from E. Craik, ed., Owls to Athens, Oxford, 1990, ch.26, pp.223-231.

Plato's Philosophy of Sex


Plato was the first feminist. Only, he was concerned not with women's rights, as modern feminists are, but with their usefulness (Republic 451b-457b.). Like a modern planner, he felt it was a waste of woman-power to seclude women in their homes, when they could be performing useful tasks in the factory or the office. Women should be used, just as men were, for the benefit of the community. There were no fundamental differences between the sexes which unfitted women from useful toil. Admittedly, women were on average less strong and generally less good than men, but that was only a generalisation, which did not hold in every case. Some women were just as good, indeed better, than some men (Republic 455d). Whether a particular woman was suited to a particular task should be decided on the merits of the case, not on any general assumptions about woman-kind as a whole. The Guardians were to rise above their sexual prejudices. They might feel that the sight of old women exercising in the nude was ridiculous, but that was only a matter of custom, and should be overcome (Republic 452). Women should exercise the same as men, be educated the same as men, go to war the same as men, and generally be treated exactly the same, except that not so much should be expected of them (Republic 457a10). Differentiation in treatment between one guardian and another should be based on difference of talent, not on difference of sex (Republic 540c5-9). The only function sex was relevant for was the breeding of children (Republic 454de). In modern terms Plato holds that while a guardian's chromo

somes are highly relevant to his suitability for various social roles, the possession of a Y-chromosome rather than a second X-chromosome is not.

Plato offers no justification, or account of how any justification might be obtained for his factual claim, but none is needed in the context of his argument. It is an indisputable fact that some women are stronger than some men, though women in general are less strong. Once it is allowed that the good of the community overrides all other considerations, it follows that in filling jobs we should seek to have the best person for the job without regard to sex. Whether a particular female candidate is better or worse than a particular male candidate is a question to be decided in each individual case on the basis of the merits they are found, on examination, to have. Sex is irrelevant to everything save sex, and it is only where specifically sexual functions are in issue that any differentiation can be justified.

Sex is relevant to the architect of the ideal society on two counts: it is the [224] means of producing new guardians, and it is emotionally charged and potentially divisive. So long as the guardians are celibate, male and female guardians can co-operate on a basis of complete equality: but motherhood cannot be abolished if there are to be guardians in time to come, and once mating and child-bearing are allowed, problems arise. Motherhood is time-consuming. Modern career women may be able to concentrate on their jobs without denying their sexual appetites, thanks to contraceptives, but Plato could not want his female guardians to opt out of motherhood altogether, because that would be dysgenic. Once a rigorous selection-procedure is adopted whereby all the best people are identified and promoted to being guardians, they cannot be allowed to opt out of parenthood, or the gene-pool would be rapidly depleted of all the best genes. Children will be born to female guardians, and will have to be cared for. It would be a great waste of valuable administrative and academic talent to have top-class females acting as nursery-maids. So there must be crèches. Our society has a similar problem, when career women decide to start a family. In time past it was possible for them to hand over nursery functions to nannies, recruited from the lower, or at least not-so-top, classes, but in the second half of the twentieth century it has been difficult to accept that some women should look after other women's babies, because it implies, or is thought to imply, lower status. It is often felt that the solution we should adopt is that the father should stay at home and be an au pair boy, but Plato could not have countenanced that, because eugenic breeding would require that top-class females should mate with top-class males, who could no more than their spouses be spared for domestic duties. Plato is led to the community of children and their communal upbringing in communal crèches simply on the economic grounds of getting the greatest possible amount of work out of female workers, in much the same way as the Russians do: there must be no polupragmosune among the guardians in respect of child-rearing any more than in any other sphere of life.

The community of children is forced on Plato, simply as a consequence of his principle to ta hautou prattein. But it is not his only reason. It is not only that motherhood takes time, but that mating is emotionally charged and family affection dangerously disruptive of corporate solidarity. It is a commonplace observation that men are more likely to fall out over the possession of women than for any other cause, and that not even the closest friendship can withstand the rivalry of courtship and the jealousies of love. Once iage is countenanced, competition and jealousies will ensue, and the unity of the ruling class will be destroyed by dissension: and once families are legitimised, family pull will be exerted to divert the operation of meritocratic selection procedures in favour of sons and nephews, and the unity of the ruling class will be riven by dynastic rivalries and feuds.

