• Email
  • Print

Plato’s Women

In response to:

A Simple Problem Science Can't Solve from the April 12, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Vivian Gornick’s Women in Science [NYR, April 12, p. 21], Professor Lewontin refers to Book V of The Republic as “the earliest discussion…in which intellectuals explain to one another why affirmative action just doesn’t work.” His evidence is a fragment of Book V in which Socrates, in a dialectical quest with Glaucon of the true place of women in the State, says that men and women have the same pursuits, “but in all of them woman is inferior to man.” Lewontin thinks this makes Socrates “a convincing chairman of the department.”

Leaving aside the crack at administrators, I note that Plato’s aim in the relevant parts of Book V is exactly the opposite of what Lewontin says it is. If “affirmative action” means women ought to join in the same pursuits as men, including guardianship of the state, philosophy, and war, then Plato is the quintessential champion of affirmative action in the ancient world, or perhaps in any world. He didn’t write a single line on “why affirmative action doesn’t work.”

According to Plato women are physically inferior, bear instead of beget children, and are generally weaker than men. But the only differences between men and women that are to count in his State are those that are relevant to pursuits. “…if the difference consists only in women bearing and men begetting children, this does not amount to a proof that a woman differs from men in respect of the sort of education she should receive; and we shall therefore continue to maintain that our guardians [and] their wives ought to have the same pursuits.” Again, “…their original natures are the same.”

If Professor Lewontin had taken care to reread Plato he would not have missed Plato’s use of the Socratic dialectic to secure his egalitarian views. The dialectical opposition here is between the opinion that women are inferior and the “verbal truth” that different natures ought to have different pursuits, on the one hand, and the end that the same pursuits should be for all, on the other. The reconciled upshot is that natures are the same, pursuits and education should be the same, and the differences between men and women are irrelevant to the ends of the good State.

Indeed, contrary to Lewontin and his way-ward exegesis, Plato might well be set as a standard for women’s rightful status in all intellectual and cultural pursuits including business, the professions, and science.

R.J. Nelson

Case Western Reserve University

Cleveland, Ohio

Richard Lewontin replies:

R.J. Nelson is entirely correct in the claim that Plato’s aim was to show that women’s nature did not bar them from any office in the state, and that they should receive the same education as men. Nelson is wrong, however, in the assertion that this makes Plato “the quintessential champion of affirmative action” or, indeed, a believer in the equality of women. To understand why that is so, we must observe Plato’s distinction between the similarity in kind of men’s and women’s talents, and the difference in degree between them, with the consequent distinction between equality of access and equality of result. Plato would have favored sex-blind admissions, but not special searches for women candidates.

Plato’s argument in Book V of The Republic is that the difference in men’s and women’s natures is not relevant to the range of possibilities for their vocations. Both may be philosophers, physicians, or warriors, although, of course, individuals will vary in their capacities. “All the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also.” Nevertheless he states unambiguously, and more than once, that “in all of them woman is inferior to man.” Indeed, a little earlier in Part V he explains the quantitative meaning of gifted and ungifted natures: “that one man will acquire a thing easily and another with difficulty; a little learning will lead one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application, no sooner learns than he forgets.” Socrates then extends this analysis to the sexes by asking (and eliciting the expected answer) whether there is “any pursuit of mankind in which the male sex has not the gifts and qualities in higher degree than the female.” (He excepts weaving and “the management of pancakes and preserves in which woman does indeed appear to be great” as absurd cases.)

Only by appreciating the distinction made by Plato can we understand why he over and over speaks of the wives of guardians, but never of their husbands, of guardians as “the best of citizens” and “their wives…the best of women,” and of how the legislators are to select the women and given them to the guardians. Women of the guardian class are indeed to be given the same education as men, but they will become the “companions and colleagues” of their guardian husbands. In reading Plato’s description of guardians and their wives I am reminded of my housemaster and his wife, an educated and cultured woman who presided at the tea table while talking of Michelangelo.

The claim that although a woman can do anything a man can, she will not do it as well, lies at the heart of the academic resistance to affirmative action. Benbow and Stanley did not claim that women could not be mathematicians, only that they could not be great ones. My department has only one tenured woman because, it is said, our meritocratic methods choose the best candidate, who always turns out to be a man. As male guardians were to have the best of women as their companions, so scientist professors have their best female graduate students as their research associates. That great egalitarian, Plato, ran an academy even more male-biased than its modern equivalent. I suppose he searched for women candidates but none were suitable.

In our exegeses of Plato we must not fall into the trap against which he warns us in The Republic, the trap of being one who “when he thinks that he is reasoning, he is only disputing, just because he cannot define and divide, and so know that of which he is speaking; and he will pursue a merely verbal opposition in the spirit of contention and not of fair discussion.”

  • Email
  • Print