Aspasia of Miletus

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“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” 
Socrates

Aspasia

In every age, you will find a woman that captures the imagination of an entire generation.  And then there are the exceptionally rare ones that capture the imagination of history.  Names like Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Marie Antoinette, and Joan of Arc have archetypal influence even until this very day.  I believe that Aspasia, the lady of Classical Athens, is one of these remarkable women.

Bold, beautiful, intelligent and educated, Aspasia sought equality within a male-dominated society that allowed women few rights and little opportunity to take part in public life.  Aspasia became the consort of Pericles, leader of democratic Athens, the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator and general.  They were a power couple that lived in the Golden Age of Athens, between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.  Her life was lived in extremes, her intelligence and power both admired and scorned.  Praised by her admirers and blamed for unpopular events by her enemies, she remained politically progressive until the very end.

Aspasia’s narrative is more riveting than a best seller, yet it was her ability to live her philosophy that garners our admiration. She came from Miletus, the city known for knowledge and cultural diversity.  Long before she conversed with philosophers, poets and politicians, she was in the classroom, immersed in study.  In those formative years, Aspasia was preparing to take centre stage.  Her life is a testament to the power of education.

“The really important thing is not to live, but to live well. And to live well meant, along with more enjoyable things in life, to live according to your principles.” 
Socrates

The Love of Diotima

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“Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.” 
Plato, Symposium

A Path

Diotima of Mantinea’s place in the history is unrivaled. Indeed, without her, Plato’s Symposium would have been a rather commonplace affair.  You may recall the setting.  A group of brilliant thinkers came together, in the manner of the elite of Athens, to discuss the merits and intricacies of love.

The banquet’s guest list was a “who’s who” of Athens:  Phaedrus, an aristocrat, Alcibiades, a statesman, orator and general, Pausanias, a legal expert, Eryximachus, a physician, Aristophanes, a comic playwright, Agathon, a tragic poet and host of the event and Socrates, the eminent philosopher and Plato’s teacher. Everyone had their turn to speak, however it was Socrates’ dialogue that transformed our understanding of love. Over the course of a lavish feast, he related with persuasive eloquence the ideas that were given to him by the prophetess, Diotima.

Diotima’s inspiration was the concept of divine or Platonic love, the means by which humanity can ascend to the contemplation of the divine.  The most truthful way to love others is to embrace a love that transcends the earthly plane, to touch divinity.  A genuine Platonic love recognizes the beauty and loveliness in another person in a way that inspires the mind and soul to the spiritual, rather than the physical.

Diotima’s name means “honoured by Zeus.”  Her identity is shrouded in mystery, and there is some debate as to whether or not she actually existed.  Even so, we have the word of two reliable philosophers, who stated without reservation, that Diotima of Mantinea gave the world the best of all possible loves.

“Love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.” 

 Plato, Symposium

Leontion, The Audacious

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“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.” 

 Epicurus

Leontion

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”

Cicero

Hipparchia’s Great Love

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“Not one tower does my country have, not one roof, But for home and city, the entire earth lies, At my disposition for a dwelling.”

Diogenes Laertius, on a Cynic’s view of the world

Hipparchia

The moment Hipparchia of Maroneia, saw Crates of Thebes, the renowned Cynic philosopher, she was passionately and irrevocably in love.  Nothing, not even her parents’ strong misgivings, could dissuade her from marrying him.  She would rather end her life than face the prospect of living without him.   Indeed, Crates warned her of what her life would be with him.  It is said that he disrobed and pointed at his garment, saying, “Here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.”

Crates of Thebes, once heir to a considerable fortune, gave it all away to live a life of poverty on the streets of Athens.  According to many accounts, he lived with a cheerful simplicity, well-liked by all who knew him.  The meeting with Hipparchia came by way of her brother, Metrocles, who was a student of Crates.

Hipparchia became an ardent devotee of the Cynic philosophy and became an eminent Cynic philosopher while still in her early twenties.  Cynics believed that the purpose of life was to seek virtue and live in harmony with nature.  Renouncing conventional desires for wealth, power and fame, Cynics took pleasure in an unadorned life, without the complications of materialism.

Crates and Hipparchia lived remarkable lives.  Their marriage, which produced a son and daughter, was based on mutual respect and equality, a foreign concept for ancient Greece. Hipparchia embraced the Cynic poverty-based lifestyle, donned masculine attire, and accompanied Crates everywhere in public.  The Athenians were stunned by their lack of propriety.   With her husband by her side, Hipparchia fought tirelessly for the rights of women bound within a strict, male dominated culture. She dared to flaunt the status quo and chose her personal destiny.

“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.”

Epigram ascribed to Antipater of Sidon on the life of Hipparchia

Arete – The Splendour of Greece

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“A wise man’s country is the world”

Aristippus of Cyrene

Arete

Arete of Cyrene, daughter of the philosopher Aristippus, was born and raised in the city of Cyrene located in North Africa in what it now the nation of Libya.  In Arete’s time, Cyrene was one of the great intellectual centres of the classical world, boasting a vibrant academic community and celebrated medical school.

Aristippus, a student and close friend of Socrates, founded the philosophy school known as the Cyrenaics. Pleasure was the only good in life and pain was the only evil.  Happiness was the main dynamic of existence, while virtue had little essential value.  This was a clear departure from Socrates’ philosophy, which argued that virtue was the only human good, relegating happiness to a less important goal of moral action.

Arete was one of her father’s most devoted students becoming a philosopher of note in her own right.   She continued in her father’s footsteps by teaching philosophy to her son, Aristippus the Younger. Known to be prudent, practical and to abhor excess of any kind, she lived the principles of her belief system.  With her father’s passing, she became his successor until the rise of her son and a new generation.

Arete was beloved by her city and all through Greece. And no wonder!  For thirty-five years she taught natural and moral philosophy in the schools and academies throughout Attica.  She wrote forty books and taught one hundred and ten philosophers over the course of her tenure. Her mission was to spread equality throughout her world. Respected, admired and mourned at her passing, her tomb was inscribed with an epitaph that would be read down through the centuries.  Arete, the splendour of Greece, who possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the soul of Socrates, and the tongue of Homer.

Arete’s life is a testament to the power of knowledge, community, and shared compassion.

 

“I dream of a world where there are neither masters nor slave.”

Arete of Cyrene

 

The Philosopher Priestess at Delphi

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“Aristoxenus says that Pythagoras got most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess, Themistoclea.”

Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 

Wisdom

Themistoclea was a sacred priestess at Delphi, the site of the revered Delphic oracle, the sanctuary dedicated to the great god, Apollo.  Apollo would speak by way of the sibyl or priestess of the oracle known as the Pythia.  Not everyone could aspire to this lofty position.  Only older women known to have an impeccable, flawless character could apply.

Themistoclea had those qualifications and was recognized for her wisdom.  Her talents as a teacher were recorded by Diogenes Laertius in his comprehensive work, “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.” It was written that Pythagoras was introduced to the principles of ethics by none other than our priestess, Themistoclea.  Ethics, the branch of philosophy that classifies, defends and recommends concepts of right and wrong, requires the application of wisdom, honesty and compassion.  It is the education of the spirit as well as the mind.

Pythagoras went on to discover one of the most famous equations of all time, yet we can thank Themistoclea for teaching him discernment.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” 

 Aristotle