Aspasia, Socrates and the roots of Western philosophy
March 13, 2019 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Socrates in love: how the ideas of Aspasia of Miletus are at the root of Western philosophy. Armand D'Angour (@ArmandDAngour): "Where did Socrates, the foundational figure of Western philosophy, get the inspiration for his original ideas about truth, love, justice, courage and knowledge? New research I’ve conducted reveals that as a young man in 5th-century BC Athens, he came into contact with a fiercely intelligent woman, Aspasia of Miletus. I argue that her ideas about love and transcendence inspired him to formulate key aspects of his thought (as transmitted by Plato)."
Socrates was famous for saying: “The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” But Plato, in Symposium (199b), reports him as saying that he learned “the truth about love” from a clever woman. That woman is given the name “Diotima” – and in Symposium Socrates expounds her doctrine.

Scholars have almost universally dismissed [Diotima of Mantinea] as a fiction. She is described in the dialogue as a priestess or seer (mantis), and she is thought at best to be an allegorical figure – one of inspired or visionary wisdom who might have initiated a thinker such as Socrates into the mysteries of Love. But Plato leaves some curiously precise clues about the identity of Diotima which have never hitherto been elucidated. In my book I present the evidence to show that “Diotima” is in fact a thinly-veiled disguise for Aspasia. [...]

If the evidence for this thesis is accepted, the history of philosophy will have taken a momentous turn: a woman who has been all but erased from the story must be acknowledged as laying the foundations of our 2,500-year old philosophical tradition.
Note: the idea that Diotima may have actually been Aspasia is not new and has been around for awhile. D'Angour is claiming to have new evidence and has written a new book on the subject. Here is a review of the book and more pieces on Aspasia, Diotima and her/their history and historical context:

Book review: Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher

Joshua J. Mark (@JoshuaJMark): Aspasia of Miletus
Aspasia of Miletus (c.470-410 BCE) was a teacher, writer, and intellectual in Athens, Greece, who became famous as the lover of the statesman Pericles. The only statement about Aspasia of Miletus which can be maintained as objectively true is that she was a foreign-born woman living in Athens c. 445 BCE who was the lover of Pericles and operated a salon of some sort. It is not even known if `Aspasia’ was her actual name or a `professional’ name as she seems to have been a hetaira (a high-class paid companion) and her name means `greeting with affection’ or `welcome’.
Aspasia of Miletus: The Art of Eloquence
The historian Madeline Henry, more recently, writes, “Aspasia of Miletus, a key figure in the intellectual history of fifth-century Athens, is without question the most important woman of that era” and argues (as Durant and others claimed earlier) that Aspasia was Socrates’ teacher (3). She could even be the model for the character Diotima from Mantinea, the woman who taught Socrates the meaning of love. In Plato’s dialogue Symposium, in which Socrates delivers a speech on the true nature of Eros, he claims he was instructed in love by a woman who came to Athens “in the days before the plague” and who helped the Athenians in their sacrifices (Baird & Kaufmann, 195). Whatever her contemporaries may have thought of a woman wielding influence over men, Aspasia’s reputation seems secure today as a thinker, writer, and teacher of reknown and the equal of any intellectual of her time.
Martini Fisher (@martinifisher): Socrates’ Philosophy of Love Inspired by Diotima: Princess, Priestess and Philosopher
Symposium, Plato’s philosophical text dated at circa 385 to 370 BC, depicts a friendly contest of speeches delivered by a group of notable men attending a banquet. During the discussion, Socrates mentions that, in his youth, he was taught ‘the philosophy of love’ by a woman named Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea. Socrates also claims that Diotima delayed the Plague of Athens, an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). Apart from these little facts, not much is mentioned about Diotima as a person.
Clancy Ratliff (@culturecat): Thoughts on Aspasia and Diotima "Why is there so much resistance to the argument that Aspasia and Diotima were real philosophers/teachers because there are no primary texts from either, and everyone takes the assumption that Socrates was a real philosopher/teacher for granted, even though there are no primary texts for him?"

