On July 29, 1886, Julia Ward Howe gave a speech on Plato's Republic at the Concord School for Philosophy in Massachusetts, to consider what support it might offer as a work of philosophy for the question of women's right to vote in America.Footnote 1 The speaker was the New York-born poet, playwright, and abolitionist who was most known for her contribution of the poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to The Atlantic Monthly, which, set to the tune of the hymn “John Brown's Body,” became an anthem of the union, and eventually of the civil rights movement. The speech, “The Position of Women in Plato's Republic,” is rhetorically and philosophically impressive; it is also out of print. Although Howe had become an abolitionist in her thirties, she did not consider herself a supporter of women's suffrage until almost two decades later; in fact, with Lucy Stone she had helped form the competing political organization that prioritized the passage of the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised black men, against the work of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, from racist motives, infamously attempted to defeat it.Footnote 2 So much did Howe consider maleness, regardless of race, as the appropriately dominant political force, it took a complicated moral and metaphysical change of heart for Howe to decide to support suffrage for all women at all; and one condition of her support for women's suffrage was that rights for black Americans would not be left behind—as she put it: “Treason to humanity is not fidelity to women.”Footnote 3 In her work “The Position of Women in Plato's Republic,” Howe brings her mature philosophical imagination and her conviction of the necessity of universal justice to the task of transforming Plato's text into a philosophically persuasive appeal for the merits of universal female suffrage.Footnote 4
Why would Plato's Republic be relevant to the question? Socrates argues in its fifth and central section that men and women in the governing class should be given the same philosophical education and undergo the same competitions for rulership in the ideal state. Howe is asked to deliver her thoughts to the community of learners at Concord on just what this limited presence of women in the ideal state means. The Republic remains one of the foundational works of Western philosophy, and one of the most frequently encountered in the classroom, but it's also a text that feminist philosophy has struggled with. Socrates's plans for women's education remains limited to the rulers, and he ultimately adopts the troubling caveat that his interlocutor Glaucon introduces, that women should be taken as weaker in some way than men.Footnote 5 In her speech, Howe addresses these features of Socrates's argument, as well as its other shortcomings. But for her, the Republic is not primarily a site of critique. Through Socrates's sense of the foundational elements of politics and the human community, “suffrage” comes to mean for Howe not simply the practical enforcement of the right to vote in a constitutional democracy—although the worth of this is not to be overlooked—but the full cultural integration of all women into educated society as moral and intellectual equals to men. Equal education for all provides the only sustainable grounds for the possibility of qualifying for the highest governmental offices, the better to preserve the state and the common good. Further, because Socrates's arguments are presented as an attempt to persuade and educate Glaucon, Howe is also able to investigate the friction between the logical and the psychological, which arguments in favor of women's moral and intellectual equality draw out in peculiar force among those reluctant to agree. Finally, in taking Socrates's arguments about the family as practical proposals to be adopted or rejected, rather than allegories to dismiss, Howe is also able to meditate on the political economy of birth, child-rearing, and marriage, problems that dogged the heels of first-wave feminist apologetics, and remain of current concern. Howe acknowledges the ambiguity of Socrates's arguments in this regard, but ultimately agrees with him that some rearrangement of customary family and marriage is desirable, whatever the sacrifice of the sort of personal commitments she had hitherto known.
When Mary Ellen Waithe wrote her landmark A History of Women Philosophers (Waithe Reference Waithe1991), Howe was left off the list on the grounds that she qualified only as a “competent student” of philosophy. When Therese Dykeman wrote to compare the philosophy of Howe and her fellow Concord lecturer Ednah Dow Cheney, the question at issue is still whether Howe can “count as a philosopher” (Dykeman Reference Dykeman2004, 19). The simple question for my investigation would be whether Howe acts as a competent interpreter of Plato, or if she adds to his argument in any substantial or rigorous way.Footnote 6 Although I think the latter is certainly the case, this question is based on a false dichotomy between what is and is not philosophy; and this becomes more obviously awkward in the face of Plato's own philosophy, which mixes argument up with the souls of the characters who participate in it, up to and including the reader. Terence Irwin, for instance, discusses how he prefers to address the aspects of Plato that are plausible to him and leave aside the rest (Irwin 1977, 3), whereas Howe takes as her starting principle that to speak of women in Plato's ideal society “necessitates some study of the whole” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 49).Footnote 7 She thus avoids the difficulties that feminist philosophers have had in isolating Socrates's thoughts on women from the intricate network of the Republic's arguments.Footnote 8 Most of all, it's tempting to overlook how the metaphysical draw of the Good might relate to practical political questions, for which, like twentieth-century women Platonists such as Iris Murdoch and Eva Brann (Murdoch Reference Murdoch1970; Brann Reference Brann2004), Howe has a particularly strong affinity.
Howe enters into Plato's text not simply to analyze, explain, or depart with an aphorism, but to come into direct dialectical conversation with its most difficult aspects. Her reader witnesses how Socrates's arguments fundamentally change her thinking about some of her most cherished opinions: many of the specific changes she records at the end of her life in views about suffrage, gender, the relation of women to the family, and women in their own right independent of patriarchal structures, are presaged or developed as she sets herself the task of digesting the Republic for the first time. She allows Socrates to draw her past comfort not to a place where philosophical disputes are finally answered, but where the depth of the tension between women's independence and interdependence becomes fully apparent. Considered alongside the narrative of her philosophical life, Howe's speech on Plato is itself a kind of Platonic dialogue, where character and argument intersect to display the kind of “periagogein” that Socrates describes in the Republic, where the soul is carefully turned around toward a better sight of the truth.
