Wednesday, 15 June 2011

women in ancient greek society

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Ancient Greek society held a long-term belief that women were inferior to men, holding a place where women were expected to stay at home and obey the laws and rules of men. However, the Greek playwright Sophocles and the Greek philosopher Plato attempts to alter this view. They both exemplify greater moral character through women in the works Antigone and the Republic.

As Sophocles’ Antigone rebels against the male dominated society, she does not characterize the average Greek women of this time. Although she has weaknesses as other women do, Antigone is strong enough to defy the city and pursue justice. Believing in the higher justice over state justice, she conveys her audacity to follow her beliefs. Although the Greeks have a rather negative view of women in society, it is through Antigone, a woman, that Sophocles conveys his message of justice.

In order to completely understand the profound affects Antigone’s gender has on her actions and words, one must look at the society in which she lived and examine the viewpoints and position of women during this time. The freedom and role of Greek women is exceptionally limited. This stance is expressed at the end of Pericles’ funeral oration when he tells the women of Athens that, “Your great glory is not to be

Inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a women is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you” (Thucydides, 46). The average Greek male believed that women should stay at home and keep their ideas and opinions to themselves. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, also articulates this view as she warns Antigone to “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men” (Antigone, line 74). This point is further explored when Creon, the king, feels an even more pressing need to defeat her for disobeying his rule, simply because she is a woman. This is seen as he screams, “No woman is going to lord it over me”(Antigone, line 5) and states that “From now on they’ll act like women” (Antigone, line 65). By refusing to be passive, Antigone overturns one of the essential rules of her culture and emasculates gender and power hierarchy all at the same time.

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Sophocles portrays Antigone as a very strong woman and appears to practically place her character on a pedestal. The only thing Antigone seems to lack is a flaw. Antigone possesses a great amount of pride and is both strong and filled with bravery. She has so much pride that when she is being punished, she compares herself to Niobe, a god. As a result of this pride Antigone’s actions are driven by the desire of being glorified. An example of this is when she states, “Give me glory! What greater glory could I win than to give my own brother decent burial” (Antigone, line 561). Antigone is determined to fulfill what she believes to be justice.

Due to Antigone’s moral character, Creon and Antigone’s definitions of justice differ greatly. Creon considers that justice requires him to give priority to the order of the polis, whereas Antigone prioritizes divine justice over state justice. In her mind, there

is nothing more important than to follow the higher laws of the morality or theological doctrine. Conscious of her family’s fate, Antigone believes she has nothing to lose. This compels her to first violate Creon’s law by burying her slain brother, Polynices, because in her mind it is immoral not to do so. She then shows her resilience by accepting her consequences with pride in the name of justice.

Sophocles, by making Antigone the hero, to conveys his message of justice through her character. The message he portrays is that justice means following the laws of morality and common decency. By expressing this implication through a woman, he makes the significance and profound impact of his statement even more powerful. Having a woman demonstrate enough courage to stand up for her beliefs of justice would motivate Greek males to act in the same fashion as Antigone. Sophocles conveys two thoughts by using Antigone as the outlet of justice. First, he challenges Greek society to accept the character of women as a recognizable force and then as a challenge to Greek masculinity to follow the path of a supposedly inferior creature.

Plato also challenges the Greek culture to recognize woman as powerful equals in the Republic as Socrates tries to define the meaning of justice. In exploring the meaning of this righteousness, Socrates describes the elements and characteristics a city would need in order to be classified as truly just. After much debate he considers the most important element of a just city to be the guardians. Subsequent to discussing the education, physical training, and upbringing of the future guardians, ideas of the sharing of wives and children in common is brought up by Socrates. This then leads into a discussion of the place of the allegedly substandard women in society.

