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Proclus and Theodore of Asine on female philosopher-rulers: Patriarchy, metempsychosis, and women in the Neoplatonic commentary tradition


Baltzly, D, Proclus and Theodore of Asine on female philosopher-rulers: Patriarchy, metempsychosis, and women in the Neoplatonic commentary tradition, Ancient Philosophy, 33, (2) pp. 403-424. ISSN 0740-2007 (2013) [Refereed Article]

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Copyright 2013 Mathesis Publications

DOI: doi:10.5840/ancientphil201333229


Feminist interpreters of Plato's works have long noted that what Plato appears to give with one hand in Republic v he takes back with the other hand at various points in the dialogues. Superficially, Republic 451c-57b looks like an argument that women do not differ from men save insofar as 'the male impregnates while the female bears the young' (454dl0-el). Thus both men and women who possess the relevant natural aptitude should be educated to be philosopher-rulers. But an examination of the details of the argument reveals a position on women that is much more equivocal, for Socrates appears to grant to his. interlocuters the premise that women are, on the whole, less competent than men in nearly everything (455el-2). It is unclear whether this is merely a dialectical concession to the imagined patriarchal interlocuter or some sort of veiled renunciation of the conclusion of the argument itself. Worse, when we turn to Timaeus 42b5-c2 we find the view that women exist as a result of male moral failure. It is part of the 'law of fate' that the creator god announces to souls that incarnation as a woman is punishment for a failure to master the intellectual and moral challenge of embodiment in the previous incarnation. It is difficult to see how to reconcile this view with the seemingly more progressive tone of Republic v.

One way to do this is to consider carefully the question of whether there really is such a progressive tone in Republic v. Some writers have supposed that the female guardians are merely being afforded the opportunity to become men. More precisely, what Plato really supposed was that some women were so constituted that it was possible that they should acquire the traits characteristic of the Greek masculine gender identity. Women become rulers alongside men only by being or becoming manly. Such critics say that this is not merely an accidental fact about Platonism. They charge that Platonism both incorporates and lends legitimacy to social practices of oppression and exploitation. It builds a philosophy around dualisms such as soul/body or transcendent forms/visible nature. In each case, the prior term in the opposition is valued; the latter not. Women, however, are consistently aligned with this second term. Thus, Platonism serves to portray these binary oppositions as correct responses to an objective order of value. Worse, this naturalizing of these oppositions has the effect of helping to perpetuate the relations of oppression and exploitation that inspired them in the first place.

Rather than pursue this charge in the familiar territory of Plato's very own dialogues, I wish instead to look at the reception of Plato's views on sex and gender in the Neoplatonic commentators. We have works from Proclus (410-485 CE) on both the Timaeus and on the Republic. In each commentary, he takes up the question of how to reconcile the one with the other. He also reports the views of Theodore of Asine (died c. 360 CE) on the question of female guardians in the Republic. In both cases our ancient authors largely ignore the part of the dialogue that we modems think is the most crucial stage of the argument, focusing instead on aspects of the discussion to which we do not pay much attention. For this reason alone, it is historically interesting to look at what Proclus and Theodore have to say. A second reason to consider the views of these little-known commentators has to do with the manner in which Proclus seeks to reconcile the Republic v arguments with the Timaeus. Here Proclus does explicitly what critics have said Plato does implicitly: he differentiates between male and female souls. Indeed, he even gives these sexed souls sexed 'astral bodies' that are prior to their incarnations in human bodies. The result is simply a projection of patriarchal views to a cosmic level.

The root of Proclus' difficulities lies in the need to deal with the Timaeus passage in a serious way. I think that our limited evidence supports the hypothesis that Theodore of Asine resisted the temptation to try to make all of Plato's claims about women consistent. This provides some evidence for a different hermeneutic approach to the dialogues on the part of Theodore-one that perhaps sheds light on Proclus' characterization of him as someone who is 'filled up with the teachings of Numenius'. The difference between Proclus and Theodore also warns us of the dangers of assessing 'Platonism' as a monolithic philosophical tradition that may or may not be bad for women. I conclude by assessing the potential that even Proclus' version of Platonism had for empowering women in the context of the 4th and 5th centuries of the common era. The moral I would draw from this is that we should evaluate the capacity of any philosophical view to oppress or empower women against the specific and concrete forms of the domination of women that occur at a particular time.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Research Division:Philosophy and Religious Studies
Research Group:Philosophy
Research Field:Philosophy not elsewhere classified
Objective Division:Culture and Society
Objective Group:Understanding past societies
Objective Field:Understanding past societies not elsewhere classified
UTAS Author:Baltzly, D (Professor Dirk Baltzly)
ID Code:88146
Year Published:2013
Deposited By:School of Humanities
Deposited On:2014-01-14
Last Modified:2015-03-18

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