Stoicism and relationships: three models

Xanthippe pours the contents of a chamber pot on Socrates’ head

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking of relationships of late, from a Stoic perspective. In part this has been spurred by my reading of Liz Gloyn’s superb The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, regarding which I’m running a multi-part commentary. I recently also ran one of my Stoic School of Life meetups in New York in which we discussed the function of role models in Stoic moral development. So why not combine the two? Does Stoic lore provide us with examples of relationships we could reflect on and, perhaps even use as guidance? As it turns out, it does, and I have picked three in particular to discuss here.

Before we get started, however, a due caveat: all three examples are, not surprisingly, of heterosexual relationships where the man is the philosopher and the woman is the “partner” (well, actually, in one both of them are philosophers). But I suggest that this is an irrelevant detail that reflects the culture of Greco-Roman times, not anything inherent in Stoicism. So below feel free to imagine the three cases as reversed (i.e., still heterosexual, but with male and female roles switched), or as instances of non-heterosexual couples. It really doesn’t matter, the same lessons can be learned, and the same principles apply.

Case study I: Socrates and Xanthippe

Socrates is the Stoic role model par excellence, and the Stoics explicitly declared their philosophy to be Socratic. He was famously married to Xanthippe, who was much younger then he, possibly as much as 40 years. She gave him three three sons: Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. It is likely that she was from a family of higher social status than Socrates, based both on the root of her name (hippo, for horse, a common feature of Athenian aristocratic names), and that their first son was not named Sophroniscus, after Socrates’ father.

Xanthippe, according to multiple sources, had a temper, and that was why Socrates liked her. In a classic story they had a fight and Socrates left the home, but Xanthippe was not done yet and poured the content of a chamber pot on his head. Socrates’ comment was “after thunder comes the rain.”

Xanthippe is mentioned both in Plato’s Phaedo and in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Symposium, and in these sources she is portrayed as a devoted mother and wife. In the Symposium, Antisthenes (later the founder of Cynicism), a student of Socrates, claims that she is “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” Socrates concurs, but adds:

“It is the example of the rider who wishes to become an expert horseman: ‘None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me,’ he says; ‘the horse for me to own must show some spirit’ in the belief, no doubt, if he can manage such an animal, it will be easy enough to deal with every other horse besides. And that is just my case. I wish to deal with human beings, to associate with man in general; hence my choice of wife. I know full well, if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else.” (Symposium 17-19)

In other words, Socrates and Xanthippe — despite all odds — had a successful relationship, and part of it was due to the fact that she was sharp and of strong character, and that Socrates used her as a test of his virtue, specifically of his ability to deal with human beings even when they were difficult.

The message: a relationship does not have to be perfect to work, and so long as your partner is virtuous s/he is worth sticking with. One can embrace one’s partner difficult character in order to test and improve one’s virtue, and — apparently — age differences don’t matter!

My personal experience: I have had one important relationship that felt relevantly similar, and it lasted for a good number of years. But in the end I was not enough of a Socrates, I must admit.

Case study II: Seneca and Pompeia Paulina

Pompeia was an educated Roman woman, part of a circle of aristocrats who attempted to live according to ethical principles (presumably inspired by the Stoicism of her husband) even under the tyranny of Nero. When Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide (because he was thought to be implicated in the failed Pisonian conspiracy), Pompeia sought to die together with her husband. Seneca apparently objected, though according to one source she was saved by Nero’s guards, since the emperor didn’t think it would be good publicity for the already troubled regime if she died too.

