Republic Book 5: Women in the City–Platonic vs Postmodern Inclusion.

Republic Book 5: Women in the City–Platonic vs Postmodern Inclusion.

In book 5 of the Republic, Socrates argues that women should be admitted into the guardian class and receive the same education as the men. This would have been a shocking claim for others in the ancient world. For example, one can contrast Plato’s philosophical inclusivity, with St. Paul’s injunction:

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim 2:11-15).

Here Paul excludes women from leadership simply in virtue of the fact that they are women. Indeed, he even seems to suggest that men and women are saved in different ways, and that the distinctly feminine soteriological path is one of childbearing. Socrates’ contention that women should be admitted into the guardian class stands in marked contrast to such a perspective.

Socrates’ interlocutors challenge him, contending that his radical proposal is both ridiculous and impossible. It is ridiculous, they claim, because it is self-evidently absurd to think that women should train with men. The Greeks trained naked, so they found that a scenario in which men and women trained together would be thoroughly outrageous. And, they claim that the proposal is impossible in light of the following argument:

1) Men and women have different natures. 2) As argued earlier, those with different natures should pursue different occupations. So, 3) Men and women should pursue different occupations. 4) Men tend to be physically stronger than women. And so, 5) they would make the better warriors, and thus constitute the auxiliary class from which the complete guardians are derived. Hence, (6) since men and women should pursue different occupations, and men are better suited for the guardian class, women should be excluded from the guardian class (453a).

Socrates first responds to the claim that his proposal is ridiculous by pointing out that what is judged to be outrageous varies from age to age and culture to culture. He observes:

“We should remember that it wasn’t very long ago that the Greeks themselves thought it shameful and ridiculous (as the majority of barbarians still do) for even men to be seen naked and that when the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians began the gymnastics, the wits of those times could also have ridiculed it all….But I think that, after it was found in practice to be better to strip than to cover up all those parts, then what was ridiculous to the eyes faded away in the face of what argument showed to be the best. This makes it clear that it’s foolish to think that anything besides the bad is ridiculous or to try to raise a laugh at the sight of anything besides what stupid or bad or (putting it the other way around) it’s foolish to take seriously any standard of what is fine and beautiful other than the good” (452d-e).

Because visceral judgements are based upon custom and the contingencies of culture, not rational argument, they should not deter us from considering the claim that women should be admitted into the guardian class.

Socrates then responds to the second argument by pointing out that people’s natures should determine their occupations, only when their natures have a bearing on the occupation in question. He asks us to consider an argument similar to the one proposed for excluding women from the city:

“We might just as well, it seems, ask ourselves whether the nature of bald and long-haired men are the same or opposite. And, when we agree that they are opposite, then, if the bald ones are cobblers, we ought to forbid the long-haired ones to be cobblers, and if the long-haired ones are cobblers, we ought to forbid this to the bald ones” (454c).

Though we could categorize people into the classes of bald and long haired, there is nothing about these properties that has a bearing on whether or not one will be a good cobbler. Socrates thus contends that if women are to be excluded from the guardian class on the basis of natural differences between men and women, we must show how those differences are relevant to the work of the guardians, either as auxiliaries or complete guardians. Socrates explains:

“Therefore, if the male sex is seen to be different from the female with regard to a particular craft or way of life, we’ll say that the relevant one must be assigned to it. But if it’s apparent that they differ only in this respect, that the females bear children while the males beget them, we’ll say that there has been no kind of proof that women are different from men with respect to what we’re talking about, and we’ll continue to believe that our guardians and their wives must have the same way of life” (454e).

When surveying various occupations, one must thus show that the difference between bearing and begetting children is relevant to the task in question. Socrates then observes that when selecting people for a craft, it is best to choose those who are well suited to it. Socrates provides some examples as follows:

“Is this what you meant by one person being naturally well suited for something and another being naturally unsuited? That the one learned it easily, the other with difficulty; that the one, after only a brief period of instruction, was able to find out things for himself, while the other, after much instruction, couldn’t even remember what he’d learned: that the body of the one adequately served his thought, while the body of the other opposed his. Are there any other things besides these by which you distinguished those who are naturally well suited for anything from those who are not?” (455b-c).

With these criteria in hand, we see that women, like men, are skilled at various occupations. We will find some women suited to medicine, some to music, and some to war. And, further, observes Socrates “isn’t one woman philosophical or a lover of wisdom, while another hates wisdom? And isn’t one spirited and another spiritless?” (456a). And, as a result, “one woman may have a guardian nature and another not, for wasn’t it qualities of this sort that we looked for in the natures of the men we selected as guardians?” (456a). Hence, Socrates concludes that a scenario in which women are admitted to and educated in the guardian class is clearly possible.

