Xanthippe

by David P. Gontar (May 2013)


And will you, being a man of your breeding, be married
under a bush like a beggar? Get you to church and have
a good priest that can tell you what marriage is: this fellow
will but join you together as they join wainscot; then one of you
will prove a shrunk panel, and like green timber, warp, warp.

                                                                              --   Jaques

                                                         * * * *

LYSIS

Well, Socrates, I guess you should congratulate us.

SOCRATES

Us, Lysis?

LYSIS

Yes, Socrates, don't pretend you don't know. Charmides and I are getting married.

SOCRATES

Really, Lysis?

LYSIS

Yes, of course, and we're inviting you to celebrate with us this evening at Agathon's house. Will you join us?

SOCRATES

This is quite a surprise, Lysis. I suppose I can get away from home, if Xanthippe will allow me an outing.

LYSIS

Socrates, you mean you need your wife's permission to relax elsewhere for an evening?

SOCRATES

I think so, Lysis, for I would have to tell her the reason, and she might not believe me.

LYSIS

That's because she is so backward, Socrates. Poor Xanthippe can't appreciate the fact that men can love anyone but creatures such as herself.

SOCRATES

Oh, I think she knows of your loves, good Lysis. It's the marrying she might wonder at. She might tease me and ask if you and Charmides will have sons or daughters.

LYSIS

Yes, I suppose she might be so naïve, Socrates, as to imagine that pregnancy and childbirth have anything to do with marriage. Had she spent more time in society she would have learned what marriage is.

SOCRATES

Exactly. And that is just what I propose to explain to her. In order to make my excuses, I shall tell her that I've been carefully instructed by Lysis who taught me about marriage, and when I lay it all before her she will probably be embarrassed and give me leave to go.

LYSIS

No doubt. And what kind of wine do you think we should drink tonight, Socrates?

SOCRATES

Whatever you deem best, my friend, as long as you are paying the bill. And yet, I still doubt I can attend.

LYSIS

And why is that, Socrates? 

SOCRATES

Because you haven't given me the lesson I should convey to her about the nature of marriage. How can we help her to understand? What shall I tell her?

LYSIS

I truly don't know what the problem is, Socrates, but if you must educate your wife about marriage, tell her quite plainly that Charmides and I love one another and will live together as one.

SOCRATES

Very good, Lysis. That's wonderful. I should have thought of that myself. But suppose she reminds me that you and Charmides have been a couple for the past six years? She knows you are in cohabitation already. What is the marriage of which you speak?

LYSIS

Oh, Socrates, can you be serious? In a few hours Charmides and I will appear before the priest who will give us his blessing. That is the marriage. Tell Xanthippe that if you must.

SOCRATES

I shall, indeed. But have you really shown me what marriage is? The blessing of the priest is part of a ceremony, it isn't marriage. Marriage means family, does it not? She will press the point about sons and daughters.

LYSIS

How little she understands, Socrates. Crude reproduction is not marriage, for people are married first and then, if they wish, they have children.

SOCRATES

Yes, I seem to have overlooked that exquisite detail, you are right, of course. So just tell me what marriage is, and we'll be done, Lysis.

LYSIS

Socrates, I can see you are up to your old tricks and just mean to detain me here when you know I must go now to my ablutions. The fact is that any two people can marry whomever they wish. If Xanthippe is too narrow to apprehend that, maybe it's best that you stay at home tonight.

SOCRATES

Boldly spoken, Lysis. This is the noble  liberty that distinguishes us here in Athens from the barbarians. We can do as we please. So I suppose you and I could marry, Lysis? True?

LYSIS

Please don't mock me, Socrates. You and I are friends, not lovers. That is the obvious difference.

SOCRATES

I see, yes, you are right. And yet, again, you and Charmides already love one another. What more do you require? You know, when I married Xanthippe, there was no love between us. It was a match made by our parents. Would you say we were not married until love arrived? In some cases, that never happens. So it would seem that love and marriage are separable. You can have love without marriage and marriage without love, isn't that correct?

LYSIS

Socrates, I don't mean to be cross with you. It sounds as if you have fallen under  the spell of Xanthippe. Just tell her that Charmides and I have every right to marry, just as man and  woman do. We know perfectly well what it means, as do you. We are adults and can wed whomever we choose. That's that. It's just a matter of intention.

SOCRATES

So you admit that love is not essential in the matter?

LYSIS

How could it be, Socrates? We cannot test couples to determine the quality of their affections. If they choose to exercise their matrimonial rights, that is sufficient. Any two people may marry. Period.

SOCRATES

Any two did you say?

