Diogenes Laertius several times mentions a mysterious unnamed old woman associated with Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.
Of Chrysippus the old woman who sat beside him used to say, according to Diocles, that he wrote 500 lines a day.
The Greek could also mean that the old woman attended to or looked after him. The next sentence reads:
Hecato says that he [Chrysippus] came to the study of philosophy, because the property which he had inherited from his father had been confiscated to the king’s treasury.
Are we perhaps meant to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two sentences that the old woman had the financial means to look after Chrysippus who was left penniless?
She seems also to have observed his output as a writer, and perhaps read his books. The remark attributed to her here seems to refer to Chrysippus’ writing in the past tense, though. Indeed we’re actually told she outlived him, although Chrysippus reputedly made it to seventy three. How much older than him could she have been then? It’s implied by several authors that Chrysippus liked wine and here that he may have died from alcohol consumption:
Chrysippus turned giddy after gulping down a draught of Bacchus; he spared not the Porch nor his country nor his own life, but fared straight to the house of Hades. Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.
We also seem to be told that he addressed some of his philosophical writings to an old woman and sought her opinion on them, as though she were his patron.
He [Chrysippus] appears to have been a very arrogant man. At any rate, of all his many writings he dedicated none to any of the kings. And he was satisfied with one old woman’s judgement, says Demetrius […].
This last remark seems to follow on from the previous sentence, implying that Chrysippus was arrogant because addressed his writings to (presumably) the same the old woman, whereas other authors would often court the approval of powerful rulers.
It’s therefore curious that although many of Chrysippus’ works listed by Diogenes Laertius are explicitly dedicated to someone by name, none of them seem to bear a female name. However, perhaps there’s another clue to her identity. He immediately follows the passage above by mentioning Chrysippus’ sister:
When [King] Ptolemy [IV Philopator of Egypt] wrote to Cleanthes requesting him to come himself or else to send someone to his court, Sphaerus undertook the journey, while Chrysippus declined to go. On the other hand, he sent for his sister’s sons, Aristocreon and Philocrates, and educated them.
This first remark portrays Chrysippus as being arrogant, back when he was a promising student of Cleanthes, for refusing to become an ambassador for Stoicism to the court of King Ptolemy. His fellow Stoic, Sphaerus of Borysthenes, had to go instead. We’re perhaps meant to connect this with the passage above about his arrogant disregard for the patronage of kings and preferring the judgement of the “old woman”.
Could the “old woman” in question, therefore, have been Chrysippus’ sister? We’re told that her sons became students of Chrysippus. We hear nothing more about Philocrates but Aristocreon clearly became a dedicated and enthusiastic follower of Stoicism. Indeed, we know that Chrysippus dedicated dozens of books to his sister’s son:
- Introduction to the Mentiens [the Liar] Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, one book.
- Of the Mentiens Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, six books.
- To those who solve the Mentiens by dissecting it, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
- On the Solution of the Mentiens, addressed to Aristocreon, three books.
- Solutions of the Hypothetical Arguments of Hedylus, addressed to Aristocreon and Apollas, one book.
- Of the Sceptic who denies, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
- Of Dialectic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
- Of Art and the Inartistic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
- Of the Good or Morally Beautiful and Pleasure, addressed to Aristocreon, ten books.
And for all we know he may have dedicated other books to Aristocreon that aren’t mentioned here. There was clearly a very close intellectual bond between Chrysippus and his nephew so it would make sense if Diogenes Laertius had intended to imply that the young man’s mother, Chrysippus’ sister, was the “old woman” who attended to Chrysippus and to whom his works were dedicated, rather than to a king. Indeed, it’s quite possible the works named above could have been written in honour both of Aristocreon and his mother.
The philosopher Plutarch elsewhere mentions in passing that Aristocreon later erected a bronze statue of Chrysippus, upon which he had engraved the verse:
Of uncle Chrysippus Aristocreon this likeness erected;
The knots the Academy tied, the cleaver, Chrysippus, dissected.
These words obviously celebrate Chrysippus’ success as a critic of Plato’s Academy and perhaps relate to the arguments contained in some of the books dedicated to Aristocreon, such as his surprisingly extensive writings on the solution to what’s called in the translation above the “Mentiens Argument”, better known today as the Liar Paradox. When a person says “I lie”, the puzzle is whether he actually lies or not in doing so. If he lies, he speaks truth; if he speaks truth, he lies. Epictetus mentions several times in the Discourses that his students are familiar with Chrysippus’ (now lost) answer to this paradox.
So, cautiously, I’m tempted to speculate as follows… It’s possible Chrysippus’ sister lived in his house and attended to him. Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli in Cilicia, so his sister probably also came from Soli. They most likely had the status of foreign residents (metics) in Athens. That normally meant they could not own property in Athens itself, although they may have owned property nearby in Attica. Some scholars read the reference to an old woman attending on Chrysippus as being about a slave but there’s some indication that Zeno disapproved of slave-owning, and if they were metics without property, living with their friends, it’s quite possible that he or Chrysippus would have owned no slaves themselves. So the old woman may be a family member, most likely the sister of Chrysippus mentioned elsewhere.
Perhaps she attended his lectures. Philosophical discussions in ancient Athens were often held in the gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. However, the Stoic school was located in the Stoa Poikile, a public building on the edge of the agora or city-centre, to which women were potentially admitted during the Hellenistic period.
We’re told Chrysippus became a philosopher after his family fortune was seized by a king. However, Chrysippus’ sister may have married into wealth in which case she could have acted as a patron, explaining his controversial preference for the old woman over the patronage of kings such as Ptolemy IV. Chrysippus clearly dedicated many of his works, perhaps those criticizing the Academy and Skeptics, to her son Aristocreon, a dedicated student of Stoicism. If his sister was the “old woman” then presumably he also sought her approval for the teachings expressed in them. Although most of those works appear to be about logic, one of them is also about art and another about ethics, particularly the role of pleasure, which we can assume contained a critique of hedonism dedicated to his nephew.