Aspasia

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Looking for the missing women

Kathleen Welch’s tirades in Electric Rhetoric made me curious about the women missing from the “rhetorical canon.” So I’ve been on a bit of a mission. Aspasia of Miletus was next on my list. As usual, Aristophanes is one of the best (at least in the comic sense) resources regarding the ancient Greeks. She’s there, in Acharnians:

But then some young crapshooters got to drinking
and went to Megara and stole the whore Simaétha.
And then the Megarians, garlic-stung with passion,
got even by stealing two whores from Aspasia.
From this the origin of the war broke forth
on all the Greeks: from three girls good at blow-jobs.
I was looking at the original Greek text, curious about the word used for blow-job, laikastriôn. It seems that the online lexicon merely lists it as harlot, rather than listing it as a particular specialty. Surely the translator didn’t take license with the term, because so much of Aristophanes’ vocabulary is quite specific. For example pephusingômenoi, translated as “garlic-stung with passion” is listed in the lexicon as:
phusingoomai phu_singoomai, [phusinx] Pass. to be excited by eating garlic, properly of fighting cocks: hence the Megarians (who were large growers of garlic) are said to be odunais pephusingômenoi infuriated by vexations, Ar.
“Garlic-stung with passion” does sound better than the lexographer’s translation of the same phrase as “infuriated by vexations.” All in all though, it sounds like a desire thing to me. Evidently, growers of garlic had difficulty procuring blow-jobs by other means. This makes a certain perverted sense. But the outcome of this theft is what seems quite pertinent to present day politics.
And then in wrath Olympian Pericles did lighten and thunder and turn Greece upside-down, establishing laws that read like drinking-songs:

“Megarians shall be banned from land and markets and banned from sea and also banned from shore.”

Whereupon the Megarians, starving inch by inch, appealed to Sparta to help make us repeal the decree we passed in the matter of the whores.
This sort of victimization of the “other” (even if they do smell) jibes nicely with Ray’s thoughts on the function of groups to perpetuate homogeneity. We can’t have those garlic-inflamed folks stealing our blow-job queens, now can we? Laws that sound like drinking-songs? This all sounds too familiar.

What is also far too familiar is the reduction of Aspasia to a simple whore. Her oral powers seemed to extend quite a bit further than the bedroom. Socrates was impressed by her too. Obviously, she held Pericles in her sway, as Aristophanes so pointedly implies by blaming a war on her. The politics behind her situation seems quite interesting. What’s an educated girl from out of town to do? Socrates claims that she was an impressive rhetorician. One of most useful moves I made, in teaching research papers, was comparing them with a sales pitch. Obviously, “working girls” need strong sales skills, and Socrates (though it may have been tongue-in cheek) did seem more interested in other oral skills Aspasia possessed than the ones highlighted by Aristophanes.

Socrates’ interest, is noted as the only thing interesting about his dialogue Menexenus in the introduction of the Princeton edition. I’ve become acutely sensitive to the sort of minimalizing strategies employed by scholarly editors since my friend Dr. Levernier used a conservative American Lit anthology to display how women and writers of color were admitted grudgingly, and always with the damnation of faint praise. That drive to marginalize feminine voices is downright blatant in this edition:

The beginning is entertaining where Socrates talks about Aspasia who, he declared, has been teaching him a speech, a funeral oration, but all the rest is dullness unrelieved, not a characteristic of Plato.
Dullness unrelieved? I didn’t find it that way at all. The conjecture is that Aspasia had a great deal to do with Pericles Funeral Oration, a work full of pomp and nationalistic chest-thumping. Aspasia was Pericles’ mistress. However, the speech of Aspasia related by Plato through the voice of Socrates, even if it is a parody, reveals a great deal regarding her sophistic view of politics.

For government is the nurture of man, and the government of good men is good, and of bad men bad. And I must show that our ancestors were trained under a good government and for this reason, they were good, and our contemporaries are also good, among whom our departed friends are to be reckoned.

Then as now, and indeed always, from that time to this, speaking generally, our government was an aristocracy— a form of government which receives various names, according to the fancies of men, and is sometimes called democracy, but is really an aristocracy or government of the best which has the approval of the many.

For kings we have always had, first hereditary and then elected, and authority is mostly in the hands of people, who dispense offices and power to those who appear to be deserving of them. Neither is a man rejected from weakness or poverty or obscurity of origin, nor honored by reason of the opposite, as in other states, but there is one principle— he who appears to be wise and good is a governor and ruler.

The choice of words is quite careful. Aspasia notes that everything is based on appearances, and goes further to say that the state recognizes “no superiority except in the reputation of virtue and wisdom.” Obviously, as a woman whose reputation was often slandered, her perception that reputation is everything is hardly surprising.

The biting mistrust of women shines in the opening and closing of this dialogue— the only parts deemed worthy of Plato by the editors— particularly in Menexenus’ closing comment about Aspasia’s speech:

Yes, Socrates, I am very grateful to her or to him who told you, and still more to you who have told me.
The careful “him or her that told you” shows the incredulity of Menexenus regarding the source of such wisdom. It couldn’t be a woman. Or, as the modern editor’s imply, if Socrates shows respect for a woman, then it couldn’t have been authored by our golden boy, Plato. Perhaps it is this lack of respect, even by the female editor of the Princeton Plato, Edith Hamilton, which makes our laws read like drinking songs. Those smelly, passionate Megarians must be dealt with! And a madam from Athens can't have much of anything interesting to say.

Personally, I think Aspasia describes the nature of government far better than Pericles in his Funeral Oration.

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This page contains a single entry by Jeff Ward published on June 30, 2002 2:11 PM.

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Epistolatry vs. Oral Fixation is the next entry in this blog.

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