Apasia of Miletus

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A note on Aspasia of Miletus                                                                       

Steven Brutus, 2014

Steven Goldman, PhD

[Read as Digital Publication]

When we think of philosophy from Ancient Greece we recall names like Pythagoras, Parmenides and Zeno, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  History records the names of few women philosophers from ancient times.  Some of the few names that have come down to us include early Pythagoreans such as Themistoclea, Theano, Arignote and Damo.  Plutarch records that Themistoclea was a priestess at Delphi.  Aristoxenos asserts that Themistoclea introduced Pythagoras — sometimes considered the first philosopher — to ethics.  Theano, the daughter of Brontinus of Croton, became Pythagoras’ student, later his wife; Arignote and Damo were their daughters and later the expounders of their doctrines.  These figures all lie somewhere between legend and history — Pythagoras is a historical character, but in truth we know very little about him.  Some names of women philosophers with better historical documentation include the later Pythagoreans Aesura of Lucania, Phintys of Sparta, and Perictione.  Perictione is sometimes identified as Plato’s mother — i.e. the mother of Aristocles, son of Ariston, whose nickname was ‘Plato’ (‘broad shouldered’).  She left us two treatises: On the Harmony of Women and On Wisdom, though some have questioned whether the same author created both these works.  Plato himself introduces the incomparable Diotima of Mantinea in his dialogue Symposium.  Her profound ideas about love, reason, beauty and immortality have had a huge impact on Western culture.  Plato describes her as a priestess and wise woman in secret things, a teacher to the young Socrates “in the art of love.”  Yet the consensus of classical scholars through the ages is that Diotima is an entirely fictional character.  Axiothea and Lasthenia are mentioned as students of Plato during the first years of the academy, but are also thought to be members of his famous family, who traced their origins to the lawgiver Solon.  Hipparchia of Meroneia was a woman philosopher from a half-century later, also known as the partner and wife of the Cynic philosopher, Crates.


Thus the first group of women thinkers we can identify in Greek literature are either mythopoeic figures from the legendary past or the wives and daughters of famous men.  This is one reason why Aspasia is such a striking figure in the history of philosophy.


Aspasia of Miletus is often regarded as the most important woman of the classical era.  She achieves this status entirely on her own merit rather than through her connections: yet these are impressive too and include Zeno, Anaxagoras, Phidias, Sophocles, her student Socrates and of course her lover and partner, Pericles, Athens’ head of state.  Very little of her thinking is known to us — none of her writings survive — yet it is still possible to imagine some of her reasonings, pieced together from contemporary sources.  In this brief note I will explore a few Aspasian ideas and reflect on their import for philosophy — especially in the tradition that regards philosophy as therapeia, therapy and healing for the troubled soul — which is the line of thought and common concern of the Existential Psychoanalytic Institute and Society that will publish this note.  My hope is that people who like myself work for a philosophically inspired healing will find something of value in the musings of a woman who lived twenty-five centuries ago.

Fundamentally this is a work of philosophical imagination and attempt at reconstruction. I offer a brief biographical sketch, an account of Aspasia’s thinking, and an assessment.

  1. Biography

Aspasia was born in Miletus sometime around 470 and died in Athens circa 400 BCE.  Several ancient sources name her father one Axiochus and speculate about his family.  She appears to have been sold into slavery — by one account as a prisoner of war, after her family’s native province, Caria, lost its freedom to Miletus — by another because her family could not afford a dowry.  While still a child, she was singled out for her beauty.  She was given a fine education and trained as a hetaera (courtesan, prostitute, geisha).  She appears to have learned several languages and much of the medical knowledge of her time.  Some accounts have her enslaved in Persia, then married and widowed, using her widow’s fortune to travel to Athens — the home city from which Ionian Miletus was colonized — and by several accounts she arrives in Athens at approximately age 20.

Within a decade after her migration to Athens she has set up a school for the daughters of well-to-do families, become friends with illustrious thinkers such as Anaxagoras and Zeno, become Socrates’ teacher in rhetoric and, scandalously, is living with Pericles, Athens’ head of state, after he has divorced his wife, who was also his cousin, Dejanira.

Ancient writers who discuss Aspasia — praising or abusing her, or in some cases both — include Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Atheneus, Antisthenes, Plutarch, Cicero, Lucian,  Eupolus, Cratinus, Duris, Aeschines and Dodorus Siculus.  Aeschines and Antisthenes both wrote dialogues entitled Aspasia, but both works are lost, save for a few fragments.

