BMCR 2023.04.16

Otherwise than the binary: new feminist readings in ancient philosophy and culture

, , , Otherwise than the binary: new feminist readings in ancient philosophy and culture. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2022. Pp. 365. ISBN 9781438488790.


[Authors and titles at the end of the review]


The editors of and contributors to the volume under review engage in a hermeneutical project, aiming, as the title implies, both to respond to and move beyond prominent binary readings found in ancient philosophy and its philosophical and scholarly traditions, especially those that insist on a gendered hierarchy wherein Woman is always the subjugated other (p. 6). The volume is comprised of eleven chapters organized into three sections, which range in focus from Homeric epic to the Patristic tradition of Late Antiquity.[1] Thus, the collection is expansive in both scope and span; likewise, the manner in which each author marks their project as feminist is enjoyably varied. So, for example, certain authors seek more positive interpretations for female figures than their traditions have allowed (as in Gregory, Ch. 1, with Circe) while others engage overtly with feminist theory (as in chapters by Biro, Decker, Moore, and Vilhauer). Each author identifies the binary or binaries which they resist, some more explicitly than others, a strategy which will no doubt be of great aid to some readers. Overall, the concept of “the otherwise” is a richly generative site for all manner of questioning, and the editors are to be commended for offering a volume which will no doubt provoke further questions and conversations both along and beyond the lines of inquiry established on the pages here.

The sections are organized thematically, with the first section exploring “perennial figure[s] or theme[s] related to Greek prose, religion, and culture” (p. 12). In the first chapter, Andrew Gregory explores Circe’s representation in the Odyssey, suggesting that she be understood not as a witch but simply as a divine figure. Furthermore, through a careful analysis of the Greek text that focuses on Circe’s attributes and actions (e.g., the rhabdos, pharmaka, her weather-working and foresight), Gregory argues that Circe’s identification as a witch and indeed her association with magic are later interpretations which reveal an inherent gender bias where women (and, especially “bad” women) become witches.[2] Chapters 2-4, which enter the territory of philosophy proper, demonstrate a particular ease of movement; first, Sasha Biro turns to the liminal figure of the Pythia/Sibyl to trouble the muthos/logos binary, tracing “the denigration of this formidable figure” (p. 61) in order to interrogate such depictions, with the ultimate aim of resisting the primacy of logos (as reason or rational thought).[3] Biro’s focus on liminality is continued by Jessica Elbert Decker, who likewise resists a canonical, Western conception of rationality by exploring what she sees as binaries in motion (p. 89) in the philosophical poetry of Presocratics such as Heraclitus and Parmenides and in the Homeric Hymns to Demeter and Aphrodite. Holly Moore then picks up with Parmenides’ goddess in the section’s fourth and final chapter, in which she draws on feminist political philosopher María Lugones’ concept of “curdled-separation” to bridge the divide between political theory and metaphysics in her sensitive readings of Presocratic philosophy and in particular nous in Anaxagoras.

The second section is devoted to the dialogues of Plato, with the first two of the three chapters confronting Platonic body-soul dualism. First, co-authors Hilary Yancey and Anne-Marie Schultz explore the relationship between physical embodiment (i.e., physiognomy) and the soul in, especially, the Phaedo, and, to a lesser extent, the Symposium, in order to resist the predominant view that the body is a hindrance. Yancey and Schultz introduce the concepts of “intermediacy” and “mere mixture” to show that, ideally, the body and soul work together to achieve the ultimate aims of philosophy, suggesting that, for Plato, Socrates embodies “intermediacy” whereas his friends are only “mixed” with respect to their body and soul. Monica Vilhauer then returns to Platonic dualism in a chapter on the Timaeus. Pushing even further against the hierarchy of soul and body, Vilhauer makes efforts more overtly to think past not only the body/soul binary, but the unintelligent/rational and corresponding female/male binaries as well. Lastly in this section, Mary Townsend considers “the woman question,” which she sees as central to the Republic; that is, the question of what should be done with women in a civic society. For Townsend, the weakness of women relative to men in the ideal city, introduced and emphasized by Glaucon, can be read as a dramatic device, and she suggests that Socrates himself, in both his character and argument, indicates a more positive and equitable role for women or the womanly (gunaikeion).

The chapters on Plato are followed by a final section on Platonist traditions in Late Antiquity, which is perhaps the most adventurous of the three sections and the most willing to agitate concepts of gender itself. It begins with a chapter by Danielle A. Layne on Plotinus which explores what Layne sees as the “fundamental eroticism” (p. 239) of Plotinian metaphysics. Moreover, Layne shows how, for Plotinus, there is a certain “gender neutrality” for the soul; L. extends this neutrality further to argue for a “radical queerness at the heart of being human” (p. 239). While this is an interesting interpretation, to be sure, I would have liked Layne to define what she means by “queer.” In the next chapter, Jana Schultz examines virgin goddesses in Proclus. Exploring Neoplatonist concepts of “unity” (associated with the masculine) and “multiplication” (coded feminine), S. concludes that figures such as Artemis, Athena, Hestia, and Themis should be characterized as neither simply male nor female but, like all beings below the One, were rather a mixture of both. Furthermore, Schultz suggests that it is not necessarily gender that distinguishes these goddesses, but their purity; one of the Greek terms to articulate such is amigês, “unmixed,” which is interesting given the use of “mixture” as a unifying concept throughout many of the chapters in this volume. Chapters by William Koch, on Hekate in the Chaldaean Oracles and The Greek Magical Papyri, and Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, on gender equality in the Patristic tradition, conclude the book. Ramelli’s chapter takes a carefully philological approach to the role of gender difference as well as the lived experiences of women in the writing of Christian Platonists such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eriugena, and others. Beyond detailing the lived experiences of real women, who could and did participate in certain religious activities and hold leadership roles in the church, Ramelli also argues, importantly, that at the level of the divine, gender difference could cease to hold importance; so, for example, she explores how the Christian God, for these Patristics, was not intrinsically masculine but was at times identified as feminine or, even, “above the gender binary” (p. 332). Ramelli links gender difference for humans to their postlapsarian lived experience on earth but sees in Patristic eschatology a model for moving aside from the gendered hierarchy and, perhaps more importantly, the gender binary itself.

