Ancient women philosophers

A little late to the party, I’ve been reading Peter Adamson’s A History of Philosophy Without any Gaps. It’s quite a promise to say there will be no gaps. There’s bound to be. All writers make decisions on what to include, which are also decisions on what to exclude (as Heraclitus said: the road up is also the road down). Still, I was intrigued to find a chapter on Ancient women philosophers. That certainly looks like a gap filled. I didn’t even know there had been women philosophers at that time. I assumed that they’d been excluded from the activity.

I had been looking forward to the chapter all through the book. It is near the end of volume 1: 42nd of 43 chapters. When I got there, my initial reaction was one of disappointment. There were only tiny surviving fragments and testimonies, though that applies to many of the men of the period too. But it was what those fragments said. It seemed that the Ancient women were mainly defending virtue, by which they meant running a good household, keeping their men happy, raising children, cleaning; that sort of stuff. There were no feminist trailblazers, like I was hoping. Nor was there any really interesting philosophy. One fragment has Theano talking about the relationship between nature and numbers but that is it.

Not all is as it seems, however. I’ve said elsewhere that the history of philosophy is written by the victor (which is not to be taken literally in this case: I’m not saying that Adamson has won philosophy). Everything that we know about Ancient women philosophers we know because of the reports of contemporaries and near contemporaries who were all men. The views of women philosophers are brought to us by the men who knew of them and those men were in a position to filter those views. Acting as gatekeepers, they chose what to include and exclude from women’s thought. It is men who tell us that early women thinkers were very concerned about keeping a good household. Were they really?

There are some fragments ascribed to women, such as one in which it is claimed that wives should permit the adultery of their husbands. Even if these words were truly written by the woman to whom it is attributed, we still find men acting as gatekeepers. Is it any surprise that out of everything a woman wrote, only the fragments men care to cite are the ones that survived? Might there have been somewhere a treatise on why women should rise up and destroy patriarchy? I suspect there would have been or, at the very least, some women would have thought it and discussed it. It is very likely that any such ideas would have been suppressed and destroyed.

A final case is where women’s thought is outright invented by men. It is possible that the character of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium was an entirely literary creation. If so, it is a case of Plato speaking on behalf of a woman, hence no reliable guide to women’s thought at the time. I am not claiming these as my own insights, by the way. Adamson has all these points and more and I warmly recommend his books (there are already five volumes in his ongoing History).

The powerful have always acted as gatekeepers of thought. I wish it were less true now than it was but I fear the opposite. With a mass media in the hands of a few, and now clear algorithmic manipulation of social media, it’s just as true as ever. That story all over the papers, radio and TV comes to you because a powerful actor has decided to allow you it. That inclusion is also an exclusion. Until we all have fair access, we are always going to have to dig deep to find the truly silenced voices. This is the Real Work and you will not find it in the newspapers.

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