The community of wives and children solves both problems. Sex is marginalised. In the Republic it is only an animal appetite, not a personal affection [225] leading to lifelong exclusive commitment. And family affection is universalised behind a veil of ignorance. Sex is an instinct we happen to have, and one which we need on occasion to gratify in order to secure the continuance of the species. If men could restrain their appetite, so much the better, but if they cannot, then it should be gratified in a casual, uncommitted way, without forming couples who would distinguish themselves from the rest of the guardians by an exclusive commitment to each other, which could make some other guardian jealous. I need not be jealous of Jill going out with Jack tonight, if I know that it means nothing and my turn will come tomorrow. We can slake our passions as they arise, without our temporary liaisons meaning anything much that anyone else could mind about. Those who have the grace of continence should be continent: those who cannot aspire to so high a standard, should sleep around as need be, being careful to avoid any issue or emotional entanglement. Better sow sterile wild oats than marry.

The community of wives and children is part of a more ambitious programme---the abolition of the self. Plato's ideal is that we shall all cease using the pronoun `to

emon', `mine', in its customary, divisive use, and instead use it only as we now use `our' (Republic 463e5, 464c3). Only so, he thinks, can the ruling class be made a complete unity, in which nobody is conscious of himself as a separate entity; and only so shall we each be able to transcend our natural selfishness, and come to lead a moral life. The problem of morality was that we were all rationally inclined to pleonexia, selfishness, and Plato's solution for selfishness was selflessness. It was only if we could completely escape from the self that we should be able to avoid the ultimate autism of the self-centred life. But marriage is peculiarly self-enhancing. Each partner is unique in the eyes of the other, and so comes to have a strong sense of intrinsic value and individual identity. It bolsters the awareness of the self, and strengthens its self-image as something of inherent value. Marriage privatises the married couple, surrounding them with glass walls, and encouraging them to think of themselves as a unit, as something different from society at large, and espousing values not necessarily the same.

The abolition of the self is a difficult enterprise, and in his concern for the family and the generation of children, he showed himself sensitive to the key factor in the evolution of the self. Organisms have evolved a sense of self because all the genes in the phenotype have a common interest in its survival. The ultimate evolutionary entity, the self-replicating gene, cannot afford to be entirely a selfish gene, because its only chance of reating itself lies in the survival of the organism to an age when it can reproduce its kind. In sexual reproduction each of my genes has as good a chance as any other of being passed on to my offspring, and there is no way for one to compete with another to obtain a better chance of being passed on. With individual members of a species it is different. Although some co-operation may be beneficial, there is an element of competition in leaving successful progeny behind, and those who [226] lose out in this competition have no posterity to carry on their line. For this reason we have come to care very much about our own children, and to strive to do well by them. If we are guardians, and believe that being a guardian is a great good, we shall want our children to be guardians too. Often, of course they will be, since we shall mate with guardians, and the result of our union will inherit good genes from both parents. Often, but not always. There is in any population, even among children of exceptional parents, a tendency to regress to the norm. Sometimes the children of the guardians will themselves have a less than golden genetic make-up. And then their parents, if they know that they are their parents, will be reluctant to see in their offspring anything less than golden promise. We are partial to our progeny, and will try very hard to secure that they pass their examinations and take their place in the top stream and remain on course for admission into positions of privilege and power. Unless our family pushiness is curbed, the seamless fabric of social unity will be tied into dynastic knots, and evolutionary pressures will continue to operate against true selflessness. Plato needs to place the generation of children behind the veil of ignorance, in order that none shall know who his offspring are, and be thus unable to give them a selectively helping hand.

