This lesson focuses on a fragment of text from the late Pythagorean philosopher Theano (probably of Sparta, c. 4th-3rd century bce) on different kinds of value and their role in moral education. Theano approaches this topic through the lens of everyday moral advice.
Courses and Texts
This lesson would easily fit into any of the following: a) ancient survey course at any level, especially one with attention to ancient hedonism, b) a Plato course that covers the Gorgias, Hippias Major, Meno, Protagoras, Republic, or Laws on value or moral education, c) an Aristotle course that covers the Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, or Politics on value or moral education, 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 Theno’s work is translated with commentary in Mary Ellen Waithe’s (1987) A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 1: 600bc-500ad, pp. 41-48. The Greek text is collected with notes in Holger Thesleff (1965) The Pythagorean Texts of the Hellenistic Period, pp. 195-200.
We have three letters attributed to Theano II, addressed to Euboule, Nikostrate, and Kallisto. Each letter takes the form of advice from an older woman to a younger woman about how to best occupy her domestic role, on the topic of raising children, relating to one’s husband, and managing one’s servants. We will focus here on the letters to Euboule and Kallisto.
Theano’s position in the Letter to Euboule is anti-hedonist; in short, pleasure corrupts human nature and prevents the development of virtue. Hence one should raise children in an austere way, on the grounds that “virtue is perfected” by conditioning in the face of hardship. By contrast, satisfying too many of a child’s desires will habituate them to over-value pleasure, which leads to intemperance and both physical and moral weakness. Theano explicitly contrasts a loving mother with a doting one, on the grounds that a loving mother is concerned with a child’s virtue rather than their satisfaction.
The Letter to Kallisto is, like the Letter to Euboule, advice for living temperately. But its subject is the treatment of household slaves. The core of the letter is the claim that slaves “are human in nature”, and therefore should be treated with a measure of dignity. Poor treatment of slaves, either by being too lenient or too harsh, is an expression of bad character in their mistress. The goal of a good mistress is “good will on the slaves’ part”, which is brought about by “just usage”. Of particular note is the claim that “reasoning, no less than righteous indignation is an effective means of control”. Proper judgment (gnome) and justice are the primary virtues under discussion here, and cruelty is the main vice to be avoided.
There are two other notable features of this letter. First, it stresses the authority that a wife as to govern the household, and hence the need for judicious use of this authority. Second, it ends with an analogy of virtue to a well-tuned musical instrument, with strings neither slack nor taught. Theano applies the same image to mistress and to servants, affirming the shared human nature of both. The letter ends with a dictum common to Greek philosophy: “Due measure (metron) in all things is best”.
- Does Theano think that pleasure is an intrinsically bad thing, or merely a possible danger? Is here worry restricted to the education of children, or would it apply more broadly?
- Which virtues does Theano discuss in the Letter to Euboule? Can we extract a theory of virtue from this letter?
- What is the relationship between pleasure, desire, and character in the Letter to Euboule?
- What is Theano’s position on moral education in the Letter to Kallisto?
- How does Theano’s view of slaves compare to Aristotle’s or Plato’s? What should we make of Theano evaluating mistress and slave in the same terms?
- Which virtues does Theano discuss in the Letter to Kallisto? Can we extract a theory of virtue from this letter?
- How do Theano’s two letters compare? In particular, how does Theano’s treatment of children compare to her treatment of slaves?
- What does the dictum “Due measure in all things is best” mean? How do Theano’s letters support this dictum?
- Compare the anti-hedonism of the Letter to Euboule to the hedonist positions of the Cyrenaics or Epicureans, and/or to the middleground positions of Plato and Aristotle. What does Theano’s treatment of pleasure in moral education tell us about pleasure as either a source of value or a detector of value?
- Working in groups, attempt to reconstruct Theano’s view of human nature from her discussion in both letters. How does this view of human nature compare to, e.g., Plato’s or Aristotle’s?
- There is scholarly debate over whether Theano was a real person, or a pseudonym (and, if the latter, whether the original author(s) was male or female). Working in groups, discuss what evidence we can find in the letters themselves, and whether we the answer to this debate would change how we read the letters.
Jerry Green (University of Oklahoma)
 Note that there is some controversy over who Theano II was. Some scholars distinguish Theano I (the reported wife of Pythagoras) from a later Theano II who could have been activity at any point from contemporary with Aristotle to the early Christian era. Other scholars take ‘Theano’ to be a stock name adopted as a pseudonym that does not refer to any specific person.