Tuesday, March 12, 2013

From Arete to Lasthenia


Arete of Cyrene lived in North Africa in what is now known as Libya. She was the daughter of Aristippus, a student and friend of Socrates. Aristippus founded a hedonist school where Arete taught natural and moral philosophy. Eventually taking over the school from her father, Arete is believed to have written forty books. No known works written by Arete survive, therefore our knowledge stems primarily from second hand accounts or the works of the hedonist sect to which she belongs. Cyrenaic doctrines that we have today are believed to have been written down by Aristippus the Younger, Arete's son. In general, the Cyrenaics saw pleasure as the sole criterion for morality, but this pleasure comes not from extreme excitement. The pleasure they described came through calm reflection. Good was defined as independence and not being ruled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. The epitaph on Arete's tomb suggests she was well-regarded during her life: it "declared that she was the splendor 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" (198).

Asclepigenia of Athens taught at a neo-Platonic school, headed by her father (Plutarch of Athens), during the 5th century (AD). The school, Asclepigenia included, taught material that starkly contrasted with the new and fast-spreading Christian doctrines of the time. Again, no primary texts survive written by her. But based on the work of her teachers and pupils, we may assume that she was interested in understanding causes and predicting outcomes with the use of magic to influence the gods.

Axiothea of Philesia is remembered because she famously dressed like a man to attend Plato's lectures in the 4th century (BCE). Why exactly she did this is unknown. In fact some consider this a criticism of Plato's work since, the argument goes, based on his works and what he said about the nature of women he should have allowed a woman to study under him.

Cleobulina of Rhodes has the distinct honor of having her work referenced by Aristotle. Unfortunately, little is known about her. Her status as a philosopher is often questioned due to the lack of information. But the fact remains that Aristotle at least mentions her, twice quoting her in Poetics and Rhetoric. Plutarch claims that she ultimately influenced her father to rule Rhodes "fairly" (207).

Hipparchia the Cynic apparently became a Cynic to be with a man named Crates. She was criticized for her "undomestic habits" that came with living the life of a Cynic. As far as we know, she made no great contribution to the Cynic philosophy.

Lasthenia of Mantinea is thought to have been a student of Plato, but all evidence is third party and small in quantity.

As a whole, little is known about these women. Their lives and philosophies remain somewhat of a mystery as do their influence and contribution to the areas of philosophy they were interested and involved in.

Personal Response

In the cases of these women--I am thinking here specifically of Arete--it is unfortunate that we do not have access to any written works by them. All we can do is assume Arete shared the beliefs of her order, but we have no way of knowing her personal opinion or contribution to the philosophy. I found it interesting that Arete was attributed with the virtues of both men and women in her epitaph. In many ways it made me think of her as a woman who did not have to disguise herself to pursue philosophy. Axiothea, on the other hand, dressed as a man to learn from Plato. I was disappointed that no more is known about why Axiothea did this and what the outcome was: but it may be significant that both Arete and Asclepigenia had fathers who ran schools.

I find I have to keep reminding myself that even Aristotle's work did not survive in its entirety. These women may have written extensive manifestos; we simply don't know about them. Initially I picked this chapter because I thought it might have something to do with the Aristotelian conception of arete/excellence, but it was still interesting to get a sampling of different women philosophers.

These women, and probably more about whom we don't know, were clearly active philosophically even during the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. That suggests that as much as we might think that women were locked up or confined entirely to the domestic scene, at least some were able to participate in the realm of philosophy in some way.


Chapter 10 "Arete, Asclepigenia, Axiothea, Cleobulina, Hipparchia, and Lasthenia" of A History of Women Philosophers: Ancient Women Philosophers 600 B.C.-500 A.D. by Mary Ellen Waithe

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