Who is Aspasia?

“To ask questions about Aspasia, is to ask questions about half of humanity.”

-Madeleine M. Henry, Prisoner of History

Unfortunately, little remains in the historical record about one of the first women in rhetoric. There are many reports that she was a hetaera, and that she ran a house of prostitution. However, it is not known if there is any factual basis for this charge, or if the accusations merely stemmed from male historians outraged at the role Aspasia had chosen to assume, flouting social conventions that prescribed what was proper behavior for a woman of her time.

Some historians of rhetoric argue that she could have possibly taught Socrates what is now known as the “Socratic method.” Bizzell and Herzberg write that Aspasia seemed to have an egalitarian view of rhetoric: “Aspasia treats her interlocutors as intellectual equals, not attempting to knock them down with agonistic argument but rather gently drawing them toward her own point of view by means of premises they provide and endorse.”

According to Cicero, Socrates himself preferred to use this method “because he wished to present no arguments himself, but preferred to get a result from the material which the interlocutor had given him–a result which the interlocutor was bound to approve as following necessarily from what he had already granted.”

Although it is impossible to verify whether or not Aspasia in fact taught Socrates the method for which he is known, it is interesting to consider the profound effect she may have had, and wonder at the other contributions made by unnamed women to rhetoric and other fields that remain unrecognized.

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