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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2015

Karen Margrethe Nielsen
Somerville College, Oxford


My aim in this paper is to examine Aristotle's puzzling and contentious claim in Politics 1.13 that the deliberative faculty in women is ‘without authority’ (ἄκυρον):

The freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different ways. For the slave lacks the deliberative faculty (τὸ βουλευτικόν) altogether; the woman has it, but it is without authority (ἄκυρον), and the child has it, but it is immature (ἀτελές).

(Pol. 1.13, 1160a10-15)

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2015 

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1 Segvic, H. discusses the deliberative part in ‘Deliberation and choice in Aristotle’, in Burnyeat, M. (ed.), From Protagoras to Aristotle. Essays in Ancient Moral Philosophy (Princeton, 2009), 144–74Google Scholar. On faculty psychology, see Johansen, T.K., The Powers of Aristotle's Soul (Oxford, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 I quote Jowett, B.'s translation of the Politics in Barnes, J. (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton, 1984)Google Scholar with emendations.

3 The labels τὸ βουλευτικόν and τὸ λογιστικόν pick out the same capacity in so far as ‘deliberating’ (βουλεύεσθαι) ‘is the same as rationally calculating’ (λογίζεσθαι) (Eth. Nic. 6.1, 1139a12-13). I quote Irwin, T.H., Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1999 2), 86Google Scholar.

4 Pace Tuana, N., ‘Aristotle and the politics of reproduction’, in On, B.-A. Bar (ed.), Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle (Albany, NY, 1994), 189206 Google Scholar, esp. 202–3. Tuana's analysis is criticized by Deslauriers, M., ‘Sexual difference in Aristotle's Politics and his biology’, CW (Special Issue): Bodies, Households and Landscapes: Sexuality and Gender in Graeco-Roman Antiquity 102 (2009), 215–30Google Scholar.

5 I will presuppose the account of deliberation defended in Nielsen, K.M., ‘Deliberation as inquiry – Aristotle's alternative to the presumption of open alternatives’, PhR 120 (2011), 383421 Google Scholar.

6 Saxonhouse, A., ‘Family, polity & unity: Aristotle on Socrates' community of wives’, Polity 15 (1982), 202–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Deslauriers, M., ‘Aristotle on the virtues of slaves and women’, OSAPh 25 (2003), 213–30Google Scholar.

8 As he famously observes, ‘as philosophers, though we love both the truth and our friends, reverence is due to the truth first’ (Eth. Nic 1.6, 1096a17-18).

9 Leunissen, M. discusses Aristotle's anthropology in ‘Aristotle on natural character and its implications for moral development’, JHPh 50 (2012), 507–30Google Scholar.

10 I will have little to say about the physiological differences between male and female in this paper, but I believe a strong case can be made that the psychological difference between male and female have a correlate in Aristotle's account of the physiological differences between the male and the female. There is a large literature on the physiological bases of gender difference in reproduction, in particular on the influence of natural heat. See, for instance, Freudenthal, G., Aristotle's Theory of Material Substance. Form and Soul, Heat and Pneuma (Oxford, 1995)Google Scholar; Deslauriers, M., ‘Sex difference and essence in Aristotle's Metaphysics and biology’, in Freeland, C.A. (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle (University Park, 1998), 138–67Google Scholar; Henry, D., ‘How sexist is Aristotle's developmental biology?Phronesis 52 (2007), 251–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Nielsen, K.M., ‘The private parts of animals: Aristotle on the teleology of sexual difference’, Phronesis 4 (2008), 273305 Google Scholar. Less has been written about the relation between Aristotle's physiology and his political theory partly because, I suspect, Aristotle's reasons for excluding freeborn women from politics have not been adequately understood. A notable exception is Deslauriers (n. 4), who concludes that Aristotle's claims about sexual difference in his biological and political works are not directly linked. I am sceptical of this claim, but will limit my argument in this paper to showing that there is an intimate connection between his psychology and his politics, a claim Deslauriers also disputes.

11 Spelman, E., ‘Aristotle and the politicization of the soul’, in Harding, S. and Hintikka, M.B. (edd.), Discovering Reality. Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science (Dordrecht, 1983), 1729 Google Scholar.

12 It is furthermore unclear why Deslauriers sees the household primarily as the arena of women, and not of men. Aristotle's discussion of household science is a discussion of the tasks of the household master. He says little about the specific roles of women, beyond noting that they should aim to preserve the household's wealth.

13 Fortenbaugh, W.W., ‘Aristotle on slaves and women’, in Barnes, J., Schofield, M. and Sorabji, R. (edd.), Articles on Aristotle, vol. 2 (London, 1979), 135–9Google Scholar, at 138.

14 See Modrak, D., ‘Aristotle: women, deliberation, and nature’, in On, B.-A. Bar (ed.), Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle (Albany, NY, 1994), 207–22Google Scholar for a similar analysis.

