BMCR 2021.11.47

The female drama: the philosophical feminine in the soul of Plato’s Republic

, The female drama: the philosophical feminine in the soul of Plato's Republic. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2020. Pp. 301. ISBN 9780881467437 $35.00.

One of the most mind-boggling passages in Plato’s Republic occurs at the beginning of Book 5, when Socrates supposedly digresses from his initial plan of determining what justice is, whether it is desirable, and what the perfectly just city looks like, and turns to the issue of the place of women in society. The question of ‘what’s the female gender got to do with this’ has not yet received due consideration. Charlotte Thomas’ recent monograph fills this gap by exploring the role of women and Republic 5 in Plato’s broader argument in the dialogue.

After sketching out the just city and soul in Books 2-4, Socrates is about to move on to the question of the unjust constitution and individual (Resp. 5.449a). One of his interlocutors, Adeimantus, suddenly interrupts him (449b) and asks to expand on his previous claims concerning women and children, namely that among the guardians of the perfectly just city there should be no private families and wives should be held in common (4.424a). Reluctantly, Socrates pauses the narrative and approaches what he calls the ‘female drama’ (γυναικεῖον δρᾶμα, 5.451c). He will turn back to the question of injustice in Book 8. The digression is organised into three problems, or waves (κύματα, 457b): (i) the equal education of men and women and the inclusion of women among the guardians of the city (450c-7a), (ii) the abolition of private families and the communism of spouses and children (457a-71c), and (iii) the possibility of having philosopher rulers (471c-80a). The latter leads Socrates to discuss what philosophy is and construct a series of images (e.g., the Ship of State in 6.488a-9d, the Sun Analogy in 508b-9c, the Divided Line in 509d-11a, and the Myth of the Cave in 7.514a-7a) to explain what philosophers know and how they are educated.

As a result, as Thomas correctly notes in the Introduction to her monograph, Book 5 introduces numerous twists: from the psychological enquiry into the just soul to the political discussion of women in society (p. 1), from the description of what the just constitution is to an account of how this constitution comes to be and becomes just (pp. 2-3), from the argument for the superiority of justice to the question of the possibility of justice (pp. 12-3), and most importantly, from the male to the female drama (pp. 1-2). Thomas’ thesis is that this alleged detour turns out to be a key step in the dialogue, both for the establishment of Plato’s city of philosophers and for the development of philosophical soul and the best human life.

Book 5 has often attracted serious academic attention. So far, the scholarship has focused on questions such as what the structure of Plato’s argument is – whether Plato is primarily motivated by his beliefs about human nature and the equality between the sexes (Jacobs, ‘Plato on Female Emancipation and the Traditional Family’, 1978) or his concern for unity and commonality in the ideal city (Okin, ‘Philosopher Queens and Private Wives’, 1977) – and to what extent Plato’s views about gender in the Republic are to be considered proto feminist. On the one hand, scholars have emphasised the ground-breaking nature of his claims that biological differences are not socially relevant and that the private sphere should be abolished (e.g., Lesser, ‘Plato’s Feminism’, 1979; Okin, Women in Western Political Thought, 1979; Vlastos, ‘Was Plato a Feminist?’ 1989). On the other hand, however, scholars have also noticed that even in the Republic Plato occasionally slips back into traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and that he includes women in his philosophical programme only insofar as they contribute to the city’s welfare (e.g., Pomeroy, ‘Feminism in Book V of Plato’s Republic’, 1974; Annas, ‘Plato’s Republic and Feminism’, 1976; Saxonhouse, ‘The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato’, 1976).

These are all points of heated academic controversy. The reader might then expect Thomas to tackle similar issues. Her plan, however, is to take a rather different and innovative approach. The question is not what Plato’s argument is, but why he makes such an argument. What does a discussion about women and gender contribute to a dialogue primarily concerned with the definition of justice, the foundation of the perfectly just city, and most importantly the picture of the just soul?

Thomas’ answer is twofold. First, more generally, she argues that despite appearances Plato is not leaving psychology behind and pausing his overall enquiry into the nature of justice. The female drama is not merely about politics, but also about the soul. The aim, then, is to offer the first ‘systematic interpretation of the psychology in Books 5-7’ and the female soul in the Republic (p. 3). Second, and more specifically, she suggests that what the female drama contributes to the dialogue is an account of the development of processes of justice, and the origins, upbringing, and education of the just soul. According to Thomas, Plato borrows from ancient Greek biology the notion of women as passive vessels ‘necessary for the becoming of a new human being’ (p. 4). Therefore, whilst the male drama is about what justice is – that is, the being and actualities of the just soul – the female drama is about how to become just – that is, the potentialities and potencies of the just soul. This in turn is key to the question of how to become philosophers and the development of the philosophical soul, which Plato targets in Book 7 (p. 5).

