"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

19 Aug 2012

Women Cynics and Dinner Conversation

Crates & Hipparchia
It was a feature of ancient Cynicism that women were welcome as equals into the movement (along with slaves and others not given equal status in Greek society). The same cannot be said for any other philosophical movement nor, come to that, political or religious group — not only in ancient times but in most cases up to the present day, and in almost any culture. It is regretable then that Hipparchia is the only woman Cynic of whom we have a written account. Wife of the Cynic Crates (Diogenes’ favourite pupil) and sister of Metrocles (Crates’ pupil), it was with the abject but happy figure of Crates that the young, beautiful, and well born Hipparchia fell in love. They married in spite of her parent’s objections, and regardless of Crates’ warnings to her that they would live like dogs in the street. Both Crates and Hipparchia are remembered for their compassion to the poor and sick, living long and happy lives in the streets of Athens and Piraeus.

The Symposium

Table conversation has been identified as dialogic genre all of its own: the original definition of symposium describing a Greek banquet dialogue conducted by men. In the convivial and sometimes carnivalesque atmosphere stimulated by food and drink, the discourse of the symposium assumed special privileges of ease, familiarity, frankness, and eccentricity. The significance here being that, in antiquity, to discourse freely with men at supper was a privilege granted only to philosophical equals. In the case of Hipparchia, we are told how she accompanied Crates to a banquet where she challenged the atheist Theodorus to a duel. Any action Theodorus made that could not be considered wrong, would likewise not be considered wrong if undertaken by Hipparchia. When Theodorus strikes himself, Hipparchia strikes Theodorus, and so the game continues culminating with Theodorus trying to strip Hipparchia of her cloak. Here Hipparchia publicly demonstrates not only her willingness to challenge men at their own game, but also the practical side of Cynic philosophy such as parrhesia (freedom and boldness of speech), anaideia (shamelessness) and apatheia (disregard for feelings). And here we have a key to other probable women cynics in antiquity. 

Consistent with my view that myth is an instructor of philosophic wisdom equal to that provided by history, for the purposes of the discussion here I will consider women from the canonical and non-canonical gospels. Claims, for instance, that Mary Magdalene might have shared such a gospel meal with Jesus at the Last Supper, might be part of modern myth making prompted by those who seek to rescue Magdalene from her misrepresentation as a penitent whore by misogynistic redactors of the Bible. But it is entirely reasonable that Jesus (whom I charactarise as a Cynic philosopher in another post) would wish to include women among his close companions. It is clear that he responds positively to women who do not hesitate before him. As in the example of the Gospel of Mary, Jesus praises Mary’s composure in not flinching at his immortal appearance following his resurrection: "Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me." But, staying with the theme of food and drink, from the Gospel of Thomas we have Salome admonishing Jesus for eating at her table: “Who are you, man, that you . . . have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?” And from the Gospel of John, when Jesus requests that the Samaritan woman draws him water to drink, she responds: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"

But the ultimate challenge to Jesus involving eating or drinking comes from the Syrophoenician woman in the gospels of Mark and Matthew. Having heard of Jesus’ reputation for healing the sick, the woman came to seek a cure for her daughter who, we are variously told, was possessed by an unclean spirit and tormented by a demon. In Matthew’s version the woman addresses Jesus first but was ignored by him, whereupon Jesus’ companions, irritated by her persistence, pleaded with their master to get rid of the troublesome woman, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." According to Matthew, after first ignoring the woman, Jesus then says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." A backhanded compliment to his disciples that, albeit sheep, their needs were of more importance than the needs of this woman who had come to beg Jesus to cure her dying daughter. But it is the following verses from Mark that provide evidence of the woman's Cynic credentials:

'And he [Jesus] said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” 
But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” '

Having tried to dismiss the woman a second time, referring to the disciples as children and the woman as the dog* she is—being a gentile in a house of Jews—Jesus then finds himself out-maneuvered at his own game. Her response is that, a dog she might be but as such also a member of the household and deserving of whatever crumbs might fall her way. Mark uses the diminutive form of dog, kynaria (puppy) in place of kynos (dog) but being referred to as a ‘little bitch’ is no less an insult for that. The term Cynic itself is derived from the Greek kynicos, an adjectival form of the noun for dog. When challenged that she is a dog, the Syrophoenician woman embraces the term and the actions of a dog as a rhetorical device. She is not indignant in the face of insult but employs the aphoristic style of the chreia to deflect the insult back onto its originator.  

*A derogatory term applied to Gentiles by Jews of the day because their consumption of meat was not prepared according to Jewish law. A term also applied specifically to Greek Cynics because of their doggish behaviour.

So impressed was Jesus at the woman’s boldness in his presence (parrhesiathat he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter." The woman employs cynical irony by accepting the appellative ‘dog’ and even the ‘dog’s act’ of licking up the crumbs that fall to the floor, to turn the table on her tormentor whom she continues to refer to as ‘Lord’ and ‘master’, all the while maintaining just the safe side of ridicule. The Syrophoenician woman has no concern at entering a house of men; that she is a gentile and they Jews; that she addresses them first; and then, when rebuffed, ignores insults and pleas to leave them in peace to assert her own authority. 
For a full analysis of this minor gospel parable see my essay Tale of Two Cynics: The Philosophic Dual Between Jesus and the Woman from Syrophoenicia.  

Having identified some cursory aspects of Cynicism (in it's positive sense) employed by women, many other examples, both ancient and modern will no doubt come to mind. Of course, such a mindset is only appreciated by male Cynics and therefore, demonstrations of parrhesia by women (as with the recent jailing of members of the Russian band Pussy Riot for ranting against President Putin and Christian iconography) predictably put them at great personal risk. In this sense Cynicism can only ever be a strategy for maintaining one's personal integrity in the face of tyrannical forces, not a means of changing society — there is, in any case, little evidence that human nature in general, and patriarchy in particular, has ever changed as a result of individual protests or even large scale revolution. 

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