Essays and phantasies/A Word for Xantippe

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A Word for Xantippe by James Thomson (B.V.)
as published in Essays and phantasies, 1881

A WORD FOR XANTIPPE.


1866.


━━0━━

"To make a happy fireside clime
 For weans and wife,
Is the true pathos and sublime
 Of human life."—Burns.

For a couple of thousand years or so poor Xantippe has been infamous among men as the most acrid example of a shrewish wife. Is this, her evil reputation, just? or is it in great measure a bubble blown by the malice of learned bookworms? I know little or nothing of any of these gentry or their works, but one's mere instinct flashes considerable light upon the nature of the species. Ironical Destiny will generally have it that Dryasdust be married; when married, he is of course henpecked, for women (like Henry VIII.) love a man, and therefore despise a bookworm. Bookworm, feeling himself too weak for open and honourable warfare, betakes himself to a characteristic revenge, safe, cowardly, professional, honey-sweet; in the most scurrilous Latin he can command (and Latin is said to be rather rich in scurrility) he libels women and marriage, and retails from the inexhaustible stores of his anecdotage how Xantippe emptied the vessels of her wrath upon the sacred head of Socrates. Xantippe is the lay-figure which he kicks and punches in lieu of Mrs. Dryasdust, of whom he is very properly afraid; he conceits himself, Dryasdust, to be a fair counterpart of Socrates, the sublime imperturbable philosopher; and all the Dryasdust mummies throughout Europe, whose wives do not understand Latin, can mumble and chuckle over the tidbit of recondite ribaldry. The withered old wretches! Their blood gets reddish and lukewarm, their wrinkles interwrinkle and their dead eyes twinkle, when they come across a Phryne, a Lais, a Rhodopis, a Helen, or any other lady of not doubtful character; but they can find no words vile enough for a decent and respectable married woman, who did her best to bring up a lawful family honestly, who stood up for her own and the children's rights, and who used her woman's weapon with the most feminine sharpness and determination.

I do not want to say a word against Socrates. I am ready to cry with as much devotion as anybody, Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis!—but surely he will be all the more likely to pray for us if we venture to say a good word for his much-injured wife.

In his Apology (as taken down by Plato, the well-known reporter for the Times, and Ages) Socrates himself says, section 9—"Still therefore I go about and search and inquire into these things, in obedience to the god, both among citizens and strangers, if I think any one of them is wise; and when he appears to me not to be so, I take the part of the god, and show that he is not wise. And in consequence of this occupation I have no leisure to attend in any considerable degree to the affairs of the State or my own; but I am in the greatest poverty through my devotion to the service of the god."

Again, section 18—"But that I am a person who has been given by the Deity to this city, you may discern from hence; for it is not like the ordinary conduct of men that I should have neglected all my own affairs and suffered my private interest to be neglected for so many years, and that I should constantly attend to your concerns, addressing myself to each of you separately, like a father or elder brother, persuading you to the pursuit of virtue. And if I had derived any profit from this course, and had received pay for my exhortations, there would have been some reason for my conduct; but now you see yourselves that my accusers, who have so shamelessly calumniated me in everything else, have not had the impudence to charge me with this, and to bring witnesses to prove that I ever either exacted or demanded any reward. And I think that I produce a sufficient proof that I speak the truth—namely, my poverty."

In the first section he states that he is more than seventy years old; and in section 23 that he has three sons, one grown up, and two boys: so Xantippe must have been considerably younger than himself.[1]

At the conclusion of The Banquet we read: "Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates had alone stood it out, and were still drinking out of a great goblet which they passed round and round. . . . Aristophanes first awoke, and then, it being broad daylight, Agathon. Socrates having put them to sleep, went away, Aristodemus following him, and coming to the Lyceum he washed himself as he would have done anywhere else, and after having spent the day there in his accustomed manner, went home in the evening." One scarcely need add that his accustomed manner of spending the day was lounging about discussing anything and everything with anybody and everybody whom he could seduce into discussion.

In the Phædo, section 9, the narrator, whose name has become the title of the piece, says: "When we entered, we found Socrates just freed from his bonds, and Xantippe, you know her, holding his little boy and sitting by him. As soon as Xantippe saw us, she wept aloud, and said such things as women usually do on such occasions—as, 'Socrates, your friends will now converse with you for the last time, and you with them.' But Socrates, looking towards Crito, said, 'Crito, let some one take her home.' Upon which some of Crito's attendants led her away, wailing and beating herself. But Socrates, sitting up in bed, drew up his leg, and rubbed it with his hand, and as he rubbed it, said: 'What an unaccountable thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure; etc., etc., etc.'" A wonderfully cold-blooded touch, this, in the divine Phædo.

Socrates, engaged in sublime discourse about the immortality of the human soul, cannot concern himself about mundane wife and children, but after he has drunk the poison, we read in the last section that the friends about him began weeping and lamenting, and he said: "What are you doing, my admirable friends? I indeed, for this reason chiefly, sent away the women, that they might not commit any folly of this kind." His last words were, "Crito, we owe a cock to Æsculapius; pay it, therefore, and do not neglect it."

