The Xanthippe, A Lost Dialogue, Part I (Free)

This mysterious work, when it was discovered in the late 20th century, was attributed to Plato, but in view of the philosopher’s appearance in the dialogue, that identification is as suspect as everything about the work.  The scholar and translator, who says he discovered the text in the ruins of a Calabrian monastery, claims the Greek original was destroyed in a fire.  Even if the tale is true, it is hard to know what to make of the translation, which makes anachronistic literary references and uses late 20th century expressions for which it is hard to imagine Greek equivalents.  Nonetheless, even if the work is a clumsy fraud, the arguments may hold some interest for students of ideology.  The translation is a revised version of what the anonymous “scholar” published a decade ago in a less than credible venue. 

Xanthippe: A Lost Dialogue 

"What do you think about the bailout?"

The old philosopher sighed.  Xanthippe had been getting market gossip again from the slave girl she sent to the agora.   The place was filled with demagogues and orators who spent their days spinning lies for people with nothing better to do than listen to ignoramuses.  How many times did he have to tell her to pay no attention to these rumors?  News, he snorted to himself.  Those people were right in Thurii who made it a crime to ask arriving strangers, "What's new?"

Socrates: "What bailout, dear? I am not even sure what that word means.”

Xanthippe: ”You know perfectly well what bailout I'm talking about, the epidosis—a proposal to subsidize those cartwrights in the Piraeus.  They just can't compete with wagons and chariots the Megarians are sending in, and I hear they feed  the slaves like  kings.  Some of them are getting pretty uppity--they live better than we do and you are not only an important professor but you have your own phrontisterion (think tank) ...So, what do you think?"

Socrates: "Nothing."

Xanthippe: "What do you mean nothing?  You have an opinion about everything.  That must be why the Delphic oracle said you were the wisest man in the world."

Socrates: "I only know that I don't know what I don't know, and I don't know anything about making wagons."

Xanthippe: "Well, what am I supposed to say when those snooty friends of your come over here, talking so glibly about what they would do if they had the power.  All I say is that if Critias or Alcibiades ever gets into office, we'll all have to watch it.   Anyway, everyone is talking about it.  You'd think a philosopher would at least show some interest in an important public crisis."

Socrates: "Well, Xanthippe, what do you think?"

Xanthippe: "This is a change!  What do I think.  Well, what I think is that while those cartmakers and their slaves have mismanaged things pretty badly, Athens simply cannot afford to put so many people out of work.  Think of the multiplier effect..."

Socrates: Socrates: "Multiplier effect?"

Xanthippe: "Yes, the fact that all those unemployed  slaves and employee won't be able to buy wine or oil, which will hurt the grape and olive farmers.  Besides, we can't stand idly by and let economic ruin overtake our neighbors."

Socrates: "They're not our neighbors.  They live in the Piraeus.  You've never been to the Piraeus--and you wouldn't want to:  It's full of foreigners--Phoenicians and Africans--and very dangerous.  You know what those Phoenicians are like.  You want to bail them out?  When they're not murdering children, cheating you in business or stealing your ideas, they're finding an excuse to oppress their neighbors.  What's even worse, they expect Athens to defend them against the Persians.  Artaxerxes can do what he likes with them, for all I care."

Xanthippe: "We're not talking about Phoenicians and you know very well what I mean:  We're all Athenians--ever since Cleisthenes set us free from all those old phratries and clan wars."

Socrates: "OK, Xanthippe.  We can talk about this, but before we get down to the specifics of the deal, perhaps we should take up the basic issue.  You are talking as if we have an obligation to save the jobs of those poor cartmakers in Piraeus.  What do you say:  Is this is something desired in itself or that which is only desired for  something else."

Xanthippe: "Good grief, Socrates, I shall go mad if you start up with your thises and thats-for- which."

Socrates: "Well, if you won't listen to plain Greek.  Let me give it to you in something that sounds like the sloppy language of those northern barbarians—Celts are they?—we saw last week in the slave market.  Your cousin claimed to be able to translate some of their yawp.  No wonder they are still so primitive.  Their language appears to have no grammar and is incapable of making precise distinctions.  So, then, in barbarian speech:  Are we supposed to help the cartmakers because that is a good thing to do or because it serves another, higher purpose?"

