KM: Socrates liked Aspasia because she wasn’t a shrew, which is what he thought his wife, Xanthippe, was.
KIA: But Plato respected the opinions of Aspasia and Diotima.
KM: Because Aspasia knew how to manage a household and Diotima spoke of non-physical love as ideal Forms, but he had to invent Diotima to make his point.
KIA: Still, it was a woman who instructed the men on love.
KM: Yes, and she taught that the only true love was between men.
KIA: She taught that love was of the mind. Of ideas.
KM: And it is men, not women, who are ruled by their minds. Ultimately, The Symposium is just about Plato’s ideal forms, love being one of them. He speaks of true love between men because he didn’t see women as being capable of true understanding.
KIA: Not all the men. Not Alcibiades. He was a libertine and a horrible traitor to his country.
KM: And friend of Socrates—someone who wrestled with him, slept with him, and drank with him.
KIA: But Socrates rebuffed him.
KM: And everyone else. Or, all the men, anyway.
KIA: Socrates hated Alcibiades.
KM: But they slept together? As enemies do?
KIA: Again, nothing happened.
KM: Some might think naked wrestling is something.
KIA: But Socrates didn’t respond.
KM: I find it interesting that Alcibiades expected all wrestling matches to become sexual.
KIA: How do you know that?
KM: Why else would he be surprised that Socrates didn’t respond?
KIA: I think he was just disappointed Socrates didn’t return his feelings.
KM: Maybe it was just because Socrates was so old?
KIA: Socrates wasn’t interested because he was concerned with more important things.
KM: Maybe Socrates wasn’t interested because he wasn’t gay.
KIA: Socrates was a philosopher. Alcibiades wasn’t a serious thinker.
KM: Do you think Alcibiades might have represented Plato’s feelings?
KIA: What? Why?
KM: Well, I mean. Plato was gay, wasn’t he?
KIA: Why would you say that?
KM: Hey, remember in the Republic where it says women should do physical training like men? You know, naked? And it says it would be hard to look at the naked women, especially the ones who are ugly or old.
KIA: I’m sure he was just addressing the concerns of the day.
KM: Oh, I’m sure. By the way, who did Plato marry?
KIA: I don’t know. No one does.
KM: Socrates had two wives (see Myrto). So did Aristotle. If Plato had one, don’t you think someone would have mentioned it?
KIA: What does that matter, anyway?
KM: Well, it’s consistent with him being gay.
KIA: And why would Plato portray himself through such an awful person as Alcibiades?
KM: Maybe Plato wasn’t proud of his feelings.
KM: Maybe Plato wasn’t proud of his erotic love for Socrates, so he portrayed it in a disgusting manner.
KIA: Why wouldn’t he be proud? Homosexual relationships were encouraged in his society.
KM: I didn’t mean he was ashamed of being gay, but embarrassed that his own feelings for Socrates weren’t returned. Also, maybe being embarrassed by his less than “Platonic” love for Socrates. Also, it was Plato, not Alcibiades, who was the wrestling champion.
KIA: I think Plato was just committed to higher ideals.
KM: Or maybe Plato was wrestling with his own daimons, and he could only express them through a drunken Alcibiades.
KIA: That makes no sense.
KM: Did you see what I did there?
KM: Wrestling with his daimons? ‘Cause he was a wrestler? ‘Cause Alcibiades wrestled Socrates naked? ‘Cause daimons are spirits that impart wisdom and not demons?
KIA: Oh, yeah, I get it. Who do you think you are, anyway, Mark Henderson?
KM: If only Plato had made more puns instead of wrestling naked boys.
KIA: Like Socrates, Plato was a man of wisdom and honour, not a profligate!
KM: Sure. That’s why he shows the struggle only to have love of reason to win in the end. The lust of Alcibiades is defeated in the ultimate wrestling match.
KIA: Maybe he wasn’t interested in teenagers.
KM: Wasn’t Xanthippe a teenager at the time? You know, when Socrates married her.
No one can question Plato’s writing and rhetorical abilities. He was a superstar of the ancient world, and the fact that his dialogs have endured for millennia attests to the fact of his beautiful writing. Of course, Bertrand Russell found it ludicrous to praise Plato’s ideas based on the quality of his writing, saying, “That Plato’s Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people, is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history.” Other famous thinkers of the ancient world weren’t as lucky as Plato; although their reputations survive somewhat through the words of others, we often have no copies of their original works or just a few remaining fragments. It may be that Plato was simply such a great writer that his works were preserved while the works of others were not, or perhaps other factors played a role in which works were saved and which were lost.
According to the biographer of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, the Cynical philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (no relationship to the biographer), also wrote a number of books.* If he actually did, none survives today. The biography is here. The Cynic is infamous for masturbating in public, going naked, eating in the market, and carrying a lamp around in the middle of the day. As we don’t have the original works of Diogenes, we can’t be sure which of these stories might be true and which are apocryphal as they reflect how others saw him, not necessarily how he presented himself. The lack of surviving texts may be down to Diogenes himself, at least partly. When Hegesias asked to read some of his writing, he reportedly replied, “You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.”
