Xanthippe, The Best Wife?

Socrates married Xanthippe knowing what kind of wife she would be.

On the day of his death, Socrates’ friends show up at the prison one last time. They had been in the practice of coming to the prison every day to see and talk with their teacher, but on that day they came earlier. They found Socrates with his wife Xanthippe and their children. Phaedo relates the scene, “So we went in and caught Socrates just freed from his bonds and Xanthippe – you know her – holding his little boy and seated beside him.” (Phaedo 60A) Xanthippe is holding a baby boy. This tells us that she was twenty-five to thirty years younger than her septuagenarian husband. When Socrates married her, he was likely in his late thirties or early forties and she was probably around fifteen years old.  The accuracy of my dating is not too important. What is important is that Socrates was the mature Socrates when he married Xanthippe. This is strange, because by all accounts Xanthippe was a quarrelsome and kind of crazy wife. Socrates had to send her away on the day of his death, because her wailing was too much. (Phaedo 60A & 117D-E) Socrates’ son complains that “she says things that no one, upon his whole life, would wish to hear” and Socrates does not contradict the statement (Memorabilia II.2.8) His friends wonder at  her unruly character and press on Socrates the question, “How is it, then, Socrates, that while recognizing [the importance of educated wives], you too do not teach Xanthippe, but deal with one who is the most difficult of present day women and, I suppose, of those past and future too?” Socrates admits that she is such a woman. (X’s Symposium 2.9-10) The traditional accounts of Socrates’ life concur with these first-hand accounts. Among the most famous, Cato the Elder admired Socrates “for nothing so much as for having lived a temperate and contented life with a wife who was a scold.” (Lives, 473) Why did Socrates marry such a woman?

Socrates gives his questioner, Antisthenes, an answer. “Because I see that those who wish to become skilled horsemen acquire not the horses that readily obey, but high-spirited ones. For they believe that if they are able to subdue such horses, they will easily deal with the rest. And I too, in my desire to deal and associate with human beings, have acquired her, knowing full well that if I can endure her, I’ll easily associate with all other human beings.” ( X’s Symposium 2.10) How are we to take Socrates’ answer? Socrates purposefully married the most difficult girl he could find, to test his abilities. He seems to have failed the test in some way, because why would Antisthenes characterize Xanthippe that way if Socrates had succeeded? Leo Strauss suggests that this failure of Socrates is a lesson that, “the teachability of virtue is still controversial.” (XS 147)

That is a fine lesson to teach, and is an especially good one for potential rulers to hear. However, we have seen that a mature Socrates chose to marry Xanthippe. Did he make a mistake? That is, did he really think it was possible to tame Xanthippe and so willingly took on the legal obligation of marriage on that false assumption? This is unlikely. Socrates was the man whose daimon kept him back from making mistakes, and often kept others back. (Theages 128d) Certainly his daimon had something to say about the woman he married. Why did it not hold him back?

We should also be skeptical of viewing Socrates’ answer as coming after the fact, as a sort of “cover” for a previous mistake. This sort of thinking suggests that he had been overcome by Xanthippe’s beauty and charms, married her, and slowly came to find out what kind of woman he had on his hands. His answer to Antisthenes would be tongue-in-cheek, a joke at the expense of his younger self. But the man who knew the science of erotics would not have been led by the nose into a legal commitment that would significantly burden him. (Theages, 128a) His deft handling of Theodote also suggests a certain mastery – he seems to be able to seduce this great beauty but does not, as far as we know, attempt to sleep with her. (Memorabilia, III.11) Then there is the failure of Alcibiades to seduce Socrates and this failure had nothing to do with the fact that Alcibiades was a man. (cf. Phaedrus, where Socrates gets a little excited.)

We should entertain the possibility that Socrates knew what he was doing when he married Xanthippe, and that he wanted her as she was: spirited and unruly. Strauss says, “Antisthenes’ question shows that Socrates was not conspicuously successful in managing Xanthippe.” (XS 147 emphasis added) This raises the question, was he inconspicuously successful?  Was he successful in a way that would not have been noticed by an Athenian gentleman?

I will tell you why he married her. Think of your own conscience–supposing you aren’t a beast and have one. Through that fickle thing, with your loving eyes, you look at yourself and evaluate whether you are good or bad. You see yourself with the eyes of others. A clean conscience is basically a terrible thing–it means you are either a beast or a god or have thoroughly deceived yourself and are a last man. Socrates took Xanthippe as his conscience, as the scold who would berate him for not being a gentleman, a kalos-kagathos or aner or hombre. She is his eternal sparring partner. Men grow weak you know? They get old and relax. They think they have achieved something and their past achievements crowd out their all-too incisive self-criticism. Criticizing yourself and improving, or denying the false criticism, are things a man must do to become and remain a philosopher. Maintaining who he had become was something Socrates was interested in doing. Philosophy is not a bauble you can possess.

But since reading the glorious BAP I have another theory. What if reason is just something we have to use, and indeed use to tyrannize over life? Xanthippe was full of life and, as all life does, she sought to dominate her “space,” to make it her own and a tool. Don’t husbands often become the tools of their wives? Maybe she is a life that abjures the use of reason, that adopts invective and persuasion without reason, with a deeper cunning than reason.

These are speculations, but every lively speculation surrounding Xanthippe is and always has been fruitful.

3 thoughts on “Xanthippe, The Best Wife?

  1. Why such reverence for philosopher? Socrates’ wife was necessary consequence of his lowness. Lacking wealth or noble name, Xanthippe was most he could dare hope for. Socrates did what philosophers do: tried to make weakness look like consequence of deliberation. Typical blunder of confusing cause with effect. Socrates: man so ugly he couldnt stomach thought that beauty might be the greatest good.

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    1. Hi Alcibiades II, Sorry I have been so remiss in replying to your objections! Although you can consider my point about Theodote and Socrates’ general ability with women (attested to by other ancient authors), as going some way towards replying to one of your earlier objections.

      Sure there is no conscience in Greek. That is a fine point. But if we take what I mean by conscience–namely, seeing yourself through the eyes of others–then when we can dispense with the word. Replace it with whatever you like. But the Greeks were certainly concerned with honor, which is similar.

      I should use a different word to avoid Christian and modern connotations–and will be sure to do so in the future. But for now, accept this as an explanation.

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