“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
[Address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 November 2004]”
Most of us dislike conflict and will do anything to avoid the unnecessary unpleasantness of raised voices and difficult conversations. There are those among us, however, who would welcome the opportunity to engage in an animated discussion. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.” The Ancients would be in complete agreement.
Xeonophanes was a contemporary and outspoken critic of Pythagoras. Heraclitus was quick to scorn Homer; even Pythagoras and Xenophanes did not escape his ridicule. Leontion’s audacious criticism of the celebrated and unassailable philosopher, Theophrastus, was still talked about centuries after her passing. Plato recorded the iconic debate on love in the famed Symposium. The fundamental standard within all of these historical scuffles was the subject matter. The debate was about ideas, not about personal vendettas or trivial disagreements.
Great thinkers engage in debate, not conflict. As Joseph Joubert, French moralist and essayist, once said, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Our world is in need of thinkers who look for solutions when they put forward their ideas in a way that welcomes an open dialogue. Argue the merits of the position, rather than stooping to pettiness and vain posturing. Recall Aristotle’s words, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.”
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Whenever I think of Epicurus, I think of a sumptuous banquet held in a bucolic environment with soft music set against the lingering light of a late summer afternoon. This is not precisely what Epicurean philosophy was all about, however. While Epicurus was thought of as hedonistic because of his emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure, it would be a mistake to think he condoned an immoral or decadent lifestyle. Rather, his philosophy featured wisdom as the greatest virtue, enabling the student to learn which pleasure to seek and which to avoid. More remarkable, Epicurus allowed women and slaves to attend his school.
Leontion was of pupil of Epicurus. We only know about her through the writings of others who considered her to be noteworthy. There has been some debate on her background. She may have been a hetaera, or courtesan, which accounts for her independent lifestyle, denied to most women in the Ancient Greek male-dominated society. She was also the companion of Metrodorus of Lampsacus, one the four major proponents of Epicureanism. According to the writings of Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus praised Leontion for her finely written arguments against other unnamed philosophical perspectives.
Centuries later, Pliny recorded that Aristides of Thebes painted her in his work entitled, “Leontion thinking of Epicurus.” Even Cicero is said to have published her arguments. Why was she remembered so vividly? Leontion did the unthinkable. She criticized the celebrated and unassailable philosopher, Theophrastus, the pupil of Plato and the chief assistant of Aristotle. She was audacious, confident and able to match the great philosopher in a debate.
Leontion must have caused quite a fracas, for historians were still marveling at her impudence long after her passing.
“Leontium, that mere courtesan, who had the effrontery to write a riposte to Theophrastus – mind you, she wrote elegantly in good Attic, but still, this was the licence which prevailed in the Garden of Epicurus”