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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. 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 eneralisation, which did not hold in every case.

Some women were just as good, indeed better, than some men . 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 . Women should exercise the same as men, be educated the same as men, go to war the same as men, and generally be reated exactly the same, except that not so much should be expected of them .

Differentiation in treatment between one guardian and another should be based on difference of talent, not on difference of sex . The only function sex was relevant for was the breeding of children . 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 btained 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 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 or.

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 crches. 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 hat 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 crches 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 uardians 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 ove. 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 eans 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 mon’, `mine’, in its customary, divisive use, and instead use it only as we now use `our’ .

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 ltimate 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 he 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 or 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 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 e 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 he 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 he 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 rom 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.

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