Classics are a mysterious category of books. They somehow manage to stay relevant in our society and continue to inspire those who read them. Even though they are flawed, sometimes outrageously flawed, they manage to persist.
Plato’s Republic for example can be quickly written off as a dusty, difficult to read, text that isn’t as morally advanced as we would like. This couldn’t be further from the truth. His ideal society abolished the marriage power structure all together, and had men and women sharing property, education, and lifestyle.
He even argued for men and women to participate in the military together. When Plato brings up this idea, one of his male friends argued that women aren’t beautiful enough to participate. Beauty was based on the male form in ancient Greece, and women’s bodies were not considered to be beautiful by their sexist standards. Greeks also trained in the nude, so including women also presented privacy issues. Plato immediately beats back this clam by saying:
But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.
The above quote is almost exactly why we ignore the classics, because they are too cryptic to understand! Plato’s point here is that beauty is based on “the good” which comes from our actions, not by the way we look or what gender we are. Beauty does not come from out physical appearance, it comes from our spirit.
Plato also argued that “women and men have the same nature in respect to the guardianship of the state.” He wanted women to have an same opportunity to participate in war and defense as men did. Almost nobody in America even suggests this kind of thing. This shows how progressive some of the ancient Greeks actually were.
Even if contemporary concepts today are more nuanced than simply judging someone based on their actions and not their appearance, it’s still notable that Plato was having these arguments in 380 BC. Don’t get me wrong, I am not justifying the archaic morality we see in so many old texts, but we must be careful not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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