Parenting: What Socrates Said

According to legend, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after reading Book Two of Xenophon’s famous Memorabilia of Socrates. The second chapter of this book portrays Socrates engaging in a short Socratic dialogue with his own son, Lamprocles.   It may have been a conversation Xenophon actually witnessed, or heard about from Socrates.  It gives us some interesting insights into Socrates’ attitudes toward parenting and his relationship with his own son.

Socrates had three sons, by his notoriously hot-tempered wife Xanthippe, of whom Lamprocles was the eldest.  Lamprocles was a young boy when Socrates was executed. His two younger brothers, Menexenus and Sophroniscus, were still small children, at least one of them was being carried by Xanthippe like a baby when Socrates was in prison.

According to Xenophon, Socrates one day noticed that Lamprocles was becoming increasingly irritable with Xanthippe, his mother.  So he decided to employ the Socratic method of questioning to help improve his son’s relationship with her.   Socrates’ method consists mainly in asking questions, although he sometimes ends up offering practical advice on what to do if the other person gets stuck.  I’ve paraphrased the discussion below, and inserted a few comments, although I’ve stayed very close to the original dialogue.

Part One: Defusion

Socrates begins by asking his son, Lamprocles, what we typically mean when call someone ungrateful.  He asks “What do people do to earn this name?”  Lamprocles says that we call someone ungrateful if they’ve been treated well and could show gratitude in return but don’t.  Socrates asks him if that means ingratitude is a bad thing and Lamprocles agrees that it is.  So from the outset they have both agreed this definition as common ground upon which to begin working.

Then Socrates asks a trickier question: Could it perhaps be that it’s wrong to show ingratitude toward our friends but right to show ingratitude to our enemies?  He asks that question, incidentally, because Lamprocles would have been familiar with a Greek saying that a good man helps his friends and harms his enemies, which Socrates thought was a very wrong-headed way of understanding justice.

Lamprocles says he’s thought about this already and disagrees with it, perhaps because he’s heard Socrates criticize this view.  (We can almost imagine him thinking “Hmmm… I’ve heard this one before.”) So instead the boy says that whether someone is a friend or an enemy, either way, as long as we’ve received a favour from them then we should show them gratitude in return.  They both agree that being ungrateful to anyone who does you a favour, friend or enemy, would be the height of injustice.  Socrates asks if that means that the greater a favour someone receives without showing gratitude in return, the more unjust they are being, and his son agrees.

Well, says Socrates, what greater favour could there be than that shown by parents to their children?  Parents benefit their children by having them and giving them their very existence.  So every other good thing they can possibly experience depends upon that fact.   (My six-year-old daughter Poppy’s comment on this is that it’s like saying we should be grateful to the man who built our house because we can eat in it and watch television and sleep, and it gives us the space to do other good things.)  Indeed, Socrates says, most people believe that their own life is so valuable that they would do anything to hang on to it.  The greatest crimes were punished by the death sentence in Athens because everyone assumed life was the most precious thing and nobody wanted to lose it.  (Of course, elsewhere Socrates himself questions whether death is an evil and there’s a hint of irony here because we all know he later receives the death penalty from an Athenian court himself.)

Socrates reminds Lamprocles that parents sacrifice a lot because they want to have children.  Mothers carry around the weight of the baby inside them for months and then, in ancient Greece, they actually risk their own lives in giving birth to them.  Socrates’ mother, Phaenarete, was reputedly a midwife, an esteemed middle-class profession in Athens.  His empathy with mothers here, surprising for a man of his time, perhaps hints at Phaenarete’s influence on him.  Once a baby is born, he says, its mother feeds it and cares for it, even though it has never done her any favours.  The baby doesn’t even know anything about its parents yet but still receives their care and attention.  For years, the mother has to go through all sorts of drudgery, day and night, rearing her infant without knowing whether she’ll ever receive any gratitude in return.  Not only do the parents care for the child by clothing and feeding them but they also try to educate them.  They try to share any knowledge with them that they think might be important.  If they think it would be better taught by someone else, they pay for teachers and trainers as well.  So there are lots of reasons to be grateful, at least to a typical conscientious Athenian mother like Xanthippe.

This sounds like it’s at risk of turning into a bit of a finger-wagging sermon on being grateful to your mother for everything she’s sacrificed, etc., although maybe quite a reasonable and articulate one.  Lamprocles isn’t convinced, though.  He says, “Well, all that might be true, but nevertheless you can’t expect anyone to put up with her temper!”  He’s trying to say that negates everything else.  This leads Socrates into an interesting examination of how to cope with difficult people.  If it’s much easier to deal with Xanthippe’s temper than their son assumes then he’s got no reason to be ungrateful to her, given everything else she’s done for him.  Her sharp-tongue becomes something trivial.  Indeed, elsewhere we’re told that even when she threw cold water over Socrates or tore the shirt from his back in public, he just shrugged it off with indifference.