LYSIS

Yes, certainly

SOCRATES

Please don't think I am being facetious, my friend, but the number two may be a bit arbitrary. Have you not heard the tales of travelers in other lands where a man may have many wives?

LYSIS

Of course.

SOCRATES

Then, as a definition of marriage, to say it is some connection (still undefined) between two people is a bit arbitrary. It could be three, four or more, correct?

LYSIS

But not among civilized people, surely, Socrates.

SOCRATES

You mean you disapprove of what we can call polygamy and polyandry.

LYSIS

Indeed, I do.

SOCRATES

And out of mere curiosity, my good fellow, by what principle do you judge marriage of multiple persons to be unacceptable and marriage between two men to be morally satisfactory?

LYSIS

Socrates, I hope you mean to be respectful in this conversation. The love I share with Charmides is a sacred thing.

SOCRATES

I'm sure it is, though whether you are going to answer the question remains to be seen. We ordinarily think of marriage as a lifetime pairing of one man and one woman. It is fine to change the definition if you will, so long as you are able to state what it now is to mean. Can you do this?

LYSIS

A schoolboy's cavil, Socrates. Why must you incessantly quibble about everything so? What do you gain by it? Our lives are not debate card notes. Charmides and I are mature adults and may do as we wish. That is our right as citizens of the polity of Athens. And don't forget, we have rights, just as you do. We will not be reduced to second-class citizenship or be the spineless victims of discrimination. Pardon me for having to be frank with you.

SOCRATES

Is it a cavil, Lysis, when you yourself place such a premium on the subject to expound it? It sounds to me as though it is a matter of supreme importance. What could be more significant than our rights? That may be why in these days we keep discovering more and more of them. Are you prepared to demonstrate your right to marry Charmides? 

LYSIS

Rights are not abstract puzzles, Socrates. They are the most obvious things in the world. All citizens must be treated fairly.

SOCRATES

Indubitably, indubitably. Let justice and fairness control. But are these rights self-evident?

LYSIS

If anything is self-evident, Socrates, it is the right of each man to select a spouse.

SOCRATES

Just one spouse.

LYSIS

Correct.

SOCRATES

But tell me, Lysis, aren't rights the ground of the law?

LYSIS

Of course. And in this matter, the law must be changed to accommodate the right.

SOCRATES

In other words, the right must be promulgated and made universal.

LYSIS

There you have it, Socrates, I couldn't have said it better myself. Universal.

SOCRATES

And a right is a claim on society which should be acted on. Is it so?

LYSIS

Yes.

SOCRATES

Universally.

LYSIS

Yes.

SOCRATES

But my dear friend, you must be joking with me.

LYSIS

Not at all,  I am in deadly earnest, Socrates.

SOCRATES

But, what would happen if this new law did in fact become acted on in the universal sense?

LYSIS

We'd all be far better off, Socrates.

SOCRATES

But if all men married men and all women married women, you admit that no children would be born.

LYSIS

I suppose, but that would never happen. The baser instincts are always with us, Socrates. A few indiscretions might occur here and there.

SOCRATES

But consider, Lysis, that in theory the maxim of the purported action cannot be universalized, for if all obeyed  and married in their own gender, none excepted, in short order there'd be none to obey the law, a grave contradiction and most unhappy fate, don't you agree? To obey such a law is to destroy it.

LYSIS

It's no wonder that so many of the people accuse you of being a sophist, Socrates. Your flights of fancy are ludicrous.

SOCRATES

But you agreed that any right must be capable of universalizing, did you not?

LYSIS

In theory, Socrates, not in fact.

SOCRATES

Perhaps what we are seeking to disclose are our operative principles.

LYSIS

Who knows, Socrates? One can never predict how you will wander.

SOCRATES

Have I strayed, my good fellow? All I asked is that you tell me the meaning of marriage.

LYSIS

Socrates, you grow tedious. You yourself answered your own question when you referred to a lifetime commitment. Marriage is that lifetime pledge between two consenting adults.

SOCRATES

A pledge of what, Lysis?

LYSIS

What else, Socrates? Loyalty and devotion. And there is the end of the matter, if you will let it be. But knowing you, Socrates, I fear that you must tamper with everything, making no end to the simplest elements of life.

SOCRATES

Of course, you are familiar with the tale of King Antiochus of Antioch, are you not? You remember him?

LYSIS

Yes, Socrates, but let's not be coy. Just go ahead, I'm following you, you needn't call out constantly to check to see if I'm pressing my heels in your tracks.

SOCRATES

Antiochus was the man who cultivated an illicit relationship with his own daughter, wasn't he?

LYSIS

Yes, he was.

SOCRATES

Well, might he have legitimated that union by marrying her?

LYSIS

God, forbid, Socrates! What an idea, it offends all decency.

