11 March 2008

Aspasia

In the 17th century, the stories of ancient she-philosophers were still being retold by men of science, such as John Aubrey, who took his own narrative of Aspasia (printed in his 1696 Miscellanies upon the Following Subjects) from Thomas Stanley’s four-volume History of Philosophy (1655–1662) — an important sourcebook for Margaret Cavendish, as well.

Aspasia (not to be confused with the much earlier Aspasia of Miletus, an Athenian she-philosopher who taught Socrates, among other celebrated he-philosophers) was a second-century Phoenician woman doctor of legendary beauty, and the mistress of Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes (kings of Persia). Aspasia’s medical writings on obstetrics, gynecology and surgery were (along with Cleopatra’s, a Roman medical writer of the 2nd century) the canonical texts on the subject until those of Trotula appeared in the 11th century. For example, Aetios of Amida, court physician to a 6th-century Byzantine emperor, quoted Aspasia extensively in his medical encyclopaedia. (Alic, Hypatia’s Heritage, p. 33)

Aubrey’s interest in Aspasia had to do with her “knowledge as is commonly called the second-sight,” which “relates only to things future, which will shortly come to pass.” Aubrey admits that some say that the faculty of second-sight comes “by compact with the Devil; some say by converse with those daemons we call fairies,” but Aubrey knew it to be teachable, as with certain Persian mystical sects: “The Wisdom of the Persian Magi was (besides other things proper to them) conversant in prediction: they foretold [many things] ... In which they erred not.”

Aubrey, who described himself as having certain “feminine” traits, like a susceptibility to “fascination” —

... My idea very cleer; phansie like a mirrour, pure chrystal water which the least wind doth disorder and unsmooth--so noise or etc. would [“disorder my phansy”] ...
— chose to emphasize Aspasia’s “Additaments of Second-Sight,” long a defining characteristic of prudence and wisdom. According to Aubrey, Aspasia’s intuitive foreknowledge and ability to predict the outcome of a particular course of action gave her unusual skill at social and political forecasting. And her well-developed women’s intuition proved useful not only to Persian kings, but in managing a relationship of near “equality” with her first exalted husband.


via she-philosopher.com.

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