Thursday, September 13, 2007

How Important Is Aspasia's Personal Life?

I had one more question in my pocket for the discussion Tuesday which no one picked: What to you make of the attention given to the biographies of rhetorically important women (Sappho (22), Aspasia (36), Diotima (44))? How important is it to understand the historical reality of the lives they led as opposed to their rhetorical practices and theories? Perhaps I should take the hint that the question wasn't that interesting, but I can't really help it. I wanted to talk about our obsession with women's personal lives.

It makes sense that we talk about Aspasia's personal life, since we don't really have anything of hers to read. She was notable for affecting notable men, so her relationship with Pericles is certainly important. And since Aspasia has gotten some flack for not adhering to the role of an Athenian wife, I can understand that we want to free her from charges that she was a prostitute. Still, how important is it, really, whether she was a prostitute or not? When I read about rhetoric, do I really expect to learn whether Cicero was sexually pure? Bizzell and Herzberg seem intent on confirming that Aspasia was no whore--that even if she were a prostitute, it was due to the social roles of the time (57). They seem to suggest that she really would have married Pericles (making her a proper woman), but since the law didn't allow foreigners to marry Athenian citizens, she was his official concubine (57). I was really worried there for a second that I might have been reading about a woman who didn't live up to my moral standards.

Now let me be fair: I understand that we don't want to let ancient Greek jokes obscure what we might otherwise be able to learn from Aspasia. But I'm just not sure that focusing on the sex lives of influential women is always called for, even when we're trying to help.

Works Cited
Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. "Aspasia." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 56-60.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.

1 comment:

EditorialEyes said...

A basic understanding of the personal lives of male and female rhetoricians is helpful to us readers so we can gain maximum knowledge of the subjects we study. However, I don't believe that the "prostitute" label placed on Aspasia -- or any other ancient Greek woman -- is especially helpful or important in the study of her rhetoric. What IS important is that her words were historically muffled because she was a woman, and women didn't have much of a shot at infiltrating the good ol' boys network of the day. What WOULD have been helpful is the preservation of her work.

Apparently, male-dominated Athenian society was hell-bent on placing women in an established category that dictated just how females were to be addressed and treated. Aspasia was a foreigner (that is, not born in Athens), thus, socially isolated. She was living in what has been described as a loving relationship with a well respected member of society, Pericles, but legally forbidden to marry. And no matter how much your neighbors in ancient Athens like you, and no matter how bright and charming you might be, they must select a label, and that would be "concubine" for you, Aspasia.

Aspasia's name has been recorded and she has been studied because she was able to impress the likes of notable men, such as Pericles, Plato, Plutarch, and Cicero; but perhaps she used her status as "foreigner" and "concubine" to her advantage as well. Because she was neither a citizen nor a wife, she was not expected to comply with the rules attached to those roles. Without those pesky expectations to live up to, perhaps she was allowed to exercise more freedom in the way she conducted her life. Perhaps she was so far "out" that she was "in." All that PLUS the engaging way she put words together to express interesting thoughts attracted men and women to her salons -- salons that advanced meaningful VERBAL intercourse.