Phintys of Sparta on Role Virtues

Introduction

This lesson focuses on a fragment of text from the Pythagorean philosopher Phintys (probably of Sparta, c. 4 th -3 rd century BCE) on gender-specific virtues. This text can be fruitfully compared with other texts on the same topic.

Courses and Texts

Courses

This lesson would easily fit into any of the following: a) ancient survey course at any level, b) a Plato course that covers the Meno, Protagoras, Republic, or Laws on different virtues, c) an Aristotle course that covers the Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, or Politics on the virtues, d) a historically-centered Virtue Ethics course, or e) a course on women in philosophy or the philosophical history of sex and gender.

Secondary Texts for Instructor

The excerpt from Phintys ‘s work is translated with commentary in Mary Ellen Waithe’s (1987) A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 1: 600BC-500AD, pp. 26-31. The Greek text, from Stobaeus IV.23.61, is collected with notes in Holger Thesleff (1965) The Pythagorean Texts of the Hellenistic Period, pp. 151-154.

Overview

Phintys begins with something like a function argument based on induction: things like sense faculties and animals have excellences for which they are receptive (dektikon), and so too do men and women. For women, there is a specific virtue of moderation that makes a woman excellent or virtuous. Phintys endorses, but complicates, the notion that certain activities are only appropriate for one gender or the other. She argues that, in addition, some activities are appropriate for both or neither. Roughly, activities outside the home are a man’s sphere, inside the home a woman’s.

But Phintys adds that the virtues of the body and the soul are appropriate for both, and the latter includes the moral virtues, including courage, justice, and wisdom (though she concludes that some virtues are nonetheless more appropriate for one gender than the other). Phintys then elaborates five areas where a woman’s moderation is chiefly expressed: the marriage bed, her body, her household, avoiding the festival of Cybele (a Dionysian celebration), and religious sacrifices. She goes on to describe the specific behaviors to pursue and avoid in each area, and in so doing connects moderation to other virtues like piety, reverence, justice, and chastity.

Discussion Questions

1. The basis of Phintys’s view is that certain entities are ‘receptive to’ or ‘well-fitted with’ a certain excellence. What details can we provide about this receptiveness? In particular, is there a difference between ‘receptive’ and ‘more receptive’?
2. What, on Phintys’s view, is the primary function of women, and therefore the primary excellence of women?
3. What can we infer from Phintys’s view of human nature from her discussion of the similarities and differences between men and women?
4. What is the relationship between moderation and other virtues in Phintys’s writing? Are they separate virtues? Are the other virtues just moderation applied in specific areas? Is moderation a second-order virtue of possessing the others?
5. To what extent is Phintys’s culturally determined or constrained? 

Activities

1. Create a list of all the virtues mentioned by Phintys. Create a concept map to show how these virtues are related.
2. Some of Phintys’s assumptions and conclusions express her own cultural context. Try to adapt her arguments to a different set of cultural practices and norms. Will her arguments still work, or does her view only make sense in her context?
3. Phintys suggests, but does not quite argue, that it is equally appropriate for men and women to philosophize. Working in groups, try to reconstruct her argument, or to create new one on her behalf based on the positions she endorses.

Authorship

Jerry Green (The University of Oklahoma)
green@ou.edu)