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Six ancient female philosophers you should know about

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When we conjure up ancient philosophers the image that springs to mind might be a bald Socrates discoursing with beautiful young men in the sun, or a scholarly Aristotle lecturing among cool columns.

But what about Aspasia, the foreign mistress of the foremost politician in Athens who gave both political and erotic advice? Or Sosipatra, mystic, mother and Neoplatonist who was a more popular teacher than her husband, Eustathius?

Women also shaped the development of philosophy.

Here are six ancient female philosophers you should know about.

1. Aspasia of Miletus

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia by Jean-Leon Gerome (1861).    Wikiart

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia by Jean-Leon Gerome (1861). Wikiart

Aspasia of Miletus - 400 BC. Aspasia was a highly regarded rhetorician and philosopher in Ancient Greece. Perhaps the most influential woman of her time: according to Plutarch, her salon became an intellectual centre in Athens, attracting the most prominent writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Socrates.

2. Clea

Clea (most active around 100 AD) was a priestess at Delphi — a highly esteemed political and intellectual role in the ancient world. The religious practitioners at the shrine received frequent requests from world leaders for divine advice about political matters. Clea was part of this political-religious system, but she believed in the primary importance of philosophy.

She found many opportunities for in-depth philosophical conversations with Plutarch, the most famous intellectual of his time. Plutarch tells us in the prefaces to On the Bravery of Women and On Isis and Osiris how these invigorating conversations on death, virtue and religious history inspired his own work.

3. Thecla

According to the Acts of Thecla, Thecla is a first-century noblewoman of Iconium (in modern Turkey). When she hears Paul preach in her hometown, she is so absorbed in his message that she neither eats nor drinks for three days. She promptly becomes a Christian and decides to remain unmarried and celibate, as Paul advised.

Unfortunately, this is seen as a subversive act by her fiancé and her family, and Thecla is violently persecuted by being burned in a bonfire. Miraculously, the flames do not touch her, and she is spared.

4. Sosipatra

Sosipatra of Ephesus was a Neoplatonist philosopher and mystic who lived in the first half of the 4th century AD. The story of her life is told in Eunapius' Lives of the Sophists.

She was born in Ephesus. When she was five years old, two men came to work on her father's estate. When they produced a bounteous harvest beyond all expectation, they persuaded him to hand Sosipatra, and his estate, over to their care. The father was told to leave home for five years, during which Sosipatra was educated by the two men in ancient Chaldean wisdom. When the father returned, Sosipatra was radiant in her beauty, and was said to have possessed extraordinary psychic and clairvoyant abilities. It is implied that the two men were supernatural beings.

5. Macrina the Younger

Saint Macrina on the colonnade of St Peter’s square. Wikimedia Commons

Saint Macrina on the colonnade of St Peter’s square. Wikimedia Commons

Macrina (circa 330-379 CE) was the oldest of ten in an expansive, influential well-educated Christian family in Cappadocia.

She kept the family together through her sharp mind, devout soul and strong will, ultimately transforming her ancestral estate into a successful community of male and female ascetics.

Her brother, Gregory of Nyssa, commemorated her wisdom both in a biography Life of Macrina and also in a philosophical dialogue On the Soul and Resurrection.

The latter depicted a conversation about death between the siblings as Macrina lay dying, in which she displays wide knowledge in philosophy, scripture and the physical sciences.

6. Hypatia of Alexandria

A portrait of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard, originally the illustration for Elbert Hubbard’s 1908 fictional biography.    Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard, originally the illustration for Elbert Hubbard’s 1908 fictional biography. Wikimedia Commons

Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 CE - March 415 AD) was a female philosopher and mathematician, born in Alexandria, Egypt possibly in 370 AD (although some scholars cite her birth as c. 350 AD). She was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last Professor at the University of Alexandria, who tutored her in math, astronomy, and the philosophy of the day which, in modern times, would be considered science.

Nothing is known of her mother and there is little information about her life. As the scholar Michael A. B. Deakin writes:

The most detailed accounts we have of Hypatia's life are the records of her death. We learn more about her death from the primary sources than we do about any other aspect of her life. (49)

She was murdered in 415 AD by a Christian mob who attacked her on the streets of Alexandria. The primary sources, even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch, are generally sympathetic in recording her death as a tragedy. These accounts routinely depict Hypatia as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy.

Source: https://www.greecehighdefinition.com/