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‘Sex and the City: Plato on Philosopher-Queens in the Republic and Laws’ Megan Bowler

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As the first instalment of the CANI Outreach Webinar Series, we are proud to present Megan Bowler’s talk on ‘Sex and the City: Plato on Philosopher-Queens in the Republic and Laws’.Megan Bowler is a final year undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, with her reserach focus being on ideal cities in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’ and how Plato deals with questions of feasibility and purpose.

You can follow her @meganlbowler

Abstract

In the Republic, Plato insists through the character of Socrates that the ideal city will be ruled by female as well as male guardians. Plato’s extension of eligibility for political roles to women in the ‘Kallipolis’ stems from his commitment in this work to literalise the conclusions, however outlandish, of principles reached via philosophical discussion. Annas rightly argues, though, that Plato’s line of argument here is not comparable to those made by modern liberal feminism, being a result of his commitment to efficiency rather than concern for notions of ‘rights’ or ‘equality’. Further, as Vlastos suggests, these philosopher-queens appear to be treated as ‘brilliant exceptions’ rather than assumed to take on political roles on a basis of equal representation.

Annas continues to argue that there is a sense in which Plato even gives credence to the inevitable objections of his contemporaries when this policy is discussed in the Republic. However, I will counterargue that Plato is using some argumentative strategies in this section to encourage the more critical reader to consider the even more radical conclusion that female inferiority is an artificial societal constraint rather than one with rational basis in nature. Further, the fact he treats this policy with a degree of seriousness, desirable to approximate where possible in reality rather than solely a provocative ideal, is corroborated by his continued commitment to this policy in principle in the later Laws. Overall, the impression is that Plato does advocate in earnest that, in the event that a woman has the qualities needed for political life, her involvement should be permissible or else the city is wasting its talents – but he does not anticipate that this would be the norm, or argue that there are specific benefits to having women in office beyond this logic of efficiency.

In discussing the above points, I will consider this topic in view of the wider context of what Plato was arguably setting out to achieve in imagining ideal but unfeasible cities in the Republic and Laws and how the two works differ, and in terms of how Socrates’ progressive attitudes towards women may have influenced Plato’s approach. The topic also demands recognition of the historical context – what roles and opportunities did women have in contemporary Greek cities, and how did contemporary conceptions of ‘political roles’ differ from ours? I will also consider the question from the perspective of why it might or should/should not matter whether we think of Plato as a proto-feminist, engaging with wider issues in classical scholarship and the kind of pitfalls we might encounter if we inevitably bring our modern preoccupations and perhaps biases into the process of interpreting the ancient texts we read.