A Socratic Perspective
on Gender Identity

by Max Maxwell

This Socratic perspective is a philosophy of gender identity based on my observations about a short passage from an ancient text. This text is the first written refutation of the gender binary in the history of human literature. Written about 2,400 years ago, it evokes a principle that is fundamentally relevant to all deconstructions of the gender binary.

Gender, the concept of man and woman, is derived from observations of differences in sex (male and female) combined with the roles that society wishes each sex to play. The set of qualities attributed to men and women vary with cultures and times. Defining gender is not like the once and done process of identifying the structure of a water molecule. All concepts of gender that find currency in a society are an arbitrary construction designed to service that society's immediate need to have understandable and functional roles for the men and women who populate it. This means that gender identity concepts are always fluid in service to social structure and never define the full character of men and women. Gender identity construction is always a patchwork of sex differences, historical circumstances and social needs. The idea that gender distinctions say much that is meaningful about the inherent nature of all men and women is only a projection of a society's need to establish order.

That enduring understandings of gender roles in our civilization have been blatantly false has become so obvious in our time that it no longer controversial (at lease in many countries). In the 1950's in the U.S., "real men" were the bread winners, were the educated ones and held all positions of power. In contrast, "real women" were told to embrace a femininity that confined them to the service of the domestic roles in the home and kept them out of heights of academic and leadership success. Today, "real women" can be the breadwinners, the professors and the leaders in many, but not all countries. Important qualities once thought to be exclusively of the masculine gender, such as intelligence and leadership skills, are now seen in many societies to be just as much a part of the nature and lives of women. This realization has caused changes in the roles of women and this led to continued changes in those societies' concepts of the feminine gender.

The basic fiction of the concept of gender identity is created when it moves beyond real sex differences and attempts to encompass the full minds and lives of the men and women of a given society. Assuming significant psychological distinctions as part of a gender concept, which in turn alters our view of the capacity of men and women to function in society, is a vast over-extension of the concept of gender and a serious error in understanding. The problem is that any psychological quality we could describe as masculine or feminine exists in abundance in both genders. This means such gender distinctions are nothing more than a simplistic projection that fails to account for the arbitrary nature and impact of accepted social roles, which are imposed on humans who are more diverse and complex than the simple structures of a society's gender binary can ever successfully evaluate.

An even more significant fact regarding the inadequacy of gender as a fundamental category of identity is that the most important psychological attributes in the human quest to live well are genderless. Plato illustrates this in Meno.

Meno written by Plato in 380 B.C.E. - Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Socrates: When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue, or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman?

Meno: I should say that health is the same, both in man andwoman.

Socrates: And is not this true of size and strength? If a woman is strong, she will be strong by reason of the same form and of the same strength subsisting in her which there is in the man. I mean to say that strength, as strength, whether of man or woman, is the same. Is there any difference?

Meno: I think not.

Socrates: And will not virtue, as virtue, be the same, whether in a child or in a grown-up person, in a woman or in a man?

Meno: I cannot help feeling, Socrates, that this case is different from the others.

Socrates: But why? Were you not saying that the virtue of a man was to order a state, and the virtue of a woman was to order a house?

Meno: I did say so.

Socrates: And can either house or state or anything be well ordered without temperance and without justice?

Meno: Certainly not.

Socrates: Then they who order a state or a house temperately or justly order them with temperance and justice?

Meno: Certainly.

Socrates: Then both men and women, if they are to be good men and women, must have the same virtues of temperance and justice?


The fundamental gender binary breaking principle here is that members of both sexes must possess the same important qualities of mind needed to live well, even within the arbitrary context of their pre-defined social roles. These qualities are at the heart of their true human identity. Blending defined social roles, such as the role of statesmanship vs. a home oriented domestic role, into a society's definition of gender over-extends the concept of gender and makes it nothing more than a projection of society's need to create order at the expense of truth. In this Socratic perspective, basic qualities of the human body and mind such as strength, justice, virtue, temperance, courage, wisdom, etc. exist in both sexes enough to make their inclusion, or the inclusion of anything dependent upon them, in a gender identity distinction into a serious misconception of men and women

This means that the most important and valued attributes of the human heart and mind should never be included in the construction of gender difference. All that is courageous, tender, temperate, virtuous, compassionate, just and wise, all that stands at the heart of our attempts to live well, all that is the very lifeblood of the human spirit's striving for excellence is never masculine or feminine. It is human. When concepts of gender identity incorporate such qualities, or incorporate secondary attributes and functions that are derived from or are dependent upon such qualities, they degenerate into simplistic projections that service society's need for order over the human need for excellence in understanding.

Attributes such as preferences in fashion, emotional sensitivity, interest in this or that pastime, assertiveness and leadership, a capacity for nurturing, etc. make no contribution to understanding the real identity of men and women apart from embracing superficial, pre-defined social roles and expectations. A real woman can wear pants or be the CEO of a powerful corporation and a real man can wear feminine clothing or stay at home and care for the kids. The reality of the full identity of women and men is not described by society's order prioritizing gender identity fictions. The identity of men and women is developed by embracing the important human qualities that all people need to live well. There is more to the human identity of real men and women in being disciplined, just, wise and dedicated to our self improvement than the social dictates of fashion or socially defined gender based roles can ever give us through the incoherent fiction of gender identity. In spite of what any culture's established gender binary demands, there are no authentically separate roles for men and women in society except for the reproductive ones that biology insists upon.

This gender identity philosophy comes to one important point. The point is that our excessive attachment to overdeveloped concepts of gender identity must go the way of the dinosaur. It must be replaced by the embrace of our common human identity, which calls us to self realization through the development of the important qualities of character and understanding that belong in the heart and mind of every real and excellent man and women. The pursuit of human excellence through the quest for knowledge and good character is the Socratic way. It is also at the foundation of the true identity of both genders.