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NOT A WOMAN’S BUSINESS: how women created «masculine» philosophy

NOT A WOMAN'S BUSINESS: how women created «masculine» philosophy
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Midjourney


Thanks to the movie «Agora», which told the story of Hypatia, the general public became aware of the existence of women philosophers in ancient society. Unfortunately, other equally prominent women remained little known. Meanwhile, female philosophers were represented in almost all the major schools of antiquity: among the Pythagoreans and the Cynics, the Platonists and the Epicureans…




Born out of myth, philosophy could not ignore the metaphor of masculine and feminine, which played not the least role in the mythological picture of the world. Human thinking about the world in general is characterized by binary oppositions: light — darkness, day — night, good — evil, masculine — feminine. The feminine was often understood as equal to the masculine but with the opposite sign.

The masculine is light, rationality, and order. The feminine is something infernal, dark, and chaotic. We find a similar idea already in Pythagoras, from which later philosophical constructions were largely derived. That is why Nietzsche’s attitude, «You go to women? Do not forget the whip!», which is outrageous from the modern point of view, did not begin with Nietzsche.

Aristotle spoke very harshly about women, denying them the ability to generate rational meanings due to the irrationality of the female beginning. In Aristotle’s understanding, not all people are equally «good»: men are at the highest level of rationality, followed by women and slaves. Of course, this view was reflected in the whole way of life of ancient society.

For our modern preferences, the Hellenes were ultra-patriarchal, and the fate of women in such a society was unenviable. They were powerless and had no influence on the life of the polis.




The only exception was the hetaera — something between a prostitute and the mistress of a philosophical salon. But this is, as they say, a different story … The most famous hetaera in the philosophical field was a phenomenally gifted woman, Diotima, from the city of Mantinea in Arcadia.

In Mantinea, she was a priestess, most likely at the temple of Aphrodite, but also a prophetess, philosopher, and healer. Her prayers spared Athens from the plague that raged in Athens around 429 BC. Apparently, out of gratitude, she was allowed to live in the polis. But as a non-Athenian, her only possible career was to become a hetaera.

Plato immortalized Diotima in his «Symposium». In this dialog, Socrates expounds her original idea, which would later be called «Platonic love» for some reason — a clear injustice to the hetaera-philosopher. In brief, the essence of Diotima’s philosophy of love is not to consider sex an aim in itself. By striving naturally toward immortality and beauty, man is able to make the ascent from sexual love to divine love.

The figure of Diotima was so atypical that its historicity was questioned. It was suggested that her prototype was another prominent woman of the V century BC — Aspasia, mentioned by Plato in another dialog, «Menexenus». However, modern researchers are still inclined to consider Diotima a real historical person.




The hetaera Aspasia has a different biography from the hetaera Diotima but is no less philosophically gifted than her colleague. It is quite possible that the name Aspasia (translated as «affectionate») is a pseudonym, as it was very popular among the hetaeras. Like Diotima, Aspasia was not an Athenian. The wisest of women was from Miletus, and being quite good at rhetoric, she raised many good orators.

One of them, the «father of Athenian democracy», Pericles, became her «informal» husband. Formally, to marry a hetaera who had no civil rights in Athens was impossible. Aspasia helped Pericles to prepare for debates and gave helpful advice, including on issues of war and peace. It was said that the famous Pericles’ Funeral Oration actually belongs to her authorship. Moreover, with no less famous «Socratic dialog» is probably the case, as well as with «platonic love» — this method of discussion was first invented by a woman!

In the «Menexenus», Socrates appears as Aspasia’s student; she even slaps him for not paying attention. Like Socrates, Aspasia does not argue with her interlocutors but leads them to the correct conclusions by consistently asking questions. Aspasia’s talents attracted the best minds of the day to her.

In fact, she was the hostess of the philosophical salon, which was visited by historians Herodotus and Thucydides, sculptor Phidias, playwright Euripides, philosophers Socrates, Anaxagoras, Zeno, Protagoras, and others.


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As we can see, not all philosophers agreed with Aristotle. His teacher, Plato, was much more tolerant than his student in the «women’s issue». Plato did not emphasize male superiority. In his ideal state, the importance of women and men is practically equal.

For such unprecedented humanism for Hellenes, Plato can be considered the first feminist. However, Plato was not alone, and ancient intellectuals often questioned the customs of the polis. We know that there were women philosophers among the Pythagoreans as early as the 6th century BC. «Pythagorean women» made up to 10% of all members of the religious-philosophical order.

The male Pythagoreans looked at the women not so much as something «inferior» but as «other». The feminine was understood as a necessary element of world harmony and the music of the spheres. At different stages of initiation, women were tested on an equal footing with men. For example, for 5 years, they observed a vow of silence. Somehow, it doesn’t fit with stereotypes about women’s talkativeness?




In the work with meanings, which Aristotle denied women, Pythagorean women were also quite competitive. The story of Pythagoras confirms the thesis that behind every great man, there is a great woman.

In the case of Pythagoras, this is true. His wife, Theano, was not only among the first disciples but also a true «apostle» of Pythagoreanism. After her husband’s death, she led the Pythagorean school for 6 years. Therefore, Pythagoras owes much of its fame to Theano.

She can rightfully be considered the first female philosopher with whom other representatives of the «fair sex» took an example. An example is the Pythagorean Ptolemais from Cyrene. Written by her «Pythagorean Principles of Music» allows us to consider Ptolemais as the first female musicologist in history.




History knows many women who, following the example of Theano, led entire schools of philosophy. For example, a contemporary of Socrates, Arete, picked up the baton from her father, Aristippus, the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy.

During her 35-year philosophical career, she wrote 40 books and trained 110 philosophers. Among them was a son, Aristippus the Younger, who was nicknamed Metrodidactus, «mother’s pupil». He later became himself at the head of the school.

Aretha of Cyrenaica, like all Cyrenaics, taught that the objective world exists, but only the sensations it causes are cognizable. Therefore, it is worth focusing on self-knowledge and understanding how to reduce suffering and increase pleasure in life.

Cyrenaics are considered the forerunners of Epicurus, whom Diogenes Laertius even accused of plagiarism, however, not quite fairly. Aretha remained in the memory of contemporaries, an exceptionally uncommon woman. Her epitaph says that Aretha «as Greece, had the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Penelope, the feather of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates, and the language of Homer».




But the list of female headmasters of «ancient Hogwarts» does not end there. In the V century AD, just as Aretha once did, the Athenian Asclepigenia inherited the Athenian school of Neoplatonism after her father’s death. However, Plato and Aristotle were combined with mysticism and theurgy, or simply — with practical magic.

Asklepigenia taught to control one’s destiny. It was not only about material well-being but also about how to «extract» knowledge from divine entities. One of Asklepigenia’s students was Proclus Diadochus, the future head of Plato’s Academy.

Historians of philosophy consider Proclus’ writings to be the apogee of Neoplatonism. But today, few people remember that this outstanding thinker, like Socrates and Plato before him, stood on the shoulders of other titans. Or rather, on the fragile shoulders of women.


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