Xanthippe: "I've known you long enough to spot the trap.  If I say it is good in itself to help the people in Piraeus, you will ask why restrict it to them, and before long you'll have us sending wine to the gymnosophists in India.  OK, granted:  There is no  general duty we owe to everyone to assist strangers.  Fine.  But these are Athenians-even the slaves, in a way."

Socrates: "Xanthippe, you shock me!  Slaves Athenians?  Next you'll be talking about setting them free and making them citizens.  Even Cleon doesn't go that far!  Just what we need in Athens, more stupid people voting for the crooks who rob the people and drag us into wars!  To get back to my question--far ahead of which you have raced--"

Xanthippe: "Ye Gods, not that convoluted Greek again."

Socrates: "--Are you more concerned with the good of the cartmakers or with the good of Athens?  This magic multiplier effect you seem to believe in."

Xanthippe: "Naturally, I care about the cartmakers, but primarily I am thinking about the welfare of our city.  Where will we get the chariots for the next Panathenaic procession?  How will the farmers get their vegetables to town?  How will our soldiers haul their equipment--imagine if the cartmakers went to Sparta!"

Socrates: "The Spartans don't even use money.  How would they buy wagons?  So you are saying that the common good requires us to bail out failed business enterprises.  What's next?  You know Pasion, the slave who worked as a money-lender and got so rich he took over the business and became a shield manufacturer?  Here was an ex-slave and foreigner who gave the city 1000 shields and fitted out a trireme (warship).  Anyway, let us suppose his company is failing.  Does he get bailed out or is this reserved only for cartmakers.  And if Pasion gets helped, what about the olive oil pressers in a bad year or the potters?

Xanthippe: "But this is a special  case, and you know the whole economy of the Piraeus could be wrecked."

Socrates: "You are not answering my question.  All right, then, supposing we have this obligation, in what capacity do we have it?"

Xanthippe: "What do you mean, capacity?"

Socrates: "Who is the 'we' that owes the cartmakers.  Is it we Socrates and Xanthippe, we as two of thousands of private people who live in Athens, or we Athenian citizens whose magistrates collect taxes and carry on the city's business?  Not to rush you, but if it is we as Socrates and Xanthippe, then I'd better go and give them one or two of my hard-earned drachmas."

Xanthippe: "Hard-earned.  You haven't worked a day since you got bounced from that Parthenon job.  Best job you ever had, thanks to Pericles!"

Socrates: "Thanks to Pericles?  You mean it was his money that paid the stone-carvers?  You make my point for me.  Even if I conceded that I had an obligation to help the cartmakers, it would not follow that the archons or board of generals would be entitled to force me and the other citizens to contribute to their welfare.  Or would it?"

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

11 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    I enjoyed this vey much. You have a good spirit transcending the dialogue or does it emanate from the dialogue? In any case, an art that imitates or ” for once then something.” Another type imitation on your theme is one written in 1967 by L.Brent Bozell “Paul with Leo : A Private Conversation” (or when Charity became an abstraction.) Thank you for the “recently discovered”dialogue.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I haven ‘t seen Bozell’s “conversation,” but his model was probably the “Imaginary Conversations” of Walter Savage Landor, a fine though neglected poet and writer. The philosophical dialogue, of course, has had a long history. In addition to ancient philosophers, Lucian wrote very amusing Skeptical dialogues, and some of Bishop Berkeley’s and David Hume’s most readable works are in that form. Pope Gregory I’s most popular work was his dialogues on the saints, for which he was revered in the East as “the dialogist.” The trouble with most philosophical dialogues is that the writers, unlike Plato, take no trouble to develop drama or consistent characters.

    I am inclined to think the source of Xanthippe might be Speusippus, Plato’s successor as head of the Academy and, according to Diogenes Laertius, the author of a dialogue “On Wealth.” But who knows? Certainly not the humble editor who has presumed to touch up the translation here and there.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS Robert, did you read the earlier unedited version?

