Averroes and Alfarabi on Gender and the State

January 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Alfarabi and Averroes texts take unique approaches to topics discussed by Aristotle in Politics and by Plato in his Republic. It is important to understand these approaches in relation to each other because it is the similarities and differences between all four texts that provide the reader with a real understanding of what “good” government was perceived to be during those time periods. While contemporaries Alfarabi and Averroes both have ideal states in mind, their differences lie in what each considers the appropriate means through which to achieve them.With regard to the body and soul, women and men have differences and similarities that are inconsistent among the philosophers. Plato approaches the physical differences by saying, “in these duties the lighter part must fall to the women, because of the weakness of their sex” (Plato 155). In her article “The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato,” Arlene Saxonhouse writes, “Socrates makes his apology by suggesting that men and women differ only as much as bald men differ from those with long hair, that is, superficially and not with regard to their natures” (Saxonhouse 71). Plato also refers to their unique assignments in wartime, perhaps in relation to their physical differences: “And if their womenfolk went out with [men] to war, either in the ranks or drawn up in the rear to intimidate the enemy and act as a reserve in case of need, I am sure all this would make them invincible” (Plato 176). This demonstrates how the interpretations of the feminine body affect women’s places in each philosopher’s conception of an “ideal” society.However, their primary disagreement seems to lie in the question of the equality of the soul. Alfarabi does not consider women to be potential leaders, because the first characteristic he attributes to an ideal leader is that he be sovereign over himself. This sovereignty, according to Alfarabi, was simply not possible when it came to women. In a way, then, their souls could never receive a complete analysis beyond their material status as male supplements. When Plato entitles women to be Guardians in his Republic, he assumes that their souls are rational like those of men, and Averroes agrees: “We say that women, in so far as they are of one kind with men in respect of the ultimate human aim, necessarily share in it and only differ in degree…it is already evident from an investigation of the animals, that it is proper that there should be female Guardians” (Averroes 164-165). If women and men share human aims, their souls, according to Plato, must be congruent on some level. The emergent nature of these observations secures the plot of the film Destiny, which details the struggle to replicate and preserve the writings of Averroes.Despite these implications, Alfarabi plainly states that “in the case of the faculty of sense, the faculty of sense, the faculty of representation and the faculty of reason male and female do not differ” (Alfarabi 197). This idea is further supported by Plato’s assertions that Guardians must be reasonable, and that some women have that potential “because these were the qualities for which we selected our men Guardians” (Plato 153). If male Guardians were selected based upon their possession of rational souls, women Guardians must be evaluated in the same fashion.To understand the ideas behind the seeming contradictions inherent in the four philosophers’ belief systems, gender identity seems the next logical area to examine. Alfarabi implicitly offers a commentary on gender and sexuality by barely mentioning women at all. He discusses women only in the context of men, biology, and procreation. He fails to philosophize about gender and sexual identity any further than his detailing of human conception. He discredits the vitality of the role of women by concluding that women provide the matter for conception of life, but more importantly, that men provide the form. “Thus the blood prepared within the womb is the matter of man, whereas the semen is the mover of that matter towards the development of the form in it” (Alfarabi 189). Therefore, the male faculty of form is what gives matter a reason for being.Alfarabi briefly alludes to female sexual pleasure, but refers to the clitoris as a failed expression of a masculine form. “There are also some among [animals] which have a perfect female faculty, but some kind of defective male faculty is joined to it, which performs its function up to a certain limit and then turns out to be too weak and to be in need to some outside help…” (Alfarabi 195). The function which is performed to a limit is orgasm; because female orgasm is less “utile” that male ejaculation, he writes the process off as some sort of mistake.Averroes seems to similarly disregard female sexuality, except in relation to the arranged procreation “marriage festivals” outlined in the Republic. He curiously says that “necessity would undoubtedly bring women to desire sexual intercourse” and does not attribute desire solely to men in the least (Averroes 167). This suggests that desire, which is only seen in the Republic as a foundation for complications, is a weakness. Averroes further implies any weakness is less likely to be found in men than in women. Averroes begins his discussion of Plato’s ideas about equality for women by saying that men are in most ways more efficient than women, but that it is nevertheless possible that women could surpass men in some areas. He accepts Plato’s female Guardians, but then goes into detail about their procreation arrangements. The principles of common wives and children seem of great importance to Averroes, and he goes into detail about the benefits of arranged unions. He compares the peace found in common families to that found in societies with collective belongings. “In