Aspasia and the Methods of Recovery

Rereading Aspasia’s funeral oration–as well as the scholarship and controversy of Glenn, Jarratt and Ong, and Gale that surrounds Aspasia–I noticed the similar tensions with past work surrounding the role of interpretation, accuracy, and recovery. In general, I kept coming back to the standards we use to judge the accuracy of our recovery.

When it comes to Aspasia’s oration in itself, I couldn’t help but think of rhetorical accretion, though Vicki Tolar Burton (Collins)’s term does not come up in the scholarship. Considering the layers of (inter)textual sediment, encountering the image of Aspasia through Plato’s treatment of Socrates’ recreation of Aspasia feels almost comical. Like Conrad’s Lord Jim or Oxymandius’ column from a past post, the distance between the source and the recovery makes Aspasia and elusive figure, which is why I appreciated Ong and Jarratt’s approach to looking at the “discursive space” of Apsasia, not the “real” flesh-and-blood figure.

But more directly, I first found Socrates’ framing of the speech interesting. After initially praising her, he says that he hear her “composing” the speech with the topics-based approach of prep and improvisation, showing a sense of rhetorical (even sophistic) training. But then he says that he doesn’t want to recount it because it would make Aspasia angry for “publish[ing] her speech.” But even after the others say it could be any speech and doesn’t need to be Aspasia’s, Socrates still recites her speech. For one, I can’t help but note the Socratic motif of the shrewish woman, hitting him for forgetting the speech and being angry at him for speaking it, but I also find the lack of agency for Aspasia in this situation interesting, as her intention was not even to have the speech spoken by Socrates.

In the speech itself, I was struck by its formal structure, beginning with an exordium and narratio–and a clearly articulated divisio. She then moves clearly through her proofs addressing counter arguments, and concludes with a strong peroration and epilogue of sorts. Her movement through points was also quite elegant: from the formation of the state from “the children of the soil” into the goodness of the this government, entwining families with the needs of the state, the need for protection, and the honor of the dead. The familial imagery is also rich, from the maternal bosom of the soil to the masculine fathers and sons of the military. But the speech’s content and style struck me most.

This trained style seems to uphold Glenn’s interpretation. As Glenn argues, “Aspasia clearly represented the intelligentsia of Periclean Athens” and her forays into the public sphere–through from the role of a logographer and not a speaker–set her apart from most Athenian women at the time, including aristocratic women (37). Moreover, this structure also seems to uphold the stress that Glenn puts on the sophistic elements of Aspasia and her role as a non-Athenian and the potential that brought to her ability to break outside norms through an education. But, again, as Glenn argues, “Aspasia’s accomplishments and influence have been enumerated by men or most often attributed to men” (39). And, as Glenn notes, Aspasia’s speech, told through Plato’s Socrates, could be ironic.

This ironic dimension gains an additional edge in Jarratt and Ong’s treatment of Aspasia. While they speculate on the praise leveled on Aspasia and her alleged role in Athens, including her potential influence on Socratic questioning, they also note that Aspasia’s speech also upholds colonialism and traditional gender norms. Socrates may be using the non-Athenian woman of Aspasia to parody the sophists (and rhetoric) while upholding his own views on gender and the state.

And while Gale’s critique of this work does seem to deserve some of the response it got, I feel like it ultimately is making a good point. Arguing about the role of “truth” feels a bit arbitrary and unfounded, as Glenn’s response and Jarratt’s response show, but Gale does highlight the need to stabilize history methodology in a post-objective world, giving it a post-modern rigor. Her emphasize on contextualization also seems helpful.

As Glenn argues in her response, the discourse of history of the telling of history always has some play with the “real.” Even more, she says, “history” as we know it is composed through history writing, so all histories, even “objective accounts,” are stories at some level and “history” as some abstracted, Hegelian unfolding doesn’t exist. But this framing of history, perhaps in a post-Truth Trump era, makes me feel uncomfortable.

It is easy to embrace the role of subjectivity and the “play” and mythopoetic potential that this brings when the center falls away, as Derrida argues, but I’m also struck by the security of more traditional history telling, like Murphy, and the concern that Gale voices. I also see the point in challenging history an making a more inclusive set of “histories,” as Glenn argues for and the role that the marginalization of voices has played in History proper, but I think as K.J. Rawson and others point to, this inclusion is a messy process. And while I know I am likely flattening her claim, Jarratt’s argument for a rhetorical evaluation of history doesn’t seem to offer the sort of principled relativism that I’m after–though it could. My uneasiness is perhaps from the varied uses of “rhetorical” in the general sense.

I’m torn between two sides with Aspasia, the need to make a more inclusive history and the messy reality of this task. Still, as Gale, Glenn, and Jarratt point to, debate and discussion should be ongoing. This view reminds me of Heidegger’s conception of truth. Rather than a propositional, objectivist variation–a statement about x must conform to the “reality” of x–Heidegger argues for one based on discussion. History and truth remain perpetually concealed and revealed through ongoing discussion, and the worst thing that one could do is forget to ask the question in the first place, lapsing into a calcified sense of reality. I just worry about what standards we use to conceptualize such a debate.


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