How Aristotle Viewed Women: An Exposition of His Sexism and Teleology
Aristotle’s teleological theory is often used in discussions about human nature. It is worth noticing it supports Aristotle’s sexist conclusions. Quotes taken from Aristotle’s Politics, Physics, De Anima, and On Generation of Animals.
Aristotle’s notions of women were certainly conventional for his time period. Ancient Greece accepted the subjugation of women as natural and in accordance with their inferior state. Aristotle, too, held this view and indeed provided arguments for holding it; both metaphysical and biological in nature.
When reading these arguments, one may be enticed to suggest there lay an inconsistency between his view on women and his notion of natural teleology. However, this is not the case.
Although the arguments were certainly based on faulty biology and untrustworthy evidence, the claims that (i.) women are inferior to men and (ii.) that human beings have a telos (end, goal) that serves as a purposive cause to their existence are not inconsistent and, in fact, present a coherent argument. In this discussion, I aim to show this statement to be true by way of presenting Aristotle’s arguments for the inferiority of women, explain his notion of teleology, discuss a strong objection, and show a way for Aristotle to get around it —ultimately showing his sexism is consistent with his broader telelogy.
To begin, it would be helpful to present, in some detail, Aristotle’s arguments.
As a precursory measure, however, it is worth emphasizing (no matter how potentially obvious or superfluous) that this discussion is not a defense of Aristotle’s rampantly sexist claims, merely a defense against the argument that those sexist claims are inconsistent with his teleological ones. This all is in an effort to set the stage for broader criticism of his views about human nature.
Now, to return to the discussion, let us separate Aristotle’s arguments on women as being of two types: metaphysical and biological.
Aristotle’s major metaphysical claim in support of his concluding that women are inferior to men resides within his understanding of virtue and the soul. Aristotle begins by facing a contradiction; that is, it is wrong to rule over humans absolutely (tyrannically) such that they can not reach their telos yet women appear to be fully human.
How is it, then, that a man ought to preside over a women in the government, in the household, etc. according to Aristotle? It must be that, as a woman is a living creature, she “consists of soul and body”; and, if a woman appears the same in body, the deficiency or difference must reside in the soul. Here, Aristotle make two distinct moves: one which rejects the unity of Virtue and one that expresses parts of the soul.
His understanding of virtue requires him to ask a question; namely, are women capable of attaining virtue? Aristotle does not wish to say that women are able to attain virtue as a man is able to, “for, if they have virtue, in what will they differ from freemen?”
However, Aristotle does not wish to say that women are unable to attain virtue either, as he indeed recognizes their being human. Thus, Aristotle must separate Virtue into many virtues, each corresponding to a specific societal role or function (much like that of objects or tools). Given Aristotle claims that nature “makes one thing for one function, since the best instrument for a particular function is made exclusively for it, not for many others,’’ he is able to say men and women have different virtues (one found in ruling and the other in serving).
Through this distinction, he goes on to establish a virtue for men, women, “natural slaves”, and children, each corresponding to their own unique nature — a break from the Platonic-Socratic understanding of virtue. This move importantly does not disallow for Aristotle to view men and women as part of the same species.
Consider an example from Aristotle’s Politics where he says “the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying” or also where he claims “‘silence is a woman’s glory,’ but this is not equally the glory of man”. That is, the given virtue is found in different action, depending on the nature of the actor; e.g., for man, commanding, for woman, obeying. From here, in accordance to what he observes in society, Aristotle claims that women find virtue in being subjugated under men.
However, one may rightly object that, even according to Aristotle, there is yet nothing preventing women from having the capacity of a man to rule, as Aristotle has merely shown (albeit on shaky grounds) that women and men differ in role, and virtue is various like a “Delphic knife.” This is where Aristotle turns to distinctions of the soul between men and women, such that natural capacity to rule is a necessary possibility in man and impossible in a woman.
Aristotle’s psychology follows a hylomorphic account of the soul such that it is inseparable from the body and a final cause of life. However, the soul for Aristotle also has certain faculties that include both rational and non-rational activities.
These activities are distinguished between their given functions. That is, the nutritive and appetitive functions are non-rational faculties that most living things, including animals, possess. The rational faculties of the soul contain scientific (intellect) and rationally calculating faculties; these include the understanding and decision-making facets of the mind that distinguish human beings from animals.
It is with these distinctions that Aristotle goes on to suggest a soul that operates differently in a male than in a female. This distinction is largely in each entity’s access to the rational faculties of the soul. That is, the male has a greater access — and thereby capacity — to the rational faculties (scientific and rationally calculating) part of the soul than the female, which has a deficiency in access, and yields to the nutritive, non-rational part of the soul.
Some may argue that Aristotle actually is suggesting that women do not have rational parts of the soul; however, this can not be what Aristotle is arguing for, as he claims all parts are present in a human being and he does not deny women as being fully human. It might be possible that women for Aristotle have no or limited access to the rational part of the soul, but its presence seems necessary.
Finally Aristotle presents a biological analysis of men and women. He begins by analyzing the generative functions of each sex.
A largely empirical treatment of the topic, Aristotle concludes from faulty biological accounts that men are the generative, form-providing sex (through semen) while the women are the recipients of the form who provide the matter. The female, even, for Aristotle, is a type of mistake, as it is not what the father’s form intended on making.
I will now present a brief overview of Aristotle’s notion of teleology before we compare an objection to their consistency. Aristotle’s teleology stems out of his notion of causality in his Physics, where he presents his four causes: material, efficient, formal, and final or teleological.