Marguerite Johnson (@MMJ722): Elite companions, flute girls and child slaves: sex work in ancient Athens
When the Athenian politician Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), commemorating those who had fallen during the course of the year, a rumour emerged that his companion, Aspasia was the real author. The claim was made by no other than Socrates, whose testimony was recorded by Plato. This assertion may not be that difficult to believe in view of Aspasia’s role in Athenian society.

Aspasia (c. 460-400 BC) was a hetaira, an elite companion or courtesan trained in the arts of pleasing wealthy, upper-class men. This training included acquiring musical skills, developing the art of conversation and, of course, being able to sexually satisfy clients.

While Aspasia may not have been a typical hetaira, but rather an exceptionally successful and fortunate one, there is ancient evidence to attest that this class of women was educated in literary arts, philosophy, and rhetoric. In this sense, they could converse with men in a way that traditional wives could not, owing to the limited access to formal education afforded Athenian girls and women of citizen families.
Elizabeth Winkler (@ElizWinkler): Denying Women’s Ability to Know: How a long history of sidelining women has made us less likely to believe their experiences
At The New School, Walker is leading a project called “The New Historia,” which aims to counteract this trend by creating a database to document and promote history’s forgotten women. There’s Diotima, who appears in Plato’s Symposium as Socrates’s teacher. That she was a historical person—a priestess of Mantinea—did not come into question until the 15th century, when the Renaissance scholar Marsilio Ficino, certain that a woman could not have been an acclaimed philosopher, asserted that she must have been a figment of Plato’s imagination, a rhetorical device created for the purposes of the dialogue. That would make her, oddly, Plato’s only fictitious character. Yet scholars since have continued to work under the assumption that Diotima never really existed.


Walker envisions moving past this cycle of remembering and forgetting to, indeed, a new history. The goal is not simply to show that women have been part of the work all along, despite their exclusion from official cultures of learning and knowledge-production; it is to restore women’s epistemological authority, to keep contemporary women like Strickland from being ignored and requiring recovery centuries hence.

How would the restoration of that authority reverberate in the wider world? If Americans learned about women who deployed power, who were historical and intellectual forces, who knew, would that change their reception of women’s knowledge and women’s voices? Perhaps they would have an easier time accepting women in positions of authority. Perhaps women’s voices wouldn’t be so breezily dismissed. Perhaps Hillary would have won, says Walker. And perhaps what Christine Blasey Ford knew would have mattered.
Armand D'Angour previously: How Did Ancient Greek Music Sound?
posted by homunculus (15 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Every. Damn. Time.
posted by schadenfrau at 2:15 PM on March 13 [15 favorites]

Why is there so much resistance to the argument that Aspasia and Diotima were real philosophers/teachers because there are no primary texts from either, and everyone takes the assumption that Socrates was a real philosopher/teacher for granted, even though there are no primary texts for him?

Well...if we mean "real" in the sense of "actually existed," because we have multiple independent testimonies to Socrates's existence, but not to Diotima's (though certainly to Aspasia's!).

This theory is, as OP notes, rather old (and respectable); not clear what the "new evidence" would be?
posted by praemunire at 2:20 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

This theory is, as OP notes, rather old (and respectable); not clear what the "new evidence" would be?

Me neither, but the review I posted above sounds good so I'm thinking about getting the book.
posted by homunculus at 2:24 PM on March 13

I guess the first footnote was actually a citation.
posted by condour75 at 2:26 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Aspasia as Diotima is also mentioned in this piece by Candida Moss (@candidamoss): What Prostitutes Gave the World - The truth is that prostitution is more influential than you might think: ladies of the night have brought down governments, helped win wars, and shaped our aesthetics.
On more than one occasion prostitution has supplied the inspiration for great works of art. To name just one, Manet’s Olympia, one of the most important paintings of the nineteenth century depicts an emboldened prostitute reclining in the nude. But prostitutes are also present in more subtle ways: Aspasia the “companion” of Greek statesman Pericles was rumored to have had pronounced political influence. It is true that she inspired admiration from many quarters; some have argued that the character of Diotima in Plato’s Symposia was based on Aspasia. The actress Nell Gwyn, the lover of King Charles II, is immortalized by Samuel Pepys and became a popular rags-to-riches heroine in Restoration era England. This is before we even get into the fictional prostitutes that endeared themselves to audiences: among others Fanny Hill, Fantine in Les Miserables and, of course, Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman.
posted by homunculus at 2:29 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]

