IT IS A GREAT loss to mankind that most philosophy books of antiquity are lost. But that loss is even more painful in the case of philosophers that were women, since none of their books have survived. And they thought, taught and wrote a great deal. Only fragments of their works have come to us, and most of them written by men. In this post I am going to do my best to gather the words and ideas of philosophers with names such as Diotima, Aesara, Aristoclea, Hiparchia, Theano, Areté, Sosipatra, Porcia, Hypatia…
For what we know, most female ancient philosophers were Pythagorean and Neoplatonic, although many were Stoic, Epicurean and Cyrenaic. Like many of their male counterparts, they believed in the existence of the soul, which could become immortal and transcend the body, if properly purified through philosophy. In ancient times it was not uncommon that a philosopher would be a priest, a poet and politician. In the case of ancient greek and roman women, to be a priestess or a poet, normally from an aristocratic family, was the only way to develop an intellectual life. Due to their roles in their traditional societies, their philosophies tended to be more spiritual than political, nevertheless, women manged to be in the intellectual circles that influenced power and politics.
To complete this post, I will include modern women philosophers and writers that have been influenced by ancient greek philosophy, such as Simone Weil or Maria Zambrano, so we can read women’s thoughts in their own words.
Aristoclea of Delphy. Pythagoras’ teacher.
Diogenes Laertius says that Pythagoras got most of his philosophy by a philosopher priestess called Aristoclea of Delphy. Aristoxenus says that Pythagoras got most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess Themistoclea. The Neoplatonic Porphiry wrote that: “He (Pythagoras) taught much else, which he claimed to have learned from Aristoclea at Delphi.”
Theano of Crotone
Theano was a disciple of Pythagoras that lived with him in their colony of Crotone, Southern Italy, some scholars say she was Pythagoras wife. The writings attributed to Theano were: Pythagorean Apophthegms, Female Advice, On Virtue, On Piety, On Pythagoras, Philosophical Commentaries, and Letters.
A fragment of her treatise On Piety has survived:
“I have learned that many of the Greeks believe Pythagoras said all things are generated from number. The very assertion poses a difficulty: How can things which do not exist even be conceived to generate? But he did not say that all things come to be from number; rather, in accordance with number – on the grounds that order in the primary sense is in number and it is by participation in order that a first and a second and the rest sequentially are assigned to things which are counted.”
Diotima of Mantinea. Teacher of Socrates?
“Love (Eros) is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire. Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty.” Diotima of Mantinea
In the Symposium the male members of a drinking party discuss the meaning of Love in all of its forms. Socrates tells us that in his youth, a priestess called Diotima of Mantinea taught him the secrets of philosophy. Diotima could be a fictitious personage, but if Plato’s account is to be trusted, Diotima’s ideas are the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Diotima personifies “the wise woman,” she represents the mystical element in Platonism, and her discourse is a blend of allegory, philosophy, and myth, were she exposes the transcendental Idea of the Soul of the philosopher; the lover of wisdom.
Socrates called his philosophical method “Maieutic”, a mode of enquiry which aims to bring a person’s latent ideas into clear consciousness. Maieutic comes from Greek maieutikos, from maieuesthai ‘act as a midwife’, from maia ‘midwife’. During the dialogue, Diotima teaches her doctrine to Socrates using precisely the metaphor of pregnancy and giving birth to ideas and the search for immortality that drives some men to beget children and other to create works of art and literature:
“Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children — this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant — for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions? — wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor. But the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice. And he who in youth has the seed of these implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. He wanders about seeking beauty that he may beget offspring — for in deformity he will beget nothing — and naturally embraces the beautiful rather than the deformed body; above all when he finds fair and noble and well-nurtured soul, he embraces the two in one person, and to such an one he is full of speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man; and he tries to educate him; and at the touch of the beautiful which is ever present to his memory, even when absent, he brings forth that which he had conceived long before, and in company with him tends that which he brings forth; and they are married by a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are fairer and more immortal.
“That in that life alone, when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen–only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images or virtue (Because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (Because he is in touch with the true Beauty).”
Many would argue that Plato’s dialogues cannot be trusted, that Diotima may be a fictional character, but we can say the same about Socrates’ philosophy, which comes from secondary sources, since he wrote almost nothing. Presocratic philosophers such as Parmenides or Pythagoras are also quasi mythical figures. Some argue that Diotima is in reality a character based on Aspasia the philosopher and lover of Pericles, most admired by Plato for her wisdom and wit.
