Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Elena Duvergès Blair, Plato's Dialectic on Woman: Equal, Therefore Inferior. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 250. ISBN 9781138243071. $40.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Rodolfo Lopes, Universidade de Brasília (rodolfo.nunes.lopes@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site


The book was originally published in 2012, in this same series (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies), and the cataloguing data suggest that the only difference in this 2017 issue is strictly material: paperback instead of hardback. Also, since there is no evidence of changes within these five years, one must assume that its content is the same as the first issue. One year after the hardback publication, Prof. Julie Ward wrote a very positive review1 that covered most of the book's contents and structure. In this review, in order to avoid unnecessary overlaps, I will try to focus on some issues that, in my opinion, were not sufficiently highlighted.

Blair's authoritative study of Plato's views on woman is intended to fill a gap in recent scholarship, since "no comprehensive work identifying his position on the subject has yet appeared, and by now the flurry of articles that began in the 1970s (many limited simply to feminist critiques) has subsided" (p. ix). The main purpose of this study is thus to "draw an image of the Platonic woman as rich and full as the textual and historical information allows" (p. x). As I expect to show in the current review, the success of Blair's bold endeavour is only partial. If, on the one hand, she manages to collect and comment (in a very competent way) on all the Platonic texts on the subject, on the other hand, the conclusion of book falls short of answering its main question: what is Plato's "theory of woman"? This is particularly problematic since the book's main purpose was to answer it in the most unified way possible: "the quest for this coherent theory of woman is the overarching purpose that drives the argument of the book, and provides its logical structure" (p. 9).

Since there is no neutral or even single way of reading Plato's Dialogues, it is important to dedicate some lines to the methodological groundings of this book. If I had to sum it up in one word, I would choose 'eclectic'. The study follows the so-called 'analytic approach', which deals with the consistency of Plato's thought (vide pp. 2-3). Even though no one knows what an 'analytic' reading of Plato is exactly (moreover, what would be its opposite, i.e. a 'non-analytic' one?), I suppose that the search for doctrinal consistency and coherence are key features of that kind of approach. This is, of course, a very difficult task to perform given the singularities of Plato's writing: he never speaks in his own name; his characters say different things in different contexts; and he never defines (inside or outside the Dialogues) his positions on any matter whatsoever. Unfortunately, Blair does not explain which criteria she is using to attribute to Plato ideas that various characters express at various points in the dialogues. For instance, she assumes that both the misogyny exhibited by the character Timaeus and Socrates' egalitarian theory of virtue in the Meno are to be considered 'Platonic'. Such broad understanding of authorship produces a list of 'contradictions' or 'inconsistencies' that the interpreter has to solve with the help of the so-called 'analytic method', as if we are to solve an encrypted puzzle that, for some obscure reason, Plato left us in the Dialogues. If the task of the interpreter is to eliminate or reduce the inconsistencies and therefore to reach a coherent reading, this entails a soft version of unitarianism — I choose to limit the concept with the adjective 'soft', because unitarianism stricto sensu, as Paul Shorey originally put it, implies that there are no inconsistencies at all (or that they are only apparent). Yet, the possibility of reaching doctrinal coherence depends on argumentative resources that traditionally define the developmental view (in the version proposed by Gregory Vlastos, whose influence is particularly clear throughout Chapter 2). Finally, I would add that the study is based on the fundamental assumptions of the 'genetic' approach, which is implicitly followed by the vast majority of modern Platonists: the idea that Plato's personal opinions are somehow encrypted throughout the Dialogues and that therefore it is the interpreter's task to unveil them.

The introductory material includes a very concise and useful preface that explains the structure of the book and the results at which the research aims. After the acknowledgments, the Introduction deals almost exclusively with the status quaestionis of the book's subject. It is an extremely accurate analysis of the modern scholarship from the late years of the 19th century onwards. According to Blair, systematic studies first appeared only in the 1970s, the sole exception being a book by Ithurriague2 on Plato's positions on the equality of sexes — all other publications are limited to sparse references. The result of this analysis is a list of 16 contradictions raised by several authors that would undermine the claim that Plato held a consistent theory of woman (pp. 3- 8). It is not clear if every cited author shares the 'consistency assumption' or if Blair has only included authors who interpret Plato's works from this standpoint. In any case, such a procedure is improperly partial and arbitrary, since either it projects onto those authors assumptions that they would not acknowledge or it excludes others that read Plato from different standpoints (perspectivism, contextualism etc.). The introductory material ends with an excellent Prologue on methodological considerations, which explains in great detail and with admirable precision the criteria used to organise the textual materials (pp. 10-12) and also refers to some historical elements that could bring light to the selected passages of Dialogues. Unfortunately, this contextual aspect of the research is limited to a set of general topics that are listed in less than 2 pages.