With her speech on the Republic, Howe makes important contributions to our understanding of the history of first-wave feminist theory, to Plato scholarship, and to the continuing project of expanding the philosophical canon. Her text also offers the possibility of rethinking our pedagogy of the Republic, by showing the immediate relevance of one of the most canonical works of ancient philosophy to the history of women's rights. Howe's work reminds us of the relevance of Plato to the battle for women's rightful place in the human community, a battle that she considered could never safely be regarded as finally won.Footnote 9
Sentimentality, Thumos, and Soul-Conversion
Howe's writing life was in constant, restless motion. The fame of her poem “Battle Hymn” ultimately proved something of a burden; and she had to put up with being known primarily as a poet of a single poem, to the death of interest in anything else she wrote (Showalter Reference Showalter2016, 196). But Howe wrote plays, an unfinished novel, an autobiography, gave informal talks on ethics and metaphysics, lectures on literature and philosophy at the Concord School, kept a private journal, acted as an editor for many publications, and was continually writing poems for all occasions, comic and serious; this is a partial list.Footnote 10 Through the Concord School, and as a student of Margaret Fuller, she became familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism; also at the Concord School she had contact with the Hegelianism of Dr. William T. Harris, and the neo-Platonism of the Illinois physician Dr. Hiram K. Jones.Footnote 11 Howe and Cheney were the two most frequent female lecturers at Concord, as well as being good friends; Dykeman characterizes Howe's philosophical leanings as a kind of mean between pragmatism and transcendentalism; she also had a special love for the ethical philosophy of Kant (Cooke Reference Cooke1902, 14; Dykeman Reference Dykeman2004, 18; Ronda Reference Ronda2009, 208).
When she was twenty-four, she married Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, who was eighteen years her senior. Sometimes together and sometimes apart, they met and socialized with all the intellectuals of the day. Her first and most well-received book was the collection of poetry Passion-Flowers, which established her as a literary presence; but though many well-known figures read her work, she remained always rather on the outside of the English-speaking intellectual milieu. Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not care for her poems, finding the “thoughts striking” but that there was some affectation in the way she dressed them; Emerson did his best to avoid reading her poems at all (Showalter Reference Showalter2016, 122–23).Footnote 12
Part of the trouble was that Howe's aesthetic did not quite manage to break beyond sentimentality and pathos, even though these were certainly expected tools of the trade from female poets at the time (Showalter Reference Showalter2016, 131). But in Howe's speeches on suffrage, and in her essay on the Republic, there's a quality to her style that reaches the desired escape velocity, and these writings share the qualities of intelligent anger and righteous indignation that are the satisfying features of “Battle Hymn.” Such indignation is naturally at home within the landscape of the Republic's moral psychology: Howe has a thorough respect for the quality of soul Socrates dubs “spiritedness,” a sort of aggressive, protective love that goes to war on behalf of those it loves (Republic 440e). As her work for suffrage gathered momentum, Howe became a fierce opponent in public debate, capable of turning the “white heat” of her anger upon the specious arguments of her opponents.Footnote 13 Howe noted that anger seemed to sharpen her intelligence, remarking jokingly “when I'm mad enough, I could speak Hebrew” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 45). Howe, author of the line “he has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,” is certainly a woman who can appreciate a good battle metaphor; and she is in fundamental agreement with Socrates that spiritedness sides with reason, and listens to it as highest authority.Footnote 14
These habits of lucid anger were slow to build, however. Julia was constantly at war with her husband's expectations of obedience to his mercurial opinions; and as he told her, he considered her willingness to speak in public, and to speak about philosophy, to be a sign of her vanity and narcissism, often simply forbidding her to do it (Showalter Reference Showalter2016, xv, 163, 182, 186).Footnote 15 Howe went to her first suffrage meeting against the written protests of her husband, and by the end of the meeting had publicly announced her change of heart toward the cause with a single line: “I could only say, ‘I am with you’” (Howe Reference Howe1899, 375).Footnote 16 As her biographer Elaine Showalter notes, Howe often explicitly framed this experience as a conversion; and the death of Samuel Howe a few years later allowed the final four decades of her life to be given over to the fruits of this profound intellectual reversal. Practically speaking, her activism and public appearances dominated the second part of her life; but there was also a theoretical element in her self-understanding of this new direction. In her autobiography, she writes:
During the first two thirds of my life, I looked to the masculine ideal of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. In an unexpected hour a new light came to me, showing me a world of thought and of character quite beyond the limits in which I had hitherto been content to abide. The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood,—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances. (Howe Reference Howe1899, 372–73)
This eloquent passage is often cited by scholars of Howe, but it has not yet been thoroughly connected to her philosophical work. For instance, Dykeman locates the center of Howe's thought in her essay “Philosophy of Halfness,” which sketches a cosmological, quasi-Hegelian scheme in terms of the twoness of all things, of which men and women form one example, and Nature is redeemed by Art (Howe Reference Howe1895, 172; Dykeman Reference Dykeman2004, 28).Footnote 17 But it's not clear that the essay, written before her contact with the Concord School and likely before the death of her husband, can fully make sense of Howe's settled account of the intellectual causes of her conversion.Footnote 18 That “woman [is] no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite” is quite explicit in its rejection of woman as “half” requiring completion from the opposite. Woman is no longer a being in need of mediation by man, but has independent worth as in “direct relation to the divine”; the poetic pattern she was playing with no longer quite fits. But all of these elements are present in Howe's essay on the Republic, and her work there ultimately gives philosophical context to these precise changes, and perhaps even forms the basis for her continued philosophical development.
To paraphrase Virginia Woolf's famous remark on George Eliot's tortured prose, the poetic genre was not perhaps the one most suited to Howe's talents. As Browning and other reviewers noted, much of the interest comes from the thought rather than the language, and the sort of strange exploratory clarity her poems have.Footnote 19 Howe's continuous interest in and study of philosophy even late in life is evidence that she was at least partly aware of its affinity with her habits of mind.Footnote 20 Although the large audiences that came to hear her whenever she spoke or recited were usually motivated by her “Battle Hymn” fame rather than interest in her thought, in the Concord lectures she finally found the philosophically minded audience she had been looking for. The electricity present in the “Position of Women” is at least in part due to the unification of the philosophical, practical, and public aspects of her life.Footnote 21
Howe works from Benjamin Jowett's English translation, which was first published in 1871, only a few years before she began her study.Footnote 22 She notes that there was a previous time where she had not yet “tackled” the Republic, and that she has been assigned her speech as “a special task” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 78); the speech reads as a first look at the Republic, and there's an energy and power of first discovery that animates her reading.Footnote 23 Her narration, loosely following the structure of the work, catches at and recreates the pleasure of the Republic's novel-like momentum.Footnote 24 She dramatizes the uncanniness of not knowing what on earth Socrates will say next.Footnote 25 At the Concord School, Howe could draw an audience as large as Emerson's; and in 1886, although she had already lectured earlier in the summer, Howe's invited Plato lecture closed out the school's session for that year (Warren Reference Warren1929, 208).