We may question whether the programme is either feasible or desirable. Plato's own arrangements are distasteful, not to say disgusting. On a charitable view, we can ascribe them to the technological inadequacies of his time. In the modern world we can, or at least can envisage our being able to, separate the emotionally charged operation of copulation from the clinical business of conception and gestation. In the first place, contraception enables us to have the former without the latter. A modern-day Plato would have no need to countenance abortion or infanticide: vasectomy and the pill would ensure that there were no unwanted results of the guardians disporting themselves. Artificial insemination would enable the bureau of eugenics to select for desirable qualities of character and intellect without resort to deception. There would however be a danger of their giving preferential treatment to their own sperm. That could be prevented by certain institutional arrangements; or it might be better to eschew selective eugenic breeding among the guardians, mixing the semen from all donors so that there was a random selection of the successful spermatozoon, thus assimilating the reproductive process of the polis as a whole to that of the individual organism. Even gestation may be separated from genetics. In vitro fertilisation and surrogate motherhood would enable Plato's female guardians to pass on their genes to the next generation without having to waste time away from their high-powered jobs on maternity leave. Lower-class women, who were not capable of anything better could bear children for their upper-class sisters in much the same way as they used to nurse them in yester-year. Not only would the division of labour be complete, but the veil of ignorance between one generation and the next would occur naturally and without deception or concealment.


Plato's solutions are repugnant, but they are attempts to solve real problems, and we can better appreciate his proposals if we consider how other societies cope with the family and the transmission of power. Some make no attempt, and experience disastrous dissension as dynasties compete for power. With the passage of time the regres

sion to the norm re-asserts itself, and the families in power become incompetent, until defeat or revolution supervenes. Other societies, especially those imbued with some ideals, attempt to ensure that family divisiveness does not have it all its own way. The Israeli kibbutzim countenance marriage, but insisted on the communal rearing of children. There has been some evidence that children do not thrive in the absence of traditional family life: they need fathers, and especially mothers, to relate to. It has proved difficult to continue that insistence into the second generation in the face of that evidence and the natural affections of husbands and wives, who already constitute a fundamental division among kibbutzniks. St Augustine relates how, when he was thinking of setting up a select community of like-minded friends, he abandoned the idea on the grounds that their wives would be sure to quarrel, and in due course the monasteries dealt with the problem of sex by banning it altogether. Had Plato known of the monastic movement, and its success in sublimating men's sexual urges, he might well have enjoined celibacy on his guardians too, were it not for the problem of replacing guardians when they die. The monasteries' response is to recruit novices from the outside world and to recognise their own essential incompleteness, as only one facet of the church, whose raison d'etre lies beyond the monasteries themselves, and encompasses the non-monastic world. Plato could not envisage his ideal society being similarly dependent on the outside world for its supply of new guardians. Such novices would bring with them many corrupt practices and ideas from the non-ideal world, and would infect the polis with dangerous thoughts. If all the oldies over ten years of age were to be got rid of in order to ensure that society could start afresh with a clean slate (Republic 540e-541a), it clearly would not do to keep on re-infecting the body politic with new arrivals. The mediaeval Western Church had a further problem, that of nepotism. Not all the bishops were chaste as well as celibate, and, even if they were, they sometimes had genuine nephews whom they were tempted to promote; hence the prohibition in Canon Law, which survives to this day, on anyone illegitimate becoming a bishop.

The Roman Empire allowed the Emperor to marry, but thanks to the fortunate fact of neither Julius Caesar nor Augustus having a son, developed a policy of adoption, whereby the Emperor chose his successor and made him his nominal son. But family ties proved too much for the otherwise excellent Marcus Aurelius, who allowed his biological son Commodus to succeed him. Neither Rome nor Byzantium ever solved the succession problem for the Emperor himself, and after a few generations of hereditary succession there would be a violent displacement of one dynasty by another. Byzantium, [228] however, went some way to solving the wider problem of power by castrating its civil servants. Eunuchs made excellent civil servants. They were disturbed by no sexual jealousies, nor diverted from their work by family commitments. They were often devoted to the public good, and though sometimes given to nepotism in the strict sense, did not push the interests of their relatives with true parental zeal. But they were proverbially power-hungry, and we might well think that children were worth having if only to siphon off successful men's urge to achieve yet further success.

