Platonic Dualism and Gender

It seems dualism has become a bit of a side hobby for me. It’s one that can keep a gal busy as dualism is everywhere—we found it in the Hermetica as well as the Gnostic Book of Baruch.

But I want to go back to the source today. It’s one thing to say something represents Platonic dualism, it’s quite another to talk about how these ideas are represented in Platonic thought and what influence they might have—if any—on gender.

Señor Plato definitely divided his ordering of the world, there can be no doubt about this. The most obvious is his theory of forms. Basically, the material world is but a pale imitation of lofty pure ideas. So right here, with this fundamental concept, we are entering the world of dualism. Abstract thought? Wonderful. Physical reality? Well, it’s a nice try, but not as great.

This post is going to focus on aspects of dualism in the Timaeus. Robin Waterfield observes the following about Plato’s philosophy in this book:

“When our souls are bound into our bodies, the revolutions of our minds are disrupted by the sudden influx of sensations….Our goal should be to correct our mental revolutions and try to bring them as far as possible to resemble the world-soul. If we are able to control our sensations and to bring our mental revolutions under control, we will live justly; if we do not, we will live unjustly.” (Waterfield xlv)

To put it another way, earthly sensations corrupt the mind, dividing it from the world-soul, which is its ultimate goal. The more one can forgo these incursions on the mental sphere, the one more lives a just life. Furthermore, the “highest” part of the soul is housed in the head, so as not to contaminate it with the parts of the body which focus on “lower” needs (Waterfiled xlvi). Again, we are getting a definite ideological and spatial split: higher, mental faculties are positively valued over lower, physical functions.

I’ve already shown how the mental world is often equated with men and masculine values, and how the physical world often gets equated with femininity in theological texts such as Poimandres or Baruch. But Plato also discusses the role of women in his philosophy and, not surprisingly, they don’t rate as high as men.

Now, I know there are some skeptics out there who will say that this spiritual/material split does not reflect gender and is mere terminology used to help one apprehend these distinctions. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Plato himself specifically privileges the male sphere in many ways. I would like to bring in a few examples to show this dualistic split and how it is explicitly related to gender.

Fans of the Hermetica will enjoy this first example, as it comes from Plato’s monologue on the mixing bowl, the place where souls (and pretty much everything else) are made by the demiurge. This example shows how gender is viewed in Platonic thought:

“Once he had a complete mixture, he divided it up into as many souls as there are stars and he assigned each soul to a star…He told them the laws of their destinies—how it was ordained that the first incarnation they would undergo would be the same for all of them, so that none would suffer any disadvantage at his hands, and how, after he has planted each of them in the appropriate instrument of time, they were to be born as the most god-fearing of creatures. And he explained that human nature comes in two forms, and that the superior kind was that which would subsequently come to be called ‘male.’“(41 d,e; 42 a) (emphasis mine)

First, let’s note that the demiurge is most definitely a dude. This is a creator God and not a creator Goddess. But more to the point, when these souls are incarnated in human bodies they are divided into male and female with the male one being the “superior” one. This statement requires no mental gymnastics to figure out how gender is viewed by Plato—clearly men are seen as being better than women.

But wait, there’s more!

Now that these souls have a physical incarnation, they have some stuff to work out. And this stuff is worked out over the course of multiple lifetimes. But, as will probably be pretty obvious to you by now, the material world keeps gunking it up for humans. This is especially problematic for the male humans, who are just trying to get back in the mixing bowl already. (I’m sure Freud would have a lot to say about that!)

In this next passage, Plato equates the physical world with immorality and as being the realm which inhibits human perception of their higher nature. Here’s what Plato has to say:

“Because the bodies in which they had been implanted were inevitably subject to comings and goings, there were, he went on, certain necessary consequences: The first innate capacity, shared by them all, would be perception, caused by the action on them of powerful properties; the second would be desire, a mixture of pleasure and pain; the third, fear and passion, and all the emotions that either follow in their train or stand opposed to them.”

Now, perhaps you are like me and see these things as being, well, human. As humans we should experience love, and desire, and be able to perceive the world around us and enjoy our senses. But this is not what Plato meant. Nuh-uh. For Plato, these things were a hindrance. What’s more, they are explicitly tied to morality and gender:

“Whether they lived moral or immoral lives would depend on whether they were in control of these things or were controlled by them. Any soul which made good use of its allotted time would return to dwell once more on the star with which it had been paired, to live a blessed life in keeping with its character; but any soul that fell short would, for its second incarnation, become a woman instead of a man.” (emphasis mine)

To sum up: good souls return to the stars, but those who live immoral lives—immorality being described as subject to the senses—are forced to remain in the physical world, and worse, do so as a woman.

Obviously, being a woman is not held in high esteem by Plato. Gender equality, wasn’t really a big thing in ancient Athens. Women did not have agency, nor did many others. This is not to condemn Plato as a sexist pig—though his writings certainly are sexist by modern standards—rather, it is to illustrate how these ideas of morality, spirituality and gender were rendered in the ancient world in an explicitly dualistic schema. This has far-reaching implications in terms of how women are viewed, not just by the church, but also in society, where until recently, women were seen as being irrational, emotional, and incapable of making decisions. (I use “recently” loosely. Unfortunately, these stereotypes still exist.)

Thorny implications aside, Plato’s Timaeus shows a clear connection between gender and spiritual ability which privileges rational, male faculties as higher and closer to the creator god, with women taking on a cautionary role of what happens when the physical world dominates the intellectual faculties. Plato may be good for many things—e.g. pool-side reading with a mimosa on a summer afternoon, or just to snuggle up with on a cold winter night—but when it comes to gender equality, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Source:

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.

Photo by Michael Osmenda.