Areté of Cyrene
Areté learned philosophy from her father, Aristippus, who had himself learned philosophy from Socrates. She was remarkable in that while many women studied philosophy in her time, she was one of the few for whom it was a career. Areté is sometimes described as the successor of her father as head of the Cyrenaic school. She is said to have publicly taught natural and moral philosophy in the schools and academies of Attica for thirty-five years, to have written forty books, and to have counted among her pupils one hundred and ten philosophers. She was so highly esteemed by her countrymen that they inscribed on her tomb an epitaph which declared that she was the splendour of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates and the tongue of Homer.
Hipparchia of Maroneia
Roman wall painting of Hipparchia and Crates from the Villa Farnesina, Rome.
Hipparchia was a Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of Thebes. Little survives of her own philosophical views, but like most Cynics, her influence lies in the example of her life, choosing a way of life which was usually considered unacceptable for respectable men and women of the time. Hipparchia’s fame undoubtedly rests on the fact that she was a woman practising philosophy and living a life on equal terms with her husband.
Diogenes Laertius claims that Hipparchia was so eager to marry Crates that she threatened to kill herself rather than live in any other way. Together they lived like beggars on the streets of Athens, where both were treated with respect. Their philosophy was a challenge and a shock to the moral conventions of Athenian society. They lived the most naturalistic life, sleeping in the streets and even having sex in public. Hipparchia’ later fame (apart from her unconventional lifestyle) lies in the fact that Crates became the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. The Cynic strain to be found in early Stoicism (such as Zeno’s own radical views on sexual equality spelled out in his Republic) can be ascribed to Hipparchia and Crates’ influence.
She wrote some philosophical treatises, and some letters addressed to a Cynic philosopher called Theodorus the Atheist. None of these have survived. There are some accounts of her encounters with Theodorus:
When she went into a symposium with Crates, she tested Theodoros the atheist by proposing a sophism like this: “That which if Theodoros did, he would not be said to do wrong, neither should Hipparchia be said to do wrong if she does it. Theodoros hitting himself does not do wrong, nor does Hipparchia do wrong hitting Theodoros.” He did not reply to what she said, but pulled up her garment.
We are told she was neither offended nor ashamed by this “as most women would have been.” We are also told that when Theodorus (quoting a line from The Bacchae of Euripides) said to her: “Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?” she replied:
“I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have spent at the loom?”
Many other anecdotes existed about Hipparchia, but they have been mostly lost. It is not known how or when she died. There is an epigram ascribed to Antipater of Sidon, as the sort of thing which may have been written on her tomb:
“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic.
Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not;
But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground,
My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running”
Aesara of Lucana
Aesara of Lucania was a Pythagorean philosopher (4th or 3rd century BC), who wrote a work On Human Nature, of which a fragment is preserved by Stobaeus. Aesara argues that it is by studying our own human nature (and specifically the human soul) that we can understand the philosophical basis for natural law and morality:
“Human nature seems to me to provide a standard of law and justice both for the home and for the city.”
Aesara divides the soul into three parts: the mind which performs judgement and thought, the spirit which contains courage and strength, and desire which provides love and friendliness:
“Being threefold, it is organized in accordance with triple functions: that which effects judgment and thoughtfulness is [the mind], that which effects strength and ability is [high spirit], and that which effects love and kindliness is desire.
These things, being divine, are the rational, mathematical, and functional principles at work in the soul. Aesara’s theory of natural law concerns three applications of morality, concerning the individual, the family, and social institutions.”
The Pythagoreans were notable as a sect for including women in their ranks. This did not necessarily equate to modern ideas of equality; they believed that women were responsible for creating harmony and justice in the home, in the same way that men had the same responsibility towards the state. Seen in this context, Aesara’s theory of natural law is fundamental to justice and harmony in society as a whole.
Ptolemais of Cyrene
Ptolemais was a harmonic theorist, author of Pythagorean Principles of Music. She lived perhaps in the 3rd century BC. She is one of several women writers associated with Pythagoreanism.
What is the distinction between those who preferred a combination of both [reason and perception]? While some adopted both perception and reason in the same way, as being of equal importance, others took one as the leader and the other as a follower. Aristoxenus of Tarentum adopted them both in the same way. For neither can what is perceived be composed by itself without reason, nor is reason strong enough to establish something if it does not take its starting points from perception, and the conclusion of the theorising does not agree again with the perception.
In what way does he want perception to be in advance of theory? In order, but not in importance. For he says when what is perceptible whatever it is, is grasped, then we must promote reason for the theoretical study of it.
