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A Good Word For Xanthippe by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors


We may be pardoned, perhaps, for judging the living according to our humor, but the dead, at least, we should judge only with our reason. Become eternal, we should endeavor to measure them with the eternal rule of justice. If we did this, how many characters having now an immortality of ill, would secure a more favorable verdict. For twenty-three centuries Xanthippe has been regarded as the type of everything unlovely in womanhood and wifehood. We forget all the other Grecian matrons of Periclean times, to remember this poor wife with scorn. Yet if we would bestow half the careful scrutiny on an accurate analysis of her position which is given to other texts of classical writers, we might find her worthy of our sympathy more than scorn.

In the “Memorabilia” of Xenophon (II.2) Socrates is represented as pointing out to his eldest son, Lamprocles, the duty of paying a respectful attention to a mother who loved him so much better than any one else, and he calls him a “wretch” who should neglect it. Indeed, the picture he draws of the maternal relation is one of the finest things in ancient literature. Would Socrates have urged respect and obedience towards a mother unworthy of it? Would Lamprocles have received the fatherly flogging and reproof as meekly as he did if he had not been sensible of his error? And if there had been anything incongruous in Socrates demanding for Xanthippe Lamprocles' respect and obedience, would not Xenophon have noticed it? But it is not to philosophers and fathers we appeal for Xanthippe; mothers and housewives must judge her. When she married Socrates he was a sculptor, and, according to report, a very fair one,—not, perhaps, a Phidias, but one doing good, serviceable, paying work. He had a house in Athens, and people paid rent and went to market then as now; and he had a wife and family whom it is evident he ought to support. Doubtless Xanthippe was a good housekeeper,—women with sharp tempers usually have that compensation,—but who can keep house amiably upon nothing? Mr. Grote tells us that Socrates relinquished his paying profession and devoted himself to teaching, “excluding all other business to the neglect of all means of fortune.”

If he had taken money for teaching, perhaps Xanthippe might not have opposed him so much; but he would neither ask nor receive reward. The fact probably was, Socrates had a delight in talking, and he preferred talking to business. Whatever we may think of his “talks,” Xanthippe did not likely consider them anything wonderful. Nothing but a jury of women whose husbands have “missions,” and neglect everything for them, could fairly judge Xanthippe on this point. It is of no use for us to say, “Socrates was such a great man, such a divine teacher;” Xanthippe did not know it, and a great many of the wisest and greatest of the Athenians had no more sense in this respect than she had. Aristophanes regularly turned him into sport for the theatres. What Christian wife would like that? Comic plays were written about him, and the gamins under the porticos ridiculed him. If he had been honored, Xanthippe would have forgiven his self-imposed poverty; but to be poor, and laughed at! Doubtless he deserved a good portion of the curtain lectures he got.

Then Xanthippe had another cause of complaint in which she will be sure of the sympathy of all wives. Socrates did not share in its full bitterness the poverty to which he condemned his family. While she was eating her pulse and olives at home, he was dining with Athenian nobles, and drinking wine by the side of the brilliant Aspasia or the fascinating Theodite.

We see Socrates, “splendid through the shades of time,” as a great moral teacher; but many of the Athenians of his day laughed at him, and very few admired him. At any rate he did not provide for the wants of his household, and even a bachelor like Saint Paul severely condemns such a one. Certainly the men of Athens did not admire Socrates, and probably the women of Xanthippe's acquaintance sympathized with her,—to a woman of her temperament a very great aggravation. It may be said all this is special pleading, but when we have knocked at the door of certain truths in vain, we should try and get into them by the window.


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