Aristotle 384–322 BCE

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384–322 bce

Aristotle was a philosopher whose concepts, theories, and implicit assumptions have shaped the development of Western intellectual and political culture. His views on sex and gender have been as influential as other aspects of his philosophy. Not only in philosophy but also in law and politics, influential arguments that have been used to support the superiority and authority of men over women can be dated back to Aristotle. The standard view of Aristotle as an archetypal sexist is, however, not the whole truth. There are also more egalitarian elements in his discussion of gender issues that have encouraged feminist interpretations of his ideas.


Aristotle explored issues of sex and gender in various contexts. He was interested in the relationship between the metaphysical notion of species and the sexual notions of male and female. He insisted that male and female are contrary attributes that belong to the genus animal as such but do not divide the genus into different species. Aristotle also argued that male and female are differences in each animal species but not in their forms. This implies that whatever differences there are between male and female capacities, for example, in reproduction, they do not belong to the essence of what it is to be a member of certain animal species. Aristotle has a clear tendency to play down the difference between the sexes.

Aristotle's biological works include meticulous studies of reproductive capacity, its physiological preconditions, and the sexual behavior of animals. Aristotle never approached his topics from a purely empirical viewpoint but applied his metaphysical notions to achieve a comprehensive theory of natural philosophy.

Aristotle describes a common reproductive pattern underlying the differences between animal species in their sexual organs and methods of copulation. In Aristotle's view the male and the female in each species have different sexual capacities indicated by differences in their sexual organs, but there is surprisingly little difference between the two sexes in the process they undergo in reproduction.

In Aristotle's biology both males and females transform food by concocting it into blood and then into seed, but this capacity is stronger in males. Males are able to produce semen, whereas females merely have menses, although the female product also is called seed. The quantitative difference turns qualitative when Aristotle assumes that the male is the formal cause and the female is the material cause of generation. Their stronger capacity to concoct makes males capable of giving a form of an animal to seed, whereas females are able only to receive the form and provide the matter for future offspring through the menses.

Aristotle's theory of generation indicates a conviction about the supremacy of the male over the female. Aristotle assumed a hierarchical relationship between form and matter, and so the ascription of the formal role to the male gives support to the idea that the male is the more active, governing, and clearly better sex. The female is called a natural imperfection in the species. Aristotle did not provide any evidence for his evaluation of the male as the stronger sex except the greater natural heat and the corresponding stronger ability to concoct blood in the male. His belief in male supremacy seems to have been more ideological than philosophical.


Aristotle also drew political conclusions from his theory of sex difference. He suggested that men should have permanent authority over women in the household and that women should not hold political offices. The claim for male power is derived solely from the nature of the female deliberative faculty, which Aristotle said is "without authority." He did not see essential moral or intellectual differences between men and women except the inclination of women to weakness of the will, but he still endorsed a strict hierarchical and functional division of gender roles.

The social aspect of human sexual life is a peripheral topic in Aristotle's works; this is surprising in light of his biological interest in sex and the prominent role of affectionate friendship in his ethics. He understood sexual appetite as structurally analogous to eating and drinking. These basic appetites are common to all animals. They are directed to the pleasures of taste and touch and related to the bodily processes of replenishment and dissolution.

In Aristotle's ethics the virtue of moderation is concerned with the control of the basic appetites, which are in themselves natural and not morally reproachable. Aristotle also thought that humans are innately disposed to develop correct forms of desires and emotional responses to bodily pleasures. The basic appetites, however, can generate moral problems because without the influence of reason they are likely to develop in harmful directions. Excessive attention to them is slavish and bestial because they belong to people not as humans but as animals.

Aristotle showed only limited interest in the problems of sexual ethics. His view of marriage was, however, exceptional in his time. Whereas the ancient Greeks typically regarded marriage only as a means to produce legitimate children, Aristotle saw broader prospects for the relationship of husband and wife. Despite the permanent hierarchy in family, the husband's rule over his wife is defined as political and thus is understood as being based on a kind of equality. Family life should aim at activities performed together for the common good as well as for mutual affection and delight. Husband and wife may reach the highest form of friendship, based on virtue, if each partner is good in an appropriate way.

Aristotle's remarks about the violations of marriage are again in accordance with Greek popular morality. Adultery is one of the acts he said is always wrong, but the term he used means violating the rights of other men to their wives and possibly their daughters. Extramarital sex with prostitutes or pederastic lovers is not morally problematic, whereas sleeping with a married woman is always unjust, assuming that the adulterer is aware of the status of his partner. Aristotle did not comment much on same-sex relationships but, again following mainstream attitudes, expressed a negative attitude toward the disposition of some men toward sexual passivity and their tendency to assume the passive role in a homoerotic relationship.



Aristotle. 1984. The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation, vols. I-II, ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Freeland, Cynthia A. ed. 1998. Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sihvola, Juha. 2002. "Aristotle on Sex and Love." In The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Martha C. Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                           Juha Sihvola