SOCRATES

And yet it fits your definition of marriage, does it not? Antiochus and his daughter were of age, consenting adults. Had they publicly pledged mutual fidelity, that would surely have merited the blessing of Lysis.

LYSIS

What a suggestion, Socrates! Accusing your friend of harboring perversion. What will come next? The idea you propose is disgusting, revolting. 

SOCRATES

And can you put your finger on exactly what it is about  it that offends you, Lysis? 

LYSIS

But I have. It's disgusting. Anyone can see it.

SOCRATES

And yet,  would you agree that some might say the same of two men embracing one another and then presenting themselves to the world as a family capable of rearing the next generation? Might there not be many that would be outraged at that?

LYSIS

The world is full of folly, Socrates. The love of man for man is the highest virtue of all. I've heard you argue as much in many earnest conversations, have I not?  

SOCRATES

Yes, but those were not discussions of marriage, were they?

LYSIS

Socrates, this chatter is beginning to weary me. We go round and round, getting nowhere.

SOCRATES

Never fear, Lysis, I am sure that any moment you'll come roaring back with an ironclad statement about the nature of the married life. I have every confidence in you.

LYSIS

If you say so.

SOCRATES

Just bear with me a moment longer. Suppose I write a letter to a famous fellow in another land. Suppose he returns the favor and that a dialogue arises between us, a colloquy that endures for a dozen years, during which we get to know one another intimately though never actually meeting. Then we exchange pledges to correspond to the ends of our days. Under those facts, may we then marry?

LYSIS

And never meet?

SOCRATES

Correct.

LYSIS

Another insane example. What do you imagine you are achieving by raising these monstrous specters?   

SOCRATES

Let's toss another log on the fire. Let's suppose there are not two but twenty-five interlocutors, all writing to one another. May they marry en masse?

LYSIS

The very idea is a caricature, Socrates.

SOCRATES

Doesn't it fit the definition you advanced?

LYSIS

Can you really compare that horrid spectacle with what I and Charmides are doing?

SOCRATES

Do not men have the right to choose their spouses, Lysis?

LYSIS

Of course. But why twist it all around?

SOCRATES

Not to be bull-headed, my friend, but merely to help me understand your philosophy.

LYSIS

That, I'm becoming afraid, you'll never do.

SOCRATES

Lysis, let me apologize. We'll take a less controversial example. Alright?

LYSIS

Proceed, Master.

SOCRATES

Consider the case of Mr. 'X' and Mr. 'Y'. They are colleagues in business. Or,  Mr. 'A' and Mr. 'B' are roommates in the university. Assume these couples learn that the state grants to those in the married state a small stipend  for those who marry in order to support and promote the good upbringing of healthy children. These gentlemen contrive to marry, not because of love, attraction or desire, or any other such feeling, but simply to qualify for the financial advantage conferred on potential parents. Would not that be a sham and a traducing of law and custom?

LYSIS

Socrates, those who come together in matrimony . . .

SOCRATES

Or is it patrimony, Lysis . . . ?

LYSIS

Please have the goodness not to interrupt, Socrates.

SOCRATES

Sorry.

LYSIS

Those who come together in holy wedlock do so irrespective of governmental policy. If, after marrying, a boon is conferred on them due to law, so be it.

SOCRATES

Even if they neither love nor live together?

LYSIS

It would seem so, Socrates. For the people may take advantage of any institution, as criminals with ill-gotten gain take advantage of banks. We can require and test for neither love nor cohabitation in our granting of marriages, for as you imply, there are many marriages lacking these features.

SOCRATES

All that is necessary, then, is ceremony, idle ceremony. Correct?

LYSIS

That is correct.

SOCRATES

Even if they harbor an undisclosed intention to dissolve the match in a limited time?

LYSIS

That too, Socrates.

SOCRATES

Here is a man whose courage matches his convictions. But let me ask you, Lysis, do we not all seek to care, not only for others, but for ourselves as well?

LYSIS

Of course.

SOCRATES

And so we perform for ourselves prudent ministrations, ordering our diet, clothing, exercise and daily routine so as to preserve and nurture ourselves, even as a caring friend or kinsmen would do?

LYSIS

Yes, again, Socrates.

SOCRATES

And there may even be occasions in the absence of others when we have pleasured ourselves physically, true?

LYSIS

If you must raise such unseemly points, Socrates, I shan't demur. But what are you driving at?

SOCRATES

Nothing but the evident proposition that we stand in a certain relation to ourselves as a caring administrator.

LYSIS

And?

SOCRATES

Well, standing in relation to ourselves in that manner, is there any reason why such a one, desiring assistance from the public fisc might not marry himself to obtain it?