Thomas’ Female Drama is organised into 12 Chapters and divided into 4 Parts. Part One sets the scene by reconstructing Plato’s initial argument in Books 2-4, with special focus on the City of Pigs and the foundation of the ideal state (2.369c-72d, Chapter 1) and the tripartite division of the soul into reason, spirit, and appetite (4.434d-45b, Chapter 2). Part Two focuses on Book 5 and analyses in detail Plato’s solution to the three waves (Chapters 3-6). Part Three turns to the metaphysical books: the Ship Analogy (Chapter 7), the Form of the Good (Chapter 8), and the Cave (Chapter 9). Finally, in Part 4 Thomas recapitulates her main argument concerning the philosophical and psychological role of the feminine (Chapters 10-12).

The book is recommended on two counts: first, and most importantly, the Female Drama is a novel and original take on the vexed question of the role of women in the Republic. Thomas is quite persuasive in showing that besides analysing Plato’s views on women, we should situate them within the dialogue and discuss how the female drama relates to Plato’s broader project concerning philosophy, justice, and the soul. She acknowledges that her reading might not give an exhaustive and definite answer to this question (p. 7), but nonetheless she offers an innovative interpretation of the female drama, with special focus on the role of the feminine in the soul. Second, Thomas’ reconstruction of the various steps of Plato’s argument in Parts 1-2 is careful and thorough. This makes the book valuable to both experienced researchers and prospective students of the Republic.

There are three aspects, however, that I think could have used more clarity and support. Specifically, more space could have been devoted to explaining the key terms and premises of the main argument. First, I would have liked to see a discussion of what makes the metaphysical books part of the female drama: what, in Plato’s view, would be more feminine rather than masculine about the Myth of the Cave? Thomas is right in noting that in Book 5 Socrates explicitly says he is leaving the male drama aside and turning to the female. Yet it is unclear to me whether Books 6-7 are still included in the same digression or whether Socrates is here turning away from the female drama and opening a further parenthesis. Second, and more importantly, I worry that the sharp dichotomy Thomas draws between women and potentiality, on the one hand, and men and actuality on the other, risks turning into the gender polarity Plato tries to overcome in Republic 5: whilst Plato concludes that sex does not affect your nature, abilities, and occupations, and that women are functionally equivalent to men, Thomas appears to separate the male from the female on the psychological level.

Third, and most importantly, Thomas could have explained in more detail what is meant by potentiality in the Republic. Thomas herself acknowledges the risk of making ‘an anachronistic appeal to Aristotle’ (p. 10 n. 18). She thus argues for the connection between women and becoming/possibility/potentiality in three alternative ways. First, when raising the woman question in 5.450c Socrates’ interlocutors ask him for an account of birth and education, wherefore Socrates turns to the development and rearing of the guardians. Second, the last of the three waves explicitly targets the issue of the possibility of having philosopher rulers and founding the perfectly just city (although this wave is separate from the two addressing the status of women, I would argue). Finally, there is evidence from ancient Greek embryology that links women to passivity and potentiality, and men with activity and actuality. The latter claim, however, is imprecise. Not all of Plato’s contemporaries and predecessors considered women to act merely as empty vessels in the reproduction process. In the Generation of Animals, Aristotle separates those thinkers who, like Anaxagoras, believe that females do not make any contribution to generation (4.1.463b31-4a1 – see also Aeschylus’ Eumenides 658-60) and those who think that both males and females actively provide semen. This is the case for Democritus (464a6-11), as well as Parmenides, Empedocles, and the Pythagoreans (Censorinus 5.4). Once again, then, more work should have been done to show what is the evidence, first, for a possible (though implicit) link between Republic 5 and embryology and, second, for Plato’s advocating the view of women’s passive reproductive role. At p. 4 n. 7, Thomas hints at Plato’s embryology in the Timaeus but does not expand on this parallel.

Overall, thanks to Thomas, we are now given the opportunity to revise the thought-provoking debate about women’s role in the Republic. While some (even central) aspects of her arguments could have been more developed, Thomas raises excellent questions and ably employs Plato’s own words in the dialogue to answer them.