[journal entry] on Aspasia (as told by Plato, Cicero, Athenaeus, and Plutarch)

Even though the history around her is “cloudy,” to say the least, Aspasia must have actually been an influential teacher of rhetoric.

In this excerpt from Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates is mainly critiquing the misuse of the power of rhetoric. He complains that orators/rhetors simple pull from their pre-fabricated or generic storehouse of ideas/approaches, praise too well even those who may not deserve any praise, “steal [people’s] souls with their embellish words,” fan the flame of people’s sense of patriotism, and in general deceive and distract people from their [true] senses (61). He even goes on to say that it’s not hard to be a good rhetor. After all, “there is no difficulty when he is contending for fame among the persons who are being praised” (61). In other words, no audience will critique the one who is praising them! But he is also betraying the fact that Aspasia exerted a big influence in Athens. His references to her may be part of his “making fun of the rhetoricians,” as Menexenus says (61), but they betray the fact that Aspasia exerted a significant influence in Athens, to the point of being considered a superior “master” of rhetoric (61). When Socrates says he hesitates to rehearse her speech because he is “afraid that [his] mistress may be angry with [him]” (62) and when, at the end of this excerpt, he and Menexenus speak as if they are talking about a celebrity, he may be being sarcastic but he also makes it clear that Aspasia was famous (or infamous, as the case may be) in Athens.

Similarly, when Cicero uses Aspasia’s example (and as his only example?) of an inductive argument in his De Inventione, he is testifying to her influence in the realm of rhetoric. He might even have figured that many of his readers may have already been familiar with Aspasia’s discussion with Xenophon and his wife. (Note: Aspasia’s argument does seem more like one from analogy than from induction, though.)

Athenaeus attests to Aspasia’s fame by showing how instrumental Aspasia was in helping Socrates woe Aliciades. Aspasia was “Socrates’ teacher of rhetoric,” he says (65), and he quotes her advice to Socrates that it is the power of words which will help Socrates win Alcibiades: “Restrain thyself, filling thy soul with the conquering Muse; and with her aid thou shalt win him; pour her into the ears of his desire. For she is the true beginning of love in both; through her thou shalt master him, by offering to his ear gives for the unveiling of the soul” (65). Here again is reference to the influence of Aspasia and to the power of words on an audience.

Like Plato’s Socrates, Plutarch isn’t particularly complimentary of Aspasia, but his discussion nevertheless testifies, like Socrates and the others, to her reputation as a powerful teacher of rhetoric. His main goal in this excerpt seems to be to discuss Pericles and his decision to go to war against the Isle of Samos. It is as if he discusses Aspasia only to ascertain how much, and what kind of, role she played in influencing Pericles. At first he seems to be laying out evidence for Aspasia’s power, for her influence on Pericles and on Socrates, even admitting that Aspasia “had the repute of being resorted to by many of the Athenians for instruction in the art of speaking” (66). But he then seems to conclude that really, it was nothing more than Pericles’ passion for Aspasia which made her so influential over him. After all, Plutarch seems to say, the comedies call her a harlot (66).

I had to almost laugh when I read these comedic poets (and Plutarch) calling Aspasia a harlot. One, it’s another example of Foucault’s contention that sexuality and politics, the two most powerful arenas of human life, are also the two areas institutions most want to constrain and control. Sexuality and politics can easily be used against anyone who offends the “order of discourse.” And two, it reminded me of how common it is for powerful women to be accused of prostitution. Medieval and renaissance Christian tradition, without evidence, labeled Mary Magdalene a prostitute, and that tag stuck. And it’s tempting to assume that church leaders branded her a prostitute because to them a woman’s sin almost necessarily has to be sexual sin and because Jesus had given her too much power (by giving her the job of first reporter of the resurrection to the apostles).

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