Throughout book V, Socrates is somewhat weary of discoursing topics relating to women guardians and the community of women and children. Socrates displays his desire not to reduce his philosophy to this level of mere social concerns, but his audience demands it. He argues, “our argument might seem to be no more than wishful thinking” (Republic, 450d). It appears that Socrates seems to be hesitant of this topic after he realizes that his ideas are rather contentious. Throughout this debate he becomes reluctant after perceiving his listeners reactions to his contemplations.

Although Socrates is hesitant, he sustains his argument and continues to amplify his ideas. He starts by comparing the differences in the sexes. Socrates exclaims, “Everything should be in common, except that the females are weaker and the males stronger…Therefore, if we use the women for the same things as the men, they must also be taught the same things” (Republic, 451e). Hence, Socrates believes that women should be given the same education, music, and physical training, as their male equivalents. The same Greek audience that would deem Antigone’s character as negating the norm at this time would be incredibly shocked after reading Plato’s Republic. The idea of women being educated and physically trained alongside men would seem unimaginable and almost humorous to the average Greek male. Socrates declares, “each must do his own work in accordance with his nature” (Republic, 45a). Speaking of this nature, he also states, “men and women are by nature the same with respect to guarding the city, except to the extent that one is weaker and the other stronger” (Republic, 456a). Though the two sexes share alike pursuits, he thought that males almost always surpass females in these interests.

From the topic of the sexes, Socrates then wades into the deeper waters of common wives and children. Glaucon persuades Socrates into proving that this idea of his is both beneficial and possible. Socrates does this by first explaining his plans advantages and usefulness, which leads into the notorious discourse of the plans for the breeding of the guardians. By means of deceptive lottery, marriage will most often be permitted to citizens of higher value or rather, the guardians. Socrates remarks, “This must all be brought about without the being noticed by anyone except the ruler, so that our herd of guardians remains as free from dissension as possible”(Republic, 45e). The lottery must appear to be arbitrary, hiding the prejudices of the city from the common people in order to insure serenity. The objective of this is to be able to obtain the best genetic stocks for guardians as possible, or in the words of Socrates, “our herd is to be of the highest possible quality” (Republic, 45d).

His plan continues with the notion that the offspring of the paired guardians will be taken to, “the nurses in charge of the rearing pen situated in a separate part of the city, but the children of inferior parents, or any child of the others that is born defective, they’ll hide in a secret and unknown place, as is appropriate” (Republic, 460c). Resulting from this, “no parent will know his own offspring or any child his parent” (Republic, 457d). The citizens of this city will not know what becomes of their children after they are either exposed or raised, thus causing the ties of the nuclear family to be broken, which influences the citizens to consider each other as their own family. Socrates’ justification for this planned communal system is the desire and need of unity in a truly just city. Socrates exclaims, “Whenever anything good or bad happens to a

single one of its citizens, such a city above all others will say that the affected part is its own and will share in the pleasure or pain as a whole” (Republic, 46d). One’s individual grief or delight is at once shared, bringing the people together as a unit. Fighting and disloyalty will be eradicated from Plato’s just city.

Gender superiority seems to have no role in the Republic and Plato’s theoretical conception includes complete equality. As Socrates portrays women as equals, he gives the impression that he is serious in his proposals. Socrates audaciously believes, “It’s rather the way things are at present time that seems to be against nature” (Republic, 456c). This statement reflects his opinion that women should be taught education and physical training equally alongside their male counterparts. Socrates also shows his solemnity of his proposals by replacing the stereotypical role of women as mother with the idea of communal nurse. The stigma of the contemporary women’s role is thus removed from society. Plato’s valor to verbally express his opinion on the equality of women is testimony to his intellectual independence.

By depicting women as equals to the supposedly superior men, Sophocles and Plato radically redefine the image and role women play in society. Antigone not only metamorphoses a woman’s character, but also communicates Sophocles message of justice. Plato strengthens this attempt by reshaping women’s stature through his sincere proposals and strives to show women as powerful equals. Together, Antigone and the Republic modify the Ancient Greek society and assists to eradicate feminine stereotypes.

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