Hypatia Again, Aristotle, “Dead Ends” & Science

Been away from academia since my 1981 graduation from St. John’s College. (I’m not counting the MBA as an ‘academic’ experience – high-end VoTech.) But now, I’m taking Attic Greek at Cal, one of the great institutions of higher learning in this galactic sector. (OK, it’s the extension program, but still.)

File:Aspasie Pio-Clementino Inv272.jpg
File:Bust Sappho Musei Capitolini MC1164.jpg

So, it was only a matter of time before somebody said something that was going to set me off.

Week 1 passed without incident. In week 2, the professor, a charming Bulgarian lady, mentioned Pericles’ consort, Aspasia, and went to some lengths to describe the semi-scandal it was in 5th century Athens for a woman to talk with men. And I had heard somewhere that, at that point in time, it was often better to be a man’s horse than his wife, and that Rome, for all its funkiness, was a better place to be a noble woman by far than Ancient Greek.  But this is a topic about which I know little.

However, the little I do know is that, according to semi-classic work A History Of Education In Antiquity by H. I. Marrou, Sappho’s day gig was running a school for women very much on the lines of the various schools in Athens, with the intent of forming cultured women who could hang with the boys, and that hers was not the only such school. True, this would have been a couple centuries before Pericles, and Marrou does mention that “… for a long time afterwards, however, to judge by the available evidence, women’s education was eclipsed by the dominance of the masculine element in Greek civilization, and it did not reemerge into the full light of day until much later, only shortly before the Hellenistic Age.” Yet the women portrayed by Aristophanes in Lysistrata, written a couple decades after Pericles’ time, don’t seem unduly shy about talking to men on a fairly equal footing.

And so, in my ignorance, if I had bothered to think about it, I’d have said that, while educated women were not the norm in ancient Greece, (heck, educated *men* were not the norm, either. Slaves and peons were the norm), I would have supposed that they were not so rare as to be freakish.

And thus the matter would have died as just another of the professorial asides that make up a large portion of university education. But then she went on to tell us how Aspasia was hated and slandered by the enemies of Pericles, and in attempting to give us students someone more familiar to tie Aspasia to, the professor started to liken her to – here she stumbled – that woman, much later, in Alexandria…

I offered ‘Hypatia?’

Yes, that was it. Now, Aspasia was ‘consort’ in some sense – nothing is too clear about here except her association with Pericles, her sophistication and learning, and that she was attacked by his enemies. She could have been his wife; she could have been his friend; and she could have been the proprietor of a bordello. In any event, she was prominent is some way in the politics of Athens. Hypatia, the details of whose life and death Mike Flynn has assembled in convenient form here, was a famous scholar and teacher, a virgin, and rather apolitical in general, although she did end up dead as the result of political turmoil. The only things she has in common with Aspasia are that she was an educated woman, and that she made political enemies.

The ‘killed by Christians, hated because she was an uppity woman’ thing came up, and I attempted to clarify that Hypatia had Christian students who loved her, including a future bishop, and that contemporary reports don’t say anything about her being hated because she was a woman. And was dismissed with ‘you can’t trust contemporary sources’.

The situation was such that pursing it any further would have been awkward, so the discussion was dropped. Looking back, and after a little Googling of Aspasia, it’s easy to see that the professor might have a point – when talking about Aspasia. Some of the contemporary mentions of her – these are so brief as to hardly be worthy of being called ‘accounts’ – were written by Pericles’s enemies, and, as such, should not be swallowed whole. But this is not the case with Hypatia – contemporary accounts of her life and death were written by her friends, who had every reason to defend her against slander and to place blame on misogyny or Christianity (one account was written by a pagan) if they wanted. But they didn’t.

In general, I have a pretty hard time with the idea that you can’t trust contemporary sources. It’s one thing to note potential biases – that can be legit, if you know about those biases from other contemporary sources. Then, it a battle of the sources, and one can bring to bear the tools of scholarship to distinguish  and understand. But the temptation to decide contemporary sources are biased based on *our* biases is very strong, and more likely to lead us astray, and more seriously astray, than over-reliance on taking contemporary reports at face value.

Oh, well. This week – Week 3 – one of my fellow students and I started talking philosophy. Sort of – you can’t really talk philosophy, but you state a few opinions and positions. He asked me, being friendly, what I was going to read once I’d learned Greek. I said Aristotle. We batted that around for a while, then discussed the subject of what texts St. Thomas was using. Since he didn’t read Greek, as far as I know, he must have been using translations. My understanding – admittedly very limited – is that he had access to Aristotle translated into Latin from Arabic; that, at about his time, Latins had begun to retrieve those texts in the original Greek from the Eastern Empire, which had preserved them. Whether Thomas ever got a hold of translations made directly from the Greek, I do not know.


– How good were the translations Thomas used? Does his writing in any way reflect errors inherited from the text?

– Did his followers who did learn Greek ever do an analysis of Thomas’ work using the original Greek? Did they write about it?

– Does any of this matter? I suppose I tacitly assumed Thomas was simply smart enough (he is very possibly the smartest man of whom we have any record) to fix translation errors by simply getting what Aristotle meant. While this would be unlikely for a normal person, it’s easy to believe Thomas could have done it.

Finally, my interlocutor mentioned in passing that Aristotle and Thomas were a dead end. On the contrary, opined I, one living branch of Thomism is readily apparent: Science. Because while Descartes and his followers were busy chipping away at the logic and basic premises of Thomism, science needed exactly that logic and those premises to do their work, and to make any progress.   Mind/body problems are for non-scientists. Science always acts as if there’s a knowable, objective world that we can understand and that can contradict our theories, no matter how lovely those theories are while they live only in our heads. (Philosophers of science do their darnedest to make a mess of this, but working scientists in all but a few fields can blithely ignore them to no ill effect, and just assume there’s a world out there waiting to be understood, and that we men are up to the task.)

Oh, and the Greek itself is very hard, and a lot of fun!


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

1 thought on “Hypatia Again, Aristotle, “Dead Ends” & Science”

  1. Thomas Aquinas definitely had access to translations directly from the Greek — he seems to have requested his friend William of Moerbeke to start the project of translating Aristotle from the Greek, although it’s just barely possible that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. So Aquinas would have been in many cases one of the first people to have access to some of Aristotle’s works translated directly from the Greek. (Some of the logical works had been translated directly from the Greek centuries before, though.)

    I don’t do work in the field myself, but my understanding is that Aristotle scholars regard Aquinas’s commentaries as quite good — the usual complaint is not that he’s misled by the Latin, but that he assumes more order in the texts than is often thought to be there, and that he doesn’t consider the question of development in Aristotle’s views, but just takes all the works on the same level (most people today, of course, assume a considerable amount of change). And it’s worth remembering that even though Aquinas didn’t read Greek, he would have had access to Latin translations of commentators on Aristotle who did read Greek, as well as Aristotle himself. In all, if Aquinas is ever misled, I suspect that for him as for most people, it’s more likely that he would be misled by the commentator tradition than the translation. And when parts of Aquinas were translated into Greek later, his work on Aristotelian ethics, at least, was regarded by people like Gennadios Scholarios (who did, of course, read Greek) as brilliant.

    But I don’t know of anyone who has systematically looked at the question.

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