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Jarratt & Ong – “Aspasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology”

  • In this piece the authors hope to address the first two of Gorgias’ questions from On the Nonexistent with respect to Aspasia:  Did Aspasia exist?  Can she be known?  They’ll do this by considering classical sources and contemporary commentary.  Afterwards they will ask the 3rd question from Gorgias’ ontological argument: Is knowledge of Aspasia communicable?  This will take up issues related to the interpretive historiographical tasks involved in an encounter with a woman engaged in classical rhetoric (9).
  • The authors disclose their reconstructive work by noting that the figure of Aspasia reconstituted here is no more “accurate” than that of 18th century representations or Plutarch/Plato representations – instead the reconstruction will focus on contemporary concerns.
  • The authors highlight how the figure of a bright, articulate woman from Asia Minor was often construed as deceptive, excessive, passionate and dangerous vis-à-vis the context of the Persians and earlier the Trojans (12).  In this sense, Aspasia might have often been constructed through a colonial lens that was gendered and xenophobic.
  • The authors posit that male inclusion in the ruling class (citizens) might have actually exacerbated the exclusion of other populations – including women – from the democratic process because of an “ideological impulse” to provide access to the democracy by those in power.  This made Aspasia’s position even more unique.
  • In answering the 3rd of Gorgias’ questions J&O note that, “. . . we see Aspasia at the intersection of the axes of gender and colonialism.  Taking Aspasia not only as a key member of the sophistic movement but also as a woman and a foreigner, we ask how gender and colonialism work as discursive technologies to construct layers of meaning in Plato’s text” (18).
  • The authors read Plato’s use of Aspasia’s funeral oration – specifically the section where she describes the autochthonous account of men springing from the Earth – as a piece that subjects the woman to the will of the polis . . . she is not as important as the city-state itself in the production of citizens and therefore takes another step back into the shadows (19).  Because Aspasia is more than a reproductive unit (because her role as teacher/speaker) this position is even more strengthened.

Questions:

  • What sort of creative license are Jarratt and Ong using in the section where they trace out the autochthony and its relationship across Plato’s texts?  Is this sound methodology (obviously it is engaging in hermeneutics; however, is there an ethical interpretive practice at work here or are the ethics implied in the findings?)?

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