Aspasia of Miletus (c.470-410 BCE) was a teacher, writer, and intellectual in Athens, Greece, who became famous as the lover of the statesman Pericles.

who is with us today, thanks to time reversal! :P
posted by kliuless at 2:56 PM on March 13

who is with us today, thanks to time reversal! :P

or via the Animus! It would be a spoiler but she's an important character in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:02 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

Maks Sipowicz (@CallMeSipo): 35 Brilliant Women from the History of Philosophy
—  these are 35 women whose contributions to the history of philosophy and ideas have been largely forgotten or otherwise downplayed, and who deserve to be known, read and studied today. Wherever possible I’ve tried to include links to available contemporary editions of their works, so hopefully you’ll discover some new favourites below!

As with all such endeavours, this list is much too short. By this I don’t mean to imply there are only this many women worth reading in the history of philosophy — there are many more. You’ll also notice that there aren’t very many women who don’t come from a European background in my list. This is more indicative of the limits of my own knowledge than of a lack of women in the history of philosophy — so I have a request: please comment with suggestions of other amazing women who should be included in the list.
posted by homunculus at 3:19 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

So I feel awkward about this, as I obviously haven't read the book, but what is the new evidence? Reading a bunch of the links, there seems to be a strong desire, from many, for this story to be true. Which it might be. But desire for a good narrative isn't the same thing as evidence, and in this case the claim being made about Aspasia's relationship to Socrates' invention of metaphysics is really quite large.

There are a tragic shit-ton of women who get overlooked in philosophy, even in the last century when the cultural and gender norms are far, far more inviting than they would have been in Socrates' day. I would champion that inclusion and emphasize their contributions all day long, but I do so benefiting from the evidence and publication of their own work.
posted by hank_14 at 4:47 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Scholars pretty universally, well, dismiss isn't the right word, but regard Plato's dialogues, especially the later dialogues, as fictions, and certainly more as Plato's philosophical work than as his reports of the historical Socrates's beliefs. "Key aspects of his thought (as transmitted by Plato)" is kind of eyebrow-raising!
posted by kenko at 5:31 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

As the influence of Aspasia/Diotima, as Socrates's teacher, could be said to be at the root of the Western philosophy, so Hypatia of Alexandria's is at its end. Hypatia was a mathematician, a Neoplatonist philosopher and one of the last great thinkers of the Classical world.

Brianna Bibel: Meet Hypatia, the ancient mathematician who helped preserve seminal texts. Her dramatic death often overshadows her epic life, but it shouldn’t
The mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Hypatia is considered the first known female mathematician and one of the “last great thinkers” of Alexandria, the sophisticated Ancient Egyptian city.

Why the last? Tension between religious and secular factions seeking control over the city boiled over in the early 400s, leading to her violent murder and turning her into a martyr for scientists, pagans, and atheists.

Hypatia’s death is much better recorded than her life - historians aren’t even sure when she was born (sometime around 350 CE). But there is plenty of evidence that Hypatia was a tremendous scholar.
Mathematicians zero in on the birth of Hypatia: Probability theory deployed to recalculate the birth date of antiquity’s most famous female scholar.

