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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2046

Article abstract: Greek noblewoman{$I[g]Greece;Xanthippe} Through her aggressive behavior, Xanthippe forced men to reflect on and reconsider conventional assumptions about women’s nature and social roles.

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Early Life

Xanthippe (zan-THIHP-ee) is known not as a mere name discovered through archaeological research but as a meaningful figure in ancient literature. Since almost no contemporary Athenian women thus are recognized, the implication is that Xanthippe was unusual. She was not a “normal” woman, of whom the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.)—quoting the fifth century b.c.e. poet Sophocles—wrote, “Silence lends decorum to a woman.” Xanthippe’s concern was not male notions of decorum. She spoke, often shrilly, and her voice helped to create philosophical echoes across the centuries.

Nothing certain is known of Xanthippe’s childhood and youth. Her date of birth can be estimated as 445 b.c.e., since she was the mother of one son in his late teens and two much younger sons when her husband, the Athenian political philosopher Socrates (469-399 b.c.e.), was executed. Several pieces of circumstantial evidence suggest that Xanthippe was born into a noble, or at least wealthy, Athenian family. Her name, meaning “Golden Horse,” was of the sort traditionally favored by the aristocracy. The biographer Diogenes Laertius (late second-early third century c.e.) mentions that Xanthippe brought a dowry into her marriage. Athenian dowries were quite sizable and often included a large sum of money. At some point, Socrates virtually abandoned his early profession of stonecutting, perhaps living on the proceeds of invested money. Given that Socrates was not from a wealthy family, the money may have come from Xanthippe. Diogenes Laertius also mentions that Xanthippe felt ashamed of a dinner that Socrates gave for some rich men, suggesting her awareness of upper-class standards. The contemporary novelist John Gardner’s The Wreckage of Agathon (1972), based loosely on the life of Socrates, supposes that Agathon’s wife Tuka (“battle-ax”) is of aristocratic background.

Xanthippe was an exception to the rule that Athenian daughters, especially those of aristocratic lineage, married very young, often in their mid-teens. Socrates’ eldest son Lamprocles was born when the philosopher was in his early fifties, his youngest when Socrates was about sixty-five. If Xanthippe was twenty-four years younger than Socrates, she would have borne Lamprocles at twenty-eight and her youngest son at about forty-one. These figures suggest that Xanthippe married about ten years later than was customary.

There are two probable reasons why Xanthippe married late, perhaps below her social status, and to a notoriously ugly and unproductive man: She was difficult temperamentally, and she was physically unattractive. Her temper was infamous; her looks may be inferred from some Socratic advice reported by the historian Xenophon (c. 430-c. 354 b.c.e.). Socrates advises his companions to avoid sexual relations with beautiful people and to restrict their sexual activity to those who would be shunned unless there existed an overwhelming physical need. Whether or not he took his own advice in marrying Xanthippe, there is not the slightest hint that she was physically attractive.

Life’s Work

The marriage of Xanthippe and Socrates would seem to be a match made in hell, between an overage, unattractive, difficult woman and an even older, ugly, underemployed frequenter of the Athenian streets. Many must have seen it this way: Socrates was put to death for his disturbing activities, and Xanthippe’s name became synonymous with “shrew.” This view, however, is superficial, ignoring the deep moral bond between the two.

That bond is suggested by the fact that the activities of Xanthippe and Socrates were both orthodox and unorthodox. In a number of important ways, each was a conventional Athenian of the time. Xanthippe married, reared children, managed a household, and stayed clear of political life; Socrates, in addition to establishing a family, served in military campaigns and took his turn in holding public office. Neither challenged practically the genderized Athenian division of functions.

This extraordinary couple’s challenge to authority was verbal. This is thoroughly familiar in Socrates’ case. He questioned and criticized powerful Athenians, comparing himself to a gadfly stinging that noble but complacent horse Athens. Antagonizing many, he was indicted for impiety, tried, convicted, and executed. In the process, Socrates became a hero of free speech and moral integrity. What is not so obvious is that Xanthippe’s life may be understood in roughly the same terms, once the necessary revisions in perspective are made.

Athenian males ruled the city (and much of their known world), not only politically but with their public presence. Athenian women, especially those of the upper classes, were secluded and were segregated from men. Xanthippe appears to have had a complex response to these restrictions. On one hand, denied wider public access, she “stung” most frequently members of her own family. Xenophon tells the story of Socrates arguing Lamprocles out of his anger with his mother. Xanthippe has been abusing her son, not physically but verbally; Lamprocles protests that this is unjust, since he has done nothing wrong. Socrates induces his son to acknowledge that Xanthippe’s scolding is not only not malicious but also motivated by special concern for Lamprocles. This implies that while Lamprocles may have done nothing wrong, he may also have done nothing right, and that his mother’s words were needed to get him moving. There is a glimpse here of the power of women to shape men morally through daily “encouragement.”

Xanthippe’s activities, however, probably were not confined to the household. She appears to have known most of Socrates’ friends and companions. There are a number of instances of Xanthippe appearing in public, as related by Diogenes Laertius and in Plato’s Phaedōn (388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675). In her house, in the streets, in the marketplace, in Socrates’ jail cell, Xanthippe was a presence. She was not silent; she did not defer to or flatter men; she did not conceal her anger. In short, she frequently behaved like a man, being as visible, as outspoken, and as courageous—or at any rate as rash—as a man was expected to be. This presumption of equality amused but also unnerved Socrates’ companions, to whom any outspoken, critical woman was abnormal and therefore a “shrew.”

