This is part of a draft for a chapter in a book in progress Virtue Ethics: a Feminist Perspective. Comments are, of course, welcome.
Although ancient philosophical questions about virtue are more often associated with Plato and Aristotle, they certainly were not exceptional in their concern with and treatment of these questions. Most ancient philosophers were, in that sense, virtue ethicists. That is, they were concerned with the good life, thought that whatever form it took, it had to be a form of character transformation, and that virtues, and habituation would be the key in transforming one’s character adequately. This would have been true of the Stoics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans and the Cynics. That we do not refer to them more in discussions of virtue ethics is really little more than a function of the fact that very few of their writings remain.i
From the female philosophers of the ancient world, even less remains. Plato reports some texts, or arguments as having been originated from women, Diotima in the Symposium and Aspasia in the Menexenus but there is no hard evidence that they did write or say the thoughts he attributes to them. One might argue that we should take this as seriously as we take Lucretius’s evidence for Epicurus’s writings, and Galen for Posedonius, or even Cicero for Chrysippus. But there is not really a parallel case here. The writings of Epicurus, Posedonius, Chrysippus, exist – albeit in fragments – and are referred to elsewhere. In the case of Diotima and Aspasia, there is no cross evidence – just the word of a philosopher who is suspected of license, especially when it comes to attributing philosophical views to other, dead, philosophers. This lack of evidence is not, of course, evidence that these women did not write, or that they did not come up with the arguments attributed to them by Plato’s Socrates. That their texts did not survive elsewhere, that they are not referred to by the celebrity biographer of the ancient world, Diogenes Laertius, need reflect nothing more than the probability of texts written by those belonging to what was regarded as the intellectually, culturally, and politically inferior sex would not have been copied, or even looked after with the same care as those written by respected male writers. In the case of Aspasia, it may also be that she was, as Plato suggested, ghostwriting for Pericles, and that because of this she had to remain in the shadow as a writer in her own right.ii But the very fact that the existence of these women was recorded, that they regarded themselves as philosophers, and that they engaged in dialogues with other philosophers suggests very strongly that they too would have been practitioners of virtue ethics.
It is not the case that nothing at all remains of ancient women philosophers’ writings. We have fragments from several. One such fragment is signed Perictione – also Plato’s mother’s name – and entitled “On the Harmony of Women”.iii It has been declared spurious on several occasions, on the grounds that it had been suspected of being a 1AD neo-Pythagorean forgery, or a pseudonymous writing of the Archytan school in 3BC. Either way, as Mary Ellen Waithe points out in in chapter four of her Ancient women philosophers,600B.C.-500A.D., neither forgery nor pseudonymity would have been possible had an author of the name Perictione not been known to have held such views.ivThis claim may strike us as a little strong. If,as has been alleged, several of the so-called neo-Pythagorean fragments attributed to women were forgeries, and if the pattern of attribution did indicate a tradition of using the names of Pythagoras’s female relatives, then it should come as no surprise that a forgery bore the name of Plato’s mother,and need not suggest that she was a philosopher.vBut a weaker version of Waithe’s point remains: why attribute a text to a woman unless the writer takes seriously the possibilty that a woman may have held such views? And if a writer,roughly contemporary of Plato, as Waithe suggests, was to take up his mother’s name as a pseudonym, wouldn’t that writer be more likely to be a woman? We know that Plato had at least two female students from whom no texts remain.Should they not be our first hypothesis?
Much that has been written on the topic of the Perictione fragment has been directed at questioning or defending its origins, and very little about its content. That content is in fact expressely Platonic. Perictione discusses the questions of harmony brought on by virtue and in particular justice. The Platonic views are more specifically applied to fit women’s lives than in Plato, perhaps. Women are told that to be virtuous they must rule justly over their homes and all its members. If they fail to do so, they will fail to achieve harmony and suffer. In particular, women should not return evil with evil where their husband is concerned: having a cheating, drinking, gambling husband is no reason to engage in vicious behaviour yourself. This again, is deeply Platonic, a theme that is raised in many dialogues including notably the Crito. Perictione also equates virtue with wisdom (phronesis) and temperance (sophrosune), claiming that opinion (doxa) leads to what is empty and excessive, which in turns brings misfortune and harm, and that a woman who is able to control her appetites (epithumia) and emotions (thumos) will bring about greater benefit to herself, her family and city. viBoth the terminology and the claims are clear signs that the writer was familiar with Plato’s works.