Saturday, May 3, 2008

Aspasia, her person and our method

Aspasia herself possesses and can possess almost no historical reality. We can form no impression of her as a person. . . We also cannot accept as historical the joke, first perhaps in the comic poet Kallias's Pedetai and later in the philosophers, that Aspasia taught Perikles how to speak and hence was a master rhetorician or philosopher.
--Robert W. Wallace

Let’s look very carefully at what Robert W. Wallace, classics professor, is doing with his review of a history of Aspasia. He dispossesses the figure of a woman from historical reality. He disallows our contemporary impression of her and her own personhood. He divorces truth from humor, teacher from student, and rhetoric from philosophy. (If you must find where he does this, google it.)

“Why does he do this?” some of us ask. “Is it because he is a man, and the history is written by one woman and about another?” So we ask ourselves, “Aren’t such questions too suspicious, too feminist?” And our answer is: “Of course they are; it is not Wallace’s male sex, or the female gender of the subjects that he would so objectively observe that should determine his conclusions.”

It is not his conclusions, or the glaring sexual positions of this scholar, that ought first to trouble us. Rather, it is his starting point, and his pointed self-contradictory method, that initially gives us pause.

Wallace is not original. Aristotle was the first to dispossess his history of Aspasia. When Pericles was learning from her, when Socrates was interacting with her, when Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes were writing about her, the young Aristotle was doing something altogether different. Aristotle was watching these men grapple with the teachings of Isocrates and Gorgias, of Homer and Hesiod and Sappho, of the playwrights and the poets. Aristotle was listening to the philosophers trump the sophists. Aristotle was determining to be a scientist, an objective observer, the logician who arrives at truth in nature. Either Aristotle would continue to be like his forefathers, or he would liberate Greece from its small place in the world and in history. Aristotle clearly documents this development in his thinking: his “either / or” binary is formed; and he even uses his syllogistic method to document his separation from Socrates and from Plato. The treatise he calls τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (or meta-physics, or “[I Am] Above Nature”); Aristotle might as well have called it “After Aspasia, Pericles, Socrates, and Plato.”

Of course we tend to look at some of Aristotle’s conclusions about the cosmos, and about rhetoric, and about proper Greek language, and about women. We’re then not surprised that he writes Aspasia out of his history, out of his method for critiqing and writing history. Logic is Aristotle’s big man tool.

Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede call this big tool Aristotle’s “logic-chopping automaton.” It’s worth, also, to listen again to Nancy Mairs describing this big tool in the hands of a man:

“In order to get what he wants, then, the father must have power to coerce those around him to meet his demands. To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object. The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false. . . . It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites. . . [in] a dimorphic world.”(Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer, 41)

Now, Mairs goes on to say that there is an entire toolbox of tools that Aristotelians using the big tool of “either / or” logic avoid. Women, says Mairs (and she should know), live in a polymorphic world.

Women don’t have the problem that Aristotle had, or that Wallace has, including the woman Aspasia in our cosmos, in our histories. Historians Madeleine Henry, Susan Jarratt (with Rory Ong), Lisa Ede, Andrea Lunsford, and Cheryl Glenn have each one included Aspasia in history as a historical (not merely “hysterical”) person. (Richard Leo Enos has said that Glenn writes a history that is more accurate, more representative, and more complete).

Glenn asks how, if we don’t let her in, can we let Socrates in history—because we only know and know of Socrates in the same way we know and know of Aspasia: through the writings of others’ and not through their own writings. And if we examine carefully their method of knowing, of the question and answer relational dialectic, then we see how very likely it is that Socrates learned his famous method from Aspasia.

As Enos notes, it’s a more complete, more accurate, and more representative history. But there’s more: Glenn’s method of history writing is a better way of writing history. As Patricia Bizzell notes, it’s the feminist method of care, of the subjective. It’s not just some cold distant separation of self from the observed.

This is why I cannot agree with feminist rhetoric scholar Carol Poster who says in her Aristotelian voice ironically that the Rhetoric of “Aristotle has not, and in my opinion, should not, be appropriated for feminist rhetoric.” When she makes this argument, in self-contradiction, Poster appropriates Aristotle’s big tool of logic; she dispossesses one of rhetoric’s most important treatises from inclusive polymorphic (feminist) rhetoric.

So now, when I turn back to Aristotle, to his Rhetoric, to my translating of that treatise of his, then I don’t want to use his big tool alone. Too many translators have limited themselves that way. I think we must make a big big big deal out of the real nature of Aristotle’s treatise. He cannot get around the humility and the polymorphic reality of rhetoric. He would use only logic; but, as he starts in, Aristotle can't even separate himself from Aspasia, from her dialectic/rhetoric/poetic:

ἡ ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῃ̂ διαλεκτικη

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