Liz Gloyn, in the book mentioned above, comments that

“[Seneca] reasons with her but respects her choice as rational after articulating the opposing side of the argument. He balances the spouse’s duty to educate and clarify with respect for Paulina as an autonomous moral agent. Her decision is based upon her evaluation of life as an indifferent, and her preference for a death that has glory rather than an ignoble life.” (pp. 145-146)

Pompeia is also mentioned in De Ira, and the portrait that emerges is one of a trusted companion who understands the philosopher even in his quirky rituals. Consider this passage, where Seneca famously describes the exercise known today as the evening meditation, or the philosophical diary:

“What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore’?” (On Anger III.36)

Seneca and Pompeia formed an asymmetric couple, not only because Seneca was a man in imperial Rome (and therefore afforded social privileges closed to a woman), but because he was a worldly politician, businessman, playwright, and philosopher. That kind of asymmetry is not at all unusual even today. And yet he found delight in her (though occasionally, as Gloyn points out, he had to get away to retreat into himself and recover serenity), and she was loyal (to the end, literally) and supportive. As Gloyn puts it: “Seneca sees the ideal marriage as a state of stability that reciprocally leads to virtue.” (p. 122)

The message: good relationships don’t have to be symmetrical, one can be happy in situations where the two partners are very different and yet have manage to achieve calm and stability. So long, of course, as there is reciprocal growth through virtue.

My personal experience: I have had two long term relationships that roughly followed this model. They ended for different reasons, but I am still very grateful to the two persons in question for the (different) models of virtue they presented me with, even though at the time I wasn’t yet thinking in Stoic terms.

Case study III: Crates and Hipparchia

We finally come to my own favorite model of a Stoic relationship: Crates and Hipparchia (who were both Cynics, actually). Epictetus cites them as a laudable example, and an exception to the general Cynic custom of not marrying in order to avoid the obstruction of “externals” to the Cynic mission. (The Cynics were famous pain-in-the-ass philosophers, think of them as itinerant monks who knock at your door and ask you why you are not living according to virtue…).

“‘Yes, but Crates married.’ You’re referring to a special case in which the marriage was prompted by love, and you’re reckoning on a wife who was herself another Crates.” (Discourses III.22.76)

Hard to imagine higher praise for both the relationship (“it was prompted by love”) and for Hipparchia (“who was herself another Crates”).

Hipparchia was from Maroneia, but her family moved to Athens. She was probably attracted to Cynicism because her brother, Metrocles, was already a student of Crates. She fell in love with Crates, who was the most famous Cynic of the time (he was Zeno of Citium’s first teacher), and significantly older. Both her family and Crates himself attempted to convince her to give up the idea of marriage to the philosopher, as the life of a Cynic was hard and simply scandalous from the point of view of good society.

Crates at one point stood in front of her, got rid of his clothes, and told her, in an attempt to dissuade her: “Here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.” But Hipparchia was stubborn, and in love. She threatened to kill herself if she could not marry Crates, and eventually prevailed.

She began to wear men’s clothes and live with her husband in poverty, sleeping in Athens’ stoas and porticos. Crates referred to their marriage as “cynogamy,” or dog-coupling (“Cynic” meant dog-like, because of the school’s adherents lifestyle). Together they practiced “anaideia,” or shamelessness, including, it is said, coupling in public.

Crates and Hipparchia had a daughter and a son, which was very unusual for practicing Cynics. Also unusually for a Cynic, and for a woman at the time, Hipparchia wrote books and engaged in correspondence with other philosophers, like Theodorus the Atheist. Unfortunately, none of her writings survive.

Apparently, Theodorus did not appreciate Hipparchia’s challenges, and dismissively said to her:

“Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?” Entirely unfazed, she replied: “I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have spent at the loom?” (Diogenes Laertius VI.98)

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, likely knew Hipparchia, and it is very possible that his own radical conceptions of the relationship between men and women, as well as of the equality of women in the ideal Stoic Republic, were inspired by seeing the example of Crates and Hipparchia.

Although we know that there were other women who were attracted to the Cynic life style and philosophy, Hipparchia is the only woman among the 82 philosophers whose lives and opinions are recounted by Diogenes Laertius, a testimony to her lasting influence.

Indeed, she became so famous that her native city — allegedly (there is no independent confirmation) — changed name, as testified by a letter attributed to Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous of the Cynics:

“You did well when you changed the name of the city and, instead of Maroneia, called it Hipparchia, its present name, since it is better for you to be named after Hipparchia, a woman, it’s true, but a philosopher, than after Maron, a man who sells wine.” (Epistle 43)

We do not know how she died, but this epigram by Antipater of Sidon may as well have been written on her tomb:

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic. Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not; But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground, My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running.”

The message: the members of a couple can be equal, devoted to their own pursuits, and yet able to share them with their partner, making their independent mark on the world while at the same time drawing love, support, and comfort, from their relationship. This seems to still be, even today, a radical concept, but it is certainly a model I can sign onto!

My personal experience: I have never had a relationship of the Crates-Hipparchias type. They were rare even then…

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7 thoughts on “Stoicism and relationships: three models

  1. Chris J. Porzenheim

    Excellent article Massimo.

    I’d love to read more articles from you connecting the Stoic practice of entering into relationships with virtuous role models. This has always struck me as a core practice for Stoics, because close friends, or close relationships, in the practice of self cultivation function akin to the journaling practice Seneca recommends. Except relationships (at least if they are virtuous) are better than any journal, because they can see you (and your virtues and vices) more independently of your own biases.

    On this subject, I think in one of Seneca’s letters he argues something to the effect that “in a virtuous relationship you learn how to become a more virtuous person from another while at the same time you are modeling for them a way in which they can be a more virtuous person.” At ta different letter, I think, and I’m paraphrasing, Seneca says something like “All the philosophers who knew Socrates and started their different schools morally progressed more by being around Socrates’s character and spontaneous acts of virtue than they did by learning his formal logical method.”

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  2. Steve Olson

    Thank you so much for this post. I did, in fact, have a fight with my wife this morning. I left the house wondering how I could continue to tolerate the situation. Thanks to your case study 1, I see it differently. She is virtuous without a doubt and will continue to test and hopefully improve my own character and virtue.

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  3. James E Lassiter

    Thanks for this, Massimo. My 35-plus year relationship with my Ugandan wife is a blend of examples one and two. She has amply anointed my head with figurative night jar contents over the years. Each time I deserved it and every time it made me a better person.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Victoria

    Thank you Massimo for a very interesting piece of writing again. Seneca was very lucky, haha. We sure don’t see cynic relationships often these days, though I’m sure they exist.

    Socrates’ relationship reminded me of my dad and mum, haha 😂. They fought a lot, yet they loved and remained loyal to each other forever. As long as your partner is virtuous, often fights are just due to small personality disagreements, they really are “indifferences” in the eyes of a Stoic. Saying that I can still see how a woman would react violently to a man treating their differences as “indifference”. 😂😂😂😂 hahaha

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  5. maxbini

    Three very well chosen case studies and the insights and personal additions added tremendously to the discussion. On Seneca: He probably married Pompeia Paulina in 50 CE after his recall from exile. He was also married before this but never mentions his first wife or what happened to her – as he mentions his son dying in his mother’s arms 20 days before his being charged with adultery and exiled in 48 CE, it is likely that she was no longer in the picture by then (maybe dying in childbirth 2 years previously). Paulina was much younger than Seneca (probably about 30 years younger) and from a very wealthy family – her father being Prefect in charge of Grain Supply and her brother being a Legate in lower Germania – Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” is addressed to his father in law and written around 55 CE – suggesting that he retire and dedicate his life to philosophy. There is also a lost work that Seneca is said to have written De Matrimonia.

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  6. adegrandis

    I rarely comment being much more inclined to listen and learn. I feel moved to add my pennyworth because I am and have been for nearly thirty years in a Crates/Hipparchia relationship and can vouch for the fact that it is pure gold (both of us had a variety of other relationships in our younger days – some of them were immense fun and others were huge mistakes in hindsight but all were valuable lessons) This type of relationship should not be a radical concept – it allows a wonderful level of personal development of both partners even if they adhere to different schools of philosophy when it comes to dealing with life!

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