Marc De Kesel

In the history of Western thought, Xantippe has no good press. Unhappily married, her marital complaints only turned against her, since her husband, who was no one less than Socrates himself, was unassailable. This is why, unable to battle with his intellectual superiority, she often felt forced to use other-than-rational arguments. According to a specific iconographic tradition, she at times provoked or even maltreated him. This relational strategy was of little help anyway. His rationality made him immune to such attacks. 

Anonymous,  Xantippe and Socrates , ca 1600-1630

Anonymous, Xantippe and Socrates, ca 1600-1630

Precisely this rational hegemony rendered Socrates deaf to his wife’s complaints, suggesting to her that her husband’s heart was not at home, with their children, but with the young men of Athens’s agora

This was indeed Socrates’ daily activity: chatting with young Athenians about philosophical issues, including love – read pederastic love, for this was the ‘eros’ practiced and discussed in Athens’ public space. And with regard to love, Socrates all too often was ready to dance on a line that invited him to go beyond the realm of mere talking. 

So, it is not completely incomprehensible that Xantippe felt rather sad. And for the ‘sad’ things she did with regard to her husband, he is as much to blame as she is herself.

What would have happened if Socrates had not been deaf to his wife’s complaints? What if he had been an example of patience and empathy with respect to his beloved? 

An artistic depiction answering that question exists. The great baroque musician Georg Philipp Telemann wrote a musical comedy, Der Geduldige Socrates, performed in Hamburg in 1721, with a scenario of the then well-known Johan Ulrich von König, who had extensively copied his ‘model’: La Patienza di Socrate con due mogli, written by a certain Nicolò Minato (1680). 

Because of the numerous wars Athens had waged against other cities, there was a lack of young soldiers and, consequently, a need for more children. Which is why the authorities permitted citizens to marry more than one wife. Given Xantippe’s abrasive personality, Socrates took the opportunity to marry a second wife, Amitta.  This only made things worse, however, for the two women endlessly quarreled and did not stop asking for the wise man’s judgment to settle their disputes.  All of his interventions failed to stem the animus tide. The opera ends with Xantippe’s decision to divorce Socrates. 

Anonymous ( after Henri Gascar),  Socrates and Xantippe , ca 1685

Anonymous ( after Henri Gascar), Socrates and Xantippe, ca 1685

Behind these two depictions of Socrates, there is the intuition that, although an expert in love, he misses the point entirely when it comes down to the concrete love of women. Either he dominates them, or he is himself dominated by them, by his wife – or his wives, as is the case in Telemann’s opera.  

It climaxes, so to say, in the image where Xantippe literary rides him, as if he were her horse or mule. Sitting on his back, riding crop and bridle in hand, she goads him on, even luring him with bait, eager as he is. See the great philosopher: his ‘philia’ for ‘sophia’ is but rude ‘eros’. 

Jan Sadeler,  Aristotle and Phyllis , 1587-1593

Jan Sadeler, Aristotle and Phyllis, 1587-1593

Yet, this is not so much the image of Socrates, as it is of Aristotle. ‘Aristotle & Phyllis’ became a real topic within the iconographical tradition of Renaissance and Baroque art. The theme goes back to an Exemplum of the thirteenth century, which tells the story of the philosopher warning his pupil, the young Alexander (who would later become ‘the Great’), not to spend so much time with his beautiful wife,  Phyllis, so that he might concentrate on more serious matters, like philosophy. When her lover obeys, Phyllis is outraged. As revenge, she seduces the old philosopher – successfully. To prove his love to be sincere, she requests him to come to her room crawling on hands and feet – which he does. Alexander, being informed, watched his lover riding on the back of his teacher in the position we know. Asked about this, Aristotle replied to his pupil: “If she could do it to me, and I am old and wise, what couldn’t she do to you, young and inexperienced?”.

Rather than blaming philosophy, both the Alexander/Phyllis and Socrates/Xantippe stories show the very core of philosophy: thinking reduced to its very essence, eros.