Politics Two: On Commonality

Let's read Parts I - VI today, as they all turn on the problems of a polity trying to hold things in common. The suggestion isn't just for property, but in some cases extends to dissolving the family so that the the community has its women in common: they don't have a home or a family, but 'everyone belongs to everyone,' as I believe Brave New World puts the idea. It's a sort-of free love idea, and a sort of idea about the danger of the family to the integrity of the political community.

Aristotle is quite against all of it, as you will discover. But it may not be clear from what you read here why Plato was in favor of it. There's an interesting piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review on different historic ways of thinking about whether there is a female conscience -- not in the sense of whether women have a conscience, but about whether it is the same for men and women. (Spoiler: the author's position is that it is just exactly the same.)

As she points out, Plato made room for women in the highest classes (the guardians). However, there was a price for admission:
When a guardian woman gave birth, her child was taken at once to a special section of the city. There, minders cared for the young. When a child needed to nurse, he or she was handed randomly to a lactating female. Why all these wrenchings? In addition to the hope that breeding between superior males and females would continue to perpetuate an aristocracy of the best and the brightest, it was held that private homes, sexual attachments, and dedication to personal aims would undermine a citizen’s allegiance to the city. Plato cried: “Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together?”
It turns out there is a greater evil, and a greater good as well.

By the way, I don't think that Dr. Elshtain is quite right about Plato's position, which is more emphatically in favor of women in the guardian class than she seems to suggest. Plato is so persuasive on the point that the Islamic philosopher Averroes, in his commentary on Plato's Republic -- I notice Dr. Elshtain doesn't mention it -- takes a much more radically egalitarian position on women than a contemporary American would think to expect from an Islamic law judge. He seems to bring a large part of that philosophical position into his sha'riah intepretations as well.

I was also surprised by her insistence that the idea of women's equality is a product of Christianity, as I'm far more familiar with people complaining just the opposite about it. But she has an argument here, too, and on reflection it's a good one. The Gospel of Luke in particular seems to show a Jesus relating to women in a way that suggests that the divine position is to hold them in respect and honor.


Joseph W. said...

You're close - it's "everyone belongs to everyone else" in BNW. Though in that book the end is different - to reduce the unhappiness caused by sexual rivalries and frustrations rather than to encourage loyalty to the State.

I may be a day slow on this one as I'm taking someone very special out tonight.

Joseph W. said...

I haven't read the Republic or the Laws - if he's got them right then they don't deserve better than he gives them. Governor Bradford's account of the "starving time" in Plymouth - small extract here - bears out his concerns about these common-property schemes.

douglas said...

Indeed, I find little to object to in this segment. I have to say, it's no wonder that texts like this are no longer a standard part of education. It works against that which the education elite consider proper.

Grim said...

OK, so we're happy with Aristotle's opinion on communism. You'll probably like what he has to say about socialism, too -- and about how a state that starts off healthy and proper can slide into tyranny precisely through redistributionism.