The Socratic View of Marriage
Marital advice from one of the greatest philosophers of all time
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 paying attention to.
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...
Few people think like this nowadays. 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."
This is a key dynamic that create the typical cycle of intimate relationships, a fairly common (and unfortunate) state of affairs.
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 muscles 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.
This brings up bigger questions - such as, why are we here?
Is the world an amusement park, built for our enjoyment? Or is it a gym, where we're supposed to get stronger?
This is huge in its impact on our life philosophy. If we believe the world is essentially Disneyland as we're simply here to enjoy ourselves, then often, anything that makes us unhappy is, well, screwing everything up. A flat tire isn't just a flat tire; it's also interfering with the purpose of our lives. Even the fact that we're unhappy makes us more unhappy. It's easy to get aggravated and angry with the world for it not "working" correctly, the same way you'd get mad at Disney if the rides were broken, the parade canceled, the guy in the Mickey costume had his head off and was smoking a cigarette.
But if you see the world as a training gym, then well...challenges or difficulties in life get interpreted as opportunities to become stronger.
Taking weights off the bar at the gym makes it a lot easier - and in some ways more "enjoyable" - to lift.
But doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of it?
After all, isn't the whole point to make to make the bar heavy, so you have to use your strength to lift it?
Couldn't the same ethic apply to marriage?
Wouldn't adopting this ethic transform challenges into welcome opportunities to grow stronger, or something to actually - to at least some degree - be happy about?
And further...isn't there a chance that this approach might - ironically - make you happier than chasing happiness directly, and being unhappy when it vanishes?
Maybe old Socrates was on to something.