Plato and Aristotle on Women: Selected Quotes

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Plato (~425–348 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) are arguably the two most influential Greek philosophers in the development of western Eurasian civilizations, but among their differences was one that impacted the way women are treated even today. 

Both believed that social roles should be assigned to each individual's nature, and both believed those natures were driven by an individual's psychosomatic makeup. They agreed on the roles of slaves, barbarians, children, and artisans, but not about women.

Plato vs. Aristotle

Based on his writings in the Republic and most of the Dialogues, Plato was seemingly open to the potential equality of men and women. Plato believed in metempsychosis (essentially reincarnation), that the human soul was sexless and could change genders from life to life. It was only logical that, since souls are immutable, they bring the same abilities with them from body to body. Accordingly, he said, women should have equal access to education and politics. 

On the other hand, Aristotle, Plato's student and colleague at the Academy in Athens, believed that women were fit only to be the subjects of male rule. Women have the deliberative part of the soul, he said, but it isn't sovereign in nature: they are born to be ruled by men in a constitutional sense, as a citizens rule other citizens. Human beings are the union of body and soul, he said, and nature has designed the female body for one job: procreation and nurturing. 

Below are quotes in English from the Greek works of both philosophers.

On the Relations of the Sexes

Aristotle, Politics: "[T]he male, unless constituted in some respect contrary to nature, is by nature more expert at leading than the female, and the elder and complete than the younger and incomplete."

Aristotle, Politics: "[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled."

Aristotle, Politics: "The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete."

Plato, Republic: "Women and men have the same nature in respect to the guardianship of the state, save insofar as the one is weaker and the other is stronger."

Plato, Republic: "A man and a woman who have a physician's mind (psyche) have the same nature." 

Plato, Republic: "If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.” 

History of Animals vs. the Republic

Aristotle, History of Animals, Book IX:

"Wherefore women are more compassionate and more readily made to weep, more jealous and querulous, fonder of railing, and more contentious. The female also is more subject to depression of spirits and despair than the male. She is also more shameless and false, more readily deceived, and more mindful of injury, more watchful, more idle, and on the whole less excitable than the male. On the contrary, the male is more ready to help, and, as it has been said, braver than the female; and even in malaria, if the sepia is struck with a trident, the male comes to help the female, but the female makes her escape if the male is struck."

Plato, Republic, Book V (represented as a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon):

"Socrates: Then, if women are to have the same duties as men, they must have the same nurture and education?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: The education which was assigned to the men was music and gymnastics.

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: Then women must be taught music and gymnastic and also the art of war, which they must practice like the men?

Glaucon: That is the inference, I suppose.

Socrates: I should rather expect that several of our proposals, if they are carried out, being unusual, may appear ridiculous.

Glaucon: No doubt of it.

Socrates: Yes, and a ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the gym, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia.

Glaucon: Yes, indeed: according to present notions the proposal would be thought ridiculous.

Socrates: But then, I said, as we have determined to speak our minds, we must not fear the jests of the wits which will be directed against this sort of innovation; how they will talk of women's attainments both in music and gymnastic and above all about their wearing armor and riding upon horseback!

Glaucon: Very true.

Socrates: Yet having begun we must go forward to the rough places of the law; at the same time begging of these gentlemen for once in their life to be serious. Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.

Glaucon: No doubt.

Socrates: But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.

Glaucon: Very true.

Socrates: First, then, whether the question is to be put in jest or in earnest, let us come to an understanding about the nature of woman: Is she capable of sharing either wholly or partially in the actions of men, or not at all? And is the art of war one of those arts in which she can or can not share? That will be the best way of commencing the inquiry, and will probably lead to the fairest conclusion."

Sources and Further Reading