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Doing Justice to the Classics

Scholars respond to Aristotle being enlisted in support of misogyny

In a guest-post on the website of Matt Forney, author of Do the Phillipines, “a thorough analysis of Philippine culture, to better help you bang girls,” John Saxon argues that “The greatest thinkers from antiquity to the modern day have seen that there is a very dark side to women, that if ignored…would lead to individual men and society coming undone.” His survey of philosophers begins with Aristotle, who he says defined “the essence of humanity as the capacity of reason, a capacity which he says makes women inferior to men,” and Plato, who, in the Timaeus, describes “a hierarchy of creation which places women closer to the animals than men are.” His conclusion is that because these “great thinkers” were misogynists, we should be too.

Scholars Respond

We asked scholars to respond to this appropriation of Aristotle. We will treat the appropriation of Plato in a future post and welcome your insights at, via Twitter, or Facebook.

  • It is true that in his Politics Aristotle argues that husbands should rule wives because women’s deliberative faculty is “without full authority.”
  • This view does not represent the position taken by all other ancient philosophers. Aristotle was the only major philosopher of Greco-Roman antiquity who held that women were inferior to men in reason.  Plato taught women, as did the Epicureans and Stoics. The Stoic Musonius Rufus (1st century CE) wrote treatises with titles that summarize his arguments: “That women also should do philosophy” and “That boys and girls should get the same education.”
  • Saxon calls his defense of misogyny “philosophical,” but the method he uses in arguing that women are inferior to men because Aristotle and other “great thinkers” said so is profoundly unphilosophical. Philosophers consider the quality of an argument, including evaluating its premises and the logical steps it makes. Aristotle’s claim about women’s deliberative faculty rests on arbitrary and disputable premises such as that “the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female” and so is not regarded by philosophers as a sound argument. Saxon’s claim, in turn, is a naked appeal to Aristotle’s authority, a type of argument usually listed as a logical fallacy (along with, for example, ad hominem arguments and “begging the question”).
  • Aristotle was undoubtedly a great thinker, but he wrote many things that modern culture rejects. For example, Aristotle claimed that slavery is moral because those enslaved are innately inferior to their masters. We now recognize that slavery is wrong, no matter how “great” those who defended it were.
  •   We honor Aristotle’s “greatness” by considering carefully what he argued, not by accepting it blindly.
  • Aristotle began his inquiries with what he called phainomena, “things appearing to be the case” and with endoxa, “credible opinions.” This method was an important contribution to human knowledge and is one origin of modern experimental science. However, in the case of women Aristotle demonstrably broke with his empirical practice and followed only “opinions” in his assessment of women. For example, he claimed that women have fewer teeth than men, a claim that simple observation — counting them — would refute. Aristotle allowed his view of women to be shaped by the opinions, dominant in his time, that women were “less” than men (in teeth as in rational faculty). That is, he wrote that women’s rational faculty lacks authority because his society did not allow women to have authority.
  • Although plenty of misogynistic ideas may be found in his many writings, Aristotle’s views on women are more complex, and more inconsistent, than Saxon allows. For example, in the same passage that Saxon seems to be citing, Aristotle recognizes the inherent virtue and rationality of all members of the human species, including women. Elsewhere Aristotle allows that a husband and wife may enjoy the best kind of friendship, one based on shared moral goodness, which implies that women can be fully virtuous. Aristotle also argues against husbands having total authority over their wives and implicitly recognizes that what authority the husband does have is culturally determined, not natural, by stating that in families where the woman has inherited wealth, the woman rules.
  • Aristotle’s empirical outlook in all other areas of investigation provides an answer to Saxon’s closing question, “What would Aristotle think?” Aristotle, if he was following his method, would think that we should base our assessment of women on what we observe: that when given equal opportunities women are just as capable as men.

The following scholars contributed to this post:

Cynthia Freeland

Melissa Lane (Princeton University)

Martha Nussbaum (University of Chicago)

Charlotte Witt (University of New Hampshire)

This is a composite of scholars’ responses and it should not be assumed that every contributor agrees with every point made above.

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