Aspasia was charged with impiety and corruption and again appears in good company in this connection, since Anaxagoras, Phidias, Socrates and Aristotle all faced these charges.  Hermippus the comic poet — another ancient source for our knowledge of her — brought and prosecuted the charges, but Aspasia was acquitted of all charges — yet she spoke up in her defense at her trial, which no woman before her had done, and this seems to have increased public knowledge about her and made her even more a target of gossip and condemnation.  Pericles also spoke at her trial and showed some emotion in doing so.  This is significant because Pericles has the reputation of being the mildest and most even tempered among all ancient leaders — the most ‘Olympian,’ meaning majestic, stately, superior to mundane affairs — this lofty and disdainful man, the first man in Athens, thundered with emotion at Aspasia’s trial and demanded that she be held blameless.  Lucian calls her “the Lady from Ionia” and “most admired by the most admirable” (A Portrait Study, 27) — the same person who Cratinus calls a dog and Eupolis a whore.

Plutarch, who is something of a hostile witness, and who seems especially to despise Pericles and credit stories that chip away at his stellar reputation, states that despite her infamous reputation, Athenian men would bring their wives to hear Aspasia speak, and were anxious for their daughters to enter her school and learn her teachings (Pericles 24).

Pericles and most of his family died in the first years of the Peloponnesian War when the plague struck Athens and wiped out most of its population (429).  Aspasia turned to Lysicles, a general and democratic leader, for protection and married him, and it is said that she made him the first man in Athens.  Little of her is known after this point, except that she died a few years before Socrates, who was executed by the democracy in 399.

  1. Thought

Aspasia is recorded by most of the ancient sources cited above as a sophistes, a ‘sophist’ and teacher of speech and rhetoric.  Plato and several other writers pass on the story that Pericles’ Funeral Oration, recorded in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (II, 34-46), which is the most celebrated public speech from classical times, was not written by Pericles but by Aspasia instead (Plato, Menexenus 235).  It is noteworthy that this speech is among the first occasions in Greek history in which the word eros, which typically referred to bodily desires, is used instead to signify aspiration, the eros for ideas and great principles; Pericles encourages his hearers to become the city’s supporters, defenders and zealous guardians — to encourage their eros for a good and common cause — thus engaging eros in this positive sense and recommending a course of action in which we gradually get control of our baser desires yet also channel their amazing power.  Charles Kahn, the contemporary classical scholar, argues from these premises that Plato’s character Diotima of Mantinea, whose teaching about the ‘ladder of love’ is preserved in Plato’s dialogue Symposium, is really Aspasia in disguise (Charles H. Kahn, Plato and the Post-Socratic Dialogue: The Return to the Philosophy of Nature, 2014, pp. 26-7).

Aspasia is described as beautiful, but no physical description of her survives.  Instead there is the intriguing remark that her attraction lay in her animated expression and wonderful smile of reason, which no sculptor was able to convey.  She was said to listen intently in conversation and to hold her own with the greatest minds of the age — Socrates says in several places that he defers to her judgment about important issues, especially regarding love.  She is described as someone with astute political understanding, whose shrewd judgment was formed from experiences of suffering and degradation; she was said to possess a great penetration of mind and to quickly find a way to help her partners in conversation see the contradiction lying in their ideas, or to see the truth of her ideas.

Another recent commentator, Nicole Loraux, argues that Aspasia’s early training in the medical arts of her day — something that a hetaera was expected to learn — drew her to the analogy between applying drugs (pharmakon) and the use of discourses (logoi) to treat falsehood (Nicole Loraux, La Grèce au Féminin 2003, p. 29).  This very intuitive idea helps us see the truth of Cicero’s comment that Aspasia’s teachings had to do with how to acquire virtue through self-knowledge (Cicero, De Inventione, 1, 51-3).

Aspasia left no works of her own so that we must look for echoes of her musings in the works of other writers from her day.  I think regarding Loraux’s intuition, the place to look is Plato’s later dialogue Phaedrus, composed perhaps 30 years or so after her death.

Plato makes a number of thought-provoking claims in his discussions about persuasion, rhetoric, speechifying and related subjects that classical scholars associate with Aspasia.

Socrates proposes the problem in the Republic: “Suppose that we show someone that he does not know but merely has an opinion and he grows angry with us and protests that he knows and won’t listen to anyone — is there some way of soothing him and gently persuading him, without telling him too plainly that he is not in his right mind?” (467d).

