Xanthippe (c. 435 BCE–?)

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Xanthippe (c. 435 bce–?)

Athenian wife of Socrates whose name, thanks to the philosopher's disciples, has for centuries been a byword for a sharp-tongued shrew . Name variations: Xantippe. Born around 435 bce; death date unknown; married Socrates (the Greek philosopher); children—only sons are known: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus.

Xanthippe was the much maligned—if not silent—wife of the famous Socrates. (It is possible that Socrates was married once before Xanthippe, for a suspect ancient tradition also associates him with a Myrto , reportedly the daughter of the prominent Athenian politician Aristides the Just.) With Xanthippe, Socrates had three known sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus (none of whom, according to Aristotle, ever amounted to much).

Xanthippe is harshly treated by most of the extant sources which characterize Socrates' life and its impact: these (all of which sanctify Socrates and everything he stood for, although they are not entirely consistent as to what he did actually stand for) portray Xanthippe as a vicious nag. The reason for this characterization is obvious. Whereas Socrates was charismatic and a man who inspired many to revere his memory, when his disciples sought to reminisce about their days in his presence, they also remembered that Xanthippe had the audacity to scold Socrates in public for his failure to shoulder his familial responsibilities. Such boldness was thought to be out of place in any "respectable" Athenian woman of the period, and to verge on the criminal when the one thus embarrassed by his wife's brazen behavior was the saintly Socrates. It is undoubtedly true that Xanthippe occasionally overstepped the bounds of propriety, as when she did such things as douse Socrates with water when she caught him philosophizing with his (mostly wealthy) friends when he should have been earning a living, but even Socrates understood that when she thus flew off the handle, she did so because the interests of her family were being hurt. This appears to have been the case, anyway, from a report that once, when Lamprocles was bitterly objecting to his mother's habit of censuring him in public, Socrates berated his oldest son as an ingrate for not understanding that Xanthippe's bite was unleashed only to improve those whom she loved: that is, her husband and sons. At another time and with somewhat more acid, when friends asked him how he tolerated Xanthippe, Socrates replied that he lived with a shrew for the same reason good equestrians love to ride spirited horses. That is, just as the spirited mount forces the rider to hone his skill, coping with Xanthippe gave Socrates the wherewithal to tolerate anybody. However "useful" as a spur to improvement Socrates may have deemed Xanthippe, he did little to accommodate her criticisms, for philosophy was his passion and his life. What did it matter if his family did not eat as well as they could, if the Athenian people could be won over to his search for truth?

However acrimonious Xanthippe appears in the sources, she had every reason to be upset at how she was treated by her husband and his (at times) ungrateful sons. Although trained from birth to accept her second-rate status (as a woman) in democratic Athens, Xanthippe nevertheless expected her husband to do what was expected of every Athenian husband: that is, that he should actually make an effort to support his family. This Socrates did not do, regardless of what he has come to mean for philosophy. In fact, in the Apology, Plato portrays Socrates as admitting that he had neglected his family's interests as he sought truth. Thus, Xanthippe not only had to virtually raise her sons by herself, she also had to attempt to run a household without her husband actually attempting to earn enough income to sustain it. (Socrates was a stonecutter by profession, and apparently once possessed enough wealth to be enrolled in Athens' hoplite class [that which provided its own arms and armor to fight in the infantry]. However, when he died, he did so a poor man.) Socrates seems not to have personally suffered much from his lack of concern with money, for he was of simple wants and was frequently wined and dined at his friends' expense. How much food and drink he brought back to his own household after a night at a symposium, however, is simply not recorded.

Regardless, perhaps the most callous experience Xanthippe had to suffer at Socrates' hands occurred on the eve of his death. An emotional woman by nature, Xanthippe was banished by Socrates from his presence when she could not refrain from bewailing the injustice of his death sentence at the hands of the Athenian people. Socrates (never one to have much sympathy for any expression of emotion) could not tolerate Xanthippe's diatribes as his hours grew few. Thus, Xanthippe was expelled on account of pathos, so that Socrates could quietly engage in reasoned debate with his masculine friends. Of course, thereafter Socrates became a cultural icon … while Xanthippe has been consigned to the rubbishheap of the overly emotional and the overly concerned with the futures of their families.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California