Who treats both together? Pythagoras and his successors. For they want to adopt perception as a guide for reason at the beginning, as if to provide a spark for it, but to treat reason, when it has started off from such a beginning, as separating from perception and working by itself. So if the composite whole is found in a study by reason to be no longer in accord with perception, they do not turn back, but make their own accusations, saying that the perception is mistaken, and that reason by itself finds what is correct and refutes perception.
Porcia Catonis, the Stoic
Porcia was born between 73 BC and 64 BC. She was a Stoic philosopher, described as addicted to philosophy, full of understanding and courage. We don’t know if she wrote anything, but as her fellow Stoics, her philosophy was to be practiced in deeds rather than words. She was the daughter of Cato the Stoic, who opposed Caesar’s attack on the Roman Republic. In 46 BC, Cato committed suicide following his defeat in the battle of Thapsus.
She married Brutus, a politician and a Stoic. Brutus, along with many other co-conspirators, murdered Caesar in 44 BC. He promised to share the “heavy secrets” of his heart with his wife but it is unclear if he ever got the chance. Some historians believe Porcia may have known about the plot, and may have even been involved in the conspiracy itself. Plutarch claims that she happened upon Brutus while he was pondering over what to do about Caesar and asked him what was wrong. When he didn’t answer, she suspected that he distrusted her on account of her being a woman, for fear she might reveal something, however unwillingly, under torture. In order to prove herself to him, she secretly inflicted a wound upon her own thigh with a barber’s knife to see if she could endure the pain of torture. As a result of the wound, she suffered from violent pains, chills and fever. Some believe that she endured the pain of her untreated wound for at least a day. As soon as she overcame her pain, she returned to Brutus and said:
“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence… Therefore fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”
Brutus marveled when he saw the gash on her thigh and after hearing this he no longer hid anything from her, but felt strengthened himself and promised to relate the whole plot. Lifting his hands above him, he is said to have prayed that he might succeed in his undertaking and thus show himself a worthy husband.
Hypatia of Alexandria
She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, the highest intellectual position a philosopher could hold in the late Roman Empire. Daughter and disciple of the mathematician Theon, she taught philosophy and astronomy. No written work widely recognized by scholars as Hypatia’s own has survived to the present time. A partial list of Hypatia’s works as mentioned by other antique and medieval authors or as posited by modern authors:
- A commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
- A commentary on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.
- Edited the existing version of Ptolemy’s Almagest. “Until recently scholars thought that Hypatia revised Theon’s commentary on Almagest. The view was based on the title of the commentary on the third book of Almagest, which read: “Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher.” Cameron, who analyzed Theon’s titles for other books of Almagest and for other scholarly texts of late antiquity, concludes that Hypatia corrected not her father’s commentary but the text of Almagest itself. Thus, the extant text of Almagest could have been prepared, at least partly, by Hypatia”.
- Edited her father’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements.
- She wrote a text “The Astronomical Canon“. (Either a new edition of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables or commentary on the aforementioned Almagest.)
Her contributions to technology are reputed to include the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density (or specific gravity) of liquids. However, the hydrometer was invented before Hypatia, and already known in her time. Some say that this is a textual misinterpretation of the original Greek, which mentions a hydroscopium (ὑδροσκοπίον) – a clock that works with water and gears, similar to the Antikythera mechanism.
A contemporary Christian historian described her in his Ecclesiastical History:
“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more”
Hypatia was brutally murdered by a christian mob during an episode of city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. Her death is symbolic In March 415 CE, when the mob led by the ironically named Peter the Reader burned the Library of Alexandria, they also brutally assassinated its last chief librarian, Hypatia. Many scholars view her murder as representing the symbolic death of classical antiquity.
Modern philosophers inspired by Greek philosophy
French philosopher, (3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943). Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.
Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.
In the last years of her life Simone Weil devoted herself especially to the task of revealing “the center of all Greek thought”, studying and translating the texts of philosophers and poets. In their translations of both “Electra” and “Antigone” passages, fragments of Heraclitus, in her comments to Plato (or God in Plato) or in her notes to Cleantes, Fereccides, Anaximander and Filolao. Some of her more celebrated works are:
- The Iliad or the Poem of Force. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Mary McCarthy trans.
- The Need for Roots. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952. Arthur Wills trans., preface by T.S. Eliot
- Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.
- Two Moral Essays by Simone Weil—Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations & Human Personality. Ronald Hathaway, ed. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Richard Rhees trans.