Socrates investigates political speeches of his day to learn rhetoric and the arts of persuasion and he concludes that “the whole idea is to aim at making things seem likely, whether they are true or not” (Phaedrus 272).  He decides that this cannot really do the listener any good, since we may be persuading him to believe something false.  A great speaker can implant a belief in another person’s soul — you can talk people into something — just as a doctor can change a person’s body, e.g. by giving them drugs to calm or excite them, a speaker can calm or excite the soul.  But doctors learn more than just how to administer a drug, but when to administer it, in order to treat the illness.  They know what the disease is and how to cure it.  A true rhetoric or true art of persuasion is a kind of doctoring like this – Plato’s word for it is therapeia, ‘therapy.’ “In medicine and in speaking, we have to know the cause of the illness to treat it, and bring back health and strength, either by prescribing medicines, diet and physical exercise, or through discourses, ideas and intellectual training” (Phaedrus 270b).  Socrates asks “shouldn’t we try to persuade a person gently, since people do not make mistakes purposely, and so we should begin talking with him and asking questions?” (Republic 589c).  Plato appears to think that by asking questions and pursuing dialectic — following the course of free argument wherever it leads — a person’s native love of truth, or desire to see things squarely and discover what is real, will gradually emerge, and gather health and strength, so that the person will reject falsehood on his own.  This is what he calls psychagogia, literally ‘leading the soul,’ which he calls the “the true rhetoric,” the form of therapy (healing or cure) that he offers us.  Practicing the elenchus (process of critical cross-examination) is a great and powerful catharsis (release and purification) that reorients intelligence back to reality so that the person can instruct himself (Phaedrus 230d).

Plato argues that we don’t choose to be blind, so that when we are given a chance to see and are made to see we will want it and choose it.  But he doesn’t discount the possibility that someone might want illusion and falsehood instead — that people might want to believe many kinds of lies for many kinds of reasons — which in his terms is a test of character.  People who give in to base desires and lies are weak-willed (akrasia).  People who can tough things out and face reality squarely in spite of they want are self-controlled (enkrateia).  So ultimately when we start talking about persuasion and see people getting angry when their beliefs are challenged, we are looking at human nature, human psychology, and the ways people act in society, and we see the struggle going on in each of us to look at the world honestly, without evasion or grandiosity or self-pity;  we see that there are weak people who give in to lies and who have nothing to teach us; we also see strong people who resist lies and teach us how to live with our questions.

I think this is what Cicero has in mind when he says that Aspasia’s training in rhetoric had to do with how to acquire virtue (arete) through self-knowledge (gnothi seauton, ‘know thyself’).  Aspasia was also a midwife.  Plato sometimes refers to “the maieutic art,” i.e. “the art of midwifery” which enables him to be the instrument of many happy deliveries of “fair things” that pregnant minds discover within themselves — which Socrates calls the process of dialectic — which is also a way of sorting and sifting through an issue in order finally to distinguish the true from the false (Theaetetus 150, 184).

Aeschines of Sphettus — sometimes called Aeschines Socraticus — in his lost dialogue Aspasia, recounts her version of dialectic, or the maieutic art, or therapy, or the true rhetoric and doctoring of the soul, in the following brief passage (Aeschines frag. 31):

Aspasia asks a the wife of a man named Xenophon “if your neighbor had gold that was purer than yours, would you rather have her gold or yours?”  “Hers,” was the reply.  “And if she had richer jewels and finer clothes?”  “I would rather have hers.” “And if she had a better husband than yours?”  Here the woman could only answer with embarrassed silence.  Aspasia then begins to question the woman’s husband, asking him the same things, but substituting horses for gold, land for clothes, and asking him finally if he would prefer his neighbor’s wife if she were better than his own.  And again at the end the man can only answer with an embarrassed silence.  Aspasia concludes the dialogue with the comment “Each of you would like the best husband or wife: and since neither of the two of you has achieved perfection, each of you will always regret this ideal” (the fragment is also preserved in the later text, Cicero’s Invitation to Rhetoric 1, 31).

Socratic dialectic is said to engage the elenchus, disproof or destructive cross-questioning — the heart of the Socratic method — in order to reach the aporia, the impassable conflict or contradiction, which gives the person who experiences this check an opportunity to know herself or himself as a knower, or learner, as someone who gains self-knowledge in ignorance.  Aspasia’s earlier dialectic appears to aim not at contradiction and aporia and realization that one does not know, but at contradiction and blocked eros and realization that one has not reached one’s desire, one’s aspiration, one’s ideal or deep impulse.  It is less intellectual and more emotional — less about knowledge and more about love — not checking one’s pretensions about knowledge but one’s deeper ambitions for real love.