13 thoughts on “Platonic Dualism and Gender
  1. Thank you for the succinct and strong statement of the basics of this problem. This has been a definite topic of interest lately. In tthe OTA, we try to operate in gender-equal or even slightly “overcompensated” mode (it’s the Temple of Astarte, not the Temple of Ba’al :-). I had seen that bias in the Hermetica.

    Have you considered Jung in this light? I read him long ago when my sexism filters wouldn’t have been working all that well.

    [I tried to comment from my phone and I think it got eaten].

    1. Yes, The Hermetica is a tricky work, as there are so many different ideas coming together there. But yes, dualism does rear it’s ugly head. Definitely poses some issues for “hermetic” groups in the 21st century. Congrats on trying to work with this issue, it’s definitely not an easy one. Especially when you get into energy polarity, etc. Dualism seems almost inescapable.

      I read some stuff on Jungian archetypes a long time ago. Like you, certainly before these issues were one my radar. I remember finding his ideas interesting. Sadly, I don’t have the time/mental space to revisit him right now. But potentially worth a look, for sure.

      ps: It’s not your phone, I’m just not online all the time. ;)

    1. This is a really good question, and some scholars have attempted to connect disparaging views of women with homosexuality.

      I’m not sure how much this is at work with Plato. While Plato definitely makes this split between gender, ironically, he is also pretty radical for his time.

      For example, in his ideal republic, women hold high positions and even form part of the co-ed ruling class. Keep in mind, this was a time when most women wouldn’t be seen in public outside the house, let alone voting and making decisions. At the end of the day, however, even among the ruling class, men are still characterized as being of a higher status.

      So Plato, in some of his writings, certainly gives women more credit than many of his contemporaries, but still places them below men. Not sure this answers your question, but certainly makes it difficult to pin everything on sexual preference.

      Cheers!

  2. Does nobody realize what a Platonic dialogue is? It is Plato, writing down what somebody else expressed or said. These are not (necessarily) his ideas, only his interpretation and simplification of what others said. It’s kind of outrageous to hear an intelligent point being made along side a fabrication of historical source. I like the awareness of duality, but give credit where it is due.

    1. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/phl/summary/v026/26.1griswold.html “Plato is absent from his own texts; no simple act of reading them will allow us to ascertain what his views are. It does not follow that Plato’s views are entirely absent from the dialogues—say, in the form of some mysterious “esoteric teaching”—and that they cannot be elicited by a complex act of reading. Just how Plato’s views are to be extracted has been, again, the subject of a very long debate.”

  3. Thanks for your comment.

    This is a good point. However, we should also keep in mind the “authorial voice” and how the opinions of an author can be expressed through the characters and situations created in a particular work.

    For this reason, I am of the opinion that Plato expresses his philosophy through the dialogues represented in his works. In other words, we don’t need him to come out and say “This is what I, Plato, believe” to understand to analyze what his works say about various subjects.

    1. I agree and don’t think that it is unreasonable to extrapolate Plato’s personal “energy” from his multiple writings, but to look at a single, lesser known dialogue and repeatedly state with finality his philosophical stance on potentially complicated issues, without even referencing who he is “speaking through” might be a bit unfair and presumptuous. I just think people who aren’t familiar with Plato will walk away with the view that he was very upfront and direct with his feelings about such and such in the first person, and I don’t think it is that simple

  4. To clarify: The Timaeus isn’t a “lesser-known” dialogue, but rather a series of extended monologues that play a key roll in understanding Platonic cosmogony and metempsychosis.

    1. Sorry, still think it’s improper. I think regardless of what the mans unspoken views were, it sounds too opinionated to say that Plato said all these things as personal statements. I don’t know if that’s what you are trying to say, but that’s how it reads to me

  5. Also, Timaeus is categorized as a dialogue, and probably not one of the first 5 an average reader would name. I don’t really see why you would try to shoot that down

  6. Well, other scholars would see it differently (Robin Waterfield, for starters.)

    As you obviously have issues with how I discuss Platonism, perhaps you would prefer a less presumptuous blog. I encourage you to go there.

  7. Sorry, I don’t feel you think much of my intentions. And not to further the negativity here, but if you don’t want people to consider Timaeus a dialogue, then you shouldn’t link to its wiki page in your blog that clearly categorizes it as a dialogue. And as far as Robin Waterfield, yes, I’m sure a scholar on the subject would not consider something they and their colleagues study to be “lesser known”. I was talking about the general public, as in people who were likely to read the article. It’s not that I have issues with your discussion, I am just trying to get a straight answer, because obviously you have studied the subject, but you don’t seem to care much for the opinions of those who haven’t. I am under the impression that the history of platonic dialogues is a subject of controversy, and the only thing that leans a person definitively one way or the other is the opinion of some scholar of group of thinkers. I just wanted to hear you say either “yes, I am saying that I am 100% certain that plato said these things as his own views, and history confirms this,” or “no, nobody is 100% certain that plato said this things as his own views, and history will never confirm it”. Instead, you don’t actually address anything I said, but rather “clarify” a technicality in order to prove that people hold this book in high regard for analysis, then tell me to get lost if I think I’m so smart. And any “issue” I have is not how you “discuss” anything. It was the way stated (in the blog, not the comments) with absolute assurance that Plato was the only thinker behind these writings. I was trying to discuss it now, and it seems you were the one who has an obvious issue with it. You keep trying to cut me down without addressing my actual observations. If I warrant no response, at least you have already said “I am of the opinion that Plato expresses his philosophy through the dialogues represented in his works. In other words, we (you, your opinion) don’t need him to come out and say “This is what I, Plato, believe” to understand to analyze what his works say about various subjects.” I guess that answers my question

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