The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

City of Ladies

The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic

Mary Townsend

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

In Book 5 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates makes a series of radical proposals about the roles of women in the “guardians,” or leadership class, of his semi-idealized fantasy city, Kallipolis (“Beautiful City-State”). The elite guardian women must join their male peers in all activities, including naked exercise. The guardians will also be bred like animals, using a rigged lottery system to ensure that nobody except the ultra-elite (the rulers among the guardians) will know whose child is whose. This will, Socrates implies, allow the best women to play an equal part in the running of government, and will prevent any of the ruling class from putting the interests of family before the interests of the state.

Socrates says he fears these suggestions will drown him in laughter—and indeed, readers have often been quite unclear about how seriously to take them. As Mary Townsend argues in her incisive new study, this area of the Republic has rarely been addressed as an integral element in Plato’s analysis of political and ethical life. In the fifteenth century, the humanist Leonardo Bruni found the idea of naked female athletes “repugnant.” Few recent commentators have felt that Plato’s account of the role of female guardians is of any particular philosophical interest, or that it could teach modern readers anything important about politics or gender.

Another major stumbling block is the assertion (made first by Glaucon, but then taken up by Socrates) that women tend to be worse than men at everything. Women, Socrates suggests, can do the same things as men, but they generally do them less well—with occasional rare exceptions. To many contemporary readers, it has felt disappointing that Plato would argue for the possibility of female philosopher-rulers without offering a more extensive and sustained argument for gender equality. But Townsend shows quite convincingly that Book 5 has been misunderstood and wrongly neglected; her work provides a deeply thought-provoking account not only of Plato (drawing on both Republic and Laws) but also of gender roles in contemporary societies.

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Emily Wilson is Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She recently published a verse translation of the Odyssey.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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