The great influential Ancient Greek philosophers that are commonly known today are all men. Although it was rare, female philosophers did exist in the same era as legends like Plato and Socrates. With a lack of documentation and few sources that write about them, it is difficult to gather in-depth knowledge about their lives and teachings. In addition to this, their own written works or speeches given, many credited to men in their philosophical circle, don’t exist anymore in any records. Oftentimes, information may only be found in one source, which leads some to question if they were truly a historical figure or just a fictional character. What we know about the lives and philosophies of three female philosophers – Diotima of Mantinea, Aspasia of Miletus, and Sosipatra of Ephesus – will be the focus of this article.
1. Diotima of Mantinea
Diotima first appeared in Plato’s philosophical text Symposium, written in c. 385-370 BC. The piece includes speeches given by philosophers like Socrates, speaking in favor of the god of love, Eros. Her existence as an actual historical figure is debatable; it’s impossible to conclude with certainty if she was just a fictional character or not. Regardless, she supposedly lived around 440 B.C. and helped formulate the idea of “platonic love” through her position in Symposium. The origins of her name indicate her loyalty to the god Zeus and her prophetic capabilities.
Diotima is described as a wise foreigner who serves the role of a priest. Although she’s not stated to be officially a part of the priesthood, she provides the Athenians with advice about sacrifice, which directly temporarily prevents a plague. Socrates shares an anecdote that provides concrete evidence to this, explaining her victorious prophecy that delayed the plague for 10 years. While speaking about Eros, she emphasizes the concepts of prophecy, purification, mysticism, and revelations.
With the context of the times in mind, her prophetic nature sometimes led to skepticism. The Peloponnesian War involved two major urban plagues in 429 and 427 BCE and a Spartan victory over Athens. Nonetheless, her prophetic powers have been recorded in history, leading to her being considered a “mantic woman” or seeress – likely due to a mistranslation of her name – and cementing her label as a priestess.
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In a speech by Socrates, he details Diotima’s belief about love, which is defined by the idea that love is not completely beautiful or good. She provides a genealogy of Love (Eros), which begins with the search for beauty in nature and in the physical body. As wisdom is gained, beauty is sought on a spiritual level, through the human soul. Diotima believed the most powerful use of love is the mind’s love of wisdom and philosophy. The linear journey of love begins with acknowledging another human’s beauty, reveling in the beauty outside of an individual, appreciating divine beauty where love originates from, and loving divinity itself. This line of thinking is sometimes called Diotima’s Ladder of Love.
Was Diotima a fictional character? If she was, why would Plato choose the name Diotima for her? Interestingly, a contrasting comparison can be made against the prominent Athenian leader Alcibiades’ consort named Timandra. Her name translates to “honor the man”, while Diotima’s name means “honor the god.” The two women parallel each other due to the fact that Socrates takes Diotima as a mistress in Symposium, yet she is a priestess instead of a courtesan as was typical. Similar to Diotima however, Timandra may also have not existed in reality, and the Greek philosopher Plutarch may have invented her.
Regarding the possibility of Diotima of being fictional versus a real historical figure, it can be confirmed that many of Plato’s written characters in Symposium match up with actual people who existed in ancient Athens. She appears to hold her own individual beliefs outside of the thoughts and ideologies of both Plato and Socrates, passing her knowledge on them instead of solely being influenced by them. Written works from the 2nd-5th centuries A.D. state Diotima as real by writers like Lucian; however, this may just be based on only Plato’s account. It wasn’t until the 15th century that Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino proposed her fictionality. As evidence for this, he states that Plato was known to write fictional characters, such as Callicles in the Gorgias, and that her name aligned too perfectly with the symbolism of her role.
2. Aspasia of Miletus
Aspasia (c.470- after 428 BC) was the consort of Pericles, a famous Athenian politician. Beyond this association however, she’s also remembered for her feminist beliefs and her fight for women’s rights. As a metic – someone who immigrated from a foreign country – she wasn’t allowed to marry an Athenian and was forced to pay taxes. However, her foreign status helped her escape the confines of strict policies related to women’s rights. She gave birth to a son with Pericles outside of marriage, was a teacher to both men and women, and lived her life on her own terms. It is believed that Aspasia was her given name as a hetaira, or high-class courtesan since it translates to “desired one”.
