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Meet Xanthippe, the Insufferable Wife of Socrates

How women have had their personal narratives manipulated throughout history


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 6 min read
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How women have had their personal narratives manipulated throughout history

“The female is as it were a deformed male”

— Aristotle

Ifirst came across Xanthippe when I was searching for words that were synonymous with “shrew” or “nag.” Xanthippe, I thought. 

That’s an interesting word. I decided to look into its origins. Since I study philosophy, I found it kind of strange that I hadn’t encountered the wife of Socrates sooner.

Socrates is probably The West’s best-known philosopher. The image of the ancient Greek thinker comes to mind immediately when most people think of philosophy.

Socrates has been taught outright and mentioned peripherally in many of my philosophy classes. I’ve certainly heard a lot about the man, but no one ever really told me much about his wife.

“Xanthippe” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an ill-tempered woman,” and by Urban Dictionary as “any nagging scolding person, especially a shrewish wife.” The name Xanthippe means “yellow horse,” from the ancient Greek xanthos “blond” and hippos “horse."

Xanthippe, for me, is a symbol of how women have had their personal narratives manipulated throughout history.

In Xenophon’s Symposium, Xanthippe is described by Antisthenes as: “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” She is known to history for her explosive temper and inclination to argue. She is often described as cranky, nagging, and hysterical.

Socrates also gives his own comments in Symposium about Xanthippe, explaining that her argumentative nature is the reason why he likes her.

Paying tribute to Xanthippe’s name, “yellow horse” and perhaps also nodding slightly to the common belief that women are not quite human, Socrates describes Xanthippe as a wild horse in need of taming:

It is 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.

Xanthippe was bold enough to publicly scold her husband (who was about 40 years older than her) for shirking his familial responsibilities. She also had the audacity to do what women throughout history have been mocked, shamed, and punished for doing: to speak up when men are talking.

It seems that her disagreeableness may have been viewed by her husband as nothing more than an amusing challenge. Xanthippe was just a spirited horse to be ridden.

Xanthippe also had the audacity to do what women throughout history have been mocked, shamed, and punished for doing: to speak up when men are talking.

Aristotle said that “a proper wife should be as obedient as a slave.” Statements like this can give you a general idea of how unexpected behavior like Xanthippe’s was in ancient Greece.

Plato generally described Xanthippe as a devoted wife and mother. His views on women were what might be considered progressive for the time he lived in.

There is a well-known, if unconfirmed, anecdote in which Xanthippe becomes so irritated with Socrates that she dumps the contents of a chamber pot over his head. Perhaps this story is an exaggeration or a fiction, designed to reinforce the caricature of Xanthippe a shrill, disobedient harpy.

Or, perhaps it’s true.

Is it ever morally justified to dump a chamber pot over someone’s head? Probably not. While I’d like to think that I, myself am not capable of the same action– I can certainly relate to how the Xanthippe of this story might have been feeling in the moments before this act. Possibly, so can you.

Amy Levy was a 19th-century British writer known for her poetry and essays. She was the first Jewish woman to attend Cambridge University, and she was a feminist. In 1881, while a student at Newnham College, she published a poem called Xantippe.

Xantippe (spelled without the “h”) tells the story of the wife of Socrates from a very different perspective.

The poem is essentially a feminist parody of the widely accepted Xanthippe narrative, painting a picture of a woman dissatisfied in a time and place where her options were limited by her gender.

This Xanthippe falls in love with Socrates after listening to him speak, admiring him for his mind and ideas. She is devastated by the fact that he does not care to consider hers.

A scene unfolds where Xanthippe speaks her mind in a group of men and is ridiculed:

But Sokrates, all slow and solemnly,
Raised, calm, his face to mine, and sudden spake:
‘ I thank thee for the wisdom which thy lips
Have thus let fall among us : prythee tell
From what high source, from what philosophies
Didst cull the sapient notion of thy words?’
Then stood I straight and silent for a breath,
Dumb, crushed with all that weight of cold contempt;

The Xanthippe of Levy’s poem is punished cruelly for her hubris. She does not have the education to articulate her ideas to the men around her. Regardless of the nature of her ideas, she is doomed to be mocked for the perceived foolishness of her expression.

Amy Levy had episodes of major depression from an early age.

This depression grew worse in her later years, exacerbated by troubles in her romantic relationships and the fact of her increasing deafness. She took her own life two months before her 28th birthday.

Perhaps Amy Levy, who had the audacity to try and succeed in male-dominated spheres of art and discourse, felt a bit like Xanthippe. Perhaps, so do many women today.

There aren’t very many women in philosophy. I’m proud to be one of them.

Philosophy departments across the US are notorious for their low numbers of women, as well as people of color. The number of women awarded philosophy PhDs is about 27%, and just 21% of employed philosophers are women. These numbers drop significantly for women of color.

Why are there so few women in philosophy?

Maybe it’s because women, as Hegel put it, “are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts.” Perhaps it is, as Confucius said: “the law of nature that women should be held under the dominance of man.”

Maybe it’s like Aristotle explained, and “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” Maybe it’s because, as Spinoza suggested, “women are apt to seduce men into making irrational political decisions.”

Nietzsche thought that “when a woman turns to scholarship” there is “usually something wrong with her sexual apparatus.”

Regardless of the truth of any of these statements uttered by male philosophers, it’s hard to miss how reading so many statements like this could be discouraging for women entering the field of philosophy.

It can be hard to speak up when you know that anything you say might be labeled with the disclaimer: these thoughts came from a woman.

Feminist author Sady Doyle writes in her book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, about how women are often perceived as monstrous.

Referencing intimidating mother goddess archetypes like Tiamat with relationship to media representations like Godzilla or the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, Doyle helps the reader understand how we may be beyond disdainful, even frightened, as a culture, of women who don’t fit the generally accepted mold.

There’s a lot of pain, blame, and shame in Doyle’s book. The women in the stories she tells are not always innocent but often are not as guilty as they are made to seem by their peers or by history.

Doyle details how the real, human stories of women are often distorted– mostly, to make them look like monsters. There is also, however, a strong note of optimism in Doyle's writing:

“We can find powerful and awe-inspiring visions of ourselves, hidden inside and underneath the stories patriarchy tells to shame us,” writes Doyle.

I wonder how Xanthippe saw herself.

When Xanthippe looked in the mirror, did she see wrathful, disobedient “yellow horse,” desperately in need of taming?

Did she see a nagging shrew, angry and shrill, yap-yap-yapping at her poor husband? Would she give the same version of events if asked about the chamber pot?

Maybe not– but I suppose we’ll never know for sure.

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