general,” Averroes concludes, “there is nothing which brings more evil and confusion to the State than when its citizens say of something ‘this is mine and this is not mine'” (Averroes 166-171). He implies here that disputes like these are the ruins of otherwise healthy States. To support his argument that women can be more efficient than men in some areas, Averroes begins by suggesting that women are better than men in the fields of music and art. “For this reason it is said that melodies are perfect if men invent them and women perform them” (Averroes 164). He compares the Guardians to defensive animals, saying that women are capable of fighting like female dogs and hyenas; they lack strength, not passion (Averroes 165). He asserts that women are labeled “burdens” because they are “twice the number of men,” although their lack of training makes them unable to contribute in ways recognizable to men. “Because women in these States are not being fitted for any of the human virtues, it often happens that they resemble plants” (Averroes 166). To argue the cause for the selective breeding of Guardians, he mentions a man “who wants to breed hunting dogs or game birds” (Averroes 167). He takes care to breed the best of what he desires, just as Guardians should do to ensure quality rulers. Averroes justifies Guardian apprenticeship by citing smiths and craftsmen as examples, but notes that this system may not work under every circumstance (Averroes 173). He says that Greeks enslaving Greeks “resembles the strife that springs up between members of one household or between lovers” (Averroes 175). In these ways, he backs up Plato’s ideas with examples gleaned from his own surroundings. However, even with all of his practical examples, his work is lacking in empirical support. Averroes strives to reiterate and exemplify Plato’s strongest points, but his examples are mere observations, summaries and analyses at best. Homosexuality is another important topic to address in this literature because the concept sets up societal standards that might otherwise be difficult to understand. Averroes doesn’t say very much about homosexuality, but what he does say is straightforward and supportive of Plato’s points in the Republic:Plato allows these Guardians when in camp to exchange kisses as they please, for this will lead them to fight [well]. [Plato] said: it is fitting to honour the distinguished among these Guardians by special honours in the State and to bring them sacrifices and offerings and to compose on their behalf orations and songs. (Averroes 174) On the other hand, Plato’s examples of homoeroticism are more explicit. He talks about appreciating young men like wine, and compares philosophers to connoisseurs of knowledge and truth. He says to Glaucon, “You ought not to have forgotten that any boy in the bloom of youth will arouse some sting of passion in a man of your amorous temperament and seem worthy of his attentions” (Plato 181). Aristotle takes that notion further when he says that Plato “should think it a matter of indifference that the lovers may be father and son, or again that they may be brothers” (Aristotle 44). This quote suggests a societal acknowledgement of candid homosexual – and even incestuous – relationships. Averroes’ ideas connect with Plato’s in a number of obvious ways. He uses many examples to further illustrate his points, but he never questions or digresses from Plato’s ideas. These illustrations of Plato’s alarming position on women in leadership and the abolition of the traditional family are some of the reasons why the film Destiny depicted the fatwa in an attempt to undercut Averroes’ works. He connects with Aristotle on a more basic level; he writes in a similar fashion, and uses examples in the same manner as Aristotle. In their methods of argumentation, however, Aristotle and Averroes have very little in common, largely because Aristotle’s Politics focuses so heavily on criticizing the Republic. Alfarabi, conversely, shares Aristotle’s ideas about the city as a healthy body and believes that women should be prioritized. Both philosophers almost completely exclude women from their discussions, but Alfarabi’s failure to trust women as intelligible or capable of thoroughly developing the three intellects resembles Aristotle’s perceptions of Spartan women:The defects in the position of women in Sparta, as we have already suggested, seem not only calculated to produce some lack of harmony in the constitution, if we take that by itself, but also to foster the growth of avarice. Officers for the maintenance of order among women and children and other officials charged with similar duties of supervision, are aristocratic in character… (Aristotle 173)When compared to each other, Alfarabi and Averroes seem as different as Politics and the Republic. Alfarabi is interested in getting to the heart of the question of what makes an acceptable philosopher and leader, but Averroes, like Plato, is more focused on the end result: a just city. Alfarabi was able to describe the best means towards the development of great leadership, while Averroes seems to realize that while one or a few great men may make for great leaders and philosophers, even great leadership cannot guarantee a just city. These are the innate differences that make the writings of Averroes more realistic and timeless than those of Alfarabi, while allowing Alfarabi the details he thinks necessary to achieve felicity.Works CitedAlfarabi, Abu Nasr. On the Perfect State. Oxford UP, 1985. 187-259.Aristotle. Politics. London: Oxford UP, 1995.Destiny. Dir. Youssef Chahine. Videocassette. 1997.Rushd, Ibn. Averroes’ Commentary on Plato’s ‘Republic’ 164-177.Plato. Republic. London: Oxford UP, 1973.Saxonhouse, Arlene W. “The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato.” Feminist Interpretations of Plato (1994): 67-85.

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