Plato was one of the earlier philosophers who considered the role and the significance of women in the society. He is seen as a radical feminist of his time who gave credit to the purpose and significant of women in the society one which had not been given by any other person in history. Though he acknowledged that women were different from men, he argued that women had a function in society and that they are necessary for the smooth running of the society (Natalie, 1997, 53).
He maintained that women lacked the physical strength possessed by men to be their equals but that they have other strengths which are far much superior to earn them a role and an important position in the society. He argued that though men and women are different in strengths, height and other qualities, the differences are not universal. Moreover, he argued that there is no difference in the capability of men and women in their capacity of understanding the reality and making important judgment based on this understanding.
According to him, women and men should therefore receive the same kind and level of education and that same and equal roles should be assigned to both men and women. It is however important to note here that the attitude of Plato towards women was ambivalent. On one extreme, he argues that women should be given the same education and functions in society as men. On the other extreme, he argues that women have an inferior status as compared to men.
The first of his argument can be found in the Republican where he argues that the society would evolve to have an upper class of guardians or rational men and women and that in this class, the chattel status ascribed to women will be abolished in the sense that a woman will no longer be seen as the property of her husband. The class, he argues will see to it that women get equal education and function in the society just like the men (Bordo, 2001, 102). The second argument is found in Timaeus where argues that it is only men who are complete.
In his argument, he says that it is only men who are directly created by the gods and that women are as a result of those men who died and were cowards in their lives. Thus according to him, women are the reincarnations of the criminal and unworthy men in the society. He argues that righteous men goes to the stars after dying but the cowards or the unrighteous one posses the capability of acquiring the nature of a woman in the second generation (Carol, 1999, 67).
In the Republican however, the general idea held by Plato is that women in any ideal society should flourish not on the basis of their sex but on the basis of their nature. He argues that the society should treat women with respect giving them the same opportunities as men not on the basis of gender but on the basis of their nature. In addition, women in an ideal society should be given the opportunity of partaking traditional male pursuits including education, exercise and job opportunities. This he argues is based on the need for men and women to coexist happily in the society.
It can also be argued that Plato in his Allegory of the Cave discussion sees both men and as equal. In his discussion, he perceives men and women as being chained together and both are under the obligation of finding a proper and suitable way into the light of true knowledge and being. The Allegory of the Cave sees men and women as being confined as prisoners in a cave whereby they are chained together by the legs and the neck and can not see anywhere else expect ahead of them. Directly in front of them is assumed to be short wall on which a puppet show takes place.
For all the time that men and women are confined in this cave, they know or understand nothing else expects the shadows on the wall in front of them and that is their reality. If then one of the prisoners is suddenly fled to the world outside, he will first be confused but will later realize that what he used to see on the wall was in fact a fallacy and unreal. The prisoner then may return back to the cave to try and enlighten the others about his newly acquired knowledge. All in all, the previous knowledge of what is reality will be replaced with a new knowledge of the world.
Modern feminists have used the idea of the cave to argue that Plato was referring to the womb cave in which women are held prisoners. In this regard, releasing the prisoners will help them to see and conceptualize a totally new reality. Whether so or not cannot be proved but the real idea here is that Plato recognizes the maternal role of women in the society (Thomas, 1994, 45). In the traditional Athenian society where women were seen as properties of their husbands and inferior, Plato made an effort to credit them with the smooth running of the society.
He argues that a female watchdog should not be exempted from her role as a guardian on the basis that she gives birth to puppies. In this context, the fact that he sees the upper class as the watchdog of the state can prompt the argument that the female guardians in the upper class should be given the same opportunities as men. Though there exist a difference between men and women the only real difference is a physiological one in the context of the reproductive capacity of women.
In the Republican, Plato also argues that children should be raised communally thus promoting the participation of women in the activities of the society. Plato much advocates for the unification of gender for the survival and the success of society (Simone, 1997, 112). In general, it can be argued that the views held by Plato in the Republican are egalitarian in that they still see men as superior from women. It is had to tell whether Plato was for the women or against them in the republican though much of work suggests that he never cared much for them.