Editing the Poets: The Love of Virtue
To a large and captive audience, Howe begins: “Plato's great work, the ‘Republic,’ is dedicated to the study of justice” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 49). Like many before her, Howe regards the famous “city in speech” as the primary hermeneutic for such a study, and so as the primary focus of the work (Ferrari Reference Ferrari2005). This basic interpretive choice allows her to jettison the outer books’ discussion in I and IX–X, and focus her attention on what's in between.Footnote 26 Howe does note, however, the most important plot point that gives rise to the city in speech: that Socrates praise justice “without regard for consequences” (Republic 358b). For Howe, this is precisely what a speech in praise of justice ought to do, and ultimately she will admit no distinction between the ideal and the practical. Indeed, for Howe, the point of human action is that we ought to be moving continually toward the ideal; and fortunately for her, humanity had just recently given great proof of the possibility of this, through the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of black men. But an ideal, in order to be achieved, must exist with and by means of the possession of the truth of justice, and knowledge about it. The idea of the philosopher-king, therefore, is for her a fundamentally practical suggestion that is central to the preservation of the state: “Justice cannot be maintained unless those most capable of understanding its conditions are entrusted with its administration” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 65). Reason as embodied in persons should rule, and the best guarantor of this is education that studies the ultimate causes of things, political and metaphysical, offered to all.Footnote 27
In this, and in several other aspects of Howe's interpretation, the closest modern analogue is the work of Eva Brann.Footnote 28 As with Brann, what unifies the Republic for Howe is not political philosophy or even an allegorically psychological approach to virtue, but a sense of philosophical education, which, as a necessary modification for American purposes, can take place within a democracy; the democratic principle of equality is in turn the fundamental building block of the goods of common life, making possible the reality of such education. Like Brann, Howe sees Socrates's educated rulers not as a static aristocratic class where birth is the criterion, but stresses his attempt to encourage a literal aristocracy, where those with the most real human excellence rule, one therefore willing to demote the unqualified and raise the deserving as needed (Republic 415b–c). The willingness to demote and promote provides the Republic's democratic readers a vision of what it would take to counteract democracy's otherwise tyrannical tendencies.Footnote 29 As she puts it in a speech on immigrant rights, “Justice is established in the heavens. Her rule is without exception” (Cumbler Reference Cumbler2008, 143); in her Republic speech, “Justice to all is safety for all” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 62).
Such universal education is fundamental for women's political standing: “equality of education precedes equality of function” (89), she notes.Footnote 30 The jumble of Socrates's proposals for women therefore are transmuted for Howe into a promise of real preparation for high offices of public guardianship, for all of the free (and all should be free), regardless of gender; and in Howe's thinking in general, such also should apply regardless of poverty or of race, as she made clear in her speeches in the aftermath of the Civil War (Cumbler Reference Cumbler2008, 96).Footnote 31 For Howe, the benefit of Socratic suffrage is not simply that women, or indeed, all human beings, wield political power simply, but that they are granted full participation in the grand educative attempt to become capable of exercising the best judgment on the public's behalf.Footnote 32
But before Howe turns to Book V, she notices something in Socrates's discussion of poetry that has relevance for her argument. First, Socrates demands that Homer and all the poets be edited, in order to speak truthfully of the gods and to display the sort of morality appropriate for the young—a process that democratic readers often find too restrictive. As a poet herself, Howe might well have taken umbrage at Socrates's cavalier statements that would restrict artistic license. But she positions herself seamlessly on the side of morals rather than art: “To this end, the fictions of the poets shall be carefully weighed. . . . The spirit of true poetry will uphold this, refusing to dwell on excesses” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 50, 52).Footnote 33 “True poetry” is in essence and spirit moral; and that the difference between the false and the true is essentially that of goodness is a satisfyingly Platonic formulation.Footnote 34 Like Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther who perfected his ability to read by going through the Republic word by word (Sowers Reference Sowers2017), Howe becomes willing to temper her otherwise strong commitment to poetry when faced with Socrates's arguments.Footnote 35 Similarly, Howe sees the point of Socrates's contention that mothers and nurses must be taught better stories, the better to better the youth (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 50, 102, 108). She notes with approbation the stress Socrates places on early childhood education, pointing out its affinity with the then-novel “Kindergarten” (77).Footnote 36
Socrates then argues that poetic representation of certain excesses, such as laughing too hard or drinking too much, are bad for the soul to witness; those mourning too much should be portrayed by women rather than men, and in fact, shouldn't even be assigned to the good ones (Republic 388a); likewise, the melodic Lydian mode is rejected as too sorrowful, and is of no use to women who are decent, let alone to men (398e).Footnote 37 Socrates's remarks have often been considered to display casual disdain for women, although some have argued they have rhetorical function aimed at the men present (Kochin Reference Kochin2002, 37, n. 1; Sandford Reference Sandford2010, 6). But Howe interprets this differently: she sees in Socrates's backhanded compliments evidence that Socrates, and Plato, considered that there were in existence good women at all; and given the eye for detail that Plato demands of his readers, this is hardly over-reading.Footnote 38 She argues: If some false poetic styles and substances are unfit for men generally, but also unfit for women who are capable of better things, that must mean that the class of woman itself doesn't preclude the possibility of better things for its members; the editing of poetry is for the sake of women as a class as well. Howe finds confirmation of this inference later on, when she points out the importance Socrates gives to women's adoption of “robes of virtue,” where their internal virtue will be strong enough to count as outward armor, as a central aspect of their participation in the guardian class (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 65).Footnote 39
Why would this point be so important to her? In a speech written seven years later, “The Moral Initiative of Women,” Howe points out how debilitating it is to be continually told, as in the cultural pattern she was raised in, that so far from being capable of virtue qua woman, that one is the root of all evil (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 97).Footnote 40 Such a principle makes one's own personal commitment to morality difficult, to say the least. Likewise, Howe points out the moral problems that follow when men consider women's freedom as subordinate to their own rule: “He invites them to acquiesce in a lower position, to exercise a self-control which he does not dream of exacting from himself, but also to sacrifice the self-respect out of which should spring this very power of self-control, of self-sacrifice, of subordinating the pleasurable to the ethical” (124). Morality without its natural self-respect, for the one who loves morality for its own sake, is an intolerable way to live.Footnote 41 Howe notes that in her youth, virtuous women were considered the exception to the rule, and that “such a woman might even have been the teacher of Socrates, according to his word. . . . The new teaching [of suffrage] seemed to throw the door open for all women to come up higher, to live upon a higher plane of thought” (224).Footnote 42 It's the presence of women as the bedrock of true meritocracy that performs a similar enlivening force for Howe in the Republic.
