Volume 20, 1998
Philosophy and Gender
La différence sexuelle chez les Grecs
Depuis le conflit tragique jusqu’à l’harmonie platonique
I want to look at two contrasting ways of seeing the relation between the sexes within ancient Greek thought by dividing Greek thought into two main traditions: the Platonic tradition from Parmenides through Plato to Aristotle, and what one might call 'the tragic tradition' including thinkers such as Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Empedocles. The Platonic tradition is characterized by hierarchical thinking in which the norm is unity, harmony and self-sufficiency. In Plato, this turns out to be the norm also for human existence, with the result that there is no room in his philosophy for thinking of sexual difference and sexual reproduction. When, on the other hand, conflicts, discord, and human vulnerability towards misfortune and death are looked upon as the constitutive elements of life-as with the tragic poets-sexual difference also plays an important part. When human existence is treated as something radically different from divinity, the Greek thinkers-in this paper exemplified by Empedocles and the tragic poets-tend to look upon sexual difference as a constitutive element in human existence. For the philosophers in this tradition, all being is constituted by two oppositional elements which do not form a hierarchy but rather an inimical antagonism. Misogyny is perhaps as strong in this 'tragic' tradition as it is in the Platonic-Aristotelian one. However, even if the former tradition has at least provided some space for thinking of sexual difference, it has not been very influential in western, European thought.