Now, how stood the case as between Socrates and Xantippe, husband and wife? This is the sole point for us here, and the public relations of Socrates, the sage and martyr, to the world in general are quite beside the question. An unfortunate woman (would that she had left her own statement of the case!) who appears to have been no less warm-hearted than hot-tempered, has the foolish goodness to marry a man who is not only much older than herself and absurdly ugly, but who is also a public character and a philosopher. As he was well up in years when he married her, and had been preaching in season and out of season ever since he could attract a listener, on the fine text, Know Thyself, he ought then to have known himself quite well enough to know that he had no right to go and get married again, to know that his undomestic habits were past cure. He had a decent trade in the stone-cutting line; and though his statuary work was not much more like that of Phidias than his own features and form were like those of Lysis or Alcibiades, it appears that with industry he might have chiselled out a comfortable livelihood if he could not have carved out a fortune. But, by his own confession, he scarcely ever worked at his trade. He was an incorrigible idler, always lounging about Athens, arguing, questioning, exhorting; chaffing and ruffling the big-wigs in the midst of groups of young swells, for whom the fun was almost as good as that of quail-fighting.

He boasted that he never took payment for his lessons. But if the Sophists, for teaching what he considered to be useless or noxious, took the highest prices they could get, why should not he, who neglected his trade to teach what he considered the most important truths, have taken at least enough payment to keep his home comfortable? He himself was constitutionally indifferent to all the common circumstances of life; did not care what he ate or what he drank, was almost insensible to heat and cold, without an effort could remain teetotaller for months, and then without an effort drink the most seasoned toper blind drunk, and walk off to spend a sober day as if nothing had happened; but were his wife and children of the same constitution? Was it fair, was it kind, to make them endure the same hardship as himself, although they felt it keenly and he scarcely felt it at all? Nor, with all his indifference to the good things of this life, does he seem to have fared so badly on the whole. Some of the best houses in Athens were open to him when he chose to share in their festivities; young fellows of fortune were delighted to have the company of the amusing old vagabond at their wicked little suppers. These fellows were rich enough and liberal enough to coin their gratitude and admiration into cash that would have gladdened the heart of Xantippe and filled the bellies of those two boys.

Let any respectable English matron try to conceive the case of Mrs. Socrates, when Mr. Socrates came home one evening after an absence of two days and a night. Be sure that he had done no work and brought home no money for a long time, be sure that she had not a decent gown to her back, be sure that if the children had dined scantily on bread and olives, the dinner had been procured with the greatest difficulty. Remember that she was never invited to the fine parties he frequented, and that every day of her life she must have heard her gossips cry shame on this disreputable husband of hers, and hint with awe and horror at the queer tales told about some of the women and young men with whom he was most intimate. Where has my lord been these two days? Roasting Gorgias, "selling" Protagoras, cutting up Euthyphron into mincemeat. And the night? Having the jolliest supper at Agathon's, with the most terrible wits and the superbest swells in Athens. And with music, and girls lasciviously dancing? No; they sent away the female flute-player, and had a quiet evening delivering orations in honour of Love; until Alcibiades came in nobly intoxicated, and they all drank hard as long as they could, Socrates drinking hard until broad daylight. Delivering orations in honour of Love, with his lawful wife at home in her lonely bed, hungry and wretched, and horribly anxious! One admits the charm of the symposium; never since has there been such talk from such company save at the Old Mermaid; our finest swells are but boors and blockheads to these wonderful Athenian gentlemen; what, however, hindered Socrates from going home to wash in the morning?

Let the respectable English matron judge whether Xantippe had or had not the right to scold and rage, and even to pour out vessels of wrath. It is very well for us, enchanted with the fruits of his interminable talking, to admire him; it is better for us, spirit-stirred by the story of his martyrdom, to venerate and love him; but "follow him home"—what woman would be in the place of his wife?

Should the reader, however, assert that in this respect, as in so many others, Socrates approached closely to the ideal character of a Christian man, I think it would be rash to dispute the assertion. For one cannot but remember the texts:—"Then one said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said. Behold my mother and my brethren!" And again, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." And again, "Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting."

We reverence Socrates and we adore Jesus. In our age and country, however, Xantippe would be obliged to go to the workhouse, and the parish authorities would prosecute her husband for not supporting her and his family; as for Jesus, he would be brought before the magistrates as a vagrant, and assuredly on examination be forwarded to a lunatic asylum. Those heathen Greeks put Socrates to death soon after he was seventy: those unbelieving Jews, sharper than the Greeks, got Jesus crucified when he was only thirty-three: we Christian English are too enlightened and tolerant to make such men glorious martyrs; a parish prosecution and a doctor's certificate would extinguish them much more effectually; and no heroic fortitude, no sublime enthusiasm, could elevate the victims and cover the prosecutors with infamy.

We have perhaps one living writer with genius and learning and wisdom and fairness enough to picture truly the conjugal life of Saint Socrates and shrew Xantippe: need I say that this writer is George Eliot? One would give something for the picture.

  1. 'He had two sons by his first wife, Myrtone; the third, of course one of the boys, was by Xantippe.