Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.17

Sabine Föllinger, Differenz und Gleichheit: Das Geschlechterverhältnis in der Sicht griechischer Philosophen des 4. bis 1. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. Hermes Einzelschriften 74.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 1996.  Pp. 341.  ISBN 3-515-07011-7.  

Reviewed by Ann Ellis Hanson, University of Michigan
Word count: 1734 words

Föllinger's monograph is a richly nuanced study of the ways in which Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic philosophers of the Garden and the Stoa constructed gender relationships.1 Föllinger (hereafter 'F.') foregrounds gender asymmetry, with all its biological, historical, and ontological complexities and consequences, and, in taking such a stance, aligns herself with recent feminist writing, particular that from Italy, probing anew how these influential philosophers manipulated similarity and difference in their discussions of male and female. A passage from the pseudo-Aristotelian De mundo, associated by its author with the pre-Socratic Heraclitus, serves F. as a point of departure: 'Nature strives totally after opposites and creates from them the harmonious whole, not from similarities, just as the male combines with the female, and not one with its same type; thus basic unity comes about through the combining of opposites, not of like to like' (396 b 7ff.). Aristotle himself also cited Heraclitus' construct approvingly in Eudemian Ethics (1235 a 25ff. = 22 A 22 D-K), and it is Aristotle's multi-faceted exploration of gender difference that receives F.'s most enthusiastic evaluation, for by wrestling with the question, 'Why was it necessary that two sexes exist?,' he evolved complex notions of reciprocity between male and female that arose from sexual difference.2 F.'s monograph is a thorough and thoughtful collection of pertinent ancient texts, accurately translated and carefully interpreted; familiar passages, especially from Plato, look different through her lens, and less familiar passages from the Hellenistic writers, such as the Stoic Antipater's On marriage, highlight the extent to which so fundamental a topic continues to profit from intelligent reexamination. Each chapter begins with an overview of previous scholarship, separating what was useful to F.'s project from what was not. F.'s writing is lucid, engaging, and energetic, and this is an interesting contribution to the study of gender in the ancient Mediterranean world. At the close of her monograph, F. urges that difference, as well as similarity, enjoy a role in contemporary conversations that still search after an ethic of gender difference that provides adequate paradigms of conduct for the modern workplace and household, unencumbered by the hierarchies of worth and worthiness.

I offer the following summary of F.'s investigation in the hope that it will do justice to her arguments. F.'s first chapter is prefatory, as it charts gender-specific views about bodily constitution, female physiology, and procreation in the gynecological and embryological treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus. The medical texts are appropriate in the sense that their authors were heirs to pre-Socratic thinking about origins in general and the origin of human beings in particular, and they are preserved in relatively full fashion, when compared to the natural philosophers of the preceding century. Hippocratics endowed the qualities 'wet'/'dry' with gender specificity, constructing human bodies -- the female as soft, porous, and absorptive, the male as hard, compact, and able to 'sweat out' surplus moistures through labor -- in order to explain the greater wetness observable from the fluids that exited the woman's body in menstruation, lactation, etc. Hippocratics endorsed the existence of female seed, underscoring its similarity to male seed in production (pangenesis and ejaculation), as well as its opposition in quality -- 'wetter,' 'weaker.' Principles of dominance governed Hippocratics' notions of how male and female seed combined to determine the sex of the unborn and to endow it with paternal or maternal characteristics. The mother's contributions to her infant was not only her seed, but also her menstrual blood that provided nourishment for the fetus in utero and, transformed into milk, fed the infant born. Hippocratic theories of fetal and post partum development and of lochial flows were likewise gender-specific and preference the male. Hippocratics medicalized the gender asymmetry they observed in the world about them, but did not attempt to explain why it existed.

F.'s second section examines Plato -- complex and contradictory with regard to the female, in part, because context and the ultimate aims of an argument led him to configure gender in various ways, and in part, because the working out of a unified theory of gender was not a high priority. While appreciative of Plato's creative imaginings, F. underscores the opportunities missed for more profound exploration of gender relationships. The mythic story of creation at the end of the Timaeus was intended as no more than plausible (εἰκὼς λόγος), and it emphasizes gender difference. Woman's creation was secondary and out of men who led unjust lives; sexual desire in the male was caused by the compulsion of encephalo-myelogenic seed to escape his body, while in the female the womb itself lusted after procreation, a field that needed to be strewn with formless, tiny organisms which matured within. F. cautiously suggests that this latter may represent a casual expression of the epigenesis Aristotle would later develop. The motif of Aristophanes' speech in the Symposium, that each man represented half of an original whole, opened the possibility for gender reciprocity, but Plato did not pursue it. Diotima's speech in the same dialog motivated procreation through the individual's desire for immortality, yet she separated physical conception of children from the spiritual conception of ideas and devalued the former to the benefit of the latter. In the utopian treatises that established the ideal polis gender relationships were subordinated to the needs of the State, whose goal of eudaimonia required unity. For the Guardians of Republic V the oikos was no more, and familial concerns for procreation and property were radically displaced. Female Guardians were to be educated to the same tasks as the male Guardians in the interest of the common good, but Plato undercut the potential equality in sameness by recurring references to woman's lesser bodily strength that inhibited her performance. In the Laws the sketch of the 'second best' State reintroduced oikos structure with the intention of extending the restrictions on private life to the entire population. Plato stressed gender assimilation in his utopias in order to eliminate a division he viewed as threatening to the State: male and female nature was the same; their virtues were alike; and even the physical differences manifest in reproduction were a matter of convention, of no more consequence than the difference between hirsute and bald. F. judges the labels misogynist and feminist inappropriate for Plato, although he has been called both; rather, Plato was a magnificent maker of imaginary worlds, none of which confronted gender difference in a profound manner.