Howe's essential acceptance of Socrates's claims in Book IV that virtue is the internal harmony of the soul, where the best part, reason, rules the spirited and desiring parts, is implied though not narrated in her run through the Republic. But in “Moral Initiative,” Howe describes the need for virtue considered as one's internal self-rule: “Let her call no man master, but seek to exercise that mastery of self which is the first condition of all the virtues” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 134). Just as Socrates rewrites justice not as the outward compulsion of law, but the inward compulsion of reason on one's own spiritedness and desires, she considers such rule is paramount for women's virtue: moderation and chastity should not be experienced as outward restraint, but have to begin from within. This inwardness is also at work in the “robes of virtue” passage and its allusion to internal moderation that Howe includes in her Republic discussion.Footnote 43 Ultimately, Howe's sense of what “morality” involves resonates with the Greek sense of “virtue,” which can be explicitly ethical or simply about being the best one's kind allows. For her, the presence of virtuous women in the Republic is authorization for delight: a canonical acknowledgment that women possess “the high satisfaction of always using one's best powers” (82).
Socrates's First Wave
After concluding her discussion of Republic II–IV, Howe turns to the arguments in Book V that directly address the role of women in the city in speech. Socrates's discussion falls into three parts, which he describes as three “waves” of reactionary laughter that are bound to reverberate back onto him, because of the strangeness of his arguments (Republic 457b). The first wave argues for women's inclusion in the guardian class as partners in education and city-guarding (451c–457b); the second details the common family, common marriage, and common military activity among the men, women, and children of the ruling class (457b–472a), and the third is the famous proposal that philosopher-kings alone can be true saviors of the political community (473d). The “first wave,” in an accidental pun that Plato would have appreciated, most directly addresses Julia's interest in the rights of suffrage, and she begins by considering its merits on its own.
As Howe notes, Socrates begins his discussion with the seemingly innocuous extension of his earlier metaphor that cast the ruling class as the “guard dogs” of the city. She notes that he puts it as a question: are female dogs employed in guarding and hunting of the flocks, or is bearing and suckling the young enough to “exhaust their powers of usefulness” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 59)? Howe is slightly rearranging Jowett's text here for a rhetorical goal, making it a question not whether such work will possibly overwhelm them, but whether any untapped strength is left over.Footnote 44 Indeed, as her daughter Frances describes it, her own thinking contained a parallel question, whether there was anything “left for a woman nearly fifty years of age to do, after the establishment of her family” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 6). Howe and Socrates agree that the answer is yes, and women will be found useful for the same offices regardless of sex, as Howe puts it, “within the limits of their strength” (59).
This phrase is also distinct from Jowett's translation of Glaucon's response, that “the males are stronger and the females weaker.” Howe neatly avoids the contentious word “weaker,” and its almost guaranteed ability to set the teeth of the women in her audience on edge: “weakness” implies a hierarchy, a glass ceiling beyond which women will not reach, and it also contains a possible allusion to weakness of mind or soul in addition to body, vastly more troubling a limit than physical weakness.Footnote 45 In Howe's version, simply the limit of strength of the individual, whatever that turns out to be, will suffice. Julia already has in mind that Socrates's pure meritocracy among the guardians is now also to be regardless of gender; it's how the individual's strength, of whatever sort, stacks up to that of other individuals that will make the difference.Footnote 46
Crucially, Howe is alive to the essential rhetorical strategy that Socrates has adopted in this section, with his casual presentation of the complicated political relations between humans as nothing more than dog-relations. She remarks: “In the unfolding of this proposition Socrates, like a skillful advocate, anticipates the objections sure to be brought forward by the adversaries of his plan” (59). She registers the atmospheric change taking place: Socrates is aware that this argument about women will not fall easily into the essentially friendly chain of arguments of Books II–IV, which has been carried forward “as if on a breeze” (Republic 394d). Rather, it will be an uphill battle against an entrenched position, where Socrates's otherwise mild interlocutor has now become potentially his opponent, and a large crowd of even fiercer critics stands just beyond, as Socrates had predicted earlier.Footnote 47 As the first wave progresses, Howe's narration is full of the legalistic language of “concession,” “claim,” “opponent,” and “opposing party”; Socrates has begun war preparations.Footnote 48
Howe therefore argues that Socrates takes his next step, the introduction of the possibility that women exercising and competing athletically with men will provoke laughter from the crowd, in order to defuse any objection before Glaucon can make it; it's a preemptive move that Socrates “foresees.”Footnote 49 Howe considers that Socrates has done well with this, and that such reasoning will be helpful and effective against the unreasoning laughter of the crowd.Footnote 50 Howe speaks from direct experience of such audience ridicule, even and especially ridicule focused on the female body. When Howe traveled to give speeches in favor of suffrage, she often met with noisy and cruel opposition (Showalter Reference Showalter2016, 190).Footnote 51 At one town in Vermont, she and her fellow speakers were met with a meant-to-be-funny ballad describing them as old crows. Howe volunteered to speak first, remarking that she would not be disturbed even if the audience were to throw chairs; her calm speech eventually settled the audience down (189). In Socrates's use of speeches that soothe objections to women's exercise, he makes an exception to his general rules on the evils of rhetoric; Howe concurs with him not from wishful thinking, but solid experience.Footnote 52
Howe next considers that Socrates at last brings forward “the first serious objection likely to be urged by his adversaries” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 60). If it's argued that the natures of men and women are very different, it seems inconsistent to also argue that they should perform the same offices, since nature being suited to the task is a founding principle of Socrates's city in speech (Republic 433a). But, as Howe puts Socrates's argument, bodily unlikeness is not a hindrance to different sorts of men performing the same task, since the difference is rather one of soul's inclination; whereas one woman may have the soul of a physician, another man may have the soul of a carpenter. Therefore, men and women physicians will be more like each other than not, and the objection of irreconcilable difference therefore does not stand.Footnote 53 But having followed Socrates so far, at this point she pauses in her analysis.