Joshua J. Mark: Hypatia of Alexandria
By all accounts, Hypatia was an extraordinary woman not only for her time, but for any time. Theon refused to impose upon his daughter the traditional role assigned to women and raised her as one would have raised a son in the Greek tradition; by teaching her his own trade. The historian Slatkin writes, "Greek women of all classes were occupied with the same type of work, mostly centered around the domestic needs of the family. Women cared for young children, nursed the sick, and prepared food" (34). Hypatia, on the other hand, led the life of a respected academic at Alexandria's university; a position to which, as far as the evidence suggests, only males were entitled previously. She never married and remained celibate throughout her life, devoting herself to learning and teaching. The ancient writers are in agreement that she was a woman of enormous intellectual power.
Hypatia of Alexandria: The Passing of Philosophy to Religion
Hypatia, the much loved pagan philosopher of Alexandria, Egypt, has long been acknowledged as the symbol of the passing of the old ways and the triumph of the new. Hypatia (370-415 CE) was the daughter of Theon, the last professor of the Alexandrian University (associated closely with the famous Library of Alexandria). Theon was a brilliant mathematician who closely copied Euclid's Elements and the works of Ptolemy and, in the language of our day, home-schooled his daughter in mathematics and philosophy (Deakin in Science/Ockham). Hypatia helped her father in writing commentaries on these works and, in time, wrote her own works and lectured extensively, becoming a woman of note in a culture dominated by male writers and thinkers.
Hyptia's murder at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots is often thought of as the death knell of of classical thought. If D'Angour's thesis is true, then Aspasia and Hypatia can be situated at the origin and at the end of the classical Socratic and Platonic schools of thought, with much of the Western canon contained between them, like bookends.

Hypatia's life and death were the subject of the 2009 film Agora, with Rachel Weisz playing Hypatia. The film took enormous liberties with history, but personally I'm just happy that a movie was made about her at all. There's also a musical about Hypatia which is playing this month at the Caveat in Manhattan through the end of March. Here's their website:
Hypatia and the Heathens: A Musical Bacchanalia is a new interactive musical based on the true story of Hypatia, the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria during the apocalyptic end times of the Roman Empire. This immersive, multi-sensory theatrical experience is based on the raucous festivals of ancient Rome and Egypt. One thing is for certain: it's like no toga party you’ve attended before.

Join our cast of New York’s most talented performers for a bacchanal of epic proportions; surprises abound, and a mild (historically accurate and perfectly legal) hallucinogen is included in your ticket price. It’s the end of the world as we know it, so let's get weird.
posted by homunculus at 6:40 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]

> Reading a bunch of the links, there seems to be a strong desire, from many, for this story to be true. Which it might be.

I want to believe!
posted by homunculus at 6:43 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

> 35 Brilliant Women from the History of Philosophy

Here's more on #3, Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate, aka Elisabeth of Bohemia: Women Philosophers Get No Agency: Elisabeth of Bohemia
posted by homunculus at 8:08 PM on March 13

Armand D'Angour previously: How Did Ancient Greek Music Sound?

Here's more on D'Angour's study of ancient Greek music: Can we know what music sounded like in Ancient Greece?

Music was ubiquitous in Ancient Greece. Now we can hear how it actually sounded
Much of what we think of as Ancient Greek poetry, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, was composed to be sung, frequently with the accompaniment of musical instruments. And while the Greeks left modern classicists many indications that music was omnipresent in society – from vases decorated with lyres, to melodic notation preserved on stone – the precise character and contours of the music has long been considered irreproducible. However, the UK classicist and classical musician Armand D’Angour has spent years endeavouring to stitch the mysterious sounds of Ancient Greek music back together from large and small hints left behind. In 2017, his work culminated in a unique performance at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, intended to recreate the sounds of Greek music dating as far back as Homer’s era – roughly 700 BCE. This short documentary details the extraordinary research and musical expertise that made the concert possible, revealing remarkable sounds once thought lost to time.
posted by homunculus at 9:40 PM on March 13

> or via the Animus! It would be a spoiler but she's an important character in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey.

There's a bit about Aspasia's depiction in the game here: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s best historical characters: Ancient Greece brought to life by famed philosophers, artists and warriors

And there's this: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey won’t let you romance Socrates, so what’s the point?
posted by homunculus at 11:05 PM on March 17

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