Until recently my doing ancient philosophy meant writing about Plato and Aristotle with a side helping of the Stoics. Then I decided to look into ancient women philosophers and discovered, among others, Perictione I, the author of a short text called « On the Harmony of Women ». Looking around on the internet for something to read to bolster my so far meager research on Perictione, I was delighted to come accross two brand new titles on Pythagorean women writers : Annette Bourland’s Huizanga’s Moral Education for Women in the Pastoral and Pythagorean Letters , and Sarah Pomeroy’s Pythagorean women : their History and Writings .This adds to a non-negligeable existing literature on the topic, counting the first four chapters of volume I of Waithe’s History of Women Philosophers , and Plant’s anthology Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I received an email announcing an event in which five authors discuss their new books on Pythagoreanism . I glanced at the list, expecting to find the two authors I had found, but no : the five authors in question are male, and there is nothing to indicate that they discuss women Pythagoreans. (This event is part of a Pythagorean week in Berlin, taking place now).
Not wanting to speculate, I wrote to them.
Everyone responded almost immediately, so my first conclusion is that Pythagorean scholars are on the whole nicer than most philosophers ! But with the exception of one of the two edited volume which has two articles, sections of which discuss women members of the Pythagorean schools or women Pythagorean writers, it was all about the men.
Of course I asked why. And I got a mixture of answers.
The best answer I got, the one that made the most sense, was that while many of the books focused on early Pythagoreanism, i.e. the philosophy that was happening in the Pythagorean schools around Pythagoras himself, or Archytas, before they were dissoluted in the mid-fifth century BC, texts by women Pythagorean writers are dated at the earliest, fourth century BC. Thus, they had little relevance to what the books were interested in discussing.
A less satisfactory answer, and unfortunately one that I have come to expect, was the suggestion that these women had never in fact existed, and so probably shouldn’t be the topic of serious research on Pythagoreanism.
After some fairly substantial research on the matter, I found a number of arguments used to ground that conclusion.
First there is the dating : the texts attributed to women are dated between the IV th century BC at the earliest (in the case of Perictione I) to the 1st century BC. But previous to a careful study of the Greek, the texts had been dated from between the 1st century BC and the 1st AD. Why ? Because this is when neo-Pythagoreans were supposedly alive and active. Because this is when Cicero tells us that his friend, Nigidius Figulus ‘revived’ Pythagorean philosophy. Why do we think there were no Pythagorean philosophers before ? Because the Aristoxenus the historian, contemporary of Aristotle, tells us he personally met the last of them. Why do we trust them? Well, that’s a lot less clear. Aristoxenus is not supposed to be particularly accurate (not many historical or biographical records in the ancient world were – and yet those who say that we should trust Aristoxenus at the same time express doubt as to whether we should trust Iamblichus when he writes that there were women among the early Pythagoreans ) and Cicero is renowned for his vanity and propensity to name drop.
Secondly, there is the question of authorship attribution. The group of texts among which we find those by women have long been known as the Pseudoepigrapha Pythagorica. That is, they’re supposed to be pseudonymous. The reason for this hypothesis, is that many are signed by famous Pythagorean authors who were known to have lived centuries earlier. In the case of the women authors (who constitute around 10 % of the corpus) there is one Theano, one Myia, and two Perictione. The first two were recorded by Iamblichus as having been the names of Pythagoras’s wife and daughter, the last one is the name of Plato’s mother. But as Pomeroy points out (and Waithe), just because a writer uses a pseudonym does not entail either that the piece of writing is a forgery, created for making money illegally (as is Carl Huffman‘s hypothesis), nor that the real writer was a man. In fact, if there were Pythagorean families left after the dispersion of the schools, it is not unlikely that they would have kept their allegiance by passing on significant names. Nor is it unlikely, if they had to stay somewhat underground (there had been quite a bit of violence against the Pythagorean schools), that they would take pseudonyms. A quick survey of recent papers on late Pythagorean authors shows that the writers of the ‘Pseudoepigrapha Pythagorica’ has now become ‘Pseudo-pythagoreans’. From pseudonymous authors, they have become forgers.
Pythagorean men and women were in fact recorded as existing by the Middle comedians – there are several plays in which the main character is a Pythagorean woman who is portrayed as humourless, unwashed, poor, and approaching strange men in the streets, challenging their ways of life. Of course we shouldn’t take the comedian’s portraits as accurate – remember Socrates in the Clouds ! Their job was to make people laugh, picking no doubt on existing prejudices, and exaggerating certain traits (The Pythagorean way of life did not allow for make up, jewelry, or expensive clothing). The pythagorean women of Cratinus and Alexis sounds surprisingly like the hairy lesbian feminist of eighties lore, and just like her, she mattered enough to be the subject of jokes and parodies. Pomeroy also points out that there is some archeological evidence, apart from the fragments, that from the late 5th century BC onwards, women received a better education, and had more freedom to go out and about without chaperone – possibly even going to school outside the home.
There seem to be some pretty good reasons why we ought to take the Pythagorean women writers seriously, not least because we have so little from women philosophers of the antiquity. However, as one of the authors I contacted put it, the obstacles to writing about them are two-fold. First, there is the general sexism one has to deal with when doing history of philosophy : a mostly male research group will be more reluctant to look out for women authors and make the necessary efforts to reinstate them on the same pedestal as their male counterparts. Secondly, the ancients themselves did a pretty good job of hiding the existence of these women and their productions. There are few and scant records of their existence, and even less so of their writings. Clearly, these women could have done with the gendered conference and citation campaigns! But as it is, if we want a female perpective on ancient philosophy, we have to do the work of retrieving these authors from near obscurity.