In essence, Plato is more concerned with the souls of men and women and the differences that exist between these souls. He clearly argues that though the physical differences between men and women are minimal, women generally perform poorly as compared to men. In this context, he seems to argue that despite the fact that women should be given the same responsibilities and opportunities as men to reunite with the Forms, their weakness as compared to men will pose a difficult in their performance (Carol, 1999, 69).
Plato in his discussion about is clearly influenced by the patriarchal notion of the society especially the one in which he was oriented in. First, he does not discuss the reason as to why he thinks women will perform less than men when given the same opportunities in the society. In regard to the dissolution of the family and other romantic relationships, Plato has an element of prejudice which can be seen as stemming from his own preferences as opposed to the status quo in the society (Bordo, 2001, 98).
In his arguments, Plato makes much use of body and soul and this can be argued to be the center of most if not all of his arguments. Though seen as a radical feminist of his time, Plato seems to be using the term man and woman in a way different from gender. He assigns materialism to women and philosophical enlightenment to men. In this regard, he sees women who are more related with reproduction and child rearing as being dependent and much more connected to the bodily nature. On the other extreme, his views suggest that men are connected much to the soul and things associated with spiritual nature.
He goes even further to suggest that there is a difference in the type of souls in the context of men and women and that a woman body does not dictate that he has a female soul. Still, much can be deduced from his explanation as to the origin of a woman. As stated earlier, Plato believes that a woman is a product of reincarnation of a cowardice, unworthy or a criminal man. In this regard, he seems to suggest that a woman life entails a punishment for cowardice or criminal behavior. In essence, Plato seems to argue that the main goal or the ultimate objective of any given person is to attain manliness.
In some of his arguments, Plato contradicts himself in regard to his stand on women and the ideal society. Looking in the Republic, he exhibits contempt for women when he characterizes those who desecrate their enemy’s death as having a womanish character or small intellect. As such, it can be argued that he considers women as having a small intellect as compared to men. Furthermore, there are some his arguments presents some aspects of disparaging attitude towards individuals of the mediocre mass or those lacking sophisticated moral virtues and intellect (Thomas, 1994, 46).
It is also important to note that in all of his works and more so in the Republican, there is an inundating sexism undercurrent. In this context, it is possible to argue that what Plato was referring to was the lesser physical prowess of women and their average lower stature as opposed to their nature or moral worth. Still, it can be argued that Plato simply showed that women are globally inferior as the result of the political environment which is impoverished by education. This of course is based on the notion of the Athenian political environment that existed at the time of Plato.
It has also been argued that Plato as seen in his works would condone the propagation consciousness that is a fallacy in the citizens women included, a thing that is not in line with the ethic of equal moral regard in the context of collective individuals. In other words, you cannot dictate the adoption of fundamental value by another person while at the same time pretending to respect the ability of such a person to choose for himself. In this context, the argument that female guardians have a right to education does not necessarily mean that they have to be educated.
In any case, they can choose not to be guardians. In this regard and as prompted by his arguments, Plato would resort to use of coercive measures in order for the women to join the guardian or the upper class (Robinson, 1998, 78). Moreover, it can be argued that Plato is not concerned women rights as demonstrated by his lack of the notion of dignity and equal worth that forms the basis for human rights. In his argument, it is evident that Plato holds a low opinion on women as they are and sees them as incapable of having opinions that are worthy to discuss besides liberating themselves.
His arguments in the Republic are inclined more on the benefit to the state in respect to the upper class and it is here that much of his opinions about women are. However, the mere fact that he holds strong opinions about women in his argument does not mean that he has any serious consideration for their talents and their capacities in regard to any ideal society. It can therefore be concluded that Plato in the Republican does not manifest himself as a feminist but rather uses women just to put forth his arguments.