Headmaster’s Thoughts – February 2011

Socrates’ wife, Xantippe, was apparently such a nag that her name has become associated with that of a scolding wife. Shakespeare refers to her in this way in The Taming of the Shrew. The truth is that the reports of her badgering all come from Socrates’ followers, who offer an account of his patience with her even after she emptied a full chamber pot over his head.


I have a totally different view of Xantippe. What a pain in the neck it must have been to live with a man who never argued back! What a complete nightmare to live with a calm and pious philosopher like Socrates! I cannot imagine a more doomed scenario for a marriage than one in which one of the partners will never answer back or engage in a quarrel. I mean, is that not part of the reason why someone marries you?


Imagine the scene: Here is Xantippe, going through the bother of filling the bucket. At best she got very dirty water, and—let us be honest—she also probably urinated in it. It must have taken her some time to fill the thing. She waited for him, and looked forward to the row she would have. He came home and she positioned herself carefully above his head (if you go to Wikipedia you will see there are various works of art of the event) and, bingo, she emptied it. And nothing happened! No recriminations, no protest, no concern! I can understand why the Athenian Senate sentenced him to the hemlock. Who would want such a bore around the place? I think, at least, he owed it to his wife to say some words of complaint.

The moral of the story is obviously that you should never marry an always-good-tempered philosopher. That works both ways. A calm wife who never argued back would be just as dreary. Husbands, imagine you fill up a chamber pot. (Okay, you can fill up something more contemporary if a chamber pot is not at hand.) You wait, you pour, and nothing! I say that is grounds for marital abuse by your wife. Where is the humanity?


It is the same with children. We don’t have the equivalent of Xantippe, but imagine a child that never answers back or gives you grief; no, don’t waste your time, they don’t exist. But if they did, how boring would your life be? No one would have children. We would have to buy animals instead. At least a cat is moody, and dogs tend to chew furniture (I know about these things).


There you are, waiting for your child not to make his or her bed so that you can save a small bit of their allowance to use for a book you want to buy, and the child makes the bed perfectly. So you “short sheet” the bed, and the child makes it perfectly again. And again! It would be enough to drive a parent into an old folks home where they know the other inhabitants are ornery and annoying, and a good quarrel is available at any time.


In the end, it is also the same running a school. If there were no problems, there would be no need for people like me. Who needs a headmaster if everything is going perfectly? I could only screw up the wonderful machine. No child to help deal with difficulties, no parent who is not parenting, no faculty member who failed to fill some responsibility. I would be sitting in my office looking at the walls, wondering what on earth I was doing there, and thinking that maybe I should seek employment in a different field if only to relieve the tedium.


So Xantippe, you may be known in history as a shrew, but I, for one, understand the incident with the chamber pot and, had I been there, would have cheered you on.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



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