Dec 7, 2014
Aspasia is one of the most historically elusive, even mythical rhetoricians. As with Socrates, we only have second-hand accounts of her life and work, but unlike Socrates, she was a woman, which meant that much of the accounts we have of her are fragmented and often disparaging.
Aspasia is one of the few women from classical Athens who is listed by name and certainly one of the first female rhetoricians we have record of. What kind of rhetorician she was and how she was able to leave such a legacy is shrouded in jealousy, lies, and accusations. Anything we think we know about Aspasia has to be tempered by the historical circumstances of 5th century bc Athens.
And these were the circumstances for women in Classical Athenian life. If you were an upper-class woman, your life was circumscribe from birth. You were living cloistered in your father’s home until you married, quite young, to an older man. There was no real expectation for passion in marriage, and no sense of equal partnership. Your education was entirely within the home and your whole life was to be “daughter of a citizen and a citizen’s daughter.” Things were difference, however, if you were on the fringes of Athenian society, as Aspasia was.
Aspasia was a foreigner, the daughter of neither a citizen or a citizen’s daughter, and as such, she was outside of the restrictions of typical Athenian women. In someways, this may have aided her education and development. She became a hetaera, which is sometimes translated as prostitute, but that’s doesn’t do the position justice. Hetaera were women who entertained men intellectually, socially and sexually. They were capable of witty conversation and knowledgeable. To get an idea of who the hetaerea were, you’d have something like a prostitute mixed with a well-trained geisha. You can imagine that although Greek men had to marry an upper-class citizen for a wife, they more interested in actually spending time with women who were educated and could spend time with them and their friends, instead of being secreted away in the women’s quarters.
One Greek man, Pericles, certainly thought a hetaera could be more interesting than a whife. Pericles thought Aspasia was tops, and spent all of his time with her instead of with his wife. As a matter of fact, in a move that was shocking to the Athenians, Pericles wasn’t just content to have Aspasia as his mistress—he had to go and make her his wife. He divorced his proper, home-kept Greek wife and lived with this foreigner, whom he loved so audaciously that he kissed her at the doorstep every time he went in and out of the home. Now that’s just sweet. And that made many of the comic writers nervous.
It’s possible that Aspasia was so close to Pericles because she was his intellectual equal and some of the fragmented stories we have about her say that Pericles loved her for her brain. Really. Plutarch’s biography of Pericles relates ““Aspasia, some say, was courted and caressed by Pericles upon account of her knowledge and skill in politics.” (qtd 183)
Aspasia may have been one of Pericles’ logographers. If you recall, logographers were the speech writers of ancient Greece, and having a female logographer may be considered an insult to Pericles. For example, the lengthy argument made in Plato’s Menexenus (men-uh-zeen-us) that Aspasia wrote the famous funeral oration. There’s no reason why Aspasia couldn’t had written it, especially if she was as well-educated and cultural astute as the stories about her suggest. But Socrates makes the logographer woman analogous to the whore. Just as a logographer will write any one who pays a speech, regardless of their clients’ political or legal position, Aspasia the prostitute has, in scholar Madeleine Henry’s words “Aspasia made speakers of many men. The fact that one is names and that this one is a man with whom she had a sexual relationship, delicately suggests that she had sexual relationships with the others as well and that they all speak with words she taught them” (35). The connection between the rhetor and the prostitute does not go unnoticed in Cheryl Glenn’s 1994 article recovering Aspasia’s contribution to rhetoric. ““the ideal woman,” she writes “has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence) and closed body (chastity) and an enclosed life (domestic confinement).” (180). Glenn sees that Pericles saw—that Aspasia was very different from the Greek wife in all these ways, even breaking domestic confinement to write and teach.
The rhetoric teacher is a hussy because she teaches others. And it wasn’t just Pericles who went to Aspasia. From Plutarch, again “Socrates himself would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” because she “has the repute of being resorted to by many of the Athenians for instruction in the art of speaking” (qtd on 183). If this is accurate, Aspasia had her own school, the same way the Sophists like Isocrates did.
For all of the Socratic irony in the Menexenus that tears her down, you may have noticed that the Romans connected Aspasia with Socrates. Henry says that in some ways it wasn’t that Aspasia was a female Socrates, but, since she came first, Socrates was a male Aspasia. Aspasia also could out-socratic method Socrates and some people think that she taught Socrates how to be socratic. Listen to this dialoge quoted by Cicero in On Invention:
Aspasia reasoned thus with Xenophon's wife and Xenophon himself: "Please tell me madam, if your neighbor had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?" "That one." "Well, now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?" At this the woman blushed. "I wish you would tell me Xenophon, if your neighbor had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?" "His." "Now, if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?" And at this Xenophon, too, was himself silent. . . . "Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men." (I. xxxxi.51-53)
Sounds an awful lot like the socratic method, doesn’t it? Some scholars think, incidentally, that this dialog is sincerely advocating that both spouses in a marriage should be equally engaged in the relationship, but after reading the Menexenus, it seems to me that there is an equally compelling argument here that Aspasia is saying, “go ahead and covet your neighbor’s wife or husband because you could probably do better.” So you see how Aspasia’s rhetorical contributions are always being read through the lens of her sexuality.
According to the later Greek text Deipnosophists—or, as I like to call them, “Insufferable Foodies of the Second Sophistic”—it was Aspasia that also taught Socrates how to find, pursue and win love.
So if Aspasia was all this, why did she fade from the rhetorical tradition? The easiest answer is to say that as a foreigner and a woman it was very difficult for her to remain in the tradition. During the 1990s, feminist rhetoricians like Cheryl Glenn and C. Jan Swearingen, Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong all set out to “recover” Aspasia from the fragments and jealousy of the classical sources. Strangely, though, interest in Aspasia seems to have waned. There hasn’t been much written on her lately, maybe because it’s hard to say anything about her than what the unreliable, male classical sources have said. Madeleine Henry’s book, for instance, sets out to create not Aspasia’s history, but her historiography, how she has been invoked since the earliest western tradition through the renaissance, Enlightenment and up to the 20th century. In someways, then, we can’t ever know Aspasia, but only know about her. She remains stubbor