The Volokh Conspiracy

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Rousseau and Plato on dealing with sexual inequality


This is the third post about my recently published book, "Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy: A New Introduction" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

In his first public statement as a political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau condemned the public entertainments of his time and railed against a decadent culture in which "men have sacrificed their taste to the Tyrants of their liberty." In a footnote to this statement, he offered an intriguing aside:

I am far from thinking that this ascendancy of women is a harm in itself. It is a gift bestowed upon them by nature for the happiness of the human race: better directed, it might produce as much good as today it does harm. We are not sufficiently aware of what advantages would arise from giving a better education to that half of the human race that governs the other. Men will always be what is pleasing to women: if then you want them to become great and virtuous, teach women what greatness of soul and virtue is. The reflections this subject provokes, and which Plato made in bygone times, greatly deserve to be better developed by a pen worthy of following such a master and of defending a cause so great.

The reflections to which Rousseau refers are found primarily in Plato's "Laws," and they were developed several years later by Rousseau himself in his "Letter to d'Alembert on the Theater."

The "Laws" shows how a philosopher who wanted to influence practical politics might go about it. In the dialogue, an old man known only as the Athenian Stranger talks at length with two other old men, a Cretan who is charged with helping to draw up new laws for a new polity and a Spartan who is visiting Crete.

These two Dorians are children of a culture in which manliness is celebrated as the highest human virtue. One of the Stranger's most important tasks, and perhaps the most indispensable, is to cure his interlocutors of that prejudice.

The difficulty of this undertaking can be glimpsed by considering a few of the novel laws that the Stranger recommends. Girls are to be given the same education as boys. That includes mandatory military training, and women will be required to serve in combat when they are needed. The women will take their meals together in public, just as men do in Crete and Sparta.

In addition, male homosexuality (an important bonding mechanism in the warrior culture of the Dorians) will be outlawed, and women will have substantially equal rights in marriage. Adultery during the childbearing years will be punished in both sexes, while adultery after the childbearing years will be tolerated in both. Women will be eligible for nearly all public offices, including the most powerful.

The Stranger openly criticizes the Dorian conflation of manly virtue with human virtue. He implicitly criticizes the Athenian view of feminine virtue, which assigns women to manage the household but allows them to take no part in public life. The Stranger never purports to say what human virtue is, and the dialogue ends with the suggestion that the rulers of the new polity will need to promote civic harmony and the happiness of the citizens by undertaking a search for the truth about human virtue.

Rousseau returned to the "Laws" for guidance in a most surprising situation. Members of his intellectual circle in Paris publicly proposed that a theater be established in Rousseau's native city, the republic of Geneva. This would require a change in the sumptuary laws, and Rousseau foresaw a cascade of harmful consequences for the moral climate of the city. His lengthy and detailed critique was both philosophically subtle and politically effective in helping to defeat the proposal.

Unlike the Stranger, Rousseau is not proposing new laws for a new city but defending the existing laws of what he regards as an exceptionally healthy modern polity. Unlike the Stranger, Rousseau is not seeking to moderate excessive manliness, but to warn the Genevans against an unhealthy ascendance of women and feminine tastes, which would inevitably accompany the introduction of a theater into their city.

Notwithstanding many important dissimilarities, the "Laws" and the "Letter to d'Alembert" are fundamentally akin. The common ground on which Rousseau and the Athenian Stranger stand emerges from an understanding of the advantages that would arise from giving an appropriate education to women.

In ancient Greece, that required a more masculine education for women and a moderation of the domineering masculinity of their men. In Geneva, it meant defending bourgeois manliness and educating women to seek their happiness primarily in the role of wife and mother. The differences in the prescriptions, which are striking enough, reflect different applications in different circumstances of insights the two philosophers shared.

One of the interesting suggestions we find in the "Laws" is that even the hypermasculine men of Crete and Sparta were ruled by their women to a far greater extent than they realized, which is why it was a mistake for the legislators in those polities to neglect the education of women. Although Rousseau was obviously aware that women are also affected by what men want them to be, he did not believe that the effects are symmetrical. Men are always much more likely than women to believe they are ruling precisely when they are being ruled, which is why the education of women is especially important and especially likely to be given too little serious attention.

The prejudices that Plato attacked have largely gone underground in modern America, while the Parisian sophistication that alarmed Rousseau has become ever more pervasive. Rousseau gave detailed reasons for his dissent from what has become the orthodoxy of our age, and for his decision to look to Plato as a guide in promoting a better education for "that half of the human race that governs the other."

If more people were to think carefully about the arguments of both Plato and Rousseau, fewer minds would be imprisoned by politically correct pieties enforced by intolerant proponents of strident feminism, of unrestrained sexual license, and of redefining marriage and even sexual identity itself.

Liberating our minds from these fashionable pieties cannot tell us exactly how we should manage relations between the sexes in circumstances that differ significantly from ancient Greece and 18th-century Geneva. Plato and Rousseau can help us to think more clearly about that question than we otherwise might, but they cannot do our thinking for us.

[Nelson Lund has been guest-blogging this week; parts of these posts are borrowed from his book.]