The Ancient World—Hidden Traditions and Guerrilla Warfare

26.10.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course Women in philosophy by Will Buckingham


Until the 20th century, there have been very few women accepted by their male peers as philosophers. Women have tended to be banished to the margins, not accepted into the philosophical mainstream. This means that in the ancient world, references to female philosophers are relatively rare. The traditions of women working in philosophy are, to some extent, hidden traditions. It is necessary to do a bit of digging to bring these traditions to light.


Guerrilla Philosophy

One way of thinking about women’s involvement with philosophy throughout most of history is by imagining it as a kind of guerrilla warfare waged on the (male) heartlands of philosophy. Excluded from much public debate and access to public platforms, women have nevertheless found multiple ways of intervening in, and disrupting, the philosophical tradition. They have mounted border raids and caused trouble, undermining assumptions and upsetting the complacency of how philosophy has gone about its business. We may not find a single, coherent tradition of “women in philosophy,” but we can find a long history of intervention and resistance.


Women at the Dawn of Philosophy

The philosophical tradition in the West is often considered to begin with the figure of Socrates (died 399 BCE). In Plato’s famous dialogue, The Symposium, Socrates is depicted telling the story of how he studied with the priestess-philosopher Diotima. We don’t know a great deal about Diotima, and for a long time, her historical existence was in question. But many scholars now think there is no reason to think she did not exist. According to Plato, Diotima’s philosophy questioned binary oppositions like good and evil or divine and mortal. This was called metaxy, meaning the “in-between.” Diotima says that philosophers—those who love wisdom—are neither wise (because they do not need to seek wisdom) nor foolish (because they do not care about wisdom) but are in between the two.

In the Symposium, Diotima is presented mainly as a philosopher of love. For Diotima, love lies between the divine and mortal, meaning that love is a way for mortals to approach divine wisdom. We may start loving or desiring a particular person in a particular form. But then we realize that beauty is something more general and is not only limited to outward forms but to minds as well. After that, we can recognize the beauty in human institutions and in different forms of knowledge. And as we go on contemplating this “vast sea of beauty,” we come at last to recognize beauty in itself.

The next most famous in the ancient world is Hypatia of Alexandria (circa. 370-415). She was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, polymath, and extraordinarily gifted public lecturer. There is not much information that survives about her philosophy, although we know that she belonged to the neo-Platonist school, a semi-religious philosophical school that was built on the foundations of Plato’s philosophy. For the neo-Platonists, reality was derived from a single principle, called “the One.” Through the use of reason, the neo-Platonists claimed, we could be reunited with this single, underlying principle. But Hypatia was also a pagan and attracted the anger of the increasingly confident and strident Christian community, to the extent that she was finally put to death by a Christian mob.

Hypatia stands on the threshold between the Ancient World and the Middle Ages. Moving forward, we will find something new in the history of women in philosophy: We will begin to have access to women philosophers in their own words. So tomorrow, we will explore the thought of two medieval women who were writers, thinkers, and also nuns.


Further learning

Movie: Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, gives an account of Hypatia’s life and is well worth watching.

Podcast: “Hypatia of Alexandria—A Philosophical Martyr” by The Philosopher’s Zone


Recommended book

Symposium by Plato


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