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Philosophers on the Role of Women

75. A Roman philosopher advocates women's education. Rome, 1st cent. A.D. (Musonius Rufus 3, 4, 13A. L)

The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus (ca. A.D. 30-101) was a Roman of the equestrian order, who like Socrates sought to practise what he taught and who regarded philosophy as a guide to life. A pupil wrote up accounts of his discourses, including views of women that are 'more rational and more humane', and certainly more positive than those of his contemporary St. Paul (cf. no. 441=I Corinthians 7.1-16, 25-40, 11.2-16, 14.33b-5). Although most of same ideas can be found in other pagan writers, they appear to have been expressed by Musonius with great clarity and force. [1]

The study of philosophy

3. When he was asked whether women ought to study philosophy, he began to answer the question approximately as follows. Women have received from the gods the same ability to reason that men have. We men employ reasoning in our relations with others and so far as possible in everything we do, whether it is good or bad, or noble or shameful. Likewise women have the same senses as men, sight, hearing, smell, and all the rest. Likewise each has the same parts of the body, and neither sex has more than the other. In addition, it is not men alone who possess eagerness and a natural inclination towards virtue, but women also. Women are pleased no less than men by noble and just deeds, and reject the opposite of such actions. Since that is so, why is it appropriate for men to seek out and examine how they might live well, that is, to practise philosophy, but not women? Is it fitting for men to be good, but not women?

Let us consider in detail the qualities that a woman who seeks to be good must possess, for it will be apparent that she could acquire each of these qualities from the practice of philosophy.

In the first place a woman must run her household and pick out what is beneficial for her home and take charge of the household slaves.

In these activities I claim that philosophy is particularly helpful, since each of these activities is an aspect of life, and philosophy is nothing other than the science of living, and the philosopher, as Socrates says, continually contemplates this, 'what good or evil has been done in his house'. [2] Next, a woman must be chaste, and capable of keeping herself free from illegal love affairs, and pure in respect to the other pleasures of indulgence, and not enjoy quarrels, not be extravagant, or preoccupied with her appearance. [3] Such is the behaviour of a chaste woman. There are still other requirements: she must control anger, and not be overcome by grief, and stronger than every kind of emotion. That is what the philosopher's rationale entails, and the person who knows it and practises it seems to me to be perfectly controlled, whether it is a man or a woman. So much for the subject of self-control.

Now, wouldn't the woman who practises philosophy be just, and a blameless partner in life, and a good worker in common causes, and devoted in her responsibilities towards her husband and her children, and free in every way from greed or ambition? Who could be like this more than the woman who practises philosophy, so long has she truly is a philosopher, since she must inevitably think that doing wrong is worse than being wronged, because it is more disgraceful to do wrong,[4] and to think that being inferior is preferable to being ambitious, and in addition, to love her children more than her own life. What woman would be more just than someone who behaves like that? Surely it follows that an educated woman would be more courageous than an uneducated woman and a woman who practises philosophy than a woman who is self-taught, since neither fear of death nor any apprehension about suffering would lead her to endure a disgrace, nor would she be afraid of anyone because he was well born or powerful or rich or indeed because he was-by Zeus-a tyrant. For it is enough that she has practised being high-minded and self-reliant and enduring, since she has nursed her children at her own breast, [5] and helps her husband with her own hands, and does without hesitation what some people would consider slave's work. Wouldn't such a woman be a great help to her husband, and an ornament to her family, and a good example to all who know her?

But, by Zeus, some people say that women who associate with philosophers are inevitably mainly headstrong and bold, if they give up their households and go about with men and practise giving speeches, and argue and attack premises, when they ought to be sitting at home spinning wool. [6] But I would not advise women who practise philosophy or men either to abandon their required work merely to hold discussions, but that they ought to undertake discussions on for the sake of the work that they do. For just as there is no need for medical discussion, unless it pertains to human health, similarly there is no need for a philosopher to hold or teach logical argument, unless it pertains to the human soul. Above all we must examine the doctrine that we think women who practise philosophy should follow, to determine if the study that shows restraint to be the greatest good makes them bold, and if the study that leads to the deportment makes them live more carelessly, and if the study that reveals that the worst evil is self-indulgence does not teach self-control, and if the study that establishes household management as a virtue does not encourage them to manage their households. And the study of philosophy encourages women to be happy and to work with their own hands.

Education

(4) When he was asked if sons and daughters should be given the same education, he said that in the case of horses and dogs trainers of horses and of dogs make no distinction between male and female in their training.[7]

Female dogs are trained to hunt just like male dogs, and if you expect female horses to do carry out a horse's job effectively, you must see that they have the same training as the male horses.

In the case of human beings it would seem that males should have something in their education and upbringing distinctive in contrast to the females, as if a man and a woman were not required to have the same virtues, or as if they could aspire to the same virtues through different rather than similar educations.

But it is easy to apprehend that there are not different sets of virtues for men and women. First, men and women both need to be sensible; what need could there be for a foolish man or woman? Second, both need to live just lives. An unjust man could not be a good citizen, and a woman could not run her household well, if she did not run it justly, since if she were unjust she would do wrong to her husband, as they say Eriphyle did to hers. [8] Third, a wife ought to be chaste, and so should a husband, for the laws punish both parties in cases of adultery. [9] Over-indulgence in food and drink and similar problems, excesses that bring disgrace to those who indulge in them, prove that moderation is essential for every human being, whether male or female, for it is only through moderation that we can avoid excess.

You might argue that courage is needed only by men. But that is not true. The best sort of woman must be manly and cleanse herself of cowardice, so that she will not overcome by suffering or by fear.

If she cannot, how can she be chaste, if someone can compel her to endure disgrace by threatening her or torturing her? Women must be courageous, if (by Zeus) they are not to be inferior to hens and other female birds, who fight beasts much larger than themselves in order to defend their nestlings. How can it be that women do not need courage? That they are capable of taking up weapons, we know from the race of the Amazons who fought many nations in battle. If other women are deficient in this regard, the cause is lack of practice rather than lack of natural inclination ...

Well then, suppose someone says, 'Do you think that men ought to learn spinning like women and that women ought to practise gymnastics like men?' No, that is not what I suggest. I say that because in the case of the human race, the males are naturally stronger, and the women weaker, appropriate work ought to be assigned to each, and the heavier tasks be given to the stronger, and the lighter to the weaker. For this reason, spinning is more appropriate work for women than for men, and household management.

Gymnastics are more appropriate for men than for women, and outdoor work likewise. [10] Nonetheless, some men might appropriately undertake some of the lighter work and work thought more appropriate to women, when the conditions of their body or necessity or time demand it. For all human work is a common responsibility for men and women, and nothing is necessarily prescribed for one sex or the other. Some tasks are more appropriate for one nature, others for the other. For that reason some jobs are called men's work, and others women's. As for matters that pertain to virtue, you would be justified in saying that these are equally the property of both, if we say that both possess no virtues different from the other.

It is reasonable, then, for me to think that women ought to be educated similarly to men in respect of virtue, and they must be taught starting when they are children, that this good, and that bad, and that they are the same for both, and that this is beneficial and that harmful, and that one must do this, and not that. From these lessons reasoning is developed in both girls and boys, and there is no distinction between them. Then they must be told to avoid all base action. When these qualities have been developed both men and women will inevitably be sensible, and the well educated person, whether male or female, must be able to endure hardship, accustomed not to fear death, and accustomed not to be humbled by any disaster, for this is how one can become manly. [11] ... If a man knows something about a particular skill, and a woman doesn't, or if the reverse is true, this shows that there is no difference in their education. Only about all the important things do not let one know and the other not, but let them both know the same. If someone asks me, which doctrine requires such an education, I would answer him that without philosophy no man and no woman either can be well educated. I do not mean to say that women need to have clarity with or facility in argument, because they will use philosophy as women use it. But I do not recommend these skills particularly in men. My point is that women ought to be good and noble in their characters, and that philosophy is nothing other than the training for that nobility.

Marriage

(13a) He said that a husband and wife come together in order to lead their lives in common and to produce children, and that they should consider all their property to be common, and nothing private, not even their bodies. For the birth of a human being that such a union produces is a significant event, but it is not sufficient for the husband, because it could have come about without marriage, from some other conjunction, as in the case of animals. In marriage there must be complete companionship and concern for each other on the part of both husband and wife, in health and in sickness and at all times, because they entered upon the marriage for this reason as well as to produce offspring. When such caring for one another is perfect, and the married couple provide it for one another, and each strives to outdo the other, then this is marriage as it ought to be and deserving of emulation, since it is a noble union. [12] But when one partner looks to his own interests alone and neglects the others, or (by Zeus) the other is so minded that he lives in the same house, but keeps his mind on what is outside it, and does not wish to pull together with his partner or to cooperate, then inevitably the union is destroyed, and although they live together their common interests fare badly, and either they finally get divorced from one another or they continue on in an existence that is worse than loneliness.

Notes:

1. Lutz 1947, 3-147.Cf. de Ste. Croix 1981, 110.

2. Od. 4. 392.

3. Cf. no. 206.

4. A Socratic notion; cf. Plato, Crito 49c.

5. Cf. nos. 251, 253.

6. Cf. nos. 39 and 47.

7. This analogy is attributed to Socrates by Plato, Republic 451d-e (no. 73).

8. 'Hateful Eriphyle, who took valuable gold in exchange for her husband' (Od. 11. 326-7) was frequently cited as an example of the treacherous wife.

9. Cf. no. 147.

10. Cf. nos. 267 and 47.

11. I.e., the quality of being 'manly' (andreios) cannot be acquired simply by being a man (aner).

12. Perhaps Musonius had in mind Odysseus' characterisation of an ideal marriage, 'May the gods grant your heart's desire, a husband and household, and may they grant that you are of one mind. For there is nothing stronger or better than when a husband and wife are of one mind and share a household. They bring pain to their enemies, and joy to their friends. And they themselves know it best.' (Od 6. 180-5).