Ancient and modern

Plato on the Today programme

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

A woman is invited to join the Today programme, and the chatteratae are immediately a-twitter on the subject of female equality. Unlikely as it seems, Plato was all in favour of it, as he argued in his Republic, and for a hysterically incorrect reason, too.

Women in the ancient world had, in fact, far more important things to do than chair Footsie companies or hold down tightly scripted TV chat shows. The very existence of the state depended on them, for one simple reason: the biological imperative. Any state that did not maintain a viable population level did not survive. So since life was short and survival at birth precarious for both baby and mother, women had to start on the production line as soon as they were fertile. But Plato thought that had no bearing at all on their fitness to serve at the very highest ‘Guardian’ level of his utopian Republic.

Plato argued that his Guardians were like guard-dogs of a flock. Since in the farming world both male and female guard-dogs were equally efficient, any education system should be able to produce both male and female Guardians equally well. To the objection that different people had different innate abilities, and females might therefore be innately different from males, Plato makes Socrates reply that people were obviously differently inclined, but inclination had nothing to do with innate ability. Further, if the sole difference was child-bearing, that had no relevance to the question of other innate male-female differences.

The reason for this was clear, he went on: there was nothing women could do that men could not do, and infinitely better as well. Consequently, ‘there can be no job which belongs to men qua men or women qua women. Innate qualities have been distributed equally between the two sexes, and women can join in every occupation just as much as men, even though they are the weaker sex in all respects’. Conclusion: ‘both women and men have the same natural ability for being Guardians of a community’; it would be education alone that sorted out those that made the grade.

What a joy it would have been to have had Plato on Today.

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