Report No. 66
IX. Changing Social Conditions in India and Elsewhere
3.33. Examples of Greece.-
Before we go to the next topic, it may be pertinent to observe that social conditions in any country do not remain static. This is as much true of any other country as of India. Take Greece, for example. Women in the age of Homer1 occupied a much more honourable position in society than women in the days of Pericles2. In Homer's Odyssey, the description of many of the female characters3 shows that a considerable amount of freedom was enjoyed by women.
The divine figures depicted by Homer show this to a still larger extent. The goddess of Wisdom-Athene-is the most prominent character in the Odyssey4, being the one who guided the hero throughout. The Greek deity presiding over justice was also a woman-Themis. Although Greek society in the time of Homer was patriarchal, the Greek woman, as described by Homer, was not a mere chattel. A good personal relationship between man and woman was highly valued-as is obvious from the blessing given by Odysseus (the hero of Odyssey), to Nausicaa, the daughter of King Alcinous.
The blessing was as follows5-6-
"may the gods grant you your heart's desire; may they give you a husband and a home, and the harmony that is so much to be desired, since there is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye, keep house as man and wife, confounding their enemies and delighting their friends, as they themselves know better than any one."
1. Probably, 850 B.C., see Odyssey (Readers' Enrichment Edition) Reader's Supplement, p. 7, and Encycl. Brit. Vol. 10, p. 793, left hand.
2. Roughly, 445-431 B.C.
3. E.g., Nausicaa and Eurycleea (Nurse of Odysseus), and Areta. For Nausicaa, see Odyssey, Books I, III, V, VIII. For Areta (wife of Alcinous), see Book VII.
4. Odyssey, Book VI, Readers' Enrichment Edition, pp. 58-66.
5. E.V. Rieu (Ed.) Odyssey (Penguin Classics) (1973), Book VI, p. 107.
6. Cf. Reader's Enrichment Edition of Odyssey (Washington Square Press), (1966), p. 82.
3.34. In contrast, Pericles (492-429 B.C.) contemplated a rather modest role for women, as is apparent from his saying: "Great is the glory of the woman whose name is not in the mouths of men for either good or evil1."
We may also contrast, with Homer, the later social background in which Plato (428-347 B.C.) wrote the Republic.
Plato's own ideas as to the education of women-and generally as regards social organisation-were, in many respects, ahead of his times. But the fact that he had to make a strong and impassioned plea for giving equality to worries leaves no doubt that the actual conditions were not very favourable to women, In his concept of the ideal commonwealth2, one suggestion which startled some of his contemporaries was that men and women should have the same education and the same pursuits3.
According to the Republic4, men and women are to receive the same education and share equally in all public duties. At Athens, where women lived in seclusion and took no part in politics, this proposal would be regarded as revolutionary.
It is, in fact, the theme of one of the later comedies, of Aristophanes-Ecclesiazusae (Women in Parliament). The quality of thought of Plato transcended the limits of time and place, and his major pronouncements as found in the Republic and in the Laws show a scheme, rather than a survey of the factual conditions of his time. Compare the speech of Ismene in the Play "Antigone5" where she says-
This is what she stated-
"O think, Antigone,
we are women;
It is not for us to fight against men6".
It could be inferred from what is quoted above-that a certain amount of special position of women, in contrast with the position of men, was a reality.
1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 7, Education-History of, p. 984, left hand.
2. Roughly, 429 B.C.
3. As to the contemporary reactions, see C.C. Field Plato and His Contemporaries, (1930).
4. Plato Republic, Part II, Book IV, 445B to 457B; Cornford Ed., (1946), pp. 141, 150, 151.
5. Sophocles, Antigone.
6. Antigone, 45-127; Sophocles The Theban Plays, (Penguin Classics), (1974 Reprint), 128.