Xanthippe

Xanthippe

[zan-tip-ee]

Xanthippe (Ξανθίππη) was the wife of Socrates and mother of their three sons Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. There are far more stories about her than there are facts. She was likely much younger than the philosopher, perhaps by as much as forty years.

Xanthippe means "yellow horse", from the Greek ξανθός "xanthos" (yellow) and ‘ιππος "hippos" (horse). Hers is one of many Greek personal names with a horse theme (cf. Philippos: "horse lover"; Hippocrates: "horse tamer" etc). The "hippos" in an ancient Greek name often suggested aristocratic heritage. There is additional reason for thinking Xanthippe's family was socially prominent: her eldest son was named Lamprocles rather than "Sophroniscus" after Socrates' father; because it was an ancient Greek custom to name one's first child after the more illustrious of the two grandfathers, there is reason to think that Xanthippe's father was named Lamprocles and was even more well-established in Athenian aristocracy than was Socrates' father.

Plato's portrayal of Xanthippe (in his Phaedo) suggests that she was nothing less than a devoted wife and mother (60a-b, 116b; she is mentioned nowhere else in Plato). Xenophon, in his Memorabilia, portrays her in much the same light, though he does make Lamprocles complain of her harshness (2.2.7-9); it could be argued that this is fairly typical of an adolescent's views of a strict parent. It is only in Xenophon's Symposium where we have Socrates agree that she is (in Antisthenes' words) "the hardest to get along with of all the women there are" (2.10). Nevertheless, Socrates adds that he chose her precisely because of her argumentative spirit:

I follow the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman: "None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me," he says; "the horse for me to own must show some spirit" in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else. (Symposium 17-19)

Perhaps this picture of Xanthippe originated with the historical Antisthenes, one of Socrates' pupils, since Xenophon initially puts this view into his mouth. Aelian also depicts her as a jealous shrew in his description of an episode in which she tramples underfoot a large and beautiful cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos, Alcibiades. Diogenes Laertius (Lives 2.36-37) tells of other stories involving Xanthippe's supposed abusiveness, but he does not cite any source for them.

It seems that Xenophon's portrayal of her in his Symposium has been the most influential (Diogenes Laertius, for example, seems to quote (2.37) the Symposium passage, though he does not mention Xenophon by name). For the term "Xanthippe" has now come to mean any nagging scolding person, especially a shrewish wife.

Later writers, such as Diogenes Laertius (Lives 2.26), say that Xanthippe was Socrates' second wife, that his first was Myrto. Diogenes does not cite his source. Plutarch tells of a similar story, reporting that it comes from a work titled On Good Birth, which may or may not have been written by Aristotle. However, in Plutarch's version of the story, Socrates, who was already married, attended to Myrto's financial concerns when she became a widow; this does not entail marriage. Perhaps Diogenes' source was the same or no better. We have no more reliable evidence on this issue.

Literary references

In Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio compares Katherina "As Socrates' Xanthippe or a worse" in Act 1 Scene 2. (Read here)

The novelist Henry Fielding describes the shrewish Mrs. Partridge thus:

She was, besides, a profest follower of that noble sect founded by Xantippe of old; by means of which she became a prostitute; for, to confess the truth, he was never master there, or anywhere else, in her presence. ... for she continued longer in a state of affability, after this fit of jealousy was ended, than her husband had ever known before: and, had it not been for some little exercises, which all the followers of Xantippe are obliged to perform daily, Mr Partridge would have enjoyed a perfect serenity of several months.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Book II, Chapters iii & iv.

The English Victorian poet Amy Levy wrote a dramatic monologue called "Xantippe"

"Puttermesser and Xanthippe" is the title of one of the chapters of American novelist Cynthia Ozick's 1997 novel The Puttermesser Papers, a National Book Award finalist.

In Michelle Cliff's poem "The Garden," the speaker wears a t-shirt that reads "Xantippe."

In Chesea Quinn Yarbro's book of short stories entitled Saint Germain: Memoirs in the story "Harpy"

Philosopher Daniel Dennett named his sailboat "Xanthippe".

In Maryse Conde's book "Crossing the Mangrove," there is a character named Xantippe. He lives outside the community in the woods and many characters are afraid of him; this is because he rarely speaks and is a hermit.

A fictional account of Xanthippe's relationship with her husband is presented in the play "Xanthippe" by the British author and playwright Deborah Freeman. "Xanthippe" was first produced at the Brockley Jack Theatre, London (UK), in 1999.

Notes

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