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The Hidden Woman Behind Socrates

How Socrates developed his famous method.

Key points

  • The Socratic method is popular in education and has also been adapted for psychotherapy.
  • According to his student Plato, Socrates originated the method after the oracle of Delphi pronounced him the wisest of men.
  • However, there are some indications that he might in fact have learnt the method from a woman, the reviled Aspasia of Miletus.
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.
The debate of Socrates and Aspasia, by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1800). Standing by Socrates is Alcibiades.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

In my last post I discussed the pros and cons of the Socratic method, or method of elenchus, which consists in questioning one or more people about a concept with the aim of exposing a contradiction in their initial assumptions and provoking a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly refined definition of the concept, and, in due course, to a shared recognition that it eludes our understanding—and hence that we know far less than we thought we did.

With our initial dogmatism transmuted into a state of puzzlement and suspended judgement, we are ready to become much more open and subtle thinkers—assuming, of course, that we have not first become angry and resentful. Despite this potential pitfall, the method of elenchus remains popular in education, especially at its acme, and has also been severally adapted for psychotherapy.

According to his student Plato, Socrates originated the method of elenchus after his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle of Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. Astonishingly, the oracle replied that there was no one wiser—leaving Socrates, who knew only that he knew nothing, perplexed.

To discover the meaning of the oracle, he questioned several supposedly wise people, and in each case concluded: “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” From then on, he dedicated himself to the service of the god of the oracle by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, “if he is not, showing him that he is not.” Plato paints the oracle story as the turning point of Socrates’ career: By validating his skeptical stance, it gave him the confidence, and the impetus, to develop his own, distinct method of doing philosophy.

Although Socrates may have perfected the method of elenchus, it is unlikely that he originated a mode of conversation that seems so naturally and fundamentally human. Diogenes Laertius, the ancient biographer of philosophers, claims that it was the sophist Protagoras who “first introduced the method of discussion which is called Socratic”. But in Plato’s Parmenides, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, who was a generation older than Protagoras, himself uses the method of elenchus on Socrates to undermine Plato's Theory of the Forms.

It remains that while other thinkers tried to make a show of their knowledge, Socrates tried to make a show of his and everyone else’s ignorance. In contrast to the pre-Socratics and especially to the sophists, he seldom claimed to have any positive knowledge; whenever he did, it was because he had learnt it from somebody else, or because he had been “divinely inspired”. In Plato’s Phaedrus, he compares himself to an empty jar, filled through the ears by the words of others.

In Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates says that he learnt the art of rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, “an excellent mistress… who has made so many good speakers [including] the best among the Hellenes—Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.” Socrates agrees to recite a funeral oration that Aspasia recently composed and taught to him. He tells Menexenus that he ought to remember the speech since, each time he forgot the words, Aspasia threatened to slap him! The speech that Socrates delivers resembles, and satirizes, the famous funeral oration delivered by Pericles and recorded by Thucydides. When Socrates is done reciting, Menexenus marvels that such a speech could have been written by a woman.

This is not the only occasion on which Socrates claims to have been schooled by a wise woman. In Plato’s Symposium, he relates a conversation that he once had with a mysterious priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who, he says, taught him the art of love. This is Plato’s famous “Ladder of Love,” by which aching lust can be sublimed into wisdom and virtue. The scholar Armand d’Angour, among others, has argued that Aspasia and Diotima are in fact one and the same person.

Aspasia immigrated from Miletus to Athens, where she lived as a metic (resident alien). After his amicable divorce from Deinomache, she became the concubine of Pericles, who, according to Plutarch, kissed her every morning upon leaving and every evening upon returning. Owing to Aspasia’s influence, real or imagined, on the person and politics of Pericles, the comedians of the day branded her a prostitute, and in the Acharnians Aristophanes even blames her for starting the Peloponnesian War. If Aspasia did indeed teach Socrates the art of love, Plato would have wanted to hide her identity, and what better disguise than that of a chaste priestess?

Besides Plato and Xenophon, at least another nine of Socrates’ followers wrote Socratic dialogues. Among these dialogues, we know that there are, or were, at least two Aspasias, one by Aeschines and another by Antisthenes. In the Aspasia of Aeschines, Socrates advises the millionaire Callias to send his son Hipponicus to Aspasia for instruction. Socrates presses his recommendation upon the unimpressed Callias by citing Aspasia’s credentials in rhetoric and marriage guidance—credentials that are confirmed in Plato (rhetoric) and Xenophon (marriage guidance).

In a fragment of the Aspasia by Aeschines preserved in Cicero, Aspasia demonstrates to a husband (who happens to be called Xenophon) and his wife that neither will be happy with the other so long as they are desirous of an ideal spouse. Therefore, if they are to be happy together, husband and wife alike must endeavour to be or become the best possible spouse.

“Tell me, I beg of you, O you wife of Xenophon, if your neighbour has better gold than you have, whether you prefer her gold or your own?” “Hers,” says she. “Suppose she has dresses and other ornaments suited to women, of more value than those which you have, should you prefer your own or hers?” “Hers, to be sure,” answered she. “Come, then,” says Aspasia, “suppose she has a better husband than you have, should you then prefer your own husband or hers?” On this the woman blushed.

But Aspasia began a discourse with Xenophon himself. “I ask you, O Xenophon,” says she, “if your neighbour has a better horse than yours is, whether you would prefer your own horse or his?” “His,” says he. “Suppose he has a better farm than you have, which farm, I should like to know, would you prefer to possess?” “Beyond all doubt,” says he, “that which is the best.” “Suppose he has a better wife than you have, would you prefer his wife?” And on this Xenophon himself was silent.

Then spake Aspasia: “Since each of you avoids answering me that question alone which was the only one which I wished to have answered, I will tell you what each of you are thinking of; for both you, O woman, wish to have the best husband, and you, O Xenophon, most exceedingly desire to have the most excellent wife. Wherefore, unless you both so contrive matters that there shall not be on the whole earth a more excellent man or a more admirable woman, then in truth you will at all times desire above all things that which you think to be the best thing in the world, namely, that you, O Xenophon, may be the husband of the best possible wife; and you, O woman, that you may be married to the most excellent husband possible.”

What is so striking about this dialogue is that Aspasia uses the very same methods as Socrates, namely, elenchus and argument by analogy, to arrive at the very same conclusion as Diotima, namely, that love’s highest purpose is to serve as a vehicle of virtue.

What if Aspasia had taught Socrates his method as well as the art of love?

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (forthcoming).

References

The oracle story, in: Plato, Apology.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IX, 8.

Armand d’Angour (2019), Socrates in Love. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Plutarch, Life of Pericles.

Cicero, De Inventione, I, 31.

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