So, it seems that Diogenes, like Socrates before him, valued face-to-face interaction over the more passive learning that comes from reading. It is worth noting that Diogenes was a student of Antisthenes, who was in turn a student of Socrates. Although Antisthenes was reluctant to accept Diogenes as a student, Diogenes considered Antisthenes, not Plato, to be the true successor to Socrates.
According to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Antisthenes enjoyed a comfortable and aristocratic life until the death of Socrates. After that, “He would have nothing but simple goodness. He associated with working men, and dressed as one of them. He took to open-air preaching, in a style that the uneducated could understand. All refined philosophy he held to be worthless; what could be known by the plain man.” Also, “There was to be no government, no private property, no marriage, no established religion.” Diogenes, it would seem, followed the lessons of his teacher to their logical extremes, which lead Plato to describe Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad.”
When studying the history of philosophy, we generally follow the lineage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. We could just as easily follow it from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes. With the former approach, we find justification for authoritarian rule over the ignorant unwashed masses constantly threatening the fabric of society. With the latter approach, we find a rejection not only of authority but of all the values that drive the totality of social regulation and empty social status.
It should be no surprise, then, which works were preserved. We know Socrates primarily through the works of Plato, which painted Socrates as a victim of ignorant Athenian leaders who rose to positions of power through a democratic process and not on their own merit. Threatened by the wisdom of Socrates, the thoughtless and insecure leaders sentenced Socrates to death. In response, Plato promised order could be secured under the direction of educated and dispassionate leaders who would tame the rabble, leading from their own realm outside the cave of illusion and delusion. The Cynics, on the other hand, would cause disruption, encouraging the working people to believe that they could take control over their own lives even without the aid of book learning and academic discipline. The Cynics valued reason, but not the well-healed reason of the aristocrats such as Plato and Aristotle.
Further, the Cynics encouraged citizens to question the value of everything that is supposed to motivate the working class. For Plato, workers driven by their appetitive elements would produce more goods in order to receive rewards to satisfy their hungers and desires. Diogenes rejected the value of expensive clothing, food, shelter or anything else, and often lived off what he could get through begging. Having almost no possessions and no desires for any more, how could anyone take control over him or threaten him with anything? When Perdiccas threatened Diogenes with death if he didn’t appear before him, Diogenes reportedly replied, “That is nothing strange, for a scorpion or a tarantula could do as much: you had better threaten me that, if I kept away, you should be very happy.” As Todd Snider said in his song, “Looking for a Job,” “Watch what you say to someone with nothing. It’s almost like having it all.”
Imagine if the working class (note: if you work for money, you are working class) now began to question the value of cars, wide-screen TVs, sports, clothing, and “good” neighborhoods. And if the poor of the world adopted Diogenes’s views on citizenship, who would fight our wars? Diogenes gets credit for coining the word “cosmopolitan,” which is usually taken to mean citizen of the world. People who travel the world, speak more than one language, eat varied cuisine, and are not, to put it simply, provincial, consider themselves cosmopolitan, but this is not what Diogenes meant. Diogenes considered himself a citizen of the universe with no political allegiance and without political rights. He was banished from his home for defacing currency or something, and he was what would now be described as a “man without a country.” Imagine everyone being that way (John Lennon thought it should be easy, if you try).
Examined rationally, as the Cynics would have us do, virtually nothing we hold dear has any intrinsic value. We spend our lives working for trifles while ignoring anything that make us genuinely happy. When Diogenes was told it is a bad thing to live, he said, “Not to live, but to live badly.” We can live well, but we may be thought mad.
* Diogenes Laertius says, “The following books are attributed to [Diogenes of Sinope]. The dialogues entitled the Cephalion; the Icthyas; the Jackdaw; the Leopard; the People of the Athenians; the Republic; one called Moral Art; one on Wealth; one on Love; the Theodorus; the Hypsias; the Aristarchus; one on Death; a volume of Letters; seven Tragedies, the Helen, the Thyestes, the Hercules, the Achilles, the Medea, the Chrysippus, and the Oedippus.”
In the second GOP debate, candidates were asked an inconsequential question about what woman they would want to see on the $10 bill. Three mentioned family members who were caregivers and one mentioned Mother Theresa. Other candidates did mention women who were political leaders, but it is worth noting how difficult it is for some to imagine, even now, a great woman who is not caring for others. Rather, it is still hard for too many people to imagine that leading and fighting for justice and rights is a form of caring for women that is worthy of admiration.
The idea that women should be good, as women, but not in the same way that men might be good, is about as old as civilization. Men have placed women in an impossible bind forever. For striving to be the best person possible, they are often denounced, attacked, or even murdered for stepping above their station. In the seventh century BCE, Chinese poet and princess, Xu Mu found herself in a position where she felt she must defend her kingdom (Wei) against the Di people (see Barbara Bennett Peterson’s essay about dutiful daughters of ancient China here). She successfully rallied her brothers and friends from neighboring kingdoms to preserve their home.