Next Socrates asks the odd-sounding question: Is it harder to bear with the ferocity of a wild beast or with that of your own mother?  Lamprocles exclaims “With a mother, if she’s like mine!”  That’s interesting and perhaps the key point at stake for them both.  Lamprocles is half-joking.  When people are half-joking about what upsets them, that’s often a signal.  It often means they’ve said something that they believe emotionally although they realize logically that it can’t actually be true.  We often use humour to mask the contradictions in our thinking.  Socrates doesn’t let his son off the hook, though…

He asks: Has your mother ever injured you by biting or kicking, like wild animals do?  “Of course not”, says the boy, “but she says things you wouldn’t want to put up with every day of the week.”  Socrates points out that his son has actually been doing things all his life that worry and upset his mother, so he should remember it cuts both ways.  “Yes,” says Lamprocles, “but I’ve never said or done anything to make her ashamed of me.”

Then Socrates says something very peculiar indeed: Do you think it’s harder for you to listen to the things your mother says than it is for actors in tragedies when they’re yelling abuse at one another?  (If I remember right, he uses the same argument somewhere else as well.)  We might think he’s come very close here to the familiar English adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  This profound indifference (apatheia) to criticism from others is an aspect of Socrates’ original philosophy that may have influenced Antisthenes and the Cynics, and later the Stoics.

Lamprocles quite naturally responds “That’s all well and good but actors in tragedies don’t actually believe that those verbally abusing them intend to punish or harm them.” They’re just pretending, playing a role on the sage.  It’s make-believe.  This is where Socrates finally reveals his hand, though.  “Yes and you do get angry with your mother,” he says, “even though you know well enough that she doesn’t intend to harm you either, any more than the the performers arguing on stage mean to harm one another.”  Here Socrates is reminding Lamprocles of something he’s already acknowledged, which contradicts what he’s now trying to say.  Even though Xanthippe gets angry and can be argumentative, it’s not devoid of any kind intention.  Paradoxically, it’s because she loves her son and wants to do him good.  “Or do you imagine”, asks Socrates, “that she means to harm you?” Lamprocles acknowledges that she doesn’t.

Xanthippe wants to help her son. Socrates reminds Lamprocles that she always does her best to look after him when he’s sick, and tends to his every need.  She’s always praying to the gods for his welfare.  For Lamprocles to say that his mother is unbearable is therefore to say that what actually does him good is unbearable.  So, in a nutshell, it’s not someone’s words that should concern us, no matter how sharp-tongued they’re being, but their real underlying intentions.  As Lamprocles genuinely accepts that his mother doesn’t intend to harm him then why should he be bothered by her bluster?  He should remind himself that it’s just a misleading appearance like the actors yelling verbal abuse at one another on stage.  This recalls one of Socrates’ most famous analogies, when he elsewhere compares our fear of death to that of small children who are frightened by grotesque “bogeyman” masks, perhaps worn by older children during ancient Greek festivals – like modern-day Halloween.  The wise man removes the mask and inspecting what’s behind it finds nothing terrifying.  He looks beyond surface appearances, and that’s what Lamprocles should learn to do when Xanthippe is screaming and shouting at him.

Part Two: Functional Analysis

Socrates then shifts perspective, adopting a new line of argument.  The first part of the dialogue helps Lamprocles to question his initial impression that Xanthippe’s behaviour is awful or intolerable and to perceive it with greater indifference.  That’s a typical strategy in both Socratic philosophy and Stoicism.  Next, Socrates draws his son’s attention to the negative consequences of his old way of looking at things.  Again, this is a familiar strategy, both Socratic and Stoic.  Imagining the broader and longer-term consequences of some course of action is still used today as a way of evaluating it and building motivation to change.

Socrates asks: Do you think there’s anyone else in life who deserves your respect?  Lamprocles admits that there are, of course, people such as teachers, military officers, city officials, etc., whom it’s appropriate to respect and obey.  He also asks Lamprocles whether he wants to be liked by his neighbours.  “So that he may offer you a light for your fire when you need one,” says Socrates, “or contribute to your success and give you prompt and friendly help should you ever meet with misfortune.”  Take the example of a fellow traveller, or anyone else you might encounter, he adds.  Would it make no difference to you whether he became your friend or your enemy?  He asks if Lamprocles should care at all whether the people he meets in life want to help him or harm him.  He agrees that we should prefer people to have goodwill toward us, where possible.

So you think it’s worthwhile concerning yourself with whether strangers are friendly toward you, says Socrates, and yet not to be concerned for your relationship with your mother, who loves you more than anyone else does?  He mentions that the Athenian state doesn’t normally punish ingratitude but that people who show disregard for their parents are penalized and debarred from holding public office.  This is because such offices often involved offering traditional sacrifices to the gods, which requires someone known for possessing good character.  The Athenians didn’t trust men who disrespected their own parents.  Indeed, Socrates