not present, her thoughts are spoken by Socrates. In what is essentially her speech, she explains the nature of love, beauty and immortality through metaphors of the female body. She explained that immortality was gained through creation and conceiving of beauty. Women, she explains, can create through the body by conceiving and nurturing children, whereas men must make creations of the mind through art and poetry. Although it has been argued that women are therefore excluded from creations of the mind, there is nothing in Diotima’s argument that one form of creativity excludes another, (Bar On, p. 85). Her speech centers around change and cycles. She refers to life and death not as a beginning or end, but as part of an eternal whole. Her speech seems to take on almost an Eastern sense in that there is no Bad or Good, only opposites that pull at each other to create harmony.

        Plato’s obvious admiration of Diotima as a philosopher is a credit to his title of the first feminist philosopher, (Bar On, p. 3). While his views and expressions may be less than today’s feminist standards, he must be acknowledged as an advocate for women in a time when this was not a popular subject. Perhaps his speaking through Socrates is a testament to just how controversial the subject was at the time.

        Although at first glance, Plato’s work seems to suggest the same sexist notions that plague the 20th century, a second look suggests that he was far more sensitive to the matter than many philosophers of his day and long since. He may not have presented the material in a way to satisfy 20th century feminist philosophers, but were it not for him, who knows when or if the recognition of feminist philosophy held so dear today would have found a voice. Torn by tradition that told him women were not people by the same standards as men, and logic and reason that told him otherwise, Plato spoke for those who, at the time, had a very quiet voice.


            Bar On, Bat-Ami.  Engendering Origins:  Critical Feminist Readings in Plato
and Aristotle.  State University of New York Press, New York, 1994.

            Gould, Carol C.  Beyond Domination:  New Perspectives on Women and
Philosophy.  Rowman & Allanheld, New Jersey, 1983.

            Robinson, Charles Alexander Jr.  The Spring of Civilization.  EP Dutton and
Company Inc., New York, 1954.

            Sealey, Raphael.  Women and Law in Classical Greece.  The University of
North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1990.


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