There is at least one more key element in Aspasia’s teachings — as best as we can tell or reconstruct them — and that is her much-documented and constant theme of attempting to raise the stature of her sex and establish again an equality between men and women that legendary Solon envisioned and tried to inaugurate more than a century before Aspasia was born.  She thought that her age was creating a new kind of freedom for people that was certain to fail (as fail it did) unless it was widely taught, grasped, loved, supported and fiercely defended.  This is the theme that comes out in Pericles’ ‘Funeral Oration’:

“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern for others than imitators ourselves … our laws afford equal justice to all … we favor the many instead of the few, which is why we call it a democracy … neither social standing, nor class consideration, nor poverty should dictate advancement in public life, but merit …the freedom which we enjoy extends even to private life … we do not exercise a jealous surveillance over each other and we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes … we throw our city open to the world and look for every opportunity to learn and observe, even if the enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality … in matters of education, where our rivals try to teach obedience from the very cradle by a course of harsh discipline, here we are taught to be free and live and yet just as ready to encounter danger when it arrives … we cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without weakness … for us discussion is not a stumbling block on the way to action, but an indispensible preliminary to any wise action at all … we are the school of Hellas  … the admiration of succeeding ages will be ours … and where the rewards for simple merit are the greatest, we will also find the best citizens.”

Athenian eleutheria — liberty, openness and frankness — is a challenge not just to Spartan amathia — obedience, ‘manliness,’ literally ‘not-knowing’ — but to misogyny and ultimately to every base condition of subjection — which perhaps Aspasia learned both as a woman and a slave.  Like Socrates’ close friend Phaedo and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and many other thinkers who experienced slavery first-hand, Aspasia opposed the dominant ethic of her time.  Thus she was branded a whore, an upstart who speaks out of turn, and an atheist and corruptor of morals, and became something like the poster child for ancient misogyny and the most frequent butt for obscene jokes in antiquity.  The Funeral Speech argues that great ideals are insecure if only a tiny few uphold them.  It is crucial that our ideals be widely discussed, debated, criticized, upheld and improved; otherwise, when the barbarians arrive, there will be no one, or too few, to defend them.  And this is precisely what happened to her, and to Pericles, and to great Athens itself.

  1. Assessment

My discussion uncovers three Aspasian principles of philosophy.  Arguably, these are core principles of critical theory, psychoanalysis and phenomenology — I am arguing that the practices that draw us together are Aspasian — I will try to explain these connections.

The three Aspasian principles are the value principle, the ladder and the strength principle.

Values exist in the public space; they can only live and thrive by criticism, without which they decay into idols; or few people learn them, debate them, criticize them, defend or improve them, and they grow weak because they are no longer widely held and defended.

The experience of degradation can also be a prelude to freedom; base and noble desires lie close together; it is in our power to transform eros into arete via autognosia — we are trying to practice virtue or excellence, wrestling with eros, guided by self-knowledge.

Logoi can serve as pharmaka and the elenchus can be a psychagogia and thus a therapeia by which we practice enkrateia and wrestle with akrasia and bring more to noesis — that is, there is a talking cure that involves coming to terms with reality and becoming aware.

Critical theory seeks to liberate people from what enslaves them; psychoanalysis aims at health through awareness; phenomenology wrestles with how things feel right now — perceptions, feelings, thoughts right now — the way in which consciousness is constituted and the dimensionality of internal time-consciousness, which is, remembers and plans.  These themes all emerge as soon as one begins investigating the ideas of Aspasia Ionia.


I am not entirely sure how to assess the ‘Lady from Ionia’ or the contribution she makes to our society.   Most of what I’m saying about her here is speculation.   She may or may not be Socrates’ teacher; she may or may not be the author of the Funeral Oration; she may or may not be a Sophist, therapist, doctor of the soul, teacher of virtue, dialectician, politician, midwife, sex counselor, or true-life model for Socrates’ wondrous Diotima.  She is the most widely discussed woman from antiquity and we know nothing about her.

I think Madeleine Henry is right.  “To ask questions about Aspasia is to ask questions about half of humanity” (p. 9).  Aspasia is a name and a stand-in for every woman who has lived and died on this planet never given a chance for a real education or to add her voice to the human conversation or to add her genius to solving human problems.  Yet somehow Aspasia emerges out of the shadows and listens intently to what we are saying — discovering our contradictions — and smiling her enigmatic smile of reason.



Bibliography of modern sources

Eve Cantarella, Pandora’s Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1981)

W.K.C. Guthrie, The Sophists (Cambridge: University Press, 1971)

Madeleine Henry, Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Charles Kahn, Plato and the Post-Socratic Dialogue: The Return to the Philosophy of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Nicole Loraux, La Grèce au Féminin (Paris: Belles Lettres, 2003)

Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken, 1988)

Andras Schmidt, Das Perikleische Zeitalter, vol 1 (1877)

Stephen Tracy, Pericles: A Sourcebook and Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)

Mary Ellen Waithe, A History of Women Philosophers (Boston: Kluwer Publishers, 1987)