Greatness of Soul and the Souls of Women: Rousseau's Use of Plato's Laws


In his first public statement as a political philosopher, Rousseau offered an intriguing aside:

            "Men will always be what is pleasing to women: if then you want them to become great and virtuous, teach women what greatness of soul and virtue is. The reflections this subject provokes, and which Plato made in bygone times, greatly deserve to be better developed by a pen worthy of following such a master and of defending a cause so great."

The reflections to which Rousseau refers are found primarily in Plato’s Laws, and were eventually developed by Rousseau himself in his Letter to D’Alembert on the Theater. This article takes a new look at the education of women in the Laws, and then shows how Rousseau made use of the dialogue in addressing a specific issue of political reform during his own time. The apparent inconsistency between some of Rousseau’s most important recommendations and those found in the Laws actually reflects a deeper agreement about the principles on which such reforms should be based. Those principles have largely been forgotten or implicitly rejected in our political and legal culture. They have not been proved wrong.