Howe points out that arguments very similar to this were often made by the abolitionists and suffragists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone, but with a crucial difference.Footnote 54 When these figures would make their speeches on the rostrum, such arguments appeared to their audiences as “extraordinary innovations,” which the crowds heard with wondering ignorance (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 61). But if, Howe asks, these arguments were made centuries before in Plato, who is considered the intellectual property of college-bred men—for whom the possession of Greek-learning was the sign of their admission to the highest circles of intellect possible at the time—why on earth would these same arguments seem to embody to the learned a “novel and dangerous heresy” (62)? Her question is not without justice. As Natalie Harris Bluestone discusses, this is a real problem in the history of Plato's readership in western Europe, and it's hard to locate the cause in something other than an overwhelming psychological reluctance to acknowledge the reasonable nature of the arguments, often leading scholars to offer wild interpretations or even mistranslate the text to avoid its implications (Bluestone Reference Bluestone1987, 24–73). Indeed, that such an argument in favor of women's participation in the most coveted civic activities would lead the passions of the soul to revolt against reason is precisely why Socrates has to take a more adversarial approach to convince Glaucon in the first place. Howe has her own sense of what's at the bottom of this reluctance: “Those who should have been students of Plato, Bachelors and Masters of the Arts, if cognizant of these statements as made by him, have often failed to perceive their deep significance. Those only whose heart's love and inspiration have led them to seek this perfect measure of right, have recognized the fact that justice to all is safety for all” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 62).
For Howe, the problem is located in what Socrates would call the soul, but it's not one of hatred or disdain, as in the question of misogyny. Rather, these imperfect students had an absence of love, and the kind of love that, all too Platonically, actively seeks out a perfect measure or highest source that leads to the truth about justice; here her language echoes Socrates's later discussion of the necessity of the sight of the Good for the completion of his philosophers’ knowledge. Howe's argument implies that the readers have themselves failed to let reason rule them.Footnote 55
Howe then concludes her discussion of the first wave by noting that Glaucon, at least, is persuaded in the end: “This claim is not disallowed by the opposing party” (64). Indeed, at this point in the argument, Glaucon has relaxed, and he has let go of the tension present in his initial stance. Howe alludes to Glaucon's struggles without detailing their cause: Socrates ultimately broke Glaucon down by forcing him into a protracted aporia (Republic 453c–d), where he admits his ignorance with respect to the questions at issue; by adopting Glaucon's initial caveat that women be taken as weaker as the “dolphin rescue” the argument demands, Socrates is able to get his concession that women's souls are often athletic, philosophical, doctor-like, musical, and spirited (455e–456a; Townsend Reference Townsend2017, 25–50). Since Howe stresses the place of women in the polis as contestants, for her Glaucon's caveat is less practically important; as noted above, she considers that each will compete according to their strength, and often enough, individual women will be stronger.Footnote 56 But though the statement still sticks in the craw, as Howe's initial avoidance of that crucial word “weakness” shows, once she reaches the conclusion of her essential argument, Howe introduces it into her speech to transform it for her own purposes: “He calls woman a lesser man, but even from that standpoint demands that she shall be made stronger instead of weaker” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 67). This is consistent with her meritocratic approach, and it's also the real force of Socrates's thought experiment, as long as the reader is willing to take women's presence in the contest seriously.Footnote 57
But Socrates's ultimate persuasiveness with those willing to hear, and his success with Glaucon, is because his speech is explicitly philosophical, rather than simple grandstanding.Footnote 58 Howe's characterization of Socrates's arguments as legal or judicial neatly captures this tension in Socrates's approach. Howe notes that one outcome of Glaucon's concession is that he now has admitted that women possess “the temper of the guardians,” which she considers exemplified by what she calls “the judicial mind.”Footnote 59 In fact, Howe returns several times in her later essays on suffrage to this judicial mind, which she here defines as one “based on principles, endowed with insight, characterized by firmness tempered by benevolence” (64). Like Socrates, she considers that the quality of rulership is at once practical and theoretical, both a psychological-moral and an intellectual capacity, which are united, and not, as in Aristotle, divided. This arrangement of qualities seems appropriate for what a true ruler—that is, a philosopher-ruler—would possess. As noted previously, Howe considered that before her conversion to suffrage, she thought of herself as referring her “merits and demerits” to the “judicial verdict” of the “masculine ideal of character” (Howe Reference Howe1899, 372). For Howe, in this essay, that women of themselves possess this judicial quality and thus the ability to judge their merit of themselves, is what Socrates has managed to get his opponent to concede. And though Howe did not need Socrates's argument to bolster her self-respect since she had already carefully come to this conclusion on her own, Howe takes a certain audible pride in relating to her audience that Plato too is not irrational on this point.Footnote 60 As Howe describes this intellectual independence later: “With deep reverence for father, brother, husband, let her yet revere and obey one authority deeper and far beyond theirs, the dictates of an enlightened and ever-studious conscience” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 127). The language she uses is again reminiscent of the Republic's philosopher-rulers, for the conscience itself does not simply know, but is active in constant study and inquisitive philosophical activity. Through the possession of this, women have access to such wisdom that is not tempered by their relation to male authority: “it is not of man, but of God” (127). Women themselves on their own power have a sight beyond the confines of the Cave.