A man in her position would simply luxuriate in the waves of honor and gratitude flowing over him, but Xu’s position was more complicated. She is remembered for her accomplishments, but she also faced the wrath of the men in her community. She recorded her mixed experiences and feeling in a poem, “Speeding Away”:
Harshly though you may judge me,
From my course I will not veer.
Compared to your limited vision,
Do I not see far and clear?
Harshly though you may judge me,
My steps you never can stay.
Compared to your limited vision,
Am I not wise in my way?
I’ve climbed the heights of A Qiu,
Gathered herbs on the slope alone.
All women are prone to sorrow,
Each follows a path of her own.
The people of Xu still blame me,
Such ignorance has never been known.
Out of necessity, she stepped out of the role of good wife, daughter, and mother to save her homeland only to be criticized, but she didn’t accept the criticism. She said, “O listen, ye lords and nobles, Blame not my stubbornness so,” but she was denied the opportunity to emerge as an unvarnished hero. If she had been a man, she would have been good, but she could not be considered a good woman without qualifications. Her society had two concepts of virtue: one for men, and one for women.
A couple of centuries later, Plato advocated for a single measure of virtue and goodness. He felt that the ideal form of the good was universal, so it wouldn’t make sense for some people to aim at one ideal and others at another ideal, as there can only be one ideal. Consequently, women and men should aim at the same ideal, and men, just by chance, seem to have an easier time getting close to it. In Plato’s Republic, women would be trained and educated in the manner of men in hopes of achieving their highest possibilities of human perfection. Women who succeeded in being the most like the best men would be the best women. Men who resembled women, on the other hand, were the worst of men. In Plato’s world, then, Xu Mu might be admired for embodying the virtues of men, but she may still be censured for failing in the virtues of womanhood.
Plato’s unusual conception of a single standard for virtue for men and women didn’t last long. His student, Aristotle, found insistence on a single standard for goodness unnatural and unfair. Men and women, being different, should strive for different ideals. A woman should be a good woman and a man should be a good man. To judge a woman on her ability to be like a “good man” would be as absurd as judging a musician on his ability to make good shoes. Women should do what is right and natural for them, he believed. Under Aristotle’s guidance, Xu Mu would do better to leave saving the kingdom to the men, who would be more rational and better prepared for war.
Those who feel women have different strengths than men will insist that they are not misogynistic. No, they love women for the things women do best. These men (and women) say that women have civilized men, make peace in families, and rear children for greatness. They love their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters as they make it possible for men to achieve greatness in war, politics, business, science, and philosophy. For example. Ronald Reagan explained his high regard for women by saying, “If it wasn’t for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs.” The problem is that the things these men suppose women excel at doing are also denigrated by society precisely because women do them, which means that women are devalued as well. In the third century BCE, another Chinese poet, Fu Xuan, summed up the problem nicely:
How sad it is to be a woman!!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
By this measure, to be the best woman possible is still to be something inferior to even a mediocre man. Women may not attain the highest levels of virtue.
Upon reading the works of many men claiming that women are inferior at birth, Christine Pisan, wrote a rhetorical query to God in 1405 CE:
“Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.”
Trapped in a paradox, extreme virtue is demanded of women while it is simultaneously denied them. By asking God to resolve the paradox, Pisan brilliantly illustrates that it is men, not God, who created the paradox, for no God would be so irrational. The binary is not only absurd; it is impossible.
In 1694 CE, Mary Astell eschewed literary maneuvers and stated directly that men are to blame for the situation of women. In her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, she remarked, “That therefore Women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because ’tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous and liberal Education, the most effectual means to direct them into, and to secure their progress in the way of Vertue.” She goes on to say, “For since God has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them?” Astell issued a call to arms for women. Many have responded, and continue to respond.
In the late 19th century, Mary Wollstonecraft repeated the call: “To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” Wollstonecraft argued that two standards of virtue only serve to cement the power of men over women. A single standard will liberate both.
Simply choosing between a singular or dual ethics does not resolve the problem of misogyny, masculine power, or the systematic devaluing of anything “feminine.” If we choose to embrace a single ethics, the default position is to embrace the ethics previously associated with “masculine” virtue. To do so, women must themselves then disparage “feminine” virtues, which will mean debasing the activities traditionally associated with women. Thus, both women and men engaged in such pursuits are permanent held in reduced stature.
On the other hand, to embrace a dual system of ethics is to preserve the status quo. The male system of ethics continues to be the good and noble ethics while the female ethics is valued only for its contributions to maintaining the power and worth of male activities.
A single ethics that values all virtues and activities that are, in fact, valuable demands a complete deconstruction of gender and power so that it can be replaced with a non-binary system that embraces and venerates all activities that aid human flourishing. If nurturing children is a good, then it is good for both men and women. Such a system can have no concept of “women’s work” or “men’s work.” The idea that activities or dispositions (caring, assertive, protective, sensitive) are “masculine” or “feminine” must become a foreign idea. This will require radical resistance. Xu Mu and others like her began this battle nearly 3,000 years ago. After watching the second GOP debate, I believe it may take another 3,000 years to finish the war.