Was Diotima real, and does it matter?

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I just had an exchange with Sandrine Berges (@sandrineankara) on Twitter about Diotima, who appears in Plato's Symposium espousing a theory of love and beauty that is strongly linked to Plato's theory of Forms. (As it happens I'm about to be discussing this in an episode on Renaissance philosophy, which will look at the reception of the Symposium in Ficino and others.) Sandrine objects to those who voice skepticism about the historical reality of Diotima: "The fact that skepticism is systematically expressed about the named women philosophers of antiquity does not entail that they or others didn't do philosophy. But it does shape the perception that they didn't." I can see her point, and for what it's worth I would tend to assume that Diotima was a real person because most Platonic characters are real, though not all are, we get quite a bit of biographical info on Diotima in the Symposium itself, and the level of detail seems a little strange if Plato just made her up - a contrast case would be, say, the rather generic Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist. I also wouldn't deny that it "matters" whether she existed for real because it is interesting to know how frequent and well-known women philosophers were in antiquity.

In a sense though not so much depends on the historical reality of Diotima herself since there are other examples of known female philosophers, plus the fact that Plato presents Diotima as a plausible character tells us that, even if he made her up, he considered the fiction to be one the audience could accept. (I mentioned a similar point on the podcast about women thinkers in the Upaniṣads and other texts: even if they aren't real, their presence suggests that there were real women sages in India.) However I would still be careful here, insofar as Plato's characters are always literary creations whether they are based on real people or not: he takes enormous liberties with them and this applies to Socrates or Parmenides no less than Diotima. The same goes for Aspasia in the Menexenus, who was certainly a real person but who is pretty certainly being used there so Plato can make some point or other, not just because he was, like, transcribing a speech Aspasia wrote. (Indeed I argue in a forthcoming paper that her being female is actually crucial to the points he wants to make: roughly, he wants to get us to focus on the idea of civic unity as a kind of mirror of the family, which is a gendered issue for Plato).

Anyway, to sum up my ideas about Diotima: (a) we can't be sure whether she existed since we have no other evidence, but I reckon she probably did, (b) if she did exist, then whatever the real historical Diotima was like, Plato is bound to be doing something creative with her as a personality, which we probably would understand better if we had independent information about her as we do with Aspasia, and (c) there were women thinkers in antiquity anyway, whatever we make of Diotima, so one shouldn't act as if this one famous case is somehow decisive for the wider issue. (To put it another way, one shouldn't be a skeptic about women thinkers in general, even if one is a skeptic about Diotima.)

On that last point I'd add that if we insist too much on the accuracy of classical evidence concerning women philosophers - e.g. concerning Diotima or the supposed female authors of Pythagorean texts - we are apt to miss a significant point, namely that in late antiquity there is a real change in the nature of our evidence. Though we don't have works actually by women philosophers from late antiquity, we do have credible and detailed portrayals of such figures by male writers, which we can often contextualize with additional historical information about these women. Good examples would be Monica in Augustine's works and Macrina in the works of Gregory of Nyssa, and of course Hypatia, the most famous example. If we are too insistent on how much we can say about the classical women, we may obscure this observation and thus fail to appreciate a real sea change in the textual evidence that tells us about women thinkers in history.

By the way for more on all this you can check out my series of videos on women thinkers in antiquity and the middle ages.

Joakim on 22 January 2020

If we mean to pursue the

If we mean to pursue the truth in any serious way, we must push back against appeals to consequences. What Sandrine Berges is saying is basically "the questioning of X is immoral and anyone espousing it is a bad person and a *ist". She puts ideology over truth and is not to be taken seriously.

In reply to by Joakim

Peter Adamson on 22 January 2020

I think that's an unfair

I think that's an unfair accusation, because she's surely right to say that one could be ideologically motivated to deny the historical reality of Diotima, just as much as one could be ideologically motivated to accept it. Indeed given that sexism is deeply entrenched in traditional historical scholarship it is reasonable to be suspicious of motivations in this area, and to point out double standards (as she did when she pointed out on Twitter that much less ink is spilled denying the historical reality of, say, Euthyphro). I do agree with you that it is not a good move to say, in effect, "it would be nice to think that Diotima existed, so therefore she did" - indeed making that inference, or seeming to, is counterproductive since it suggests that the entirely legitimate research into women thinkers of the past is actually just a politically motivated distortion. But that's not what I took her to be doing.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Joakim on 24 January 2020

It's been something like 36

It's been something like 36 hours since I posted my reply and it still hasn't appeared, so let's try again...

Diotima is the teacher of Socrates, whose ideas figure prominently in a dialogue. Euthyphro is one more guy to make some arguments for Socrates to knock down. If you didn't know their genders, who would you be more interested in?

Furthermore, if you only knew their genders - one being a man, of whom there are plenty in Plato's dialogues, and one being a woman of whom there are relatively few - who would you guess is more interesting? Both her gender and her role attract attention, and you should expect more questioning of her existence in proportion.

And even if the questioning of her existence is out of proportion to how much attention in general is given to her, and supposing it's because she's a woman, is that due to sexism or because women were not usually teachers of philosophy? Suppose Socrates' teacher was a male slave (I'm assuming here that slaves were not usually teachers in ancient Athens); I think people would question his existence more than if there was nothing unexpected about him.

Also, suppose Plato only told us about this teacher in the context of making a point about slavery, in the same way that Diotima was brought up while talking about love. One would then have an additional reason to think the teacher was made up as a literary device. And if the teacher was a Spartan who taught Socrates about democracy and timocracy, it seems natural to question their existence, and not because of laconophobia.

In reply to by Joakim

Peter Adamson on 25 January 2020

Just to apologize that your

Just to apologize that your comment didn't appear - we have to approve each one as it is posted since 90% of the posts are spam, actually (SO annoying). Hence the delay. But in this case I didn't see your previous version of this post at all so something else must have gone wrong.

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