The volume is broadly accessible and will be of particular interest to students and scholars of Classics (especially those who work on Greek antiquity), ancient philosophy, women’s and gender studies, and Christianity and religion in Late Antiquity more generally. While certain chapters are quite technical and suited best to the specialist in ancient philosophy (for example, Moore, Ch. 4, and Koch, Ch. 10), for the most part each chapter provides the necessary background to situate even an unfamiliar reader (so, to use the same examples as previously, Moore on monism and binarism in the Presocratics (pp. 121-3), and Koch on the question of the soul in Plato (pp. 296-300) and dual-natured vs. triplicate Hekate (pp. 300-3)). The contributors are not afraid to engage in big questions about, e.g., the role of philosophy, the relationship between philosophy and politics, the body/soul binary, the line between mortal and divine, and that which lies between life and death. Such fearless exploration is certainly welcome in a 21st-century world where the questions facing humanists and humans alike are deeply urgent yet almost unfathomably complex.

There are certain issues. To my mind, one of the biggest questions the project approaches and yet only glancingly confronts is the gender binary itself. While every chapter seeks to offer a more complex view of gender difference in antiquity, nearly all work with the coding of masculine and feminine as a given. Only the final chapter really attempts to read “beyond” gender (p. 313); the masculine-feminine binary then, for the most part, provides a hard limit to any desire to trouble more deeply the subject-object dichotomy and gendered ideologies and power dynamics in antiquity. The project is also limited by the engagement of its authors with, by and large, primarily “Western” philosophers and theorists, such as Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, and others.[4] While the work of such figures is undeniably productive still, the point remains that – given especially the stated desire of editors Decker and Layne to “change the course of oppression today rather than reinforcing it” (p. 11) – including the voices of writers and thinkers from beyond the western canon would have greatly strengthened the project overall. Lastly, while the title and introduction suggest that the volume treats “ancient philosophy” broadly, we might note that the focus is overwhelmingly Greek, with only the final chapter incorporating the Latin of certain Platonist Christian authors (as well as some Syriac); Rome is almost entirely left aside.[5]

While the authors in this volume do engage with a broad range of topics and times, I would say there is a remarkable coherence overall, with intentional engagement between chapters and a strong citational practice throughout to establish connections. In addition, many of the chapters use the image of the receptacle and/or, relatedly, mixture, as indeed is laid out by the volume editors in the introduction (pp. 5-6). And, while Irigaray – whose theory threads its way throughout the volume – has in places critiqued the image of the feminine receptacle as one which contains but does not actively produce, authors such as Biro, Vilhauer, Layne, and Koch see in the receptacle an opportunity for agency, for them a concept which articulates a kind of movement that takes place in between activity and passivity, thus disrupting that binary as well. In closing then, I will suggest that we read this volume as its own kind of receptacle, one which is certainly both provocatively “unruly” (p. 6) and generative.


Authors and Titles

Introduction, Jessica Elbert Decker and Danielle A. Layne

Part I: Myth, Divination, and the Pre-Platonic

  1. Was Homer’s Circe a Witch?, Andrew Gregory
  2. The Oracle as Intermediary, Sasha Biro
  3. The Roots of Life and Death in the Homeric Hymns and Presocratic Philosophy, Jessica Elbert Decker
  4. The Intelligibility of Difference: Anaxagoras’ and Lugones’ Ontologies of Separation, Holly Moore

Part II: Platonic Transformations

  1. As Much Mixture as Will Suffice: Socrates’ Embodied Intermediacy in Plato’s Phaedo and Symposium, Hilary Yancey and Anne-Marie Schultz
  2. Overturning Soul-Body Dualism in Plato’s Timaeus, Monica Vilhauer
  3. The Argument of Socrates’ Action in Republic V, Mary Townsend

Part III: Late Antique Destabilizations

  1. Divine Mothers: Plotinus’ Erotic Productive Causes, Danielle A. Layne
  2. Beyond Maleness and Femaleness? The Case of the Virgin Goddesses in Proclus’ Metaphysics, Jana Schultz
  3. Hekate and the Liminality of Souls, William Koch
  4. 11. Christian Platonists in Support of Gender Equality: Bardaisan, Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eriugena, Ilaria L. E. Ramelli



[1] The volume appears to have arisen from an online conference of the same title, as noted in the thanks by Andrew Gregory.

[2] Gregory is particularly interested in the language used for Circe, in both the Greek text and in its translations, and criticizes the tradition of translation for contributing to the association of Circe with witchcraft, which, for him, is a negative. I found it strange then, that he took no account of Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation, which one could view is an example of feminist translation (as indeed Stephanie McCarter does, in “Ovid’s Callisto and Feminist Translation of the Metamorphoses,” Eugesta 12, 2022.) and is thus perfectly relevant to the topic and volume at hand.

[3] It would be remiss of me, I think, not to note that the language of “denigration” that Biro uses here and elsewhere (e.g., p. 59) unintentionally reinforces another dangerous binary – that of white/black. My sincere thanks goes to a colleague who raised this concern.

[4] The engagement of Moore (Ch. 4) with the theory of María Lugones is a clear and welcome exception.

[5] However, Biro (Ch. 2) does very briefly consider the Sibyl in Virgil and Ovid.