He then goes on to argue that such an arrangement would be optimal. He observes that some people are better than others, and that it is preferable for better people, not worse ones, to rule in a city. He argues as follows:

“About one man being better and another worse. Or do you think they’re all alike?

            Certainly not.

In the city we’re establishing, who do you think will prove to be better men, the guardians, who receive the education we’ve described, or the cobblers, who are educated in cobblery?

            Your question is ridiculous.

I understand. Indeed, aren’t the guardians the best of citizens?

            By far.

And what about the female guardians? Aren’t they the best of the women?

            They’re by far the best.

Is there anything better for a city than having the best possible men and women as its citizens?

            There isn’t.

And isn’t it music and poetry and physical training, lending their support in the way we described, that bring this about?

            Of course.

Then the law we’ve established isn’t only possible; it is also optimal for a city?

            Yes” (456d-457a).

Here Socrates points out that the guardians constitute the very best of the citizens, the male guardians being the best of men, and the female the best of women. And a city in which the best men and women rule would be the best city. Socrates thus provides us with a philosophical form of inclusivity, one which contrasts with the kinds of postmodern inclusivity popular today. For the Platonic argument for inclusivity depends upon a hierarchy of values. The reason why it would be wrong to exclude a wise woman from the complete guardians is precisely because she is wise, and wisdom is better than foolishness. It is wrong to exclude someone from the class to which they naturally belong solely in virtue of irrelevant features. Note how this contrasts with postmodern deconstructive inclusion that takes the upending of all hierarchies as its primary goal. The problem, on this view, isn’t so much that wise women are excluded from their rightful place on irrational grounds, but with the very idea of reason as such and the claim that wisdom is superior to foolishness. For such hierarchies of values are constituted, according to these theorists, by an act of violence. Derrida, for example, defines deconstruction as follows:

“To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition” (Positions, 41).

Or again,

“We will try to determine the law which compels us (by way of example and taking into account a general remodeling of theoretical discourse which has recently been rearticulating the fields of philosophy, science, literature, etc.) to apply the name ‘writing’ to that which critiques, deconstructs, wrenches apart the traditional, hierarchical opposition between writing and speech, between writing and the (idealist, spiritualist, phonocentrist: first and foremost logocentric) system of all what is customarily opposed to writing; to apply the name ‘work’ and ‘practice’ to that which disorganizes the philosophical opposition praxis/ theoria and can no longer be sublated according to the process of Hegelian negativity; to apply the name ‘unconscious’ to that which can never have been symmetrical been the symmetrical negative or potential reservoir of ‘consciousness’; to apply the name ‘matter’ to that which lies outside all classical oppositions and which, provided one takes into account certain theoretical achievements and a certain philosophical deconstruction belonging to a not so distant time, should no longer be able to assume any reassuring form: neither that of a referent (at least if conceived as a real thing or cause, anterior and exterior of the system of general textuality), nor that of presence in any of its modes (meaning, essence, existence–whether objective or subjective; form, i.e. appearance, content, substance, etc.; sensible presence or intelligible presence), nor that of a fundamental or totalizing principle, nor even of a last instance: in short, the classical system’s ‘outside’ can no longer take the form of the sort of extra-text which would arrest the concatenation of writing (i.e. that movement which situates every signified as a differential trace) and for which I had proposed the concept of ‘transcendental signified’” (Dissemination, trans. Johnson, 4-5).

So, on this view, if your defense of inclusivity makes unironic of the concepts of theory or practice, conscious or unconscious, matter or form, referent, real thing, cause, anteriority, exteriority, presence, meaning, essence, existence, objective, subjective, appearance, content, substance, sensible presence, intelligible presence, totalizing principle, or anything outside of the text, you are not doing deconstruction, but engaging in the very kind of hierarchical logocentric project to which deconstruction is meant stand as an alternative.

Note what an extreme position Derrida argues for here. If you, for example, attempted to defend inclusiveness by arguing, like Plato, that women are not naturally subordinate to men, you would be engaged in an activity proscribed by deconstruction, since you would be allegedly engaging in perpetuating a violent hierarchy. For, you would be asking about particular referents beyond the text, i.e. women and men and male and female nature, and thereby subordinating one thing to another (e.g. the words one uses to an external reality), and assuming that the truth of various assertions is grounded in facts about reality (e.g. that women are human beings with equal rational and moral standing to men). This is why Derrida takes great pains to articulate his position through cute uses of quotation marks, plays on words, attention to margins, etc. If he were to straightforwardly articulate his position and argue against his rivals, rather than making ironic observations  and cracking jokes, he would fall back into logocentrism. Thus, the kind of inclusivity championed by the postmoderns is fundamentally different than the kind of inclusivity established by Plato. The one attempts to ground inclusion on an objective hierarchy of values, the other attempts to subvert all value. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these options is preferable.

[The image used for the thumbnail of this post is in the public domain and can be found here: ]

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