In Book V of Plato’s Republic, Socrates asserts that men and women ought to receive the same education and ought to fulfill the same roles within society. In the context of Ancient Greece, where women are prohibited from receiving an education and participating in business and politics, this is a radical notion. Socrates admits that men and women have different natures, and that different natures ought to have different pursuits. Nevertheless, he concludes that the difference between men and women – primarily physical strength – does not restrict women from participating in society as guardians, laborers, or even soldiers. Furthermore, it is in the best interest of the State for both the men and the women to be as good as possible; and therefore, both the men and the women must be educated.
Socrates next moves to the topics of marriage and childbearing. He proposes the following law: “The wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent.” To accomplish this, the State should arrange orgiastic festivals throughout the year. At these festivals, anonymous partners will engage in sexual intercourse with each other. When a woman gives birth, she will not know who the father is. Furthermore, nurses will immediately take the baby away from the mother and place the baby among other newborns so that the mother will not know which baby is hers.
The result of this process, according to Socrates, is that everyone will regard the other citizens within the State as their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. This is desirable because people are less inclined to commit wrongs against their family members than against strangers and more inclined to care about their family members’ well-being than the well-being of strangers. An individual within such a State as Socrates describes will apply these beneficial feelings of kinship to all citizens rather than to a few. Thus, the strong bonds of kinship will be used to unite all citizens toward a common end – the attainment of the greatest good for the entire State.
In addition to his advice that men should hold wives and children in common, Socrates also stipulates that only specific types of men and women ought to procreate. Just as men take care for the breeding of their dogs and horses, so too should men take care for the breeding of men lest the quality of men deteriorate. “The best of either sex should be united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition.”
Socrates realizes that some people will rebel against these eugenic plans; and therefore, he recommends that the rulers contrive means by which the citizens will be ignorant of the selective breeding practices. “We shall have to invent some ingenious kind of lots which the less worthy may draw on each occasion of the orgiastic festivals, and then they will accuse their own ill-luck and not the rulers.”
The course of actions that Socrates lays out seems impracticable. Although some cultures practice polygamy, the majority does not. Western literature is rife with stories of violent, sexual jealousies, and one can imagine such violent passions frequently arising in Socrates’ ideal State. Furthermore, mothers are unlikely to willingly part with their newborns immediately after birth, despite the benefits of universal kinship that Socrates highlights.
Nevertheless, Socrates’ theory is not bad simply because it is unattainable. Like a painting of a perfectly proportioned and beautiful person who can never exist, Socrates’ theory gives us an ideal towards which we can strive. Socrates, however, is adamant about one thing – “Until philosophers are kings, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one individual, cities will never have rest from their evils.”