15 Irwin (n. 3), note ad 7.7, §4; see also Arist. Rh. 2.6, 1384a2.

16 I have amended Irwin's translation in line with a comment from CQ's anonymous reader. Irwin's translation of 1116a15 (above, n. 3) reads ‘…stands firm [in the face of death] to avoid an evil’, whereas a better translation of ὑπομένειν yields ‘submits to [death]’. The passage concerns those who kill themselves to escape poverty or unrequited love.

17 I quote Balme, D.M.'s (unrevised) translation of Aristotle History of Animals VII-X (Cambridge, MA and London, 1991)Google Scholar.

18 Aristotle thinks that lack of spirit is due to coldness of blood, and that women are naturally more cold-blooded than men. For illuminating discussions, see Leunissen, M., ‘Becoming good starts with nature: Aristotle on the moral advantages and the heritability of good natural character’, OSAPh 44 (2013)Google Scholar (forthcoming), and Lennox, J., ‘Aristotle on the biological roots of human virtue’, in Maienschein, J. and Ruse, M. (edd.), Biology and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge, 1999), 1031 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 The passage is analysed predicate by predicate in Mayhew, R., The Female in Aristotle's Biology: Reason and Rationalization (Chicago, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 6. Mayhew objects to taking Aristotle's claims about the female's superior learning ability and memory as a sign that women are ‘simply smarter than men’ (95); he thinks that Aristotle has in mind capacities shared with the female of non-rational species. But this runs up against Aristotle's claim that ‘in humans the qualities above referred to are found most clearly’ (as human nature is more perfected). Mayhew is, I suspect, led to this conclusion because he assumes that the defect in deliberative capacity must be cognitive—he never considers that it may be executive.

20 The notion of a decree (ψήφισμα) consequently plays a central role in Aristotle's psychology of action. Athenian legal procedure from the late fifth century onward distinguished between general laws (νόμοι, devised by a commission of legislators) and decrees (ψηφίσματα, expressing the majority vote of the Assembly of citizens) (as Irwin notes in his commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: [n. 3], 323). In the Ethics, Aristotle uses ‘decree’ to refer to the conclusion of all deliberation.

21 Mayhew (n. 18), ch. 6 pursues Aristotle's reference to Scythian kings.

22 I use Grube, G.M.A.'s translation in Cooper, J.M. (ed.), Plato Complete Works (Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1997)Google Scholar.

23 Bobonich, C., ‘Plato on akrasia and knowing your own mind’, in Bobonich, C. and Destrée, P. (edd.), Akrasia in Greek Philosophy (Leiden, 2007), 4160 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 55.

24 I use T.J. Saunders's translation in Cooper (see above, n. 22).

25 I use the translation of S. Lombardo and K. Bell in Cooper (see above, n. 22).

26 Women are therefore more likely than men to be swayed by demagoguery and emotional displays, to abandon their right judgement as a result. Equipping women with a seat in the Assembly or in the law court will threaten the city's prudence.

27 Aristotle does not use the term ἄκυρον while describing the softness characteristic of women in Eth. Nic. 7.7 or in Hist. an. 8.1, 608a19. This, however, is not an indication that he does not use ἄκυρον and κύριος to describe a rational principle that holds sway and one that does not. The connection is evident when we consider the legal usage.

28 Aristotle, furthermore, speaks of political science as ‘the most controlling science’ (κυριωτάτη ἐπιστήμη) and ‘the highest ruling science’ (Eth. Nic. 1.2, 1094a28-9). It prescribes which of the sciences ought to be studied in cities, and which ones each class in the city should learn, and how far (1094a30-b2). Deslauriers takes this to indicate that the ends of other sciences are subordinate to its end, viz. a well-ordered city. But in speaking of the psychological state of the person who possesses the science, Aristotle is not simply calling him ‘most controlling’ or ‘authoritative’ to the extent that the ends he sets are directional for the activities of his subjects.

29 Trevor Saunders sees Aristotle's reference to political rule as recognizing the fundamental equality between men and women. Commenting on 1259a37-b10, Saunders writes: ‘This passage is the nearest he gets to treating women on equality with men’. While Aristotle is not implying that a woman deserves political rights, ‘she is nearer to being the natural equal of her husband in rationality and deliberative power than she is to being sharply different from him as would be implied by the kingly and aristocratic models’ ( Saunders, T.J., Aristotle Politics, Books I and II [Oxford, 1995], 96–7Google Scholar).

30 I wish to thank Amy Schmitter for inviting me to take part in a panel on ‘Women in the History of Philosophy’ at the 2012 Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and for kindly reading an early draft of this paper in my absence. My commentator, Julie Ward, provided a set of extremely helpful written comments, which aided me in revising the paper. I regret that I could not do justice to nearly all of them here. Thanks are also due to Kristen Inglis, an anonymous referee and the editors of CQ for their expert advice.

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