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Plato & Affirmative Action

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

Richard Lewontin [NYR, October 25, 1984], is inaccurate when he writes that Plato’s Republic speaks of women as the companions of guardians, but never as guardians or rulers in their own right. Book VII concludes with the following very important passage. Glaukon has alluded to the rulers, using archontas, the masculine present participle of the verb “rule.” Socrates immediately adds: “And archousas too,” (using the feminine participle of the same verb). “For you must not suppose that my words apply to the men more than to all women who arise among them endowed with the requisite qualities” (540C). This passage proves that Plato envisaged that some women would succeed in meeting the test not only of guardianship but also of philosopher-rulership (a distinction neglected by Professor Lewontin). It also gives us what may be the first known argument for linguistic feminism: for Socrates implies that Glaukon’s failure to use the feminine as well as the (unmarked) masculine form will obscure from his imagination this genuine possibility. Professor Lewontin may perhaps be forgiven for overlooking this passage, since the most commonly anthologized translation, Paul Shorey’s, translates archontas by “rulers” and archousas by “women”, rather than “female rulers.” The estate of Paul Shorey endowed a bequest, accepted by the Harvard Classics Department, to support the graduate work of “single young men studying Plato.” Evidently there were some aspects of this author which Shorey wished these young men to neglect. (Doubly ineligible for Shorey’s largesse, I was fortunately the beneficiary of a more truly Platonic act on the part of the Harvard Society of Fellows, which ruled in 1972 that the word “men” in Lawrence Lowell’s bequest should be interpreted henceforth to mean “members of the human species.” I was thus supported in my study of what Plato actually said by my selection as the [unjustly] first female in that guardian class.)

To be sure Plato did not favor “affirmative action” to fill political and military offices in his own society; nor did he enroll women in his school. This, for the simple reason that Athenian society was profoundly unequal in the education, intellectual and moral, that it offered to young women. Illiterate and lacking in intellectual discipline, they could not be expected to overcome these disadvantages, once adults, so as to participate in the life of the city or the Academy. Republic VIII contains a devastating indictment of this society as a whole, and not least of the way in which it neglects and/or corrupts the capabilities of its women. The situation could be rectified, Plato believed, only in a society that would rear human beings de novo in a way in which they had never been reared before, namely as potentially equal rational beings. Here the remaining differences in physical function would not have the isolating and inhibiting consequences they otherwise would, and still do, since society would no longer judge them to be linked with intellectual incapacity. As any intellectual woman knows who has borne and raised a child while writing and teaching, we do not yet live in such a society. And yet, as we work toward it, it seems to me that we can appropriately demand consideration one by one on an equal basis, asking those who assess our credentials to “look to that city and constitute themselves as its citizens” (Rep. 592B).

As a philosopher and classicist I am best placed to judge the prevalence of sexism in my own two fields, which are far from Professor Lewontin’s. But as the former Chair of the Standing Committee on Women at Harvard, a position whose nebulous charge of “defending the dignity and equality of women” at all levels of the university made it a kind of grievance center, I am acquainted with numerous complaints of injustice to women arising from the natural science departments. Of course, not all complaints are well founded; and I cannot divulge what was told me informally and in confidence. Yet it seemed to me significant that such reports came from male faculty members as well as from female, and that they did persistently come predominantly from departments in that area. (I was just instituting a full-scale study of these problems in natural-science departments when, supported for a tenured joint appointment by the Department of Philosophy and opposed by the Department of Classics, I left Harvard for a tenured joint appointment at Brown University. The study has not, to my knowledge, been continued.)

Some feminists argue that a strict meritocratic judgment in hiring should be bent in favor of women, to compensate them for such injustices suffered either by them or by others of their sex. I myself do not agree with this, since I believe that it would be disastrous for the self-respect of women. But I would like to point out to Professor Lewontin that the days of pure meritocratic judgment are not yet at hand, even at Harvard. In my experience and observation, senior appointments are rarely based entirely on merit. Judgments of a more elusive sort, easily affected by perception of the candidate as a certain type of human being, always play a role: personal judgments of character and style of life; political factors; ideas about collegiality—all these can and do tip the scales, frequently in a sex-biased way. If more women do not publicly describe or legally accuse these aspects of Harvard’s alleged meritocracy, it is sometimes because they have made the difficult choice to get on with their work, which they believe to have greater value.

Before, then, Harvard and other comparable communities get so far as to confront Lewortin’s spectre of reverse discrimination, they need to eradicate discrimination. But like any substantial commitment to justice, this requires a willingness on the part of each member of the educational community to look searchingly and self-critically into his or her own heart. The Republic says that true education is “being turned round,” so that you do not see things the way your (unjust) upbringing taught you. Plato understood this about justice; Professor Lewontin does not.

Martha Nussbaum

Departments of Philosophy and Classics

Brown University

Providence, Rhode Island

R.C Lewontin replies:

It is a foolhardy person indeed who will contend with Martha Nussbaum on any subject in Greek Philosophy, but her dart is really off the target. I certainly did not write that Plato speaks of women as companions of guardians but never as guardians in their own right. I could hardly have done so since the text I had before me when I wrote my letter, and which I had just reread, contains a clear reference to male and female guardians, “tous te phylakas kai tas phylakidas” (Republic 457C). As I stated, any reading of Book V leaves no doubt that Plato regards woman’s nature as qualitatively the same as men’s, but that women as a group possess these qualities in lower degree on the average. I then pointed to aspects of Plato’s language, such as his references to “guardians and their wives,” “tous te phylakas kai tas gynaikas” (454E), but never “guardians and their husbands,” as indicative of the asymmetry that Plato assumed between the sexes. Indeed, the only use of the feminine form of “guardian” in Book V is in 457C quoted above. Usually Plato employs the sex-biased form “guardian’s women” (for example, “phylakon gynaixin,” 457A). The very quotation offered by Professor Nussbaum from Book VII is exactly to the point. Members of even the most sex-biased department say that they will appoint to professorships “women that arise among them endowed with the requisite qualities.” It’s just that such women so seldom arise. Some of these academics, with Plato, say that proper education and upbringing of women may change the situation in the future, while others claim that even in the most egalitarian society, men will continue to have a disproportionate share of place and power, because the differences are innate. But both parties agree, whatever their view of the future, that the present situation in academia reflects the actual lack of merit among women.

Professor Nussbaum’s view of the future may have been somewhat obscured by the smoke from the Jamaican cigars and the contents of the crystal decanters at the weekly Junior Fellows dinners. If women wait for “each member of the educational community to look searchingly and self-critically into his or her own heart,” they will wait forever, which is, of course, just what the male professoriat would like them to do. I could fill my department, over and over, with excellent women scientists whose self-respect would not be in the least damaged by a recognition of their scholarship. I dare say Martha Nussbaum would not have felt demeaned if Harvard had given her the job she deserved. All the blather about meritocracy, whether as an ideal or a reality, is nothing but a screen for the maintenance of special privilege. The problem for women in academia and in society at large is not a lack of merit, but a lack of power.

R.C. Lewontin

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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