LYSIS

Marry himself? Is that what you said?

SOCRATES

Yes, indeed, Lysis. For what, on your principles of unrestricted freedom, is there to prevent it?

LYSIS

We need no principles when we meet a madman, Socrates. Only the good sense to get out of his way.

SOCRATES

With all due respect, my friend, is that an answer to the question? If you cannot define what marriage is outright, I am offering to ask  questions to elicit your basic ideas and then infer what your theory of marriage is. Well, I must thank you, for at least commenting on this subject. You have taught me much of which I never dreamed, though I still wonder what marriage truly is.

LYSIS

Charmides and I stand squarely with the people and their right to choose.

SOCRATES

That is excellent. You must be proud to be the leader fighting for human pride and dignity.

LYSIS

If you put it that way, yes we are.

SOCRATES

Not to try your patience, Lysis, but suppose that two men thus situated in their soi disant married state decide to adopt an orphaned child as a sign of their union.

LYSIS

Very well. Is that not a blessing to the community?

SOCRATES

Perhaps. Or it may be that the hoped-for advantages of such a match may only be determined by experiment.

LYSIS

What do you mean?

SOCRATES

Well, Lysis, you have often heard our eminent politicians and philosophers proclaim that the family is the foundation of society, have you not?

LYSIS

Yes, certainly.

SOCRATES

And for that reason we wish our families to be as strong as possible.

LYSIS

Yes, indeed.

SOCRATES

So, if two men should marry, let's say, merely for public recognition or a financial stipend, and so play the role of parents, is that permissible?

LYSIS

So long as they fulfill their duties it is.

SOCRATES

But in the conventional marriage between a man and a woman, a man who becomes a father in the course of years will see himself in his son, will he not? There will be physical resemblance and other affinities of conduct, inclination, and ability, correct?

LYSIS

I suppose, Socrates.

SOCRATES

And on that basis the father will teach the son.

LYSIS

Yes, of course.

SOCRATES

And the mother, likewise, will instruct her daughter?

LYSIS

Yes.

SOCRATES

And the son and the daughter born in the natural manner will be taught to take pride in their bloodline and their responsibilities as the latest generation in that stock, isn't that right?

LYSIS

Yes.

SOCRATES

They will hear about the deeds of their ancestors.

LYSIS

Yes.

Do not such natural bonds factors strengthen a marriage and the family as well?

LYSIS

I'm not really sure what you mean by "strengthen," Socrates.

SOCRATES

What I mean, Lysis, is simply that raising the biological child provides an added incentive to strive for that child and make the sacrifices necessary for its health, happiness and prosperity.

LYSIS

Is there scientific proof of this, Socrates?

SOCRATES

Is there scientific proof of the wish of a mother and father to become grandparents at a certain point, Lysis?

LYSIS

Not that I know of. But I grant that wish exists.

SOCRATES

Yes, it does. And if two women married to each other are raising a young orphan boy taken into their home in an adoptive manner, can they look forward to seeing their own qualities of flesh and blood exhibited, as a prologue to immortality, in their grandchildren?

LYSIS

A mere technicality, Socrates. The state benefits from giving the abandoned child a home.

SOCRATES

That is true. But the bonds that secure that home are weaker than those of couples who can witness their successors in flesh and blood, correct? So that in conditions of strife, social upheaval or war, the state will be more likely to endure.

LYSIS

Sounds like mere speculation to me, Socrates.

SOCRATES

And if such marriages as you favor were to become more and more common, sweeping aside conventional ones, what impact would that have on the state as a whole? Would it not tend to decay, as fewer and fewer children were born, and fewer and fewer of those who were born were brought up by their natural parents?

LYSIS

Socrates, your fears are quite overblown. Surrogate parents care for their children as do those you term natural. Only time will tell how the new world we are bringing into existence will fare.

SOCRATES

Yes, I suppose so. If you are correct, Lysis, we are about to launch a vast experiment on the body politic as a whole. Let us pray the gods watch over us in this enterprise. But, tell me, Lysis, have you yet offered me the revised definition of marriage you promised? I have heard how you mean to alter what it has been, but not exactly what it is, and what it will be. Can you undo custom and law without any definite idea as to what they will be in the future? Is it enough to say what marriage is not, or will you show us its positive nature?

LYSIS

Socrates, my patience is exhausted. Everything you need to know has been placed before you. Here is the messenger from my beloved Charmides, summoning me to join him in Athena's temple. I must be off. If you want to learn any more about marriage, my friend, why don't you ask Xanthippe? Let her be your oracle.

SOCRATES

And so I shall, Lysis. Farewell. And may the gods watch over you . . . and all of us.


David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays.

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