Its fascinating how one man is considered the foundational figure of Western philosophy. Socrates, is considered one of the greatest philosopher with his ideas spanning various topics from love, truth, justice, courage and even knowledge itself. But who inspired his original ideas? Is a question most people shy from asking themselves?
A new research reveals that as a young man in the 5th –century BC Athens, Socrates came into contact with a fiercely intelligent woman, Aspasia of Miletus. It is thought that her ideas about love and transcendence inspired some of his key thoughts.
If historians accept this thesis, the history of philosophy will dramatically change. A woman who had almost been forgotten from the story must be reinstated for her key role in laying foundation for our 2500-year-old philosophical tradition.
A neoclassical painting done in the 19th century by Artist Nicolas Monsiau further strengthens this cause. It depicts Socrates (captured as poor and ugly. The son of a stonemason known from middle age for going unshod and wearing ragged clothes). He sits across a table from an immaculately dressed Aspasia who is busy gesturing. Looking on is a handsome young soldier Alcibiades.
Another philosopher Plato also said that Socrates was instructed in eloquence by Aspasia who was the partner of Athen’s leading statesman, Pericles for more than a decade. Thought to be a highly educated ‘courtesan;. Aspasia is depicted enumerating points of speech with her fingers while her gaze is directed at the young Albiciades. Socrates later on claimed to have been enthralled by Albiciades’ good looks and charisma ( as recounted in Plato’s dialogue symposium)
We are in a limbo as to whether the painting did Socrates any justice. His main biographers Plato and Xenophon nly knew him as an older man, but irrefutably, Socrates was once a young man and a beneficiary of Aspacia’s line of thoughts. Occasioanl information given by his biographers and ancient written texts which have generally been overlooked or misinterpreted paint adifferent picture of the philosopher. Socrates is seen as a well-educated youth who grew up to be a brave soldier and a passionate lover of both sexes. He was a great thinker and his debate skills were definitely top notch.
Socrates is famous for saying: “The only thing I know is I don’t know.”. But during a symposium in 199b, Plato reports him saying that he learned “the truth about love” from a clever woman. The mysterious woman is only named “Diotima” and Socrates expounds her doctrine druing the symposium.
Schlars have long disissd Diotima as fictional; often described as a priestess or seer of sorts. At best, she is described as an allegorical figure. One who inspired a visionary thinker like Socrates into the mysteries of love. But Plato gives some clues that strikes us with great curiosity but have never been validated.
Aspasia was born into a noble Arthenian family, possibly related to that of Pericles which ad settled in the Greek city of Miletus in Ionia. She migrated to Athens at around 20 years of age. Suppposedly, Socrates was of a similar age at that tim.
A few years later, Aspacia became attached to Pericles- a leading politician in Athens who was twice her age. However, Clearchus records that before Aspacia became Perice’s companion, she was with Socrates.” This is part of proof that Socraes was part of Pericles;s circle as a young man. He would definitely have been acquinted with Aspasia during that time.
Historians have been reluctant to trace the trajectory of Socrates younger life. It is still a mystery why in his priviledge youth, he decided to shun material success and embrace the life of the mind. Because there is limited and scattterd biographical sources to clarify this; regarding this thought, Socrates acquaintance with Aspasia seems to be the most logical missing link.
During her day, Aspasia was the cleverest and most influential woman. The partner of Pericles, an influential politician. For 15 years, she was widely slandered by comic playwrights for her influence over him. She is depicted by artists, politicians, and part of Pericles’ circle of thinkers as a matchmaker and a marriage counselor. Plato, Xenopho, and others admired her for her great eloquence during instruction.
In Plato’s dialogue Menexenus, she is described as teaching Socrates how to give a funeral speech just as she allegedly once taught Pericles. Her skill in public speaking was unmatched to anyone and she was particularly knowledgeablee about love; just like “Diotima”
Scorlasr are quick to dismiss the Menexenus scenario as a pardoy of oratorical technique. The fats that Plato accords her considerable intellectual authority over Scorates continues to alarm generations of scholars most of who have remained in utter denial.
Meanwhile, they are eager to consider Aspasia a “brothel keeper and prostitute” basing on citations from comic poets of the day. At best, they are willing to elevate her status to that of a heitara– a courtesan. But this status lacks backing from any single ancient source.
If we choose to accept the evidence that proves Aspasia was the referenced “diotima” then we undoubtedly commission her as an authoritative instructor of eloquence and an expert in matters concerning love – rather than a prostitute or brothel keeper.
The Diotima doctrine teaches that the physical realm can and should preferably be put aside in favor of higher ideals. That love’s paramount duty is education of the soul rather than gratification of the body. The particular should undoubtedly be subordinated to the general, the transcient to the permanent.
These ideas have been acknowldeged to be the very foundation of wstern philosophical tradition. While evidences all point to Aspacia being the real ‘Diotima’ failure to see the obvious can be attributed to the uncocnious prejusices about the status and interllectual bias towards women.
The beautiful, dynamic and intelligent Aspasia should be restored to her true status as one of the influencing figures of European philosophy.