Parts I and II deal with the interpretation of the selected passages (the most relevant are Republic 5, i.e. 449a-457c, Meno 71e-73c, Symposium 189c-193d, Timaeus 41d-42d; 90e-91a and Laws VI, VII), according to the criteria established in the Prologue. Part I ("The Dramatic/Rhetorical Texts") works with a set of texts that "belongs to Plato's literary and argumentative artistry", where "woman appears (among many other elements) to give a scene the color and character the particular topic demands" (p. 14). As for Part II, which deals with the passages that Blair considers to be "philosophical" (sic), it "contains Plato's specific reflection about woman herself" (p. 15). Ward's review is particularly extensive on these sections of the book and, for that reason, I refer the reader to her analysis.

Part III, the last, is divided into three chapters. The first (Chapter 8) works as prolegomena to the conclusions. The second (Chapter 9) draws the conclusions. The third (Chapter 10) provides the groundwork for a theory of woman "Beyond Plato" (the title of the chapter). Since in this last chapter the emphasis changes to ideological positions and debates, I will abstain from commenting on it, because this would demand my personal opinions on that matter, which I consider irrelevant to philosophical debate.

Chapter 8 ("Prolegomenon to the Results") deals with three difficulties that, according to Blair, need clarification, before drawing the conclusions of the study. The first two are indeed relevant to most of the subjects that a Platonist must face when interpreting the Dialogues: the challenge of unitarianism and Plato's use of myths. Unfortunately, each of them requires more than half a page of discussion. The challenge of unitarianism is dismissed with a confident assertion, after three paragraphs, which would be, at most, introductory to another debate: "The debate becomes irrelevant to the validity of my conclusions, because they avoid errors caused by simplistic notions of the text's unity" (p. 189). The clarification of the second challenge is even shorter (one paragraph), but it has already been discussed earlier (pp. 136-138), even if quite incompletely (at a minimum Brisson's classic work on this topic should have been mentioned3). As for the third difficulty, to which six pages are dedicated, it is, in my opinion, impossible to accept as relevant to any philosophical topic whatsoever. It is worth citing the first paragraph of this discussion (p. 190):

The third difficulty regards the possible influence of Plato's sexual orientation on his conception of woman. A general reticence to discuss this issue has limited the commentaries to indirect and general allusions. For a serious investigator, discussing it is apt to seem either irrelevant or indiscreet. In our particular case, however, I intend to show that Plato's sexual orientation could have contributed to his theoretical view on woman.

The irrelevance of personal positions to interpreting philosophical aspects is noted earlier by Blair herself, when she says that "his [Plato's] personal attitudes are in large measure irrelevant to his philosophical thought; it is reason and evidence that govern his reflection, not personal inclination" (p. 19). And even if one had the 'personal inclination' to assume that a philosopher's sexual orientation is somehow relevant to his philosophy, there is no evidence whatsoever of what may have been Plato's preferences on that matter.

Chapter 9 draws the conclusions of the book. After the 16 'inconsistencies' that had been highlighted in the Introduction, we would expect an analytic set of answers that help to shed light on this problem. The result is, however, disappointing. Blair starts with a set of defining features of Plato's theory on woman that, according to her own words, do "not yet give us Plato's unified insight on what woman is" (p. 199). The solution is to use the famous divided line sketched by Socrates in the Republic (509d-511e) to explain how humans acquire knowledge and also to establish which kinds of knowledge one is able to acquire. However, Blair seems to assume that the image of the divided line is somehow autobiographic and self-reflexive, since the progression of knowledge illustrated by Socrates' divided line is used to show how Plato himself would understand woman. This methodological leap, from an image used in a text to the personal life of the author of that text, is very hard to accept as valid. Blair seems to take its validity for granted, since she does not provide any justification for using it. In any case, even if we accept this awkward solution to the problem of unifying Plato's position on woman,

we must conclude that, as U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf has said, and now we have confirmed by examining Plato's theory of knowledge, Plato does not understand woman.' (p. 201; the italics are hers)

In sum, the book is very useful as a systematic collation of the passages that may be used to infer a Platonic theory of woman. However, its main purpose, which was to reach such theory, is far from being fulfilled.


1.   Ward, J. in The Classical Review, 63.2, pp. 364–366, 2013.
2.   Ithurriague, J., Des idées de Platon sur la condition de la femme au regard des traditions antiques (Paris, J. Gamber, 1931).
3.   Brisson, L., Platon. Les mots et les mythes, Paris, Maspero, 1982, English version: Plato the Myth Maker (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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