Voices June 04, 2019
Socrates in Love: the woman behind his philosophy
When we think of Socrates, what first comes to mind is his trial and execution.
Athens condemned him to death by hemlock in 399 BCE. Its citizens were looking for a convenient scapegoat for the fall of the Athenian Empire.
Athens had recently lost its decades-long war with Sparta, but for decades Socrates had been openly practising his “Socratic method” in the public marketplace of Athens.
Socrates’ enemies were able to claim he had undermined the democracy from within, since most people found his public cross-examinations annoying and painful.
Although Socrates was exhorting the people of Athens to pursue the fullness of truth and to live the best life possible, his method inevitably exposed their lack of knowledge and limited virtue.
For years our historical knowledge of Socrates has been informed by conventional interpretations of the evidence that survives from antiquity. But in an exciting new book, Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, Armand D’Angour, an associate professor of classics at Oxford, gives us a fresh perspective and a new interpretation.
D’Angour asks us to imagine Socrates as a young man, falling in love. Every superhero has an origin story, so perhaps the greatest of Greek philosophers began his quest with an unusual experience that motivated him to pursue virtue and knowledge.
We already possess enough historical information to reconstruct this early experience, says D’Angour. Plato himself gives us important evidence in the Socratic dialogues he wrote in tribute to his teacher.
In the Symposium, one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Socrates speaks of the woman from whom he himself learned the most about love. Plato has Socrates discreetly name her as “Diotima.”
But D’Angour persuasively argues that, with this name, Socrates is referring to Aspasia of Miletus, the famous consort of Athens’ preeminent citizen, Pericles.
In Greek, “Diotima” means “honoured by Zeus.” But “Zeus” was the nickname given to Pericles by the comic poets of the time, who lampooned the sway that this single man held over the whole democracy.
The “honour” that Pericles gave Aspasia was unmistakable in the public displays of affection that he showed her, which were unusual by the norms of the time.
But the “honour” can also refer to Pericles living with her as his wife even though his own laws had prohibited Athenians from marrying foreigners.
Plato also records in his dialogue Menexenus that Aspasia was a speechwriter for Pericles, indicating that she played an important role behind the scenes as a key political adviser. Pericles was famously mocked at the time for the influence that the brilliant and attractive Aspasia was said to have over him.
In the Symposium, Socrates also makes a datable historical reference to a particular bit of wise counsel by “Diotima,” which seems to refer unmistakably to political advice that Aspasia gave to Pericles in 440 BCE in the aftermath of his invasion of Samos.
D’Angour’s book convincingly marshals the evidence for Socrates’ connections to the aristocratic circle around Pericles, which would have brought him into contact with Aspasia when they were both young.
Pericles was twice her age, yet Aspasia obviously chose him over Socrates, even though the young Socrates would have been quite attractive and impressive, as D’Angour argues.
The speech Aspasia gives to Socrates as “Diotima” in the Symposium suggests the reason why she chose Pericles over her peer Socrates. Beyond physical passion, she says, the power of love should be harnessed to bring forth virtue in one’s self, in others, and in future generations.
From there, it’s easy to see how Aspasia’s ambitious choice of a man with greater power and influence could decisively affect Socrates as a young man. D’Angour has thus performed a real service with his book, showing us how Socrates made a deliberate lifestyle choice in response.
Socrates was well off enough to make his life into a public performance of refusing to compete in politics, where Pericles was dominant. Instead, he devoted himself to criticizing people for pursuing wealth and influence: these are false versions of what true virtue and happiness consists in.
Although in the decades that followed, Socrates served his city bravely as a soldier, he was a public critic of democracy’s failings.
But he didn’t offer his criticisms in the political arena, using speeches to serve his personal advancement. Instead, he invented Socratic philosophy’s virtue ethics in the streets of Athens.
He would marry Myrto and then Xanthippe, and have three children, but it was Aspasia who had first spurred him on to demonstrate to others what it really means to care for one’s own soul: to pursue, beyond the political life, true virtue.
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