Roundup: Women in Ancient Stoicism

Porcia CatonisWere any ancient Stoics women?  That’s a question that comes up periodically.  I’ll keep updating this article because there are lots of bits of information worth adding.  It’s a complex question so there’s a lot more to say.  I’m just going to say a few words by way of an introduction, though.  Then I’ll link to several articles on women in Stoicism:

In ancient Athens, before the time of Socrates, philosophers and Sophists mainly taught aristocratic, or at least very wealthy, young men.  Philosophical discussions often took place in the grounds of Athenian gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. Socrates was reputedly a stonemason who lived a very modest life, and was a man of modest means.  He could be described as a lower middle class Athenian, although one who lived very simply.  However, he had several very wealthy and powerful friends.  We’re told his childhood friend Critias, a wealthy agriculturalist, removed Socrates from his father’s workshop and became a sort of patron, helping him to commit his life to the study of philosophy.

Socrates was therefore able to study the works of philosophers and Sophists and, in a paradoxical manner, he became a sort of teacher himself.  He didn’t lecture, though, or charge a fee.  He asked questions and told stories.  However, that meant that he was able to do philosophy with anyone.  He became famous for discussing philosophy with the young and old, rich and poor, citizens and immigrants alike.  For instance, Phaedo of Elis, had reputedly been enslaved and forced to work as a male prostitute until Socrates had Critias buy his freedom.  He went on to become one of Socrates’ most famous followers.  Xenophon also depicts Socrates engaging in philosophical discussion about the art of love with a female high-class prostitute (hetaira) called Theodote.

The fact that Socrates discussed philosophy with women would probably have been controversial to many Athenians.   However, he went further.  Socrates liked to describe how his approach to philosophy had been inspired by several women.  First of all, he mentions that his mother Phaenarete, who was a midwife, influenced him because she taught him about matchmaking.  In Plato’s Apology, of course, his entire philosophical mission  derives from the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia or priestess of Apollo.  She told his childhood friend Chaerephon that “no man is wiser than Socrates”.  Socrates was also inspired by two of the famous maxims inscribed in her temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess” (all things in moderation).  In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates famously describes how he was taught about love and philosophy by a mysterious and otherwise unknown priestess called Diotima of Mantinea.  Curiously, Socrates also seems to portray her employing his own trademark question and answer method (“Socratic questioning”).  Moreover, some scholars have wondered whether Plato made this name up to disguise the fact that he’s actually referring to Aspasia, the consort of Pericles.  Socrates was known to have been a member of her intellectual circle and also learned about love from her.  So either these two women played a similar role in his life or they’re different names for the same woman, which would make her influence appear even more significant.

Some Sophists and philosophers argued that different virtues are appropriate to different types of people.  Socrates, however, believed that all the virtues are forms of wisdom and therefore also that virtue is essentially the same in men and women.  That suggests that women are capable of learning wisdom and virtue, just like men.  Indeed, he’s committed to that view because he admits having learned about wisdom and virtue from several women.

The Stoics were heavily indebted to Socrates and by some accounts were regarded as a Socratic school of philosophy.  Epictetus, for example, tells his students repeatedly to emulate Socrates.  It’s probably under the influence of Socrates, therefore, that Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic School, wrote a book entitled: On the Thesis that Virtue is the same in Man and in Woman.  We have several surviving lectures from the great Roman Stoic, Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, including two on the role of women in philosophy entitled: That Women Too Should Study Philosophy
and Should Daughters Receive the Same Education as Sons?  The Stoic doctrine in these lectures is clearly the same as Socrates’ position: girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys.

Musonius believed that women are capable of the same virtues as men, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, although they may express them differently, given their different roles in society at that time.   So it would be going too far to call Musonius Rufus a proto-feminist, although it’s to his credit that people have even looked at his writings from that perspective.  He certainly had a much more progressive attitude toward women than many other Roman intellectuals.  Nevertheless, I think this attitude probably goes all the way back to Zeno and Cleanthes, and that they inherited it largely from Socrates.  In Zeno’s ideal Republic, we’re simply told that anyone can become a philosopher, rich or poor, citizen or immigrant, man or woman, etc.  Men and women, in the ideal Stoic society, appear to be viewed as equals.

There’s very slender evidence, though, about real women who were actually practising Stoicism in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, here are some links to articles from my blog on women who appear to have, perhaps, been Stoics:

  • First of all, an honourable mention should go to Hipparchia of Maroneia, a female Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of  Thebes, the teacher of Zeno of Citium – she’s likely to be someone Zeno knew given the influence Crates had over him.
  • The mysterious old woman who looked after Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic School, and was possibly his sister.
  • Porcia Catonis, the daughter of the famous Roman Stoic Cato of Utica.
  • Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, and seemingly a member of the movement herself.
  • Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor, one of the daughters of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

(You may notice I’ve placed them in chronological order here, rather than the sequence in which they were published.)

NB: Please comment below if you can think of any other references to women in ancient Stoicism.  Thanks.

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4 thoughts on “Roundup: Women in Ancient Stoicism”

  1. I looked through 2 of my books on women in ancient times and found this reference in “Women’s Life in Greece and Rome” (Lefkowitz and Fant). It’s from Seneca’s letter to Corsica (On Consolation):

    Rutilia followed her son Cotta into exile and was so attached to him that she preferred exile to separation and would not return until he did. But when, after he returned and his career was flourishing, he died, she bore the loss with no less courage than that she had needed to follow him, and no one saw her crying after the funeral. She showed strength of spirit towards her son in exile, and wisdom, when she lost him. For nothing could deter her from her maternal devotion, and nothing could detain her in useless and foolish sorrow.

    Gaius Aurelius Cotta, the orator, was exiled from Rome but returned with Sulla and became consul in 75 B.C.

  2. I have no doubt Socrates saw women as capable of being stoics. One only has to consider the role women play to see that capability.

  3. Chapter 16 of Arnold’s Roman Stoicism (which includes short sections on historical Stoics) also includes Aria the Elder, Fannia’s grandmother.

    1. She would be a good candidate perhaps but is there anything actually linking her to Stoic philosophy apart from her relationship with Fannia and Thrasea?

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