Britain is in many ways a meritocracy after Plato's heart. Although there is a dignified part of the constitution in which Parliament plays a key role, and democratic elections take place at intervals, power has been steadily leaking away from Westminster to Whitehall. The Dements of State pay nominal obeisance to their Ministers, and when there is an inter-departmental dispute the Cabinet can exercise real power; but for the most part the Minister has neither the time nor the knowledge to make his Department do what it does not want to do. In that sense the real power in twentieth century Britain is substantially exercised by civil servants, themselves selected by examination after a rigorous academic course, often in philosophy. Civil servants, though sometimes said by MPs to be political eunuchs, are not real eunuchs, and have wives and families to prove it. But their wives and families play no part in their public lives and have no political power. Although the wife of a senior civil servant is addressed as "Lady", she has much less pull than the Ladies, or even the mistresses, of previous ages. She is kept in purdah in the suburbs, well away from the corridors of power. Nor is it any advantage to be the child of a civil servant. Britain is an enthusiastic meritocracy, and parental pull is rigidly excluded from all selection processes. We deal with the problem of sex by legitimating it but separating it from everything of public importance. A rigid separation between public and private life ensures that amorous ambitions and family loyalties have no influence on the course of events.

Plato is dealing with a real problem. We cannot say that we or other societies have dealt with it well, but still we may have qualms about his solution. He himself expresses some doubts, but fails to identify the source of the difficulty. He lays down that the guardians should have everything in common except their bodies (Republic 464d9), but this is the wrong exception. Their bodies are not to be peculiarly their own, since they are to be at the disposition of the polis for child-bearing and child-begetting; and it is their minds, much more than their bodies, that need to be excepted from individual determination. And this is difficult. Each of us has a mind of his own, which he can, and sometimes must, make up for himself: that is what it is to be an autonomous agent. The guardians, although acknowledging the supremacy of reason and engaging in [229] free and frank discussion and open-ended argument (Republic 534c1-3, 539c5-d1), cannot be guaranteed to reach agreement on all matters, since, as Plato elsewhere notes, there is no decision-procedure for evaluative disputes (Phaedrus 265). The guardians will sometimes disagree about what ought to be done, and however much they are anxious to reach agreement and not to quarrel, each will think that it would be better if they agreed with him than if the general consensus went the other way. I necessarily think that what I think is true, and that others ought to agree with me more than that I should agree with them. Although sometimes I shall be convinced by their arguments, and then gladly exchange my own previous false opinions for those I now see to be true, and sometimes they will be convinced by my arguments, and be argued out of their mistaken views, we shall not always reach a common mind on all matters, and then the decision we take, whatever it is and however it is taken, will leave some of us not thoroughly convinced. Someone will be left with a nagging feeling of having been right but not properly attended to; a prophet, temporarily without honour in his own generation, but due to be vindicated in the fulness of time, when others will come to see how right he was, and how much better it would have been if only they had heeded him when he told them so. In that sense there is bound to be a contest for power. I cannot give my mind to the question of what ought to be done---or, often, to the question of what ought to be believed---without wanting my views to carry the day. Although I may change my mind under the influence of argument, discussion, friendly criticism and debate, and the different opinions of different thinkers may converge towards a common mind, we shall not always reach complete agreement, and in so far as we do not, each of us will be ineliminably anxious that his own views should prevail. And this is an inherent source of dissension among the guardians, quite independent of the rivalries of love and quarrels about family possessions. In the decline of the constitution of societies and individuals, Plato sees the competition for prestige and the competition for wealth as the first two stages on the downward path, but does not see that the guardians, even though they may have eschewed all pursuit of money or of glory, are still bound, of necessity, to competing for power. Many abbots in the middle ages and many civil servants in our own times have been notably unconcerned with securing wealth for themselves, and have been quite content to stand out of the limelight and let others take the acclaim for what they have done, obtaining their own satisfaction simply from the knowledge of their job well done; but once their power is threatened have fought like tigers to ensure that whatever else happens, it shall be they who have the decisive say about the way things go. Plato did not really except the guardian's body from communal control: instead of plnn to soma he should have said plen ton noun, but that would not have excluded the chief source of dissension among high-minded men.

