Hipparchia the Cynic Philosopher

Sarah Maguire writes about Hipparchia, 350 BCE – 280 BCE, the female philosopher who flouted the conventions regarding the role of women in Ancient Greece.

The Ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic (who famously lived in a barrel), was known for his teaching that human life should not be limited and complicated by the conventions and traditions of society, but should be close to nature: by living in a barrel, rather than a house, he would argue that he was saving himself all the unnecessary bother that running and maintaining a household would entail but the barrel provided necessary shelter from the elements. Diogenes seems to have been no friend to women; on seeing a tree from which some women had been hanged, he exclaimed ‘if only all trees bore such fruit!’

At least one of his followers however, applied his teachings to the question of whether women needed to live as convention dictated or whether they should behave in a way that seemed right and natural to them personally.

Crates the Philosopher

Crates the philosopher was a disciple of Diogenes, living in Maroneia in Thrace around 300 BCE. Under Diogenes’ influence he sold all his property and distributed the money to the poor. Like Diogenes, Crates cultivated an eccentric lifestyle and personal appearance, indifferent to ridicule and abuse. He was said to be very ugly, but he made his appearance even more bizarre by randomly sewing a sheepskin to his cloak. As long as he was warm, he cared not for the adverse attention it drew to him.

Metrocles

Metrocles was a wealthy young man of Maroneia, who, so overcome with shame and embarrassment after breaking wind while making a speech, locked himself up in his house and resolved to starve himself to death. Crates called upon him and managed to persuade the young man that his action had been in accordance with nature and thus no cause for shame. Metrocles thus became a follower of Crates.

Hipparchia Falls in Love

While Metrocles’ parents must have been very relieved that Crates had dissuaded their son from suicide, they were less happy when their young daughter, Hipparchia (pictured), also enthusiastically embraced his teachings and became enamoured of the philosopher, scorning wealthy, attractive and conventional suitors. Hipparchia threatened suicide, if she were not allowed to marry Crates.

Marriage was another institution commonly scorned by Cynics. Her parents responded by appealing to Crates himself to discourage her. When all other efforts at dissuasion had failed, Crates finally removed his clothes and stood before her saying “this is your bridegroom and all he possesses. If you are to be a wife of mine, you must adopt this lifestyle.” Hipparchia joyfully agreed and they were married.

As a married woman, Hipparchia accompanied her husband to dinner parties. This was a significant breach of convention. At that period, respectable Greek women did not attend dinner parties. The only women normally present were the paid or slave entertainers – prostitutes, musicians and dancers that were provided for the amusement of the male guests.

Hipparchia’s insistence on sitting and talking among the men as an equal did not fail to arouse resentment.

Hipparchia’s Argument

During a banquet Hipparchia got into an argument with a certain Theodorus. Presumably in response to his challenging her right to participate in the symposium, she responded with the syllogism that: if something is not wrong when done by Theodorus, it cannot be wrong if done by Hipparchia, adding that if it is not wrong for Theodorus to strike himself, it cannot be wrong for Hipparchia to strike him either. In response to this playful sophistry, Theodorus attempted to rip her clothes off, to which she reacted with fearless contempt.

Theodorus added further taunts as to why she did not devote her time to the loom, to which Hipparchia replied that she had no doubt she was right to cease wasting her time in such tasks and devoting herself to knowledge.

This brief surviving account of Hipparchia, found in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers offers us a fascinating portrait of a female philosopher who applied and adapted her understanding of Cynic philosophy to free herself from the conventional limitations placed on women’s participation in intellectual and public life.

Sarah Maguire

Source: Diogenes Laertius: Lives of the Philosophers Book 6. 85-98