Aristotle On Women
This is a topic that the vast majority of the world's influential thinkers, from the period of the ancient Greek philosopher's own lifetime, 384-322 b.c., to our own, would probably consider too unremarkable to include in any encyclopedia. The reason for this perception can be found in Aristotle's central idea concerning women, which is that women are by nature inferior to men and must therefore be subordinate to, and ruled by, men.
The tenacity with which this key sexist concept has been held by historically acclaimed thinkers and writers testifies to the appalling ease with which ignorance can pose as knowledge and with which the self-aggrandizing prejudices of those who wield intellectual and social power can pass as rational judgment.
The parallel between ways of justifying sexism and racism is noteworthy. One recurring feature is that persons of prominence, experts in various fields, describe in wondrous detail what is called "nature" (the counterpart of this in the religious realm is usually "the divine will"). Some of the most respected scientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thus promoted racism. Believing in the inherent superiority of their own "white" race, these scientists, not unsurprisingly, discovered all sorts of putative evidence to confirm the assumptions that governed their investigation of nature. These same scientists would have likely scoffed at the suggestion that their basic methodology was not all that different from Aristotle's. Had not modern science so superseded anything called science in premodern times that it was clear that such a title was appropriate only for what was modern? However, when it came to examining living beings, humans in particular, these Enlightenment thinkers and their heirs had much in common with the ancient Athenian, who had a passion for collecting, preserving, and scrutinizing data.
Like any good scientist, Aristotle was fond of appealing to facts. But if Aristotle did not invent the habit of interpreting facts both in terms and in justification of the cultural milieu and political relationships of his own society, he certainly perfected it long before the renowned eighteenth-century French naturalist George-Louis Buffon compared the Hottentots to monkeys or the nineteenth-century naturalist Charles Darwin speculated, in light of his Malthusian-inspired principle of natural selection, that in the not too distant future, "an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world" (416).
Anticipating by centuries the kind of inept reasoning currently flourishing among proponents of biological determinism, Aristotle looked at the status of women in his own slaveholding class and wrote solemnly of how natural it is for a woman to lead a quiet, sedentary life, staying indoors to nurture children and preserve possessions acquired by her "natural ruler," man (33), who is well constituted for activities outside the home. What today's sociobiologist proclaims as genetically determined characteristics predisposing male and female humans for distinctive roles (of domination and subordination) in the powerist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, and militarist relationships conspicuous in societies producing sociobiologists, Aristotle simply called "nature." The words are different, but the music is the same.
Clearly, though, the first major composer of this music on a grand scale for Western consciousness was Aristotle. Thinkers before him in his own culture had written chords (light and rationality are male; darkness and irrationality are female) and even themes ("Silence is a woman's glory"), but Aristotle integrated fragments from his predecessors with the work of his own inventive genius to create the first symphony of sexism. Combining his ontological judgment that the nature of something is what it is "when fully developed" (Politics, 1252b. 32-34) with his biological assumption that the fully developed human is male, he concluded that woman "is as it were a deformed male" (Generation of Animals, 737a. 28). What makes woman a physically defective human is her inability to produce semen, which, according to Aristotle, is the only active principle in conception. In procreation, therefore, passive woman provides only material, which active man fashions into a new human.
While Aristotle's ideas on reproduction, which were accepted in Western intellectual circles for at least 15 centuries, can be easily dismissed today, his correlative ideas in the psychological, moral, and political realms qualify him to be the patron saint of contemporary sociobiologists. Aristotle believed that nature ordained not only physical differences between male and female but mental differences as well. His followers may even take many items in his list of sex-specific "mental characteristics" as fine examples of his observational powers. By comparison to man, he argued, woman is "more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive ... more compassionate[,] ... more easily moved to tears[,] ... more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike[,] ... more prone to despondency and less hopeful[,] ... more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory [and] ... also more wakeful; more shrinking [and] more difficult to rouse to action" (History of Animals, 608b. 1-14). Moreover, in accord with his society's custom of allowing girls and women to eat only half as much as boys and men, he added that woman "requires a smaller quantity of nutriment" (History of Animals, 608b. 14).