Plato wants his guardians to have all things in common, and needs that to be without exception. Although the absence of a decision-procedure for evaluative [230] disputes means that he cannot rely on our all becoming like-minded on all questions, it did not seem so much a forlorn hope in his time as it does now after two millennia of dissension. We may now conclude that the abolition of self is inherently unattainable, and that however much we try to put off our selfhood, the old Adam will resurrect himself in new and original ways. But Plato's programme, although flawed, was not obviously incapable of achievement. Rather, it was not one we ought to attempt. Granted that pleonexia, seeking always to get more for oneself, is wrong, it does not follow that the only way of being right is not to consider oneself at all. The opposite of selfishness is unselfishness, not selflessness. As the lyre-string argument in book I shows (349a-350e), a man acts wisely and well in not grabbing too much for himself rather than in insisting on assigning to himself nothing at all. There is a danger of selflessness masking, and becoming a vehicle for, self-hate, and the moral selfless person often is as hard on others as he is on himself, and unhealthily eager to impose sacrifices on all under the guise of seeking the common good. The Judaeo-Christian commandment that one should love one's neighbour as oneself presupposes that one ought actually to love oneself. Although any concern for others must sometimes require the abridgement of one's own interests, and involve a degree of self-sacrifice, the point of the sacrifice is the good of others, not the abnegation of oneself.

Plato's homosexuality has often been cited as the reason for his low esteem of the married state, and at one level this is undoubtedly true. He was attracted to boys and young men, although he became increasingly puritan about the physical manifestations of sex. So far as the physical side of sex was concerned, the saying he reports of Sophocles is illuminating (Republic 329b-c): sexual attraction was a biological fact, to be restrained as much as possible, and otherwise treated as a mere animal necessity, necessary for the generation of guardians, and unavoidable for those who have not the requisite self-control, but not something he could live with emotionally or integrate into his scheme of life. But deeper explanation is called for: it is not simply that he had never experienced the love of a woman, and did not know how much he was asking the guardians to forgo. He knew the power of erotic love, and in the Symposium likens it to divine ecstasy, reaching out to Beauty itself, an ultimate principle of all things, of which the fundamental explanation is, in Aristotle's phrase, kinei hos eromenos. But he draws back. It is the same as with poetry. The purveyors of divine inspiration in the Ion are by Book 10 to be banished from the borders of the Ideal Society. The man who was trying to curb his poetic genius and schooling himself to be properly prosaic could well have reckoned that he should also subject the irrational leap of love to the cold calculations of the eugenics bureau. And perhaps at this level his homosexuality should be seen as a symptom rather than a cause. There is, especially in the Republic, a pervasive sense of turning away from this wicked world, a sense that in the real world real politics is a dirty business, the good man fares ill, and things are inevitably going from bad to worse. [231] The Seventh Letter reveals the biographical background. Plato was emotionally driven out of the Athens that had killed Socrates and the Syracuse that had nurtured Dion, and therefore turned back from the commitment and responsibilities of heterosexual love, to the less deep and more transient fellow-feeling of the adolescent peer-group. His homosexuality represents a certain regression, a turning his back on the world as he found it and seeking solace in the cosiness of a small community in the company of yes-ful youths. He did not just happen to be a homosexual who could therefore forget about sex, but was one because he could not afford to allow his self to become yet more vulnerable as a lifelong lover and beloved.

But psychological speculation is easy and ungenerous. Plato had two problems: the problem of sons and the problem of lovers. Whatever his psychological motivation, they are real problems that any political or social philosopher must address. He was more realistic than most in seeing that the problem of succession was one that proves fatal to most regimes, and in his dark passage at the beginning of Book VIII feared that it would be the undoing of even the ideal society. His approach could be made to work under modern conditions, but less extreme ones can be devised which allow family life, but prevent it playing too much, or any, part in public life. These may not work, but do not place the natural affections of men under such pressure as Plato's system would. His solution to the problem of lovers was influenced not only by his lack of understanding of the love most human beings experience, but his excessive concern to exalt the community and deflate the self. Granted those assumptions, his arguments might go through: but we should not grant those assumptions. Although the pair-bond is exclusive, and does indeed create glass walls around married couples, the community can afford to be that amount divided into separate sub-units; and the self is better when it is fulfilled in loving and being loved than if it is entirely cut down to communal size.


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