On The Inferiority Of Women In Classical Greek Philosophy

A few days ago, I was reading an article on morality, and as I reached the end of the article, the following sentence jumped up at me (and I must say it caught me by surprise, as I had no prior knowledge of this before). It read:

Aristotle didn’t see much of a problem with slavery, and he felt that women were inherently inferior. In those cases, he just had his facts wrong.

Indeed Aristotle had his facts wrong! And I’m so glad that the author who wrote that article addressed this blatant err.

I first learned about Aristotle in my Intro to Philosophy class during my first year in undergrad.  Back then, the only thing I discovered was that as a Greek philosopher, logician, and scientist, Aristotle was (and still is) generally regarded as one of the most influential ancient thinkers in a number of philosophical fields, including political theory. And Aristotle’s life seemed to have influenced his political thought in various ways, for example his interest in biology appears to be expressed in the naturalism of his politics; his interest in comparative politics and his sympathies for democracy, as well as monarchy may have been encouraged by his travels and experiences; and he also borrows extensively from Plato’s Republic (considering that he was Plato’s pupil after all), Statesman, and Laws (even though he criticizes them all rather harshly).  Additionally, his views towards women and slavery may have also been, in my opinion, heavily influenced, especially considering that the status of women was very low in Greek society 5000 years ago. And, although I did not realize this fact before, it now urges me to explore this further, because it was not only Aristotle who thought this way, but also other great philosophers such as Plato and Socrates.

So, why women and slaves, I wonder? What was going on in the heads of these men – men who were considered pioneers of byzantine philosophical thought – to deem women, especially, inferior? Was it necessarily patriarchy or was it something much deeper than that? Perhaps a multifaceted philosophical inquiry that allowed these great philosophers to cogitate this way about women?  Personally, I feel that because Aristotle’s main thrust was to explain the nature of things from what they are seen to be (from experience), he then applied this whole ‘nature’ philosophy to women, hence deducing their “inferiority” through the nature phenomenon, which of course, is rather crass, especially when he went on further to claim that not only are women inferior to men, physically, but also intellectually.

It appears that Aristotle’s argument for the” inferiority” of women lies in a “defect.” “Women are defective by nature” because they cannot produce semen which contains a full human being. Erm, well, what my dear Aristotle failed to comprehend was that while women cannot produce sperm, she can produce eggs, which is required in order to create a human being. A sperm simply cannot form a human being all on its own! But, wait! His rather obtuse argument is that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, it is the man who supplies the substance of a human being (the soul, i.e. the form, which is of course his semen, while the woman only serves as the nourishment (the matter). And while I don’t agree with his logic at all, because, well, it’s illogical in every sense; it appears that that was his basic reasoning, which may have proclaimed as a fundamental principle for the society, perhaps during that time (about 5000 years ago).

So, where does slavery come under all of this? Well, as I read up more on the matter, I discovered that Aristotle not only utilized the philosophy of nature to explain why women are inferior, yes, by nature, to men; but, he also used that same philosophy to explain why some people are – are you ready for this? – naturally inferior! So basically what he argues is that subordination of humans is natural, i.e. men subordinating women, which also means that slavery is natural because some people are, by nature, destined to be slaves, while others are naturally destined to be masters. Er, yeah. Sure. :: eye roll ::

Now, although, I can see why nature and destiny can be put together into one sentence, they are, however, contradictory in my opinion. This is because a number of theologians and philosophers (including Plato and Aristotle) make the claim, implicitly if not explicitly, that having free will is essential to human nature. And, to me, this is perhaps a fair claim, particularly if one thinks that free will is a capacity of the human soul. Also nature (human nature that is) is considered to be ‘dualistic’. This means that it consists of a material, mortal body and a spiritual immortal soul. The latter survives the death of the body and transits to a utopia known as “Paradise” or goes through a purgatory, commonly known as “Hell.” Further, at the time of resurrection, the soul is then reunited with the body. This ‘dualistic’ conception has had an enormous impact, especially in Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Destiny, on the other hand, is not as clear-cut, because it is considered to be deterministic, which means that fate is pre-determined through a course of events. (I actually wrote an article on the notion of determinism and free will; it can be read here.)  So, to claim that some people are ‘destined’ to be naturally inferior or superior sounds rather contradictory, because it implies that humans have the ability to choose their destiny through the notion of free will (human nature), which is inanity, as the element of ‘choice’ is missing altogether. There is no such thing as choosing when it comes to destiny, unless that choice has already been pre-determined, and we, as human beings, live our lives according to a fixed intrinsic order of the cosmos.

Anyway, I  sound like I’m blabbing here, and may have digressed a bit from the main topic, but I just felt like sharing my two cents on Aristotle’s views on women and slavery, and why he thought the way he did. I am sure modern philosophy today will completely disagree with a lot of Plato’s and Aristotle’s teachings and/or ideologies. And considering that this is one of my most favourite topics ever, I know I’ll be revisiting this subject again in the near future. Perhaps my next topic will be just that: Criticisms of classical philosophers by modern philosophers. I’d love to explore and explain what those criticisms entailed, for I’m sure there are plenty.

So, definitely be on the lookout for that.

4 responses to “On The Inferiority Of Women In Classical Greek Philosophy

  1. ““…there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion.” – Gustave Le Bon

  2. The majority of women in the West or a significant percentage seem to agree that women are inferior and that males should be the leaders. The majority of couples in the West prefer a boy child to a girl child.

    A smaller brain means less cognition…meaning females can’t survive as well as males.

    Males are supposed to be leaders, that’s why their brains are larger.

    There are some females with large brains, but the majority of females have smaller brains than small-brained males.

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