Book 5 Summary and Analysis
1. The Position of Women (451d–457b)
Adeimantus asks Socrates to elaborate about the community of wives and children which he had briefly mentioned earlier. Referring to the previous analogies to watchdogs, Socrates asserts that the women in society should be trained and expected to perform the same duties as the men. Women and men are not of different natures, so women are capable of performing every occupation. Therefore, having women serve as Guardians is quite natural, as it is among the many things at which they may excel. Men will naturally be better than women at every task as well as being stronger; but training the women in this way will result in the state producing “the best possible women and men” (457e).
This is a highly disputed passage. Its references to the playwright Aristophanes, who parodied women’s equality in his Ecclesiazusae—as well as Socrates in the Clouds—are clear, but how serious Plato is about women’s equality is not.
Desmond Lee says that the concept of women’s equality was “in the air” before the Republic was written, which is why Aristophanes was inspired to parody them in the Ecclesiazusae (Lee, 1974:225). In contrast, Allan Bloom says that the idea that women could lead the same sort of life as men had not previously existed “in the thoughts of serious men” (Bloom, 1991:380). By discussing it, Plato is attempting to beat Aristophanes at his own game: comedy. Bloom strongly supports his argument against Plato’s seriousness. He says that since Socrates argues that “the best women are always inferior to the best men,” it would be “highly improbable that any woman would even be considered for membership in the higher classes.”
While this follows from Plato’s argument, eliminating women from the Guardian classes would make his later recommendation for the abolition of the family impossible to achieve. The common Greek would doubtlessly have found the concept of women’s equality humorous; but Plato’s argument is quite sound. To achieve similar virtues, one must provide a similar education to both sexes. It is interesting to note that the debate about women’s involvement in the military has continued in this more egalitarian era.
2. Reproduction and Child Raising (457c–461e)
Socrates asserts that, following his previous arguments, men and women shall not be allowed to form households, and traditional parent-child relationships must be abolished. Instead, women and children will be held in common by all.
Much as owners breed only their best animals together, so must the rulers aim to see that the best members of the Guardians breed as frequently as possible. To keep arguments from arising within the Guardian class, the rulers will have to “use a throng of lies and deceptions” about the nature of these practices, making sure that it seems that they occur through chance. These deceptions are all justified because they work to the “benefit of the ruled.” (459d)
After the children are born, the well-bred ones will be raised in a nursery, while the poorly-bred ones will be hidden away “in an unspeakable place” (460a). The parents will not be allowed to know who their children are, and children will not know their parents. To guard against incest, an artificial system of familial relations will be established. This should ensure that parents do not breed with their children, but its breadth will also cause the state to be even more unified.
In this passage, Plato’s advocation of eugenics is laid out most clearly. This practice, which had a worldwide revival after Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, was finally discredited after its evil implications were brought to fruitition in Nazi Germany.
Plato is especially criticized (by Karl Popper) for advocating infanticide. However, the Greeks saw “nothing very shocking” in this concept, according to Desmoned Lee. Sparta routinely exposed defective children, and illegitimate ones often met...
(The entire section is 1,632 words.)