Thoughts on Aspasia and Diotima

This is a really disorganized response paper I wrote for my favorite class, Gender, Rhetoric, and Literacy: Historical Bedfellows, taught by Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. The readings for yesterday's class were parts of Rhetoric Retold by Cheryl Glenn, the first two essays in Reclaiming Rhetorica, edited by Andrea Lunsford, and the selections on Aspasia and Diotima in Available Means, which is sort of a Rhetorical Tradition, but with only women. The selection for Aspasia was from Plato's Menexenus, and the selection for Diotima was from Plato's Symposium.

In the reading for today, several themes caught my interest, including methodologies for studying women rhetoricians in ancient Greece and, to a lesser degree, the role of sexuality in Plato’s circle. Here, I will focus on the methodology. Glenn is "restorying" the Classical rhetorical tradition to include the silenced women through historiography, feminism, and gender studies. Swearingen uses a similar methodology, although she does not articulate it as clearly as Glenn does. In describing methodology, both scholars feel obligated to counter possible objections to feminist restoryings of Classical rhetoric. When countering such objections, both Glenn and Swearingen ask a question that absolutely blindsided me: Why is there so much resistance to the argument that Aspasia and Diotima were real philosophers/teachers because there are no primary texts from either, and everyone takes the assumption that Socrates was a real philosopher/teacher for granted, even though there are no primary texts for him? A friend of mine said once that the scholarship on rhetoric in the discipline of classics is more rigorous than rhetoric scholarship, possibly because these restorying methodologies are not truly legitimized in the academy. I have friends in the rhetoric department who are taking a course in Classical rhetoric this semester, and I talked to them about what I had read, including the question asked by Swearingen and Glenn, and it blew their minds too. They’re not talking about Aspasia and Diotima in their class, which I find telling, and unfortunate. I’m interested, too, in Swearingen’s statement that "[i]t is more likely that Plato’s characterizations were composed as comic—and perhaps also tragic—distortions of a kind that would have amused the listeners and readers of his dialogues." I wrote down in my notes, "political cartoon?" On a more serious note, I think this presents a methodological problematic when reading Plato’s texts, whether one is doing a feminist reading or not.

I also found the issue of sex and sexuality to be puzzling. Glenn writes that some consider Aspasia a "harem girl" and points out that Aspasia’s sexual relationship with Pericles is well-documented. Later on, Glenn discusses Diotima’s feminine presence (by proxy) in the Symposium and says that it enhances the homoerotic atmosphere. I don’t have any real statements to make about the role of sexuality, just questions, mainly: Sexual tension is everywhere in these texts; what do we make of it? What is the relationship between sex and power in these situations?

And, as a footnote...

I also find it interesting that Jarratt & Ong and Glenn use neoclassical images to "read" Aspasia. There are lots of layers in getting from our time to the Classical era. Neither text goes into depth on why the Romantic period’s interpretation of the Classical period should be considered significant. Another point of interest is authorship in the Classical period: One of my professors, John Logie, studies authorship and intellectual property, and he argues that in the Classical period, there was no conception of intellectual property, that that evolved during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period.