Aspasia referenced her high education, so it is believed that Miletus was her hometown, as it was one of the rare places where women could attend university. This also indicates her family’s probable high status and wealth. It’s impossible to confirm why she ended up in Athens, although one proposition is her connection to Alcibiades, grandfather of famous general Alcibiades. After being exiled in Miletus, he married Aspasia’s sister and moved back to Athens with both women. Aspasia met Pericles around c. 450 BCE and immediately was in a relationship with him, sparking a divorce with his wife at the time.
In several ancient Greek texts, she’s described as a powerful controller of men and is considered to this day to have resisted the patriarchal society in defiance of women being perceived as weaker and unintelligent. No written works or knowledge about her specific teachings exist, yet it is known that her accomplishments as a woman were noteworthy. Funeral Oration is a famous speech that Pericles is credited with; however, it’s claimed that Aspasia was truly the one behind this important speech regarding the fallen of the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, this and other assertions like her possible influence over Socrates cannot be proven.
Aspasia started a girl’s school and ran a popular salon, which some critics labeled both as brothels or training grounds for courtesans. She was constantly surrounded with significant figures from politicians to philosophers in the highest aristocratic circles as the partner of Pericles. Influential men like Plato would describe Aspasia satirically in their works, and Plutarch worshiped Pericles while defaming her. However, there were some men who praised her intellect, such as the philosopher Aeschines, who admired her public speaking abilities.
It’s speculated that she created Socrates’ famous concept of the Inductio, which formed the basis of argument at an intellectual level. Jumping ahead many years, author Gertrude Atherton wrote her popular novel The Immortal Marriage in 1927 CE. This book solidified the undoubtable influence Aspasia had over highly acclaimed philosophers of that era and defined her as a powerful proto-feminist and independent woman. Referencing back to Diotima, those who are skeptical of her actual existence believe she was modeled after Aspasia. A first century bronze relief discovered in Pompeii shows Socrates with a womanly figure, who may have been based on Aspasia. Although much information about her is surrounded by mystery, there’s substantial evidence of her strong position as one of the leading female philosophers in a male-dominated society.
3. Sosipatra of Ephesus
Sosipatra of Ephesus was an ancient Greek Neoplatonist philosopher and mystic whose existence can be proven through Greek historian Eunapius’ Lives of the Sophists. She lived in Ephesus and Pergamon at the beginning of the 4th century CE, born to a wealthy family. As a child, her father’s estate was flourishing with the help of two men who contributed to producing a bountiful harvest. These men gained ownership over the estate and stayed there while her father was away for five years to teach Sosipatra ancient Chaldean wisdom. During those years, she began harnessing a talent for clairvoyance.
She married fellow Neoplatonist and sophist Eustathius of Cappadocia, who she felt could never surpass her own wisdom and spiritual abilities. Together they had three sons, one who became an influential philosopher as well. Her husband passed away and she moved to Pergamon, where she connected with Neoplatonist Aedesius who was a philosophy teacher there. The two founded a school there, with him as her consort. In Lives of the Sophists, it is written that while Aedesius’ lectures were open to all students, hers were only for the advanced, or “inner circle” pupils.
One story that Eunapius outlined expressed her association with magical powers. Her relative Philometer cast a love spell on her due to his infatuation with her. Sosipatra confided in a pupil of Aedesius named Maximus of her new confusing feelings towards Philometer, and he was able to create a spell to remove the magic cast onto her. After forgiving Philometer, she stayed spiritually connected to him, and was able to save him from an accident after experiencing a vision warning of danger upon him. She was considered a “divine woman”, with an oracular gift to see into the past, present, and future.
Although only one account of her life and accomplishments exists, she’s still perceived to be one of the most highly influential female philosophers by many historians. However, others do believe her lack of representation may be interpreted as a sign of overestimation through the descriptions of Eunapius. Arguing against this stance, Polish historian Maria Dzielska proposed that the absence of references to Sosipatra may be due to “damnatio memoriae”, or the purposeful erasure of a historical figure. The suspected reason that Eunapius dedicated a significant section of Lives of the Sophists to Sosipatra was to honor her as a teacher and to illustrate a biographical narrative in contrast to the popular female Christian saints at the time.
As a pagan, he wanted to highlight a woman deserving of respect and admiration, one who exuded inner strength and high intellect. The females being written about during that era were being praised for their “virginal or celibate female ascetic”, and his account emphasized her independence and oracular nature that set her apart. Her existence and her prominence is questioned; however, the close ties she had with major historical figures of 4th-century society, intellectually and politically, provide evidence that is hard to argue with. Discussions of all three ancient Greek female philosophers presented lead to differing opinions about their true existence as a historical figure. Nonetheless, what we can be sure of is that their influence remains today in the field of philosophy and its history.