History on the mother’s side: Perictione’s On the Harmomy of Women.

Stobaeus, who recorded the fragments of Perictione along with that of other ancient philosophers, including several other women classifies her as a neo-Pythagorean. The neo-Pythagoreans believed that whereas virtue for men consisted of creating a just and harmonious city, women developed and exercised their virtue by creating and maintaining a just and harmonious household. Certainly, Perictione’s text focuses on women’s roles with in the home, as wives, mothers, mistresses of slaves and, in a second fragment, daughters. However, her views fall short of the Pythagorean doctrine in that she claims that women’s virtue could in fact extend to the city, as women might be rulers. This hypothesis brings her much closer to Plato and the Republic, where he discusses the idea that women might be trained to become kings just as easily as men, as there is no essential difference that might prevent them from achieving the necessary level of wisdom and virtue.

Another way in which Perictione falls short of neo-Pythagoreanism is that although she believes that virtuous women will benefit their families, she does not suggest that women are in fact responsible for justice in the household as she makes it clear that men sometimes will make this impossible by behaving badly. In such case, she says, women should attend to their own behaviour, and hope for the best.

Concerning her husband, a woman must behave lawfully and truthfully, never thinking of her private concerns, but guarding and protecting her marriage bed, for everything depends on this.vii

She goes on to say that a woman must put up with everything from her husband, drunkenness, infidelity, ignorance, meanness, but that she should not give in to such behaviour herself, as mistakes which are forgiven in men are not in women, and that revenge is effected on women who behave badly towards their husbands.

This passage is suggestive of something else: that Perictione’s philosophy is very much constrained by the social limitations in which women lived. Is this conservatism or simply realism? It is difficult to judge from such small sample. However, the disparity of acceptable behaviour from men and women is clearly attributed to consequences in a text that otherwise places great emphasis on character and inner harmony. Revenge will be taken against women if they cheat sexually, Perictione tells us. Of course, cheating is a sign of a vicious character anyway. A woman who lies with other men is a woman who has not mastered her appetites: she lacks sophrosune. But that is also the case for men. So the difference she draws our attention to is not one of character difference between men and women, but a circumstantial one. Women were more severely punished in Ancient Greece for cheating on their husbands than men were for cheating on their wives. The punishment for women was social exclusion: they were no longer allowed to participate in religious events,i.e. the only social events women could attend in their own rights without chaperons. viii

The gender specific aspects of Perictione’s text seems to be imposed bycircumstances, rather than essential to her thought. Indeed, we have a glimpse into a more gender neutral view of justice when she says that women might benefit the city if they are virtuous, provided they are allowed to rule. And she makes it clear that it is the legal framework that prevents women from being equally virtuous to men (i.e. in the same manner) by stating that laws punish women for faults that are excused in men.

Whoever the writer signing off Perictione was, this text is valuable for the following reasons. First, it is evidence that someone in ancient Greek thought it was worth asking philosophical questions pertaining to women’s lives. Secondly, these questions follow a Platonic, rather than Aristotelian model, suggesting that if one is to engage in feminist virtue ethics, it is quite possible to let oneself be inspired by Plato. History is not often women friendly, and, in the case of philosophy, one may well be discouraged from looking back at all, and choose instead to begin afresh. But in the case of Ancient virtue ethics, at least, it seems that by looking more closely, feminist philosophers will find something inspirational.

iOne writer who was definitely influential in his time, but not widely read now, was Epictetus. His works were not translated into English until the mid-eighteenth century when Elizabeth Carter, the best classics scholar of her time according to Samuel Johnson, took on the job of translating his entire works.

iiMenexenus 249d-e.

iiiPerictione I ‘On the Harmony of Women’

Women writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: an anthology

edited by I. M. Plant 76-78.



By Mary Ellen Waithe, 68-71

vI owe this point to Paul Kimball, in conversation.

viAlthough I am translating ‘thumos’ as emotion, in Plato it stands rather for a certain kind of emotions such as anger, pride, and shame.

viiMy translation. Taylor translates the passage as follows: “Moreover she ought to live with her husband legally and kindly, conceiving nothing to be her own property, but preserving and being the guardian of his bed. For in the preservation of this all things are contained.” I find this translation awkward, and less interesting than it might be. ‘Kregyos’, which he translates as ‘kindly’ and which Plant translates as ‘honourably’ is a puzzling word here. I choose to translate it as truthfully, which perhaps is what Plant intends by ‘honourably’. I also agree with Plant’s take on ‘ta idia’ and translate it as the more general ‘private concerns’, rather than ‘property’.

viiiSee Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece, 1995, Harvard University Press: daughters who lost their viriginity could be sold into slavery, (70) and women who committed adultery were divorced and no longer allowed to take part in religious festival (the one part of public life which they were previously allowed to participate in). Men caught sleeping with another man’s wife could, in principle be killed. But as this then allowed their family to prosecute the killer, it was not often practiced. Fines were more common. (125).

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1 Response to History on the mother’s side: Perictione’s On the Harmomy of Women.

  1. Pingback: Zoomcursus Vrouwelijke Filosofen - Remko van Broekhoven

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