The most controversial part of Plato's Republic is its fifth book, wherein Socrates argues for the political equality of men and women, the abolition of the nuclear family, a strange eugenics program, and the idea that philosopher kings and philosopher queens should be put in charge of political affairs.

Joining us to discuss book 5 is Mary Townsend, assistant professor of philosophy at Saint John's University in Queens and author of the book The Woman Question in Plato's Republic.

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Transcript of the Episode's Prologue

The Republic is a dialogue whose ostensible purpose is to define justice. As you’ll remember from last time, that is accomplished in book 4 (out of ten books). So at this point, you might be wondering, What is Plato going to do with the remaining 60% of the work?

Well, remember how at the very beginning of this series we discussed the onion-like structure of the Republic – how the entire book resembles an onion chopped through the middle? It’s got this concentric ring structure where the beginning and end mirror each other, the second part from the beginning is echoed in the penultimate section, third from the beginning corresponds to third from the end etc.

After having gradually constructed the ideal polis and defined justice, the logical next step for Socrates to bring out this symmetrical structure of the dialogue would be to methodically deconstruct the ideal state and to define injustice. And that is what Socrates intends to do at the beginning of book 5.

He’s about to explain how this ideal polis, if it ever were to be established, would inevitably degenerate over time and manifest various kinds of injustice, both at the political level, and in the souls of its citizens. But, before he can do that, his companions interrupt him and spark a few digressions, and so we get a few more layers at the very center of this onion. It’s not till book 8 that we finally get the mirror image of what we’ve had so far, i.e. the unraveling of the city and analysis of injustice.

If you were to cut out the middle layers, and just have books 1-4 and then 8-10, that could still stand on its own as a philosophical work. A first time reader of that version would probably not even suspect that anything is missing. But Plato decided to add some further layers at the core of this Russian doll. And this is where he puts his more controversial, experimental, and provocative ideas. In book 6 we get a metaphysical discourse on the nature of the good. In book 7, we get the allegory of the cave that suggests that most of what we think we know is an illusion.

But this entire middle section of the Republic is set off by a question about women, and their role in the ideal state. During the city building exercise, Socrates had casually remarked in passing that women and children were to be held in common in the ideal state (423e). That’s another way of saying that there would be no marriages or families. The men and women would mate with each other non-monogamously, and all the children would be raised collectively, as in a commune.

At the beginning of book five, Polemarchus and Adeimantus interrupt Socrates and ask him to clarify how that system would work. Socrates responds with three theses, often referred to as the "three waves," because Socrates imagines them as three dangerous arguments that threaten to drown his whole enterprise.

The first wave is that the women who belong to the guardian class should have the same education and perform the same activities as the men. Total shocker, I know. Socrates argues that the men and women should hunt, fight wars, and engage in political life together.

The second wave is probably the most controversial argument in the entire Republic. The nuclear family is to be abolished from the guardian class and the mating between men and women will be controlled by the state via a mating lottery that appears random, but is secretly rigged by the rulers. If you were a guardian, it would be like you have Tinder on your phone, but it’s working for you. You don’t do any swiping. You just wait. And every once in a while you get a notification: you just matched with this other guardian. The two of you may now go and have fun together. And this "Kallipolis Tinder" assures you that it has an unbiased and totally fair algorithm that gives everyone their share of mating fun. Except in reality it’s rigged. And a small secretive group of rulers is skewing the algorithm in favor of those guardians who perform the best in war and exhibit the most virtue. The goal being to have the next generation of guardians bred from the best and bravest of the previous generation.

And, what’s more, as soon as babies are born from this system, they are taken from their parents and anonymized, so the parents don’t know who their kids are. The babies are raised by nurses so the female guardians can go back to hunting and soldiering. But again, a few of the rulers keep secret records, to ensure that the lottery doesn’t prescribe incestuous unions in the future. Two of the main goals of this eugenics program are to keep the population of guardians stable and to prevent the formation of clans and the rise of nepotism based on family ties.

Can you guess what problem that was plaguing the ancient poleis Plato is trying to circumvent with these measures? Hint: it’s one of the running themes throughout the entire dialogue. It is, once again, stasis – the factional strife that wrecked Athens (and many other places) during Plato’s youth and was often caused by population tension and by family feuds. Plato is so determined to solve this problem that he’s willing to propose the abolition of the family and eugenics.

Finally, the third wave is that… Well, actually I should just read it from the text, because it’s one of the most famous lines in all of political philosophy. “Unless, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers become philosophers... there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either.” (473c-d) In other words, we will never solve the problems of injustice, factional strife, and political turmoil until the rulers are philosopher kings or (given the equal pursuits of men and women) philosopher queens.  

Our discussion today is with Mary Townsend, assistant professor of philosophy at Saint John’s University in Queens. She is the author of one of the most in depth explorations of book 5. Her book is called The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic. You can also find her writing on philosophy and culture in the Hedgehog Review, the Atlantic, and other journals.

Without further ado, here’s my recent conversation with Mary Townsend on Republic book 5 and philosopher queens.