Prescinding from his talent as a nutritionist, if one looks again at the traits Aristotle attributed to woman, what stands out in most of them is what he apparently considered the empirical manifestation of what nature intended, namely, that a woman always requires the guidance of a free, adult man. Every woman requires such outside authority because nature has made her not only physically deficient but also intellectually and morally so. The principle of life for woman, as for man, Aristotle argued, is a soul with capacities for both rational faculties (deliberation and decision) and irrational faculties (emotions and appetites); however, in the soul of woman, unlike that of man, the rational power is not strong enough to govern the irrational one. This explains the need for woman to be subject to the being that "the order of nature" itself has made her ruler, man. From the "permanent inequality" that exists between woman and man, moreover, it follows that the virtues of each must be different. For example, "The courage of man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying" (Politics, 1259b. 1, 1260a. 24). Such reasoning so impressed the thirteenth-century philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas that he made it the keystone of his argument on why women could not be priests, an argument that, in turn, impressed officials of the Catholic Church into the twentieth century.
Aristotle did not believe that in his depiction of women as subordinate to men he was simply describing the status quo of his own society. Like today's sociobiologists, he was convinced that he had detected principles of nature that explained the kind of relationships prevailing between the sexes. The fact that he spoke of "corrupted natures" or of people in an "unnatural condition" shows that he did not believe that whatever people did was necessarily in accord with their true nature (Politics, 1254b. 1-2). However, by defining the human as a rational animal and then by taking the male of the species as the paragon of humans, the first professional logician in the Western world created a problem that his androcentrism apparently prevented him from perceiving. The problem resides in this fact: Aristotle held that it is the very constitution of the human soul that the rational part should naturally rule the irrational part or, in other words, that the deliberative faculty should have authority over the nondeliberative faculty, and not vice versa; however, he also held that the deliberate faculty does not have authority in the souls of women and that because of this lack, women are by nature subject to the rule of men. Given what Aristotle said about the natural condition of the human soul, it is difficult to see how he could have reconciled that belief with what he had to say about the nature of women. Three options present themselves: he might have denied that women are human, but that would have wrought havoc with both his biological and ontological classifications; he might have proposed that women are by nature evil or corrupted beings, but that would have put him at odds with the ideas of freedom and responsibility that are central to his ethical teachings; or, finally, he simply might have said that women are naturally unnatural, and that statement, however philosophically embarrassing, might have proved the most illuminating decision he could have made.
Fittingly, Aristotle may be the perfect example of his own idea of the protagonist of a tragedy. He argued that such a person, who is neither extremely bad nor "preeminently virtuous and just" (Poetics, 1453a. 6-9), suffers grave misfortune not because of vice or depravity but because of some "great error of judgment." In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Aristotle for the first time has come under the scrutiny of feminist scholars. The result, which is similar to that in other fields where feminists have been planting land mines, is nothing short of momentous. Even critics who for the last century took exception to Aristotle's belief that some people are by nature slaves have not made so noticeable an impact. After all, most academicians have no difficulty seeing Aristotle's mistake on that issue. If the idea that some people are innately slaves is not accepted in polite circles these days, however, the same cannot be said about the idea that women are innately what a dominant culture says they are. That is why the feminist critique of Aristotle is both informative and liberating. Still with us are many of his ideas on issues addressed in nearly every social science. To meet Aristotle, then, is to meet something of our cultural selves, and to be able to recognize his great error of judgment in assuming that in the study of humans he could remove the clothes of culture to find a naked nature is to be freed to see the same error in its various guises today.
Contributed by: BARBARA A. PARSONS
Related Links
Aristotle, Politics.
Aristotle, The History of Animals.
Quotations from the Politics were taken from Richard McKeon (ed. and trans.), The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York, 1941). Quotations from Generation of Animals and History of Animals are from the Loeb Classical Library editions, Aristotle: Generation of Animals (Cambridge, Mass., 1963) and Aristotle: Historia Animalium, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), ed. and trans. A.L. Peck. Ruth Bleier, Science and Gender (New York, 1984); Charles Darwin, letter to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, quoted in Gertrude Hemmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (New York, 1962), 416; Lynda Lange, "Woman Is Not a Rational Animal: On Aristotle's Biology of Reproduction," and Elizabeth V. Spelman, "Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul," in Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (eds.), Discovering Reality (Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1983), 1-15, 17-30.
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name. "Aristotle On Women." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. today's date <>