Plato is often mistaken as a promoter of women’s rights. He was not however interested in liberating women from their low status in society although for some women this may have been a consequence of his proposals. Instead, Plato was interested in what was best for his ideal state. Plato thought women could be legitimate political guardians as he reasoned that although they were physically inferior to men, women would be able to fulfil the same roles as men if they were educated in the same way.
In book five (449-457b) of The Republic the reader can discern from the reasoning and discussion between the philosophers that Plato did indeed think women could be legitimate political Guardians. For something to be legitimate, it should be lawful, proper and should conform to the standard type. Legitimacy is used when describing a system of government and is based upon whether people accept the validity of a law or type of ruling.
If the standard type to become a guardian was for men to be trained based on their natural capacities, then it would be legitimate for women to be trained in the same way if the differences between them was based only upon strength and the natural ability to conceive. The Guardians of the Republic are a combination of protectors and governors of the state. They play the role of the military, the civil service, and the government. The Guardians divide into the philosophical rulers, who represent the virtue of wisdom and the auxiliaries, who are the soldier-police to protect the state.
‘If men or women as a sex appear to be qualified for different skills or occupations, “I said”, we shall assign these to each accordingly; but if the only difference apparent between them is the fact that the female bears and the male begets, we shall not admit that this is a difference relevant for our purpose, but shall still maintain that our male and female guardians ought to follow the same occupation. ‘ (454d-e) The question is asked whether the ‘the female of the human species is naturally capable in taking part in all the occupations of the male, or in none, or in some only?
‘ (453a) It is accepted that women are indeed physically inferior to men and are not naturally suited to the same roles as men. However, ‘this is not a relevant difference for determining occupation, anymore than baldness is relevant to whether someone should become a cobbler. ‘1 The differences between male and females are depicted in the analogy of the watchdog where the male watchdog must watch and hunt for his flock. The female watchdog however primarily focuses on the bearing and rearing of her puppies and so is not involved in any male duties.
However, the difference in strength between male and female was not sufficient to give them different tasks. Likewise Plato applies this to humans, as a justification for why women could be legitimate political Guardians. In summary, Plato reasoned that if women could be trained in the same way as men were trained to be Guardians and were as effective, then despite natural differences women should legitimately be able to become a political Guardians.
Plato thought women could be legitimate political Guardians because it would be of benefit to the state as it would be practical and advantageous to efficiently use all of the resources available in the state. Women were viewed as a huge untapped resource and so it was an irrational waste of resources not to use women’s potential skills. In essence Plato’s point is a simple one. Julia Annas, describes Plato’s view that ‘the state benefits from having the best possible citizens, and if half the citizens sit at home doing trivial jobs then usable talent is being wasted’.
2 Thus, women should become trained to become legitimate political Guardians. Plato aimed to pursue what was just by reasoning and he reasoned that it was just to allow women to be legitimate political Guardians. ‘Plato to Nato’ explains that ‘the chief formal purpose of the Republic is to mount a rational case for referring justice to injustice. ‘3 Finding the right idea of what is good and best for individuals is fundamental to Plato’s formation of the kallipolis.
Plato was dissatisfied in what he perceived as a corrupt state, not least because of the hanging of his mentor Socrates. He dissatisfaction with society and democracy at large motivated his desire to pursue the ‘right’, ‘correct’ or ‘just’ way the ideal Polis (city state) should be governed. Justice for a city consists precisely in the enforcement of a principle of specialisation that restricts each class to the one social role for which it is naturally best fitted. People would be more naturally inclined to fulfil specific roles more effectively than others.
Plato’s Polis was divided into three classes based on individual’s natural capacity, as he reasoned it is more logical and sensible that each person should do his specific task according to his abilities. Thus, women should be restricted to the social role for which they are best fitted, including the role of the Guardian. This theory about the human psyche (soul or mind) is a tripartite division of the soul. Plato reasons that each individual has three primary types of desires; those who are spirited and passionate, those that pursue knowledge so are therefore more rational and those who desire money.
Women will have a particular type of desire that predominantly rules their soul. Each member of the state should perform that function, and only that function for which he is destined by nature as each individual was equipped by hereditary status for a specific role. Women should therefore fulfil their role for which they are destined by nature. The Polis will only work best if each individual fulfils their role, for which they are best equipped.
Plato’s ideal state would be ineffective if people did not continue to fulfil the roles for which they were naturally suited. Susan Moller Atkin concisely explains Plato’s views towards the legitimacy of female guardians: ‘Since it is the characteristics of the soul that determine whether a person has the requisite nature for a certain pursuit, and since sex is no more related to the soul than the presence or absence of hair, members of both sexes will be skilled in all he various arts, depending on their individual souls.