Book Club: Xenophon's Memorabilia, part II, Socrates teaches a lesson to his son


It has been some time since we discussed the first book of Xenophon's Memorabilia, a biographical account of Socrates that, among other things, inspired Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism) to get into philosophy. I will try to be more consistent and roll out future installations in a timely fashion.

As usual, Xenophon presents us with a number of short vignettes from Socrates' life, always interacting with some fellow Athenian, always asking probing questions. I have to admit that I am enjoying Xenophon's writing style more than Plato's. Moreover, I am getting the sense that I am encountering the real Socrates here, not just Plato's mouthpiece. Indeed, in some cases Socrates' approach as portrayed by Xenophon seems to be at odds with the picture that emerges from the Socratic dialogues, and Xenophon's version makes more sense, at least to me.

The episode I want to focus on from book II is a conversation that Socrates has with his eldest son, Lamprocles, regarding the latter's attitude toward his mother, Xanthippe. Socrates begins by addressing Lamprocles in this way:

"Tell me, my boy, do you know that some men are called ungrateful?" (II.2.1)

It's a classic Socratic trick question, and the son falls for it. He responds that yes, he does. So Socrates asks him if he knows why such people are so labeled, and Lamprocles dutifully provides a definition of ungratefulness. Socrates goes on by suggesting that being ungrateful is a kind of injustice, and again his son agrees. At which point Socrates adds:

"Therefore the greater the benefits received the greater the injustice of not showing gratitude?" He agreed again." Now what deeper obligation can we find than that of children to their parents? (II.2.3)

And you can begin to see more clearly the outline of the trap that the philosopher is setting: we are shifting from a general discussion of ingratitude, including an agreement that it is a form of injustice, to the specific case of the relationship between children and their parents.

Socrates then comments on why people get married and have children, explaining to Lamprocles about gender roles as they were understood in ancient Athens. When he comes to the role of women he says:

"The woman conceives and bears her burden in travail, risking her life, and giving of her own food; and, with much labour, having endured to the end and brought forth her child, she rears and cares for it." (II.2.5)

A mother then proceeds to selflessly taking care of her offspring, providing them with whatever she thinks they want and need. And of course this is not limited just to food, but to whatever the mother is able to teach. If she is in no position to teach herself, then she looks for someone who can, all in the interest of her sons and daughters.

Lamprocles reluctantly agrees, but complains that even so, nobody can put up with Xanthippe's vile temper. He adds that it is harder to bear his mother than even a wild beast. Socrates, feigning surprise, asks whether Xanthippe has ever bitten or kicked him, like a wild beast would.

"'Oh no, but she says things one wouldn’t listen to for anything in the world.' 'Well, how much trouble do you think you have given her by your peevish words and froward acts day and night since you were a little child; and how much pain when you were ill?'" (II.2.8)

After having disposed of the wild beast analogy, Socrates asks his son whether it is more difficult for him to listen to his mother than for an actor to be abused on stage by another actor, who obviously doesn't mean it, and is playing an assigned role. This is an interesting analogy, which is reminiscent of a couple of points the Stoics will insist later on: that we can bear other people's words with equanimity (e.g., Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VIII.59), and that we all play roles in the theater of life (Epictetus, Discourses I.2). Socrates continues:

"'Unless, indeed, you suppose that your mother is maliciously set against you?' 'Oh no, I don't think that.' Then Socrates exclaimed: 'So this mother of yours is kindly disposed towards you; she nurses you devotedly in sickness and sees that you want for nothing; more than that, she prays the gods to bless you abundantly and pays vows on your behalf; and yet you say she is a trial! It seems to me that, if you can't endure a mother like her, you can't endure a good thing.'" (II.2.9-10)

By now the son has been forced by way of Socratic logic to agree that ungratefulness is a form of injustice, that his mother has his best interest in mind, that her words can certainly be borne with equanimity, and that he, Lamprocles, apparently is afflicted by the peculiar problem of not being able to endure a good thing!

But Socrates is not quite done yet. He asks his son whether he wishes to please at least some people, like perhaps his neighbor, in order to develop a relationship of mutual aid. Lamprocles says he does. He then also admits that he would cultivate the good will of a traveling companion, in order to make friends, not enemies. Ah, says Socrates, and yet you deny that mere courtesy is due to your mother, who is the one that loves you most of all? And he concludes:

"Therefore, my boy, if you are prudent, you will pray the gods to pardon your neglect of your mother, lest they in turn refuse to be kind to you, thinking you an ingrate; and you will beware of men, lest all cast you out, perceiving that you care nothing for your parents, and in the end you are found to be without a friend. For, should men suppose you to be ungrateful to your parents, none would think you would be grateful for any kindness he might show you." (II.2.14)
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