Aspasia was born to a high-ranking family in the town of Miletus (where Thales was also born) around 470 BCE. Details of her early life are hazy, and many of the accounts we have are unreliable; but it is likely that some time around 450 BCE she moved to Athens, fleeing political unrest. In Athens, she was classified as a resident alien, and lacked the rights of a citizen.
It is possible that in Athens Aspasia worked as a hetaira — a high-class female companion to powerful men. The role of the hetaira was not just to provide sex, but also intellectual companionship, conversation and emotional support. This meant that many hetairai were among the most highly educated women in Athens, and some gained considerable wealth and political power. But as with all accounts of women philosophers in history, we would do well to take claims like this with some scepticism: they may be reflections of the truth; but equally, they may be the attempts of later writers to discredit women philosophers.
Coming back to more solid historical ground, it is clear that once she was in Athens, Aspasia entered into a long-term relationship with the statesman and military general Pericles. As Aspasia was an outsider, they could not have their union recognised in law, so it was not a legal marriage. Nevertheless, Aspasia’s long-standing relationship with Pericles may have given her a degree of protection, and access to Athenian high society. This is how she came into contact with the philosopher Socrates, who — according to the account left by Plato — regarded her as his teacher.
A Controversial Figure
If one thing is clear from contemporary accounts, it is that Aspasia was a controversial figure, as was her relationship with Pericles. Both she and Pericles were often the object of criticism and attack. The playwright Aristophanes even went as far as to blame her — without a shred of evidence — for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war.
In the year 429 BCE, plague swept through Athens. Pericles watched many of his family-members die, and then he too succumbed.
After the death of Pericles, Aspasia continued to live in Athens. But it seems that after her partner’s death, she was further away from the centres of power. Our knowledge about her later life is as uncertain and fuzzy as the knowledge we have of her early life. It is likely that she died around the year 401 BCE, a couple of years before the death of Socrates.
Aspasia was famous chiefly as a rhetorician. Rhetoric is — as Aristotle later argued — the art of observing ‘in any given case the available means of persuasion.’ And according to the tradition, Aspasia was such a compellingly persuasive speaker that she taught both Pericles the great military general, and Socrates the great philosopher, how to speak persuasively, and how to win others over. In Plato’s dialogue called the Menexenus, Socrates says, ‘I happen to have no mean teacher of oratory’ — and that teacher was Aspasia.
Reason and Persuasion
In Ancient Greece, the idea of rhetoric was always under suspicion. And a female rhetorician was perhaps doubly suspect. The argument against rhetoric was that if we are skilled enough, we can persuade people of anything — whether it is true or not — and so rhetoric is at best an ambivalent tool, and at worst a genuine threat to reasoned debate. But the counter-argument — one that is made by Aristotle as well — is that rhetoric is an important skill, one that supplements our search for truth. If you know something to be true, but are incapable of persuading others, then it is hard for this knowledge to be put to use. In this second view, rhetoric is essential to public reason and debate. Truth is useless if we cannot persuade anybody of the truth.
And if Aspasia was indeed the Socrates’s teacher in rhetoric, it is clear that she was successful: Plato’s dialogues provide ample evidence of Socrates’s enormously persuasive style of debate and argumentation.
But the story of Aspasia also reminds us of the often hidden role played by women in the philosophical traditions of the world. The sheer difficulty we have when it comes to getting her story straight (in contrast, we know a whole load about Pericles!) is a consequence of the way that women’s voices have often been distorted and excluded from the tradition.
The most complete historical account of Aspasia — the person and the many myths — can be found in Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition by Madeleine M. Henry (Oxford University Press 1995)
There is a good entry on Aspasia on the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
There’s a fascinating piece on the Conversation by Armand D’Angour, exploring the influence of women philosophers on the direction of Socrates’s philosophy. D’Angour argues (spoiler alert!) that Diotima and Aspasia were one and the same. I’m not 100% convinced, but it’s a fun read. The link is here. If you want to read the full argument, the book is Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher (Bloomsbury 2019).
Image: The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia, c. 1800. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.