Xanthippe’s attitude toward Socrates was straightforward. Anecdotes about her verbal and physical abuse of him have become legendary and form most of the traditional image of Xanthippe. No doubt, there is a basis in fact for these anecdotes; Socrates must have been a better philosopher than husband, father, and provider, and Xanthippe may well have been a frequent critic. Yet Xanthippe is also shown to have admired Socrates, especially for his justice, and to have been considerably more accepting of his friends than they were of her. Overall, she seems to have had few illusions about, but considerable affection for, Socrates. It is Plato, not Xanthippe, who portrays Socrates as “young and fair.”

Socrates’ experience with Xanthippe may have been of major importance for his political philosophy. Contemporary scholars have noted that Socrates was unusually well-disposed toward women. This seems paradoxical, given the horrific reputation of the woman to whom he was closest. Yet Xenophon makes it clear that Socrates very much appreciated Xanthippe. In part, this was because he believed her to be a very good mother, painstaking and selfless, if not especially patient, with her sons.

Beyond this, however, Socrates was clear-eyed about Xanthippe’s nature, and he was unbiased by the prevailing antifemale prejudice. He understood that Xanthippe was high-spirited; perhaps punning on her name, he compared her to a horse. He was not interested in changing her nature by attempting to break her. Instead of forcing Xanthippe to conform to convention, Socrates conformed to her, believing that learning to live with Xanthippe would be excellent training for getting along with all others. Socrates’ acknowledgment of Xanthippe’s active, high-spirited nature is reflected in the imaginary “best city” of Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701). There, Socrates proposes that naturally gifted women as well as men be educated as the guardian-rulers of the city.

Significance

Xanthippe disappeared from historical view following Socrates’ execution in 399 b.c.e. It is easy to believe that her notoriety depended entirely on her relationship with a famous man—that she was a “mere appendage” to him, and an obnoxious one at that. Yet to believe this is to misunderstand the historical significance of both Socrates and Xanthippe.

It is clear that Xanthippe had an unusual degree of freedom in her relationship with Socrates. This is not because Socrates was an ideological “feminist,” but because he was observant enough and honest enough to take each person as he or she was. He believed that persons were not merely “male” and “female” in a simple anatomical sense but also had “souls” significantly independent of gender. Xanthippe had a nobly rambunctious soul, and Socrates accorded it due respect.

Very likely, Xanthippe recognized this independence of mind and sense of justice in Socrates and chose him as fully as he chose her. Nevertheless, both Athenian conventions and Socrates’ own freedom-loving nature made it impossible for Xanthippe to be simply his equal and companion. The philosopher’s wife was, after all, a wife; Socrates and Xanthippe were not fellow guardians in his imagined city. It is easy to believe that Xanthippe, acutely attuned to justice by nature and circumstances, felt the injustice in both her situation and that of Athenian women generally. According to Socratic doctrine, the response of the high-spirited person to injustice is anger.

Xanthippe’s “shrewishness,” then, may be seen in two sympathetic ways. First, to view a woman as a shrew was the common male reaction to any female who was not sufficiently deferential. Second, shrewishness was the only form contextually available to Xanthippe to express her sense of injustice. Xanthippe was in a classic double-bind: She could not remain silent, but neither could she join her husband’s circle of refined, sustained moral discourse. “Conversing daily about virtue” was not an option for Xanthippe; she was too busy rearing Socrates’ children and keeping his house. Instead, she shouted occasionally about virtue, and she was misunderstood. Xanthippe’s life thus serves as a reminder of both the demands of and constraints on perfect justice.

Further Reading:

Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. A well-illustrated survey of the topic, based on thorough scholarship and engagingly written. Part 2 covers the period of Xanthippe’s life.

Cantarella, Eva. Pandora’s Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Translated by Maureen B. Fant. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. This influential interpretation of the position of women in antiquity stresses the breadth and depth of antifemale bias. Socrates is understood as an important dissenter, but his inspiration is seen as the courtesan Aspasia, not Xanthippe.

Caputi, Jane. Gossips, Gorgons, and Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Bear, 1993. An interesting, spirited interpretation of the role of “resistant women,” written from an ecofeminist perspective. Xanthippe would be included under the category “Gorgon.”

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Vol. 1. Translated by R. D. Hicks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Diogenes Laertius’s biography of Socrates (in book 2, chapter 5) is the principal source of the colorful, “shrewish” anecdotes about Xanthippe.

Gardner, John. The Wreckage of Agathon. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972. This novel gives controversial historical life to Xanthippe (“Tuka”) and Socrates (“Agathon”). The fictional pair are far more involved with one another (and with heterosexual relations generally) than historical scholarship would concede.

Plato. Phaedo. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Provocative glimpses of Xanthippe begin and end Plato’s treatment of Socrates’ last day of life.

Scruton, Roger. Xanthippic Dialogues. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998. An excellent, humorous, insightful parody of Plato’s dialogues. Xanthippe is here portrayed as a brilliant observer and philosopher. This work serves as an excellent commentary on the original dialogues.

Xenophon. Conversations of Socrates. Translated by Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield. London: Penguin Books, 1990. Xanthippe as a real-world example of woman, wife, and mother is present, explicitly and implicitly, throughout Xenophon’s Socratic writings.

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