The Unfair Sex
(the quote on the card is translated by R.D. Hicks but significantly revised by me)
Hipparchia the Cynic (~300 BC) was the wife of Crates the Cynic. Beginning with Antisthenes, who had been a student of Socrates, the Cynics were more of a sect than a school, and thus had no proper leader; their lifestyle, more than their specific doctrines, seems to have set them apart from their contemporaries. The strength of will it must have taken for a well-born and educated Greek woman to live and sleep and eat in public with her husband as Hipparchia did can barely be imagined (it’s somewhat less clear when she would have had occasion to attend a banquet of any kind). Incidentally, of her brother, Metrocles, who was converted by Crates’ teachings at the same time as Hipparchia, it is said that he was a student of Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor; and that one day, while rehearsing a speech at the school, he passed gas in front of the Theophrastus and was so mortified that he shut himself up in shame, “intending to starve himself to death” (DL VI§94). Whereupon Crates, his future brother-in-law, deliberately ate some food that would make him gassy so he could share Metrocles’ shame, and “tried to persuade him by argument as well that he had committed no crime, for a prodigy would have happened if he had not taken the natural means of relieving himself. At last, by reproducing the action [Crates] succeeded in lifting [Metrocles] from his dejection, using for his consolation the likeness of the occurrences. From that time forward Metrocles was his pupil, and became proficient in philosophy” (ibid).
To return from her scatological brother to Hipparchia herself. Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Eminent Philosophers contains 93 chapters, each named after and describing the life and teachings of a single thinker, not including several tangents and subchapters describing any number of additional philosophers. Of these 93 chapters and countless honorable mentions, there is one devoted to a female philosopher - Hipparchia. And of these countless honorable mentions, including Hipparchia, Diogenes names a grand total of four women who are not exclusively mothers or wives: Hipparchia; Arete, daughter of Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaic school; Leontion, student of Epicurus; and Themistoclea, who was not a philosopher at all but an oracle of Apollo at Delphi, a Pythia, who supposedly taught esoteric secrets to Pythagoras and who may not have been real (the same sources suggest that Pythagoras learned astrology from the Chaldeans, divination from the Persian Magi, and physics and mathematics from the Egyptians, which adds up to a whole lot of Study Abroad semesters for a guy living, according to classical sources, about 50 years after the invention of cartography by Anaximander). Not incidentally, every single one of these women was, Diogenes notes, either a philosopher or a whore; we’re not quite sure.
93 chapters, and one female philosopher. In fact, between earliest history and the early modern period, we can count on two hands the number of female philosophers whose name we even know. Of these 10 or so, we can count on one hand the number who were “important”; that is, there are about five female philosophers (that we know of) between the dawn of philosophy and the 17th century who were historically significant either in their conceptual innovations or their influence: Hipparchia (who we just met); Hypatia (who I mentioned recently as the Neo-Platonist who was the last Librarian of the Great Library in Alexandria, and who happened to have been ripped to shreds by a Christian mob); Heloise (Peter Abelard’s infamous partner in crime, whose charms led to his castration by her uncle’s lackeys; she is generally regarded both by historians and by her contemporaries as the most - and possibly only - philosophically educated woman of her time); Hildegard von Bingen (a medieval German abbess who had mystical visions); and Teresa of Avila (a Catholic nun who likewise experienced mystical rapture and lived to tell the tale and be sainted), whose parents had to ruin everything by not giving her a name that starts with an “H.” Of these five women, two are mystics, rather than philosophers properly speaking. Which leaves us with a grand total of 3 significant female names in the history of philosophy: Hipparchia, Hypatia, and Heloise. And if we tell the truth, the most significant woman in the history of philosophy is probably either Xanthippe, Socrates’ much younger wife who no-one seems to know existed but who clearly must have played some part in his being able to spend all fucking day yakking it up on the Agora, or St. Augustine’s mother, who badgered and guilted him for decades until he finally caved and converted to Christianity.
This post doesn’t really have a point. Except that I’ve recently been talking a lot about going outside the canon and the immensity of the archive, so I thought I’d point out a couple more places where trajectories or possibilities in the history of philosophy have been under erasure for centuries. How many “Intro to HistPhil” courses at philosophy departments even mention the existence of female philosophers, either to highlight the few that exist or to not the absence of any others? If anyone in the film industry is reading this, Hypatia’s life is seriously ripe for a biopic. The woman was the Last Librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria, and she was torn to shreds by a mob and fed to dogs because of her philosophical beliefs. What more can you ask in an intellectual hero?
(Updated: apparently, there is a film about Hypatia, and it’s called Agora. Thanks to two readers who kindly informed me of this film which I had never heard of.)