In his Vita Isidori, Damascius emphasizes the important contribution women have made towards the prosperity of Neoplatonic schools, both as being actively involved in philosophical practices and as wives or mothers who promoted the philosophical careers of their male relatives. However, women are also presented as inferior in value simply due to their being female, and they are construed as an—at least potential—obstacle to philosophical progress. My paper will shed light on this tension by examining Damascius’ ideal of the male-female relationship as it is mirrored in his presentation of gendered metaphysical principles such as Limit and the Unlimited. This is a complementary relationship in which the male part is superior and dominant. The female-connoted principles are indeed active, powerful and necessary—without them no secondary beings could arise—but they are also potentially dangerous since they tend towards chaos. Nevertheless, Damascius does not deny women the ability to attain virtue, but he presents two ways in which women can live a virtuous life, namely (i) by transcending femaleness and being actively involved in philosophical practice or (ii) by becoming devoted wives and mothers. The second—and in Damascius’ description more usual—way demands that women not only be virtuous, but also that they adjust themselves to the needs of their husbands in order to reach complementary relationships.
Numerous methodological difficulties surround the study of female philosophers in Graeco-Roman antiquity, including those attested within the Platonic tradition. Few philosophical works written by women survive from antiquity; consequently, we do not often hear their views directly. Furthermore, women philosophers are often mentioned only briefly in ‘biographical’ sources authored by members of the male elite, such as the late antique Vitae. Faced with this paucity of evidence, some scholars have represented ancient female philosophers as anomalous exceptions to the rule. Post-structuralist critique has undermined further the notion that any type of historical information can be derived from late antique Vitae. This paper will examine these methodological issues in relation to the involvement of women in the Platonic tradition and will attempt to propose solutions to some of these issues based on: (1) the concept of philosophy in antiquity, especially its iteration as a way of life, and the implications of this concept for assessing female involvement in philosophical activities; (2) other sources of evidence for female philosophers and the need to provide a well-rounded picture of female intellectual activities; (3) the importance of considering women’s involvement in religious cult and worship alongside their philosophical activity; and (4) later processes of textual transmission within the medieval Christian tradition in the Latin West and the Arabic tradition in the East, and possible implications for the transmission of female writings.
At first sight, an ideal philosopher emerging from Porphyry’s argument in his On Abstinence, seems like the epitome of a man of reason: exemplifying detachment from the body almost to the point of punishment and living a life of intellect free from affections of the soul and the body, i.e., emotions and to an extent even sense-perceptions. One might expect that this view of an ideal philosophical life is combined with a theory of femininity being inferior to masculinity. However, I shall argue that although Porphyry analyzes female and male principles as opposites in the treatise, the female principle is not portrayed as being inferior to the male one. Moreover, although there is a striking difference between the attitude one should take toward bodies of different kinds, protectiveness of harmless animals and even plants combined with almost pathological austerity towards one’s own body, this is not due to inexplainable hostility towards the symbolical feminine (the body) as such. Rather, the difference derives from the ethical core of Porphyry’s argument. It is embodiment that puts us in the precarious position in which we need to use animate creatures for nourishment. Although it is possible to refrain from eating meat, we have to use plants and their lives to preserve our own.
One of the most substantive presentations of a female philosopher to survive from antiquity is the treatise On the Soul and Resurrection by Gregory of Nyssa. In this treatise, Macrina is depicted as a kind of female Socrates, discoursing on the eternity of the soul as she lies on her deathbed. She is very much cast as the teacher to Gregory’s student, expounding at length on the nature of the soul in response to his questions, which are usually objections posed in a ‘devil’s advocate’ manner. In particular, the atomistic theory of the Epicureans is taken as a foil for refutation. Against this, Macrina defends a Platonic conception of the soul as immaterial; on the other hand, she challenges features of Plato’s own view including the notion that the soul has parts. The primary goal of this paper is to explore Macrina as a paragon of rationality, with regard to her presentation as a literary character but also with regard to the strategies of rational argumentation she uses in the dialogue. Drawing also on other works by Gregory of Nyssa, it is in conclusion suggested that for him the true human self is a perfectly rational soul akin to God, who has no gender. Thus the true human self is the same for both men and women.