By contrast, F. argues in her third section, Aristotle invested the qualities of male and female with fundamental meaning, as he probed gender difference in his biological,3 political, and ethical works. In the Metaphysics he described the two sexes as opposites within the larger category 'Man'; in the biological works this opposition was the necessary precondition for procreation. He argued against those who denied the female any contribution to offspring, but only a place for it, as well as against those who saw the female contribution as like that from the male. Rather, it was the innate heat that men possessed in greater abundance that enabled the male to concoct blood into active and formative semen, while lack of heat prevented the female from doing so. This fundamental deficiency was like the castration that prevented the eunuch from producing male seed, and in the phenomenological sense woman was a mutilated man. Aristotle's philosophical model for procreation, the εἶδος-ὕλη theory, endowed semen with the ability to act upon menstrual blood, the material substance of conception. Nonetheless, in sex determination and the passing on of resemblances the father's formative contribution was sometimes dominant and sometimes not; and in the latter case the mother's contribution became the determiner, unless the procreative impulse of both parents was weak and latent characteristics of ancestors came into play. Such a construction endowed the parents' contributions with a value potentially equal, despite difference in kind. The necessity for male and female in biological reproduction corresponded in Aristotle's ethical sphere with a reciprocity between man and woman. His models were an aristocracy in which the ruling principle was superior to the ruled in its ability to choose the better course and implement it, and a friendship between unequals which assumed a proportional symmetry between the dominant partner, the one more beloved, and the lesser partner, the one more loving. Because of basic bodily difference, male and female virtues were also different and correlated with gender functions -- gender-specific, but also of like worth in the context of profit and desire. In contrast to Plato's theoretical utopias, Aristotle saw heterogeneity as posing no threat to the State, and while he too evaluated the male as superior, he also assigned specific tasks and worth to the female as the indispensable complement, necessary for a good life.

Both Epicureans and Stoics were preoccupied with how to live the good life. Yet, as F. notes at the beginning of her fourth section, their abstract discussions of male-female interrelationships paid scant attention to the notions of participation in an unequal friendship, or of ruling and being ruled. F. suggests that the important positions enjoyed by women in Epicurus' Garden and the emphasis the Old Stoa placed on the sameness of all mankind perhaps account, at least in part, for the lack of interest in the power dynamics of gender theory. Epicureans' desires for a life free from pain led them to demythologize sexual love by dissecting it into its biological components and by emphasizing the need to balance the pleasure of sexual fulfillment against potential pain attending even lawful marriage and procreation. The Epicurean philosopher deliberately distanced himself from viewing husband and wife as complementary elements of the household. In their biology the earlier Stoics returned to the doctrine of male and female seed, although the latter was often denied procreative capacity and required male input to produce offspring. At the same time, this non-creative female seed did carry formative information for sex determination and inherited characteristics. In the political and ethical fields, the earlier Stoics produced both negative and positive views of marriage and child-rearing; Aristotle's positive evaluation of gender difference as the basis for reciprocity was amplified, however, by Antipater. His coupling of the profit the State derived from marriage and offspring among its citizens with the profit for the individual envisioned the good wife not only as helpmate on the Xenophontic model, but as one totally capable of reinforcing and reduplicating her husband's efforts. In her he found another self.


1.   An amplified and completely revised version of the author's 1993 dissertation, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg.
2.   F. finds herself more often in agreement with e.g. A. Preus, 'Aristotle and Hippocratic gynecology,' pp. 183-90, in Aristoteles als Wissenschaftstheoretiker, R. Müller, ed., Berlin 1983, and at odds with L. Dean-Jones, disputing her repeated claim that Aristotle "considered women to be less 'other' and more like men than the Hippocratics" (p. 129 in 'The Cultural Construct of the Female Body in Classical Greek Science,' 111-37, Women's History and Ancient History, S. Pomeroy, ed., Chapel Hill-London 1991; p. 85 in Women's Bodies in Ancient Greek Science, Oxford 1994).
3.   F. rehearses the argument mounted by D.M. Balme in 1985 that Historia animalium X is by Aristotle, amplifying his position at several points. Nonetheless, she considers the counter arguments, especially HA X's assumption that the female contributes seed, strong enough to leave the question of Aristotle's authorship without final resolution, and HA X does not figure further in her discussion.

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