Howe's Second Wave
“Thus much,” Howe remarks, “does Plato build up by solid logic” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 65). The contrast implicit in her remark is that what follows is less logical, and Howe's slight reluctance to continue becomes apparent. She takes time to prepare her audience for a change in her own interpretive stance: so far, Howe has been using Socrates and Plato as authoritative voices in harmony with her own positions, enabling her to elaborate on points of interest to her. But now she has to help prepare her listeners to raise an eyebrow with her at Socrates's plans for a common family and common marriages. Indeed, Howe manages to pass over some of the strangest aspects of what's to come, things that would possibly strike even the dedicated iconoclasts among her late-nineteenth-century audience as beyond the pale: In the second wave, Socrates contends that the best way to ensure good children will be to have sexual unions announced by an ersatz lottery, which will be secretly rigged with eugenics in mind by those in charge.Footnote 61 All children will be treated by the adults as potentially theirs, and no fixed marriages will be required, for during their years of fertility the male and female guardians will be allowed to form unions only according to the lottery. Howe carefully leaves out any direct reference to the lottery or its mendacious organizing principles, also omitting the notorious loophole for incest among brothers and sisters (Republic 461e). As one may imagine, scholars have often had great trouble trying to explain—that is, defuse—this passage, and the temptation here to move to allegorical interpretation, whether as a model of the soul writ large, as Proclus did (Commentary on Plato's Republic I.11.15), or as an allegory for politics as in Cicero's case (Tusculan Disputations V.7), is strong.Footnote 62 Socrates, however, certainly couches his arguments as a practical plan like any other he's detailed so far, and it's as such that Howe considers them.
Howe then states concisely what she sees Socrates's second wave to be really arguing for: the dissolution of the nuclear family and of marriage. She hears Socrates posing exactly the same problem that many vocal opponents of women's suffrage in America raised against giving women the right to vote and the broader sense of Socratic suffrage implied: that to do so would fundamentally destabilize the institution of the family. Likewise, if given greater education, women would no longer wish to be married (Goodier Reference Goodier2013, 21; Goodwin Reference Goodwin1913, 86).Footnote 63 Now, one possibility for Howe at this point is to argue the contrary, or even simply to assert it; and ultimately Howe's own position is that suffrage would not have these effects, as she makes clear in other writings (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 166–67). But here, Howe does not run away from Socrates's clear implication that the first wave is, as she puts it, “harnessed” to the second, and so she must consider the possibility that her opponents could be correct, that freeing women from male familial rule will have a negative impact overall on the organization of individual households, and crucially, an impact on how children are raised, educated, and come into being at all.Footnote 64 Although such arguments might seem trivially rather than intriguingly wrong to us given the basic purchase women's right to vote has on Western liberal-democratic culture, dodging this point has led to some of the worst injustices of feminist history. The household burdens that one group of women leave behind in their pursuit of meritocratic recognition, for instance, in the form of domestic labor, child-care, and even gestational care, inevitably fall on less privileged women, and most of all on women of color (hooks Reference hooks1990, 41–50). It's also worth noting that white supremacists actively argue against suffrage for women, since the daydream of attaining racist hegemony includes birthrate rhetoric, and involves the subjection of women back into being primarily child-bearers rather than political actors (Brown Reference Brown2019). Philosophically speaking, it's useful to have not merely the conviction that such arguments are obviously wrong, not to mention morally repugnant, but also to possess the sort of active battle-logic necessary to defeat them, and most of all, to persuade a general audience that they are obviously morally repugnant as well. This is just the sort of argument that Howe excels at, and she finds a fellow-arguer in Socrates.
Howe begins her attack by calling on the “white heat” of her anger, and doesn't back away from raising the ire of her audience as well: “How shall we have patience, for a single moment, with one who seeks apparently to annihilate the family relation, and to reduce parentage to a purely political feature of society?” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 68). She notes that such a doctrine “is quite as abhorrent to modern as it could have been to ancient thought,” agreeing with Socrates that his audience, no less than hers, will find his thoughts disturbing. Once her audience's receptivity is built, she explains her reason: “The relation of men and women to each other, rendered entirely subservient to the objects of the state, would be despoiled of all individual affinity and preference” (69). Her objection will be familiar to those who prefer Plato's Symposium to his Republic: she objects to the degradation of eros, the delicate affinity and preference of which the lottery would preclude. She continues: “So, while material results are to be ensured, all that consecrates these in the religion of personal life would be obliterated. No lover, no beloved . . . ” (69). Only admirers of nineteenth-century prose can appreciate such an amusingly complex circumlocution: babies are renamed the “material result” of sexual union, which she argues requires a consecration from personal life, that is, the erotic relation of lover and the beloved.Footnote 65 Her objection is not made primarily on behalf of the institution of wives or husbands, and so of marriage proper, but on behalf of eros.Footnote 66
On these erotic grounds, organization by the “state,” as Jowett's sterile translation renders the Greek polis, certainly sounds like a bare lover, cold father and mother indeed. But having walked fully into her anger, Howe now pulls back, and calls her audience's attention to the mitigating reasons for Socrates's propositions, and with an expectation of their forgiveness. “He sees,” she remarks with growing poetic assurance, “the self-seeking which grows out of the family relation. Under its influence, men and women will not only endeavor to monopolize advantages for themselves, but for their children also, and the covetousness which has been a curse to one generation, hands itself down to another and another and another” (70). It's in order to get rid of this specific evil that Plato is willing to get rid of “the intense joys and comforts of the family relation.” Here “family relation” now points more directly to the love that parents have for human infants rather than erotic love, the “personal affection and instincts,” as she clarifies, which describe what one has for the child one takes as one's own (70). With this, she starts to acknowledge that Socrates himself characterizes his proposal as the means to turn the guardian class not into a state but into one large family, where every single individual says to every other “you are mine” (Republic 462c). Now, as Aristotle famously objects, the weakness of this love is certainly a serious problem in its own right (Politics II.3). Like Aristotle, Howe considers this generalized affection to be an insufficient substitute for individual affection, that is, for Howe, primarily, the affection of the mother; and here's where her deepest concern with Socrates's argument becomes apparent.Footnote 67
The weight that motherhood possesses in morality, politics, and the attempt to end male hegemony is absolutely central for Howe. One of the fundamental intellectual pillars of her life was the need she had to find independent moral merit in the position of the mother, even though her pregnancies were not always initiated by her own desire (Showalter Reference Showalter2016, 93, 104, 128–31). An early stage of her suffrage conversion was to posit women's “moral and spiritual equivalency” to men by this logic: “How, otherwise, could [women] be entrusted with the awful and inevitable responsibilities of maternity?” (Howe Reference Howe1899, 373).Footnote 68 It's important to note, however, that she did not consider the mother as the essential character of woman as such, a common opinion of the age to which Freud, for example, gives voice. In her 1901 essay “Duty of Women,” Howe is clear that she does not consider marriage and motherhood as the only or the best path for women, and remarks that she considers raising young women in the view that they will all become mothers does not appear to be wise; she is eloquent on the danger of women considering men's pleasure as the guiding principle to women's education (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 103, 118). It's with personal relief that Howe eventually looks elsewhere to ground the moral worth of women in their own right. She speaks of the importance to her conversion of having women friends: “I sometimes feel as if words could not express the comfort and instruction which have come to me in the later years of my life from two sources. One of these has been the better acquaintance with my own sex; the other, the experience of the power resulting from associated action in behalf of worthy objects” (Howe Reference Howe1899, 372; Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 6).Footnote 69 Her organizing work with women ultimately gave her a sense of their political power as actors in their own right.