It may be assumed that, like Plato’s Seventh Letter, the Letter to Marcella by Porphyry was an open letter. Even if it begins as a letter of consolation for his wife, it is above all an exhortation to the philosophical life, addressed to a woman. Women’s access to higher education and to philosophy was already justified by Plato in the Republic and the Laws, where human beings are no longer defined by their body but by their soul. This doctrinal point was taken up and extended to late Pythagoreanism by Platonists, including Numenius, who, reacting against the New Academy, made Socrates, and therefore Plato, disciples of Pythagoras. Porphyry was immersed in this ideological context of Pythagoreanized Platonism.
The aim of this paper is to display some of the rich portraits of Aphrodite as goddess of love and beauty in Neoplatonic thought, with special attention to the various incorporations of the Platonic split between heavenly and pandemic Aphrodite. We look at Plotinus, Hermias, and Proclus, and end with a brief glance forward to Renaissance Platonism. The views of later Neoplatonists differ considerably from that of (at least early) Plotinus, as for them Aphrodite is not the soul, and although they make room for base desires, they exclude or transform pandemic Aphrodite. All thinkers discussed have set aside both an emanative and a reverting role for the goddess. Both these roles concern not so much love and beauty, as connecting hierarchically ordered opposites.
Proclus takes the Republic’s (Book V) recommendation that there should be both male and female Guardians as a serious political proposal, but like Plato, he gives few specifics. A recurring theme in Proclus’ commentary is that political arrangements are just to the extent that they effectively mirror the providential administration of the cosmos. Thus the Myth of Er is not merely an adornment at the end of the dialogue, but contains important information about the cosmic paradigm to which the just human polis should assimilate itself. This paper will consider the role of female Guardians in Proclus’ interpretation of the Republic as a serious suggestion in political theory by looking at the cosmic paradigms for women’s administration of justice in the Myth of Er. I have argued elsewhere that Proclus hypothesises gendered souls corresponding to male and female divinities and that, moreover, the feminine is subordinate to the masculine at the level of the divine. One point to emerge from my reading of the Myth of Er is that the female Guardians are likely to be subordinated to their male counter-parts if they play a role in the ideal polis analogous to the female divinities in the Myth of Er. A second point is that there are aspects of their role that seem to resemble some features of what has come to be called ‘the ethics of care’.
In Julian’s writings one detects many allusions to Neoplatonic metaphysical principles that are going to be worked out systematically by later philosophers such as Proclus of Athens. The so-called mother of the gods (Cybele) is an important female principle in the Neoplatonic pantheon. As a matter of fact, her title “mother of the gods” suggests a most prominent place in the divine hierarchy of principles. In my contribution, I shall investigate how Julian integrates the figure of the mother of the gods into Neoplatonic metaphysics. The broader scope of the paper is to identify typical Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic motives throughout the entire hymn.
Plato’s claim that women’s capacities for virtue are equal to those of men is taken up by various Platonist philosophers in Late Antiquity. Proclus’ discussion of this claim in Essays VIII and IX of his commentary on the Republic has already been examined by scholars. In this paper I come back to Proclus’ Essay VIII in order to point to the metaphysical account he gives of the subsidiary nature of female in relation to male souls. I also discuss a second example of interpretation of Plato’s claim, to be found in Julian the Emperor’s Praise of the Empress Eusebia, where Julian presents Eusebia as superior in virtue to her husband Constantius II, a true philosopher-queen. A third example is provided by Philip the Philosopher’s interpretation of Heliodorus’ novel, the Aethiopica. This interpretation, I argue, first presents the men and women protagonists of the novel as exemplifying various virtues on the level of ‘ethical virtue,’ but then leads us up the scale of virtues to the love and contemplation of a transcendent Intellect, an ascent which is no longer a story of men or women, but that of the soul’s return to its homeland.