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”
“We are drawn towards a thing, either because there is some good we are seeking from it, or because we cannot do without it. Sometimes the two motives coincide. Often however they do not. Each is distinct and quite independent. We eat distasteful food, if we have nothing else, because we cannot do otherwise. A moderately greedy man looks out for delicacies, but he can easily do without them. If we have no air we are suffocated, we struggle to get it, not because we expect to get some advantage from it but because we need it. We go in search of sea air without being driven by any necessity, because we like it. In time it often comes about automatically that the second motive takes the place of the first. This is one of the great misfortunes of our race. A man spokes opium in order to attain to a special condition, which he thinks superior; often, as time goes on, the opium reduces him to a miserable condition which he feels to be degrading; but he is no longer able to do without it.”
“One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.”
Spanish essayist and philosopher. Disciple of J. Ortega y Gasset, Zubiri and Manuel García Morente, was one of the capital figures of the Spanish thought of century XX.
Nevertheless, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, she openly sided with the Republic and consequently went into exile after its defeat in 1939. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities (1981) and Cervantes (1988).
Her thinking revolved around the search for moral principles and forms of behavior that were applicable to everyday problems. Her approach to ethical conflicts, and the study of the interrelation between reality and truth, demanded the need for a deep dialogue between the being and her environment. She was very influenced by Seneca.
Maria Zambrano combines historical and personal circumstances to approach in an intimate way to Seneca through exile, lack, resignation and comfort. Through the renunciation of the ideal to consider life and its most daily circumstances, including the abuse of power over the human being.
“To draw the thought of Seneca is to draw his living figure, to trace the outline of his person. Stoic tempered, with a style or tone of his own that does not rule out the loans of other philosophical schools (Epicureanism, skepticism, cynicism, Platonism …) Seneca is a master of life, of philosophical good living. To dominate oneself, to escape the passions of the vulgar, to seek tranquility through resignation, to practice clemency. In times of crisis the thought of Seneca is more alive than ever because it has a great virtue: that of making us “enter into reason” smoothly.” El pensamiento vivo de Seneca. (The Living Thought of Seneca)
“To discover time is to discover the deceit of life, its ultimate trap; is to feel forcibly, in an instant at least, as a deceived boy who is deceived. It is, thus, an enter into reason. For some reason Heraclitus, who has so exact sense of time, speaks to us in that paternal tone of reprimand. By putting ourselves before the evidence of the incessant running of things, it is making us “to reason.” – El pensamiento vivo de Seneca. (The Living Thought of Seneca)
Catherynne M. Valente
Cathelynne M. Valente is an American fiction writer, poet, and literary critic. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics. Although not a philosopher, I wanted to conclude this post with this beautiful fragment from one of her books:
“When I was a young girl, I studied Greek in school. It’s a beautiful language and ever so many good things were written in it. When you speak Greek, it feels like a little bird flapping its wings on your tongue as fast as it can. This is why I sometimes put Greek words into my stories, even though not so many people speak Ancient Greek anymore. Anything beautiful deserves to be shared round, and anything I love goes into my stories for safekeeping.
The word I love is Arete.
It has a simple meaning and a complicated meaning. The simple one is: excellence. But if that were all, we’d just use Excellence and I wouldn’t bring it up until we got to E. Arete means your own excellence. Your very own. A personal excellence that belongs to no one else, one that comes out of all the things that make you special and different. Arete means whatever you are best at, no matter what that is. You might think the Greeks only meant things like fighting with bronze swords or debating philosophy, but they didn’t. They meant whatever you’re best at. What makes you feel like you’re doing the rightest thing in the world. And that might be fighting with bronze swords and it might mean debating philosophy—but it also might mean building machines, or drawing pictures, or playing the guitar, or acting in Shakespeare plays, or writing books, or making a home for people who need one, or listening so hard and so well that people tell you the things they really need to say even if they didn’t mean to, or running faster than anyone else, or teaching people patiently and boldly, or even making pillow forts or marching in parades or baking bread. It could be lending out just the right library book to just the right person at just the right moment. It could be standing up to the powerful even if you don’t feel very powerful yourself, even if you’re lost and as far away from home as you can get. It could be loving someone with the same care and thoroughness that a Wyvern takes with alphabetizing. It could be anything in the world. And it isn’t easy to figure out what that is. It’s even harder to get that good at it, because nothing, not even being yourself, comes without practice. But your arete goes with you everywhere, just waiting for you to pay attention to it. You can’t lose it. You can only find it. And that’s my favorite thing that starts with A.”
Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There