Gender Equity: In Search of Diotima's Place with the Ancient Philosophers

By George, Lynda | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Gender Equity: In Search of Diotima's Place with the Ancient Philosophers


George, Lynda, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Gender Equity: In Search of Diotima's Place With the Ancient Philosophers

Within the text of Plato's Symposium (Plato, trans. 1948) when it is Socrates turn to speak he defers to his teacher a woman named Diotima from Mantinea. Socrates recounts their conversations and shares both what and how she taught him. Socrates speaks of her as wise and knowledgeable on many subjects and his instructress. He said: "... it was she who taught me the philosophy of love (p. 553)." Diotima's voice, within the text, is strong and clear and for centuries her existence was not questioned. Yet contemporary historians and philosophers while studying and interpreting the text have turned her into a fictional character (Mialone, 1997). Margaret Walker argues that

   Diotima's fate is particularly haunting; it seems she was the
   teacher, at least by reputation, of a very great male philosopher.
   Yet she did not just disappear from the history of philosophy; she
   was reduced to a figment of that great man's imagination (Walker,
   2005, p. 154).

This paper explores the loss of Diotima as an historical person. This paper also brings Diotima's voice to the Round Table regarding what and how she taught Socrates. Acknowledging her existence and hearing her ideas elevates the history of womankind and brings to the table her unique perspective and understanding of teaching and learning which indeed we may learn from.

   Socrates when it was his turn to speak at the Symposium (Plato. 1961
   trans.) said "... I shall begin by stating who and what Love is, and
   go on to describe his functions, and I think the easiest way will be
   to adopt Diotima's own method of inquiry by question and answer ...
   she used the same arguments on me that I've just brought to bear on
   Adathon to prove that, on my own showing, Love was neither beautiful
   nor good (p. 554)."

As the dialogue unfolds we hear Diotima teaching Socrates about love including the love of about wisdom, virtue, beauty, and the good. These ideas are often under study and/or discussion throughout Plato's works. Diotima uses mythology and analogy to promote understanding and discussion as the means for bringing forth thoughts from her student Socrates. She appears to have had a significant influence on Socrates and taught him well, for what he says he learned from her he is able to recollect, interpret and expand on as he nurtures, (albeit at times) agitates, annoys, frustrates and/or angers others throughout the Platonic dialogues. While the existence of no other personage within any of the dialogues is questioned "recent philosophic tradition has assumed that Diotima was not an historical person (Waithe, 1987 p. 5)."

When, How, and Why Diotima was Banished from Reality

From the time Plato wrote the Symposium until 1485 with the publication of Oratio Septima II written by Maresilio Ficino, no one questioned Diotima's existence. From her study of Diotima Mary Ellen Waithe tells us:

   Nowhere is the suggestion found that Diotima was anything but a
   real person who had the conversations with Socrates recorded by
   Plato. For nearly nineteen centuries Diotima was ... considered a
   historical person. Ficino's remark on the absurdity of thinking a
   woman a philosopher achieved and retained the status of received
   doctrine for the next 500 years (Waithe, 1987, p. 106).

From this it is apparent that Ficino, not Plato, created the fiction of Diotima based on his inability to appreciate a woman philosopher.

Kathleen Wider (Wider, 1986) in her research on ancient Greek women philosophers explored the arguments by several modern scholars regarding whether Diotima was an actual historical figure. Wider offers that

   The arguments supporting the view that she is a fictitious
   personage invented by Plato are weak ... Scholars have given all
   kinds of reasons for Plato's invention of Diotima. … 

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