Diotima, Socrates' great teacher from the Symposium, a work by Plato was one of the most influential women thinkers of all time, whether she was a real person or a literary fictional character. She related to Socrates the theory of love that he described to the partygoers at Agathon's banquet, a celebration of Agathon's victory at the competition of Dionysis in Athens and of Eros.
Before we search for the idea of why Diotima is a woman, we should first discuss a little about her. We know that, if she were an actual person, she would have been born around 470 BCE and died around 410 BCE. She might have been a priestess from Mantinea. Now if she was a real priestess or poet is uncertain. There is archaeological evidence, plus the fact that no historians for hundreds of years ever challenged her existence, suggests Diotima was an historical person. Her authenticity was not disputed until the 15th century.
We should also discuss about how women were generally treated in the days of the Symposium. We read in the beginning of the Symposium that Eryximachus wants to get rid of the women so that the men may “stick to conversation”. (Symposium 176.e3-177.a2) This invokes the idea that women are unable to have a meaningful conversation. This could be justified because ancient Greeks thought our (women) emotions get in the way. The ancient Greeks (men) had wives for the purpose of producing babies. They had boyfriends for the purpose of fun. The men felt the women should be subservient to the men and men were head of the family. For this reason women in ancient Greece seemed inferior socially. But the women were isolated in their homes and did not mix in the society of men. What the men thought may not have been that important to the women.
We should now go on to why Diotima is a woman. Socrates consulted the Oracle at Delphi (Know thyself) so we know that it is possible that Socrates would consult a priestess. Still, knowing that doesn’t answer why Plato would select a woman to initiate Socrates into the mysteries of male, homoerotic desire.
I have uncovered two plausible answers to this question. The first is obvious. Diotima is a woman because she is not a man. If Diotima had been portrayed as a man then Socrates would have been seen as having been initiated into the mysteries of erotic desire by an older and wiser male. This would have inevitably suggested to Plato’s...