In her work on the Republic, therefore, Julia is peculiarly poised both to recognize the force of what Socrates is doing by harnessing the first wave to the second, that is, harnessing women's independence to the possibility of an unsparing, unsentimental reorientation of the role for the mother and the family. Again, one logical possibility for Howe at this point would certainly have been to reject the wider role for women in the polity, because the cost to the family/wife/mother would be too high, and this interpretive move in the context of the Republic is not without even recent proponents.Footnote 70 But Julia remains fully committed to having it both ways, without compromise of anything essential, on either the side of independence or of motherhood; and to do her justice, she recognizes here at this moment, in an honest reckoning with the Republic and herself, the fraught nature of her double desire. It's a moment of aporia for her, as the brief faltering of her stream of running commentary reflects, as she feels the inadequacy of her initial responses. So as she gathers herself together, she seems to experience Socrates's argument as possessing a sort of dragging force: “Let us follow his hypothesis to the verge of the impossible” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 72). In this soul-pulling action, she allows herself more space to face the depth of the problem than would be to simple rhetorical advantage at this point, in this very public speech before a large audience. This is the moment her soul stretches and turns, as she sets herself the task of considering the impossible at the very limit of her imagination, past what she otherwise considers herself to intuitively grasp and know.
She now begins to work harder at her interpretation than before: Howe points out that Plato recognizes the limitations of practical life “as well as or better” than we do, and that there's plenty of evidence from elsewhere in the text to show that he recognizes the absurdity of what Socrates has been saying about the family, since the meritocratic idea of rearranging silver sons of golden fathers depends on the notion of direct descent (73).Footnote 71 It's therefore the “slavish aspect of sex against which Plato would make war,” that is, the subordination of one sex to the other in marriage, and it's out of our duty to the community, she considers, that Plato would have us sacrifice even the things we hold most dear, even the family. As she points out, Christ himself considers that his doctrines will set the hearts of one family member against another, and this consideration leads her to one of the most beautiful sentences in her speech: “I find in Plato and in Christ the same idea, that we must follow the impelling power of conscience to its utmost end, regardless of consequences.”Footnote 72 Here she cites the guiding principle of Socrates's exegesis that one otherwise might wish to soften: the power of justice itself, as detailed by Socrates, to push us over the bounds set by human limitations into a sort of life that might almost look unlivable qua human, yet where the conscience rules supreme. But as Howe points out, it's just this quality that Christ himself is honest about, in the unworldly implication of his own speeches that he “comes not to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). Howe raises the words of Socrates to this same divine level, as her own judicial conscience impels her past where her heart has long been comfortable, which for nearly fifty years of life was to take its moral self-respect from its position as the subordinate building-block of the traditional family alone.
Thus, in her Republic speech, Howe reiterates to herself the tension between the first part of her life and the last, between the years of subordination of her studious conscience to others, and the philosophical and moral independence she achieved by taking her thoughts into her own hands. As the many resonances between this speech on Plato and her later speeches and writings on women's suffrage show, her work on the Republic in 1886 enables Howe to crystallize and refine the story of her intellectual life so far, in a way that sets the stage for the rest of her philosophical activity. In the Republic, Socrates describes philosophical education as that which alone has the power to turn the eyes of the soul around (Republic 518c); again, though Howe accomplished this autodidactically, her work on the Republic makes a space where Plato's hope for his readers’ better wisdom and Julia's own life dynamically coincide.
Picking up her narration, Howe describes the spiritual aftermath of Socratic periagogein: “No matter who or what stands in our way, we must go forward. Fortunately or providentially, when we have made our stand, some compensating power, unthought of before, shows itself in the order of things, and the temporary discord resolves itself in progressive harmony” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 74). As is the case when one contemplates the harshness of many other of Socrates's sayings—the radical separation of the Forms, the contention that to commit philosophy to writing is a dangerous compromise, or the necessity of regarding philosophy as the study of death—Plato intends a benefit from contemplating even the vertiginous, even if, or especially if, most readers ultimately find themselves unable to agree. To “follow his hypothesis to the verge of the impossible,” as Howe puts it, and yet find order among the wreckage, is a very precise rendering of what Plato is continually asking his readers to do.