  4. Dot says:

    I don’t know what Socrates’s young wife, Xanthippe, ever saw in that old goat. He managed to have a following of men who probably didn’t want to work and would rather spend their days trying to win an argument with him, which was impossible. If Socrates is famous for anything it is that he thought too much of himself, used his wife to cook for him while he had fun twisting words around to win over any kind of comment that was made by his followers. It was all a game for him. Xanthippe? She had her feet planted on the ground. She was the wisest and the realist of them all. Perhaps nuts to for marrying him.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Fleming, I read yours some years ago in the essay form about cart makers in Athens but not in this dialogue form which you have actually pulled off in imitation of the masters. Or so I believe.

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    Dot, She didn’t know what she was getting in for marrying a soldier, a sculptor a philosopher and towards the end a stubborn patriot who talked too much and got himself in trouble with the authorities. But he did give credit and respect the mid wife, Diotima,in the Symposium. I once knew a football coach who said he liked the Dallas Cowboys and would like to watch them play sometimes or go to Church on Sunday but could not be worried about such things when he had film to watch on next weeks opponent. Or that fellow in Lonesome Dove Gus called a philosopher who left the drive and went home after refusing to cross the first river they came to while heading North. I guess they come in all shapes and sizes.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I wish we knew more about the historical Socrates. As it is we have two overlapping but distinct portraits given by Plato and Xenophon as well as stray references of varying reliability in the secondary tradition. We do know that he fulfilled the ordinary duties of life, fed his family, served in the army, did his best to help his friends. Xenophon’s Socrates is more of a normal “chap” than Plato’s and more respectful of the conventions. If Plato’s depiction of Xanthippe at the end is accurate, then she grieved for her husband. In this dialogue, by the way, the joke–borrowed from Aristophanes’ Clouds–is that names in -hippo- (horse) were favored by the Athenian aristocracy, hence Pericles’ father Xanthippus. Pheidippides’ father Strepsiades makes the point in the Clouds, which is why he named his kid “Spare the Horses” or “Cheap with Horses.”

    If Plato and Xenophon are truthful, then we do know that Socrates was respected and admired by some of the best men in Athens, e.g. the pious Nicias who died at Syracuse. Some of his high-falutin students–Critias, Alcibiades, Meno the Thessalian–certainly appear to have turned out bad eggs, though I sometimes feel that Critias is someone I might have known, admired, and ended up hating–a sort of Charles Maurras. The best modern source is still probably Grote’s book on Socrates and his school, but WKC Guthrie’s History of Philosophy is readable and responsible.

    All of this is, obviously, an aside since Speusippus or whoever penned this dialogue is not much interested in the historical Socrates, though he does take pains to show off what he does know with incessant learned allusions.

  8. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming:
    Did Socrates take hemlock because of his allegiance to the city as opposed to Jesus’s death on the cross for His allegiance to the Kingdom of God?

    As far as Xanthippe goes, the dialogue sounds like she was quite a bit younger that her husband. Could it be that the marriage was arranged by the parents?

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Plato’s Socrates declined any attempt at rescue because he would run away from the city and the traditions–the nomoi–that had given him parents, legitimacy, and education. He was a loyal citizen. Jesus accepted his death on the cross because he knew it was part of his mission and because the power that put him to death (though not the power that demanded his death)–the Roman Empire–was a legitimate political institution ordained by the Creator. Of course the cases are different, but both of them serve to show the worthiness of loyalty and the baseness of civil disobedience.

  10. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    Thank you for your reply. I am wondering if you can expand your answer on the idea of “worthiness of loyalty and the baseness of civil disobedience”? In this current climate of anything goes, it seems that loyalty is out and civil disobedience is in. Perhaps you wrote about it in one of your essays.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Dot, sorry to be slow but we have been on the road the past few days and are now back in South Carolina. I’ll try to post some of the things I have written both on loyalty, which is one of the foundations of the moral order, and on civil disobedience, which is a morally indefensible form of treason advocated only by people opposed to the classical-christian tradition, e.g. Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King.