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Letter Written 17 Centuries Ago Translates Into the Latest Word on Liberated Women

May 30, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

A real breakthrough in women's liberation is about to hit the presses--almost 17 centuries after it was written and three years after a Scripps College professor began translating it.

It is "Letter to Marcella," in which Porphyry, an ancient Greek philosopher, told his wife that he realized that society at large would benefit from the education of women. He reasoned that mothers who were taught philosophy--the basic education of Greek society that was then accessible only to men--would pass their enlightenment on to their children.

Porphyry went on to say that with a grounding in philosophy, Marcella and other women would be liberated from the power and control of their husbands and would become equal and independent in their quest for self-fulfillment.

Kathleen O'Brien Wicker, a Scripps professor of religion and humanities, said that was far-out thinking in the 3rd Century, when Porphyry wrote to Marcella while on a trip to Rome. At that time, Wicker said, Aristotelian thought in Greece still held that women were "imperfect men--incomplete in their development and therefore irrational and incapable of perfect relationships."

Even in 20th-Century America those conclusions have been considered far out, Wicker noted. She said that, as a scholar, she is interested in finding evidence of ways ancient ideas have shaped today's culture.

Wicker has just completed translating "Letter to Marcella" from ancient Greek to English at the request of the Society of Biblical Literature. She said the society plans to publish her translation for circulation among scholars.

After being lost for centuries, the document was discovered in 1816 in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. Its first translation into English in 1896 has been out of print for some time, Wicker said.

Wicker agreed to do the new translation, she said, "because I discovered that the text contained insights about the role of women as wives, mothers and philosophers."

Wicker calls Porphyry's letter "probably the ancient world's most affirming view of woman and her role in the household."

Porphyry, she said, "was a philosopher who apparently lived as a celibate for nearly 70 years while he pondered about the criteria for the ideal wife."

Marcella probably was the widow of one of Porphyry's students and was the mother of seven children when he married her. She may have been half Porphyry's age. Porphyry, Wicker said, "had an insight that the family was the primary place for shaping human values and for providing a model" of a good life.

"Porphyry also recognized that women need to aspire to goals of human development beyond the practical demands of raising a family," Wicker said. In his letter, Porphyry wrote that philosophy was "not only a guide to women in running a household, but also an ideal of human perfection for woman to aspire to so she could transcend the limited scope of family responsibilities."

At first, Wicker said, she thought Porphyry "seemed very arrogant, as if he were talking down to Marcella. But then I realized he appreciated that a commitment to family is necessary to the world. I believe the letter contains a vision which modern philosophers and students of women's issues would do well to contemplate."

Wicker said she, for one, delights in such contemplation. Wicker, 47, said she "inherited" a son when she married Allan Wicker, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate School, 12 years ago.

"Porphyry was right," she said. "There is something about human nature that you can only get from having a family. Like Porphyry, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity."

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