It is through this final cause or the cause that is “that for the sake of which a thing is done,” that one can understand a being’s goal (or path toward arete). While the telos of a frog might be to be a frog, the telos of a human being is to attain eudaimonia through performing contemplative, rational activity.
It is important to note that Aristotle’s teleological system is not anthropocentric nor is it dependent on one’s intentions; a given telos is provided by nature (unlike artifacts which are designed with a given end). This teleological system is also talked about in a patterned way, such that the particular instances are subordinate to the general patterns of nature.
The crucial point in this discussion, however, is whether any of this is inconsistent with Aristotle’s previous claims regarding women.
It is difficult to present a positive view pertaining to consistency; viz., it is a challenge to cover all the ground necessary to prove consistency across his entire teleological system. However, I will limit myself to presenting a serious objection to its consistency and seeing if it is surmountable.
An Objection to Aristotle
The objection will read as follows: Given the notion that human beings qua human beings have a specific final cause and telos, how is it possible that women can be considered inferior? Or, put differently, if women are human beings, and human beings all have the potential to attain their end (through excellence), how is it that anyone can be inferior to another? Is it not inconsistent to say that a female human being is inferior on the one hand, while maintaining a singular telos intraspecies? Many modern Aristotelians would want to say so, but clearly Aristotle would not want to admit this.
There a few moves Aristotle can make to respond to this objection. One move would be to say outright that the woman is somehow less than human or deficient in being part of the human species.
However, we have already ruled this option out as Aristotle does not argue that the female is a non-human being (this would likely cause other issues for Aristotle, as children according to his treatise The Generation of Animals are provided their matter from their mother). So, Aristotle must use another route of argument to overcome this charge of inconsistent claims.
It seems the clearest path is in understanding human capacities in degrees.
That is, Aristotle must claim men have a higher degree of access to the rational faculties than women such that it is low enough to prevent certain capacities easily accessible to men. Thus, it seems one need not reach their telos to be human.
To clarify, it seems consistent to say that both (a.) women have the same telos as men and (b.) women are inferior to men due to reasons apart from that telos such that they may not reach it.
Now, one may respond by claiming that the issue does not reside in the ability to achieve one’s end, but, in fact, in the ability to utilize rational capacities. That is, given those rational capacities are not able to be accessed by women to the same degree as men, and that those rational faculties are necessary to achieve a human telos, how can it be consistent to hold, for women, an end they do not have the capacity to ever reach given their restricted access to the necessary faculties?
Here, it is worth emphasizing that for Aristotle the faculties, as we have said before, are necessarily present in women, as they are part of the human species. However, to properly respond to this objection regarding ability to achieve one’s telos, Aristotle need only respond with the following: there is no necessary condition of ability to achieve one’s telos to being human.
That is, the mere fact that a woman may not be able to achieve a human being’s telos does not contradict her having that telos.
What’s more, the woman’s being inferior might even be bolstered by this fact for Aristotle; that is, not being able to achieve one’s telos, unlike men, might serve as further proof for Aristotle’s efforts to claim that women are inferior to men. Thus, it seems that Aristotle’s arguments about women are more likely supported by his teleology rather than being made inconsistent by it.
That is, his teleology supports his sexism rather than undermine it through inconsistency such that the teleological method itself yields results that are sexist in nature.
So what now?
In this discussion I have aimed to show that the claims that (i.) women are inferior to men and (ii.) that human beings have a telos (end, goal) that serves as a purposive cause to their existence are not inconsistent with each other such that the misogynistic conclusions Aristotle wants to hold is actually bolstered by his teleological conception of humankind — which might suggest that his view more broadly is deeply flawed.
After presenting Aristotle’s arguments regarding women (both metaphysical and biological) and a brief explanation of the relevant aspects of his teleological system, I presented a double-edged objection; one that raised an account of inconsistency based upon women having the same telos as men and another based upon the relative access to rational faculties of the soul such that women may not be able to achieve that telos.
I concluded the discussion, by way of this objection, with finding a satisfactory way Aristotle could respond to this objection, and maintain his disagreeable views on women.
There are, of course, further questions to ponder; namely, how would Aristotle respond to modern biological knowledge? Would his arguments for the inferiority of women change, or would he aim to preserve a subjugated role for women? We will never know these answers precisely.
The point of this article is merely to indicate the fact that Aristotle’s views on women are not at all inconsistent with his views on human nature — and this should give you pause when considering how well his argument holds generally.
Often we take for granted that the ancients were misogynistic in worldview, without much need for further investigation. But it is worthwhile to grasp fully what arguments were made and what tactics used to reach these terrible conclusions. I will note that it is often a more complicated (and at times wasteful) enterprise to consider the social thinking of ancient philosophers, especially given the anachronisms that are inevitably employed upon modern analysis.
But here I take exception in that we can observe directly the types of arguments and logic used by Aristotle, and thus can clearly present his view in order to open the discussion up for criticism.
I can not conclude here that we should avoid reading Aristotle due to his time period views; nor will I present a full defense of reading him, as that has likely already been done and indeed ought to be done in a separate project anyhow.
What I will say is that it is beyond a doubt that Aristotle’s place as fundamental in the Western philosophical canon is rightly earned. This statement might be so obvious that it is superfluous; however, given that we have just shown his telelology supports conclusions that are self-evidently wrong regarding his female counterparts, it might motivate hesitation when employing his views about human nature.
Either way it is good scholarship to understand the full scope of Aristotle’s views (or any thinker, for that matter) before one considers employing him. This article aimed at just that understanding here.