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The Socratic View of Marriage


Socrates, as described by Plato, Xenophon and others, is generally regarded as, it is safe to say, a pretty smart guy. At least smart enough that people are studying what he said (or might have said - it's hard to know what was him and what was Plato) thousands of years later. Anyone who has dug into Plato's dialogues knows that, at the very least, if any of what was written reflected anything close to the actual man, the guy knew more about life than your average bear.

All to say...at least the way we see it, he's probably somebody worth considering.

So, what was his perspective on marriage?

In the following conversation with Antisthenes, as recorded by Xenophon, Socrates reveals what may have been one of his "keys to a successful marriage":

Antisthenes: ". . . why don't you train Xanthippe instead of having a wife who is of all living women - and I believe of all that ever have been or will be - the most difficult to get on with?"

Socrates: "Because I notice that people who want to become good horsemen keep not the most docile horses but ones that are high-spirited, because they think that they can control these, they will easily manage any other horses. In the same way, since I wish to deal and associate with people, I have provided myself with this wife, because I'm quite sure that, if I can put up with her, I shall find it easy to get on with any other human being."

This explanation was felt to be not far off the mark.

- excerpt from Xenophon's Conversations of Socrates

This is especially interesting to us because of how, when it comes to most folks' view of marriage nowadays...nobody thinks like this. Or anything close to it.

Many individuals nowadays seem to spend a great deal of time dating, which is often considered to be a search for "The One," or that perfect other person they are fated to be with.

Once the other person-who-is-believed-to-be-The-One is found and married, it is often still very much a trial basis: if, for example, a wife nags too much, puts on too much weight, or even becomes boring or ages naturally, or any thousands of other variations, it can be considered grounds for divorce. Similarly, if men stay out too late with their buddies, don't make enough money, or any other infinite reasons appear less-than-perfect, their wives may consider these reasons for packing the bags and hiring the lawyers.

The hidden assumption that underlies relationships like these goes something like "Since you are supposed to make me happy, and you're not, I'm leaving."

Socrates, on the other hand, had a completely different view on the matter: instead of demanding that Xanthippe conform to become be the perfect embodiment of his own desires...he worked on perfecting himself.

Since he was "working on himself" - perfecting his own character (is anybody interested in this nowadays?) - he understood that strengthening oneself requires challenges, in the same way that strengthening muscules requires lifting weights. He considered marriage, then, as a kind of "psychological gymnasium" which gave him plenty of opportunities for working on himself.

In this sense, then Socrates didn't treat marriage as a playground, but as a training-arena or boot-camp; his wife wasn't supposed to meekly submit to him or obey him, but to challenge him and make him stronger; he didn't demand that the other person in his relationship make him happy, but instead seemed to treat all of his experiences - the fights, misunderstandings, scoldings, tantrums, and everything else that probably took place within the marriage - as opportunities to learn from and become stronger.

Not something many people will follow. Not something many people would recommend. But definitely, we think, something worth mulling over.