And so, Howe concedes in her speech what she'll later make more explicit and radical: that in order for women's new political role to be fully accomplished, the traditional family has to be in some way altered and rearranged. As she puts it later in life, what gives the individual family its greatest importance is the “great human family”; and here she comes closest to Aristophanes's Praxagora, who as a possible progenitor or posterior satire of Socrates's thoughts in the Republic, institutes a regime at Athens where the city is to become one giant household (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae 674; Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 171).Footnote 73 Howe notes that we must accept, among the difficult consequences of women's suffrage, that there will be fewer baked goods: “some falling off in the matter of gingerbread and doughnuts” must be considered as a reasonable exchange for “the radiance that this new light brings into households” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 163). As for marriage, erotic preference will be assisted by educated women choosing rather better partners for themselves (167). As for the Republic, Howe sees Socrates's vision for the family as already partly fulfilled: “When I hear that the mothers of Wyoming and of Washington Territory take their young children with them to the polls, I see a partial realization of Plato's vision. The ballot is our weapon, the election is our peaceable contest, in which it is just and proper that the mother shall be armed like the father, and that the child shall learn from both what his own office is to be in the defense of his country, and how to exercise it” (85). This image of mothers and young children at the polls, which Howe likens to Socrates's image of the guardian rulers taking their children to witness war from the safety of horseback, encapsulates well what Howe's ultimate practical image of political life after suffrage would be: some specifics of daily life are altered, not without danger, but ultimately in the service both of individual partnerships and the overarching good of the larger community. But with regard to the status of gender itself, Howe is more visionary still: she often quotes Paul's Letter to the Galatians: “in Christ there is neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, but a new creature—the harbinger of a new creation!”Footnote 74 For Howe, there is something beyond politics; and insofar as we participate in the beatific vision, gender itself is rendered moot. But political life, although temporary, doesn't completely disappear from the earth, and here Howe, along with Socrates, considers that qua political animals, human women and human men participate best in the human community as partners; although without loss of gendered self on earth, both live in the constant attempt to achieve excellence insofar as they are human, and to render education to all the youth of the community that will enable them to do likewise.Footnote 75
In Howe's references to Plato's “vision” and even to his “prophecy,” Howe's religious and even mystical language finds a natural resonance within the Republic with Socrates's highest principle and light-giving goal of all wisdom-seeking, the Good Itself. Howe reminds her audience that at the final stage of their education, Socrates's fifty-year-olds will come to a consummation: “This consummation is described as a beholding of the universal light, the absolute good, according to which the life of the state and that of the individual should be ordered” (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 78). Unlike many who have wrestled with the Good, which as a principle beyond Being itself is very strange metaphysics indeed, Howe sees no problem with an immediate connection between this “universal light” and the practical, moral ordering of both individual and state. Howe is not alone: as Murdoch puts it, “One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good” (Murdoch Reference Murdoch1970, 90),Footnote 76 though of course for Howe the love is not unconsoled. For the practical connection, Brann speaks of a “knowledge so rich and alive it goes immediately over to action” (Brann Reference Brann2004, 331). Given Howe's many years of practical political organizing, her sense of the helpfulness of the sight of the Good, even though such a sight temporarily causes chaos, is a powerful witness to such a principle's reputation as something other than what a scholar alone could love. As Howe concludes her speech, she remarks:
I find in this treatise . . . prophecies which have been realized, and which still, like a flaming banner, wave us on to new victories, to new achievements. I find promises only partially fulfilled, and foremost and most sacred among them, I hold this promise, that the women of the state, equally with its men, shall be trained to high offices of public guardianship. (Hall Reference Hall1913/1969, 88–89)Footnote 77
The elevation of this language forms the rhetorical peak of the speech: suffrage is something not only recommended by the Good, but promised.Footnote 78 Jacques Lacan, when thinking of “the female author of the American ‘Battle Hymn,’” speaks of the child whose teeth are set on edge by the “grapes of wrath that responded to the words of false hope with which his mother lured him with the milk of her true despair” (Lacan Reference Lacan and Fink2007, 450n).Footnote 79 For Julia, the hope is not false. Howe died in 1910, ten years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. But as she herself points out, she didn't have to be alive to participate: Howe had already experienced the fullness of justice for all, without exceptions, as vision—the truth of which to her nothing was more certain.Footnote 80
Conclusion: Platonic Participation
When, the night before his death, Martin Luther King quoted Howe's poetry in his Mountaintop speech, that “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” one sees Howe's lines, inspired by an abolitionist's faith in justice, move seamlessly through King into the cause of civil rights.Footnote 81 Indeed, just for a moment, one might be convinced that poetry really does possess the sort of divine magnetism that Socrates claims for it in the Ion. Howe's poem, the precursor to her Platonic vision at the Concord School, is itself a remarkable contribution to the American political psyche, a Socratic “noble lie” perhaps, all too imperfectly realized, but one that nevertheless has the power to draw us beyond ourselves and closer to the impossible Sun.
There is still much more work to be done on Julia Ward Howe's philosophy.Footnote 82 But is Howe “a philosopher”? As Howe recognized, feminism is both theory and practice that deals with the convinced and the unconvinced alike, that sinks or swims to the extent that it provides universal access to education, stretching from earliest childhood up to the knowledge of justice and the Good that preserves justice for all. Analogies between various historical political actors and Socrates's philosopher-rulers are perhaps too easy; the patterns of Howe's life, however, make her love of Socrates's strange guardians intelligible enough. Is Howe a Platonist, in any or all senses of the term? Howe participates in Platonism in the best sense, in being willing to enter into conversation with Plato's text even when it poses deep difficulties for prior philosophical commitments, and like Socrates, she had a willingness to be, if wrong, persuaded otherwise, and spend all her remaining breath attempting to persuade others. The intellectual generosity of Howe's engagement with the Republic is a brilliant image of the desire to know, whatever the consequences, and the desire for the Good Itself beyond anything.
Mary Townsend is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Queens, N.Y. Previously, she was a Visiting Assistant Professor in classics and philosophy at Loyola University New Orleans. Her book, The Woman Question in Plato's Republic (2017), addresses Plato's use of Greek mythology as moral and political psychology and makes the case for the Republic's continuing relevance to contemporary debates in feminist philosophy. She has also written public-facing philosophy articles for The Atlantic, The Hedgehog Review, and Plough Quarterly. (email@example.com)