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Greek Philosophy on the Inferiority of Wome

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Greek Philosophy on the Inferiority of Women

The two most influential philosophers, both in the Graeco-Roman world into which Christianity was born and in the world of Christian theology of the Middle Ages, were Plato and Aristotle. We will briefly discuss the views of each.

Plato (427 - 347 BC)

In Greek society, women's status was very low. A woman's main function was the reproduction of children, especially of sons.

  • Confined within the parental home until a husband was chosen for her- at which time she would be in her mid-teens, he at least fifteen years older- the Athenian woman of the citizen class would then be transferred to the home of her husband where she was to fulfil her principal function, of bearing and rearing children.
  • Of those children (on the average, four or five in number, one or two of whom might die at birth), the sons would be raised within the family - particularly in post-war years when there was a shortage of men - but ordinarily only one daughter, at most, would be reared.
  • Other girl children would probably be exposed; if they did not die, they might be picked up by slave dealers or prostitutes and prepared for a life of slavery, prostitution, or both.
  • Athenian men had a variety of opportunities to satisfy their sexual drive: boys and other men, courtesans or hetairai, prostitutes or their own slave women, and wives. The wife’s function was, however, primarily that of carrying on the family line and tending the family hearth.
  • The wife did not socialize with her husband and his friends; men’s social gatherings, even if held in her own home, were off-limits to her. As for going to the marketplace or communal well, that was an activity reserved for men or for women slaves.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Women in Classical Antiquity, New York 1975; M.Maloney, ‘The Arguments for Women's Difference in Classical Philosophy and Early Christianity’, pp. 41-49.

Plato's attitude to women was ambivalent. In some of his writings he advocated a fairer deal for women. In his idealised Republic he foresees an upperclass of ‘guardians’ among whom the chattel status of women is abolished (i.e. she is no longer owned by her husband) and in which women were to receive equal education to men.

On the other hand, he ascribed the inferior status of women clearly to a degeneration from perfect human nature. “It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation’. This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed. In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfilment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato, Timaeus 90e).

Anne Dickason, ‘Anatomy and Destiny: The Role of Biology in Plato’s Views of Women’, in Carold C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Philosophy. Toward a Theory of Liberation, New York 1976; Julia Annas, ‘Plato’s Republic and Feminism’, in Osborne (ed.), Woman in Western Thought pp. 24-33.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)

Aristotle's main thrust was to explain the nature of things from what they are seen to be. From the subject and low status of women he deduced their inferiority by nature.

The reason for women's inferiority lies in a defect. “Women are defective by nature” because they cannot reproduce semen which contains a full human being. When a man and a woman have intercourse, the man supplies the substance of a human being (the soul, i.e. the form), the woman only the nourishment (the matter).

Since it was a fundamental principle for him that, of the two factors or components in every being, ‘form’ is superior to ‘matter’, sexual reproduction was considered beneficial, because it demanded that the one who gives the ‘form’ (the male) be separate from the one who supplies the ‘matter’ (the female). Thus the ‘lower’ is not mingled with the ‘higher’ in the same individual. Aristotle subscribed to what Caroline Whitbeck has called the ‘flower pot theory’ of human generation. The female, since she is deficient in natural heat, is unable to ‘cook’ her menstrual fluid to the point of refinement, at which it would become semen (i.e. ‘seed’). Therefore her only contribution to the embryo is its matter, and a ‘field’ in which it can grow. Her inability to produce semen is her deficiency: ‘a woman,’ Aristotle concludes, ‘is as it were an infertile male’ (Generation of Animals, I, 728a).‘A male is male in virtue of a particular ability, and a female in virtue of a particular inability’ (Generation of Animals, I, 82f).

Caroline Whitbeck, ‘Theories of Sex Difference’, in Gould and Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Philosophy , New York 1976, pp. 54-80; M.Maloney, ‘The Arguments for Women's Difference in Classical Philosophy and Early Christianity’, pp. 41-49.

According to Aristotle, man rightly takes charge over woman, because he commands superior intelligence. This will also profit the women who depend on him. He compares this to the relationship between human beings and tame animals.

‘It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.’ Aristotle, Politica, ed. Loeb Classical Library, 1254 b 10-14.

What we should notice in Aristotle’s text is the phrase: by nature. Subordination is right because it corresponds to the way things have been made. Aristotle also reckons that slavery is natural because some people are by nature destined to be slaves.

‘That person is by nature a slave who can belong to another person and who only takes part in thinking by recognising it, but not by possessing it. Other living beings (animals) cannot recognise thinking; they just obey feelings. However, there is little difference between using slaves and using tame animals: both provide bodily help to do necessary things.’

Aristotle then proceeds to describe a slave’s position and it is truly terrifying. A slave is no more than ‘a tool of his master’. Together with the wife and the ox, a male or female slave is a householder’s indispensable beast of burden. He or she should be kept well — for simple economic reasons. But slaves have no right to leisure or free time. They own nothing and can take no decisions. They have no part in enjoyment and happiness, and are not members of the community.

For the same reason Aristotle also justifies wars to capture new slaves. For some people ‘are by nature destined to be ruled, even though they resist it’; like wild animals that need to be tamed. He even says that all foreigners to some extent belong to this category.

‘That is why the poets say: “It is correct that Greeks rule Barbarians”; for by nature what is barbarian and what is slave are the same.’ Aristotle, Physica, vol. 1; Loeb Classical Library, 1252 b 8. See A.TH. van Leeuwen, The Nacht van het Kapitaal, Nijmegen 1984, pp. 182 - 205.

The prevailing tradition among Hellenists saw society, therefore, as layered in higher and lower forms of human being.

  • Women were inferior to men by nature.
  • Barbarians were inferior to the civilised races by nature.
  • Slaves were slaves because they were inferior by nature.

This, we can be sure, is how most people thought in the ancient Middle East. The same basic thought would dominate the Christian Middle Ages.

It is obvious that Christians who accepted the view that women are inferior by nature, could not envisage her in the leadership role demanded of bishops and priests.

John Wijngaards


Aristotle's doctrine of 'Natural Law' had many consequences for the Christian sexual code, affecting the status of women, contraceptives, homosexuality and nudism.

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