When I first learned that the German phonetic alphabet has ‘X wie Xanthippe’, I rather hopefully asked if Germany was full of women called Xanthippe. Apparently not…
Socrates’s wife Xanthippe gets a rather interesting mention in Xenophon’s Symposium. Socrates and his companions have been watching some dancing girls perform a particularly impressive dance routine when Socrates comments (translation from Bowen’s Aris and Phillips edition):
‘It’s really very obvious, gentlemen, particularly in terms of what the girl is actually doing, that a woman’s nature is not inferior to a man’s at all, though there is a shortfall in power of decision and physique. So any of you with a wife can instruct her in full confidence in whatever he’d like to have her know’ (2.9-10)
This is interesting for several reasons. One is that it has a hint of the qualified approval of female potential that we find Socrates voicing in Plato’s Republic. See, for example, the claim at 455d that women and men are equipped to perform the same duties in the city and to share in the same ways of life, except that ‘in all of them women are weaker than men’. Of course, the extent of Plato’s feminism (or not) is hotly debated (see this classic article by Julia Annas).
Another point of interest is how the conversation continues. Antisthenes responds to Socrates advice on marital relations by asking:
‘If that is your perception, Sokrates, how come you don’t teach Xanthippe, instead of having as your wife the most difficult woman not just of this generation, in my view, but of all the generations past and yet to come?’ (2.10)
To which Socrates replies:
‘It’s because I can see that people who want to be horse-trainers pick not the most docile animals but the most spirited. They reckon that if they can establish control of them, they’ll easily manage the rest. I chose my wife because of my desire for human society and conversation, knowing very well that if I can endure her, I can easily get along with everyone else.’ And these words seemed to be not far off the mark. (2.10)
I like Socrates’ response a lot because, if you set aside poor old Xanthippe’s feelings, it points to several elements of the Socratic identity. First, it taps into the Socratic interest in educating people ethically and the (potentially rather worrying) suggestion that this is equivalent to training animals (we get something similar in Plato’s Apology of course). But is Socrates claiming that he has broken in Xanthippe like a spirited horse? Perhaps not. After all, Antisthenes and Xenophon seem to agree that Xanthippe is still rather difficult to get along with and Socrates actually claims not that he has trained Xanthippe, but that he is able to endure (ὑποίσω) her. In fact, the suggestion seems to be that the fact that Xanthippe is untamed is what makes her an ideal wife for Socrates, because having a wife like this helps him in his relations with other people. So perhaps it is she who has trained him. And here is the element that really appeals to me, because the implication is that Socrates’ choice of wife is directly connected to his ethical project. That really is an example of a commitment to philosophy as a way of life.
There are further elements worth considering here – one is the theme of heterosexual love and marriage that runs through Xenophon’s Symposium and how this relates to some of his other Socratic writings. Xanthippe is also the subject of Socrates’ conversation with his son, Lamprocles, at Memorabilia 2.2, and there Socrates speaks in defence of his wife. It’s worth noting, in fact, that this passage of the Symposium is probably the source of Xanthippe’s shrewish reputation. She does appear to be rather overwrought at the thought of Socrates’ death in Plato’s Phaedo (60a-b) but then again, Socrates’ friends don’t hold up much better, even after having sat through several arguments as to why death is not something to be feared.
If you feel a bit sorry for Xanthippe, you could always get hold of a copy of this. It’s quite jolly.