Asclepignia (c. 375–?)

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Asclepignia (c. 375–?)

Greek philosopher and educator. Born in Athens around 375; daughter of Plutarch the Younger of Athens (philosopher and founder of a school following the pagan philosophy of Plotinus who died in 430); sister of Hierius; teacher and then director at Plutarch's school; contemporary of Hypatia, with whom she expounded different versions of Plotinus' teaching; teacher of Proclus, who revolutionized Plotinian doctrine, bolstering it against the popularity of Christianity.

Although works by Asclepignia have not survived, we know of her philosophy through her influence on her pupil Proclus, who developed the philosophy of Plotinus in a manner that sought to merge the pagan tradition with the scientific and philosophic understandings of Plato and Aristotle. This mixture of pagan ritual with study revolutionized the doctrine of Plutarch the Younger, Asclepignia's father, and kept it strong for many years though it suffered with the growing popularity and political power of Christianity.

Plutarch the Younger founded a school at Athens for the continuance of the philosophical program of Plotinus, in the tradition of Plato. Plotinus taught that there were five elements of Reality: the One, intelligence, matter, soul, and nature. For Plotinus, intelligence was of particular importance as it emanates from the One, and human happiness is achieved by using intelligence for self-examination and contemplation of the One. The ultimate ethical goal was union with the One, which could be achieved through using the intelligence for examination of the self, love, truth, and faith.

Asclepignia attended her father's school, taught there, and upon his death in 430 shared the directorship of the school with her brother Hierius and her colleague Syranius. Hypatia , an older contemporary who probably attended Plutarch's school, taught a very different interpretation of Plotinian doctrine in her school at Alexandria. For Hypatia, contemplation of the One required only the study of math and science, but for Asclepignia—as for Plutarch—knowledge of the One required the observation of pagan rituals.

Asclepignia taught that intellectual understanding was insufficient to achieve the moral goal of unity with the One; psychological involvement and physical practice are also required. Hence, the importance of pagan ritual. Her philosophical program was theurgical, evoking the power of the gods as aids to the practitioners. The first stage of this program was to extract thought from the senses. The second was increasing abstraction to achieve illumination and lead to unification with the One. Asclepignia believed this could not be achieved simply through study, as was thought by Hypatia, but also required the practice of pagan magic: the manipulation of the metaphysical system. A philosopher, according to Asclepignia, must be in contact with the gods and be able to work in conjunction with them.


Kersey, Ethel M. Women Philosophers: a Bio-critical Source Book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 1. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publications, 1987.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada