Xanthippe in Fiction

“Another solution for those suspicious of abstractions and metaphysics is to concentrate on other characters in Socrates’ story, setting rational male philosophy against feminine intuition. Xanthippe by the Viennese writer Fritz Mauthner (1884; translated as Mrs Socrates by Jacob Hartmann, 1926), is a surprisingly successful novelistic account of the effect of Socrates’ life and death of his wife. Mauthner’s Xanthippe is an honest, intelligent but uneducated lame peasant woman who suspects, quite rightly, that her husband’s philosophy will get him into trouble. Socrates cannot restrain himself from delivering a lecture in which he acknowledges his doubts about the mythological gods of the city, and his fate is sealed. Socrates himself does not seem particularly upset about dying; his last words, according to Mauthner, are, ‘Recovery at last! If the gods exist, I should like to thanks them for my recovery!’

But for Xanthippe, things do not look so rosy. Left a single parent with a young child (Lamprocles), she settles as a country village farmer and makes a life for herself and her son. But she refuses to allow her boy to learn to read or to daydream. She retained her husband’s philosophical works, but eventually burns then after Plato and Xenophon try to buy them from her. Pure metaphysics, ‘pure sunlight’, is fatal, she believes. Socrates chose perfection of the work, not perfection of the life. His calm, philosophical death condemn Xanthippe and her child to a life of poverty and struggle. Whereas Socrates dies for his own belief in reason, she dies trying to rescue her fellow peasants from an accidental fire in a granary. Xanthippe’s death is the more admirable of the two.”

—Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates.

I’d like to find a copy of Mauthner’s novel one day. Xanthippe is more often presented as the caricature of the scolding wife, mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew: “Be she . . . as curst and shrewd/ As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse / She moves me not.” I like that Mauthner gives a glimpse, albeit fictional, of a more substantial person.

In Phaedo, her sole appearance in Plato’s dialogues (the only ‘live’ appearance by a woman in the Platonic corpus), I’ve aways thought her reaction to Socrates’ death sentence sympathetic and sensitive. Socrates’ dismissal of Xanthippe is brutally cold, at least from a modern perspective.

I wrote previously on the influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache in Samuel Beckett’s early work.