Shake it loose, baby!
Murder Mystery Solved After 2400 Years!
King Solomon wrote “the contentions of a wife are a continual dropping” (Proverbs 19:13). Indeed, and so it was for Socrates until he assumed room temperature. Then and only then was he released from the curious, petulant wedlock that had ensnared him during the final years of his life.
In the Phaedo Plato records the events that transpired on the day of Socrates’ execution. That morning, as it is written in Phaedo, 60,several of Socrates’ associates visited the condemned sage at the hoosegow. Socrates was in the presence of his wife Xanthippe and their infant son. Upon observing the approaching contingent, Xanthippe cried out, “Socrates, this is the last time that your friends will speak to you and you to them!” Socrates responded by requesting that someone take Xanthippe home, and she was led away, sobbing and lamenting.
Inasmuch as she was the wife of someone thought to be endowed with vast wisdom and keen, if not indubitable perspicuity, Xanthippe merits some attention.
1. Why, as related in Phaedo 60, would Socrates brusquely banish his helpmeet, knowing that his quietus was imminent?
2. Furthermore, what influence did Xanthippe have on her husband and what was the nature of their wedlock?
An understanding of the sociological framework in ancient Greece is critical when evaluating the Socrates/Xanthippe dynamics. Two important factors are the cultural dichotomy between the genders in Athens during the 5th century B.C. and the widespread practice of sodomy. Noted anthropologist Edward Westermarck explains:
“Nowhere else has the difference in culture between men and women been so immense as in the fully developed Greek civilization. The lot of a wife in Greece was retirement and ignorance. She lived in almost absolute seclusion, in a separate part of the house, together with her female slaves, deprived of all the educating influence of male society, and having no place at those public spectacles which were the chief means of culture. In such circumstances it is not difficult to understand that men so highly intellectual as those of Athens regarded the love of women as the offspring of the common Aphrodite, who ‘is of the body rather than of the soul.’ They had reached a stage of mental culture at which the sexual instinct normally has a craving for refinement, at which the gratification of mere physical lust appears brutal. In the eyes of the most refined among them, those who were inspired by the heavenly Aphrodite loved neither women nor boys, but intelligent beings whose reason was beginning to be developed, much about the time at which the beards began to grow.” [Westermarck, quoted in V. F. Calverton, ed., The Making of Man: An Outline of Anthropology, New York: Random House, 1931, pp. 539-540.]
Sir Kenneth Dover points out that the ancient Greeks did not consider homosexuality incompatible with marriage or other concurrent heterosexual activities. However, “It is clear from Greek literature, art, and myth that at least by the early sixth century B.C. the Greeks had come to think it natural that a good-looking boy or youth should excite in an older male the same desire for genital contact and orgasm as is excited by a pretty girl … The structure of Athenian society, and in particular the segregation of the sexes, reinforced and maintained this ethos.” [Sir Kenneth Dover, ed., Plato’s Symposium, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, page 3.]
Yet the ancient Athenian framework seemed to respect the ties of the family and marriage more than the various transient relationships with other individuals. This is evidenced in the fact that on the morning of Socrates’ execution the Athenian prison officials allowed Xanthippe the privilege of seeing her husband before his friends were allowed to visit. [Peter J. Ahrensdorf, The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, page 21.] Nonetheless, Socrates’ banishment of Xanthippe clearly displayed his preference for the company of his male colleagues during his final hours.
Guthrie maintains that Xanthippe’s dramatic histrionics and the froth of her remonstrations were not particularly atypical under the circumstances. One can hardly have expected Xanthippe to exit the hoosegow with the grace of a Hellenistic Isadora Duncan. Writes Guthrie, “nor is it surprising that she should be led away crying and beating her breast. The thought of being left husbandless with three young sons was not a cheering one, and in any case such conduct was expected of a Greek wife.” [W.K.C. Guthrie, Socrates, New York: Harper and Row, 1975, page 64.]
The apparent age difference between Socrates and Xanthippe must also be acknowledged. Socrates was 70 years old when he died. He was the sire of three sons while he was in his sixties. “And unless Xanthippe was unusually fertile unusually late in life, she must have been considerably younger than Socrates to have borne him these sons. Thus, Socrates married late and his wife was considerably younger than himself. Although Socrates the philosopher speaks negatively of Eros, Socrates the man retained at least vestiges of desire, if not more, well into his sixties. [David A. White, Myth and Metaphysics in Plato’s Phaedo, Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1989, page 272.]
For the most part, day-to-day relations between Socrates and his wife Xanthippe were tepid, according to ancient Greek authors. Fixed in the formaldehyde of history is the following poignant summary penned by Diogenes Laertius in the Life of Socrates ii 36:
“When Xanthippe first scolded and drenched him with water, his rejoinder was, ‘Did I not say that Xanthippe’s thunder would end in rain?’ When Alcibiades declared that the scolding of Xanthippe was intolerable, ‘Well I have got used to it as to the continued rattle of a windlass; and you do not mind the cackle of geese,’ said Socrates. ‘No,’ replied Alcibiades, ‘but they furnish me with eggs and goslings.’ ‘And Xanthippe,’ said Socrates, ‘is the mother of my children.’ When she tore his coat off his back in the marketplace and his acquaintances advised him to hit back, ‘Yes, by Zeus,’ said he, ‘in order that while we are sparring each other each of you may join in with ‘Go at it, Socrates! Well done, Xanthippe!’ He said he lived with a shrew, as horsemen are fond of spirited horses, ‘but just as, when they have mastered these, they can easily cope with the rest, so I in the company of Xanthippe shall learn to adapt myself to the rest of the world.’”
In his own words, Socrates revealed that he lived with a shrew.
In an exchange with Antisthenes, Socrates described his relationship with Xanthippe. Xenophon recorded it in the Symposium 2:7 as follows:
“The other girl began to play on the flute, and a person who was standing by the dancing girl handed her twelve hoops, and she, taking them, began to dance, while at the same time throwing up the hoops which she kept whirling round in the air, carefully guessing each time how high to throw them so as to catch them in time with the rhythm of the music. Socrates then observed, ‘From many other things, my friends, and from what this girl is now doing, it is apparent that the talent of women is not at all inferior to that of men, though they may be wanting in physical vigor and strength; so that those of you who have a wife ought to teach her with confidence whatever you wish her to know.’ ‘How is it then, my dear Socrates,’ said Antisthenes, ‘that if you think so, you do not educate Xanthippe, but instead you have a wife who is the most ill-conditioned of all existing women, and, as I believe, of all that ever were and ever will be?’ ‘Because,’ replied Socrates, ‘I see that those who wish to be skilled in horsemanship do not choose the best tempered horses, but those of unruly temper, for they think that if they can master such animals, they can easily manage other horses. So, likewise, I, wishing to converse and associate with all kinds of people, have chosen this wife, knowing well that if I am able to endure her, I shall easily bear the society of all other people,’ This remark was deemed to be quite appropriate.”
Again, Socrates conceded that he married a battleaxe, but that this situation was a blessing to him.
The foregoing evidence notwithstanding, several 20th century authors have insisted that Socrates did not marry a shrew. Ahrensdorf declares that Socrates was famous for neglecting his family in order to socialize with his friends and that Xanthippe’s behavior at the hoosegow reveals her to be “a strikingly sensitive and understanding woman.” [Ahrensdorf, page 22.]
Rogers argues that Xanthippe’s "reputation as a shrew doubtless was exaggerated by tradition though she may have been a little difficult.” [Arthur Kenyon Rogers, The Socratic Problem, New York: Russell and Russell, 1971, page 3.]
Navia contends that “one suspects that her uncomplimentary reputation is the result of exaggeration and distortion, born out of bits of gossip in the secondary literature.” [Luis E. Navia, Socratic Testimonies, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1987, page 36.]
Burnet, on the other hand, indicates that “we can find no fault with the behavior of Socrates in the matter” [John Burnet, ed., Plato’s Phaedo, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1963, page 13.]
Kofman is less charitable, introducing an element of castration into the analysis. “Socrates’ relationship with men, like his relationship with his wife Xanthippe … can only be explained in light of irony: if one accepts Xenophon’s version, the only benefit Socrates gained from that shrewish woman is that he learned how to control her, and with her, a fortiori, everyone else. Scalded by Xanthippe, he could abandon such a ‘positive’ conjugal love in favor of a pederastic love that would have been more positive: instead, he fled the ‘reality’ of all loves to take refuge in irony. As we have seen, he preferred to castrate himself and castrate others rather than be castrated by them or her,” [Sarah Kofman, Socrates: Fictions of a Philosopher, trans. Catherine Porter, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998, page 205.] Elsewhere Kofman informs the reader that “self-castration or self-devouring was the only way Socrates could protect himself against the castration that must have been inflicted on him by his wife Xanthippe – that high-spirited mare whom he fled like the plague for the agora, where he ‘invented’ a no less lethal dialectics.” [Kofman, page 170.]
Alas, Friedrich Nietzsche appears to have rendered the most articulate analysis of the Socrates/Xanthippe dynamics. In paragraph 433 of Human, All Too Human Nietzsche proclaims:
“Socrates found the kind of wife he needed – but even he would not have sought her if he had known her well enough: the heroism of even this free spirit would not have extended to that. For Xanthippe in fact propelled him deeper and deeper into his own proper profession, inasmuch as she made his house and home uncomfortable and unhomely to him: she taught him to live in the street and everywhere where one could chatter and be idle, and thus fashion him into the greatest Athenian street-dialectician: so that in the end he had to compare himself to an inportunate gadfly which a god had placed on the neck of the beautiful steed Athens that it might never be allowed any rest.” [Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, page 159.]
In other words, “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house” (Proverbs 25:24). Moreover, “It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman” (Proverbs 21:19).Indeed, indeed.
Kofman observes that “the real hemlock, for Socrates, was Xanthippe.” [Hofman, page 262.] Xanthippe served her purpose well, and humanity will be forever grateful. Articulates Nietzsche in paragraph 437 of Human, All Too Human:
“There are many kinds of hemlock, and fate usually finds an opportunity of setting a cup of poison draught to the lips of a free spirit – so as to ‘punish’ him, as all the world then says. What will the women around him then do? They will lament and cry and perhaps disturb the repose of the thinker’s sunset hours: as they did in the prison at Athens. 'Criton, do tell someone to take those women away!’ Socrates finally said.”
As the hemlock seeped through the weather-beaten corpse of Xanthippe’s husband, Socrates transcended the confines of his earthly existence, freed of his mortal ball and chain once and for all. The words of King Solomon, as recorded in Ecclesiastes 7:26 succinctly summarize the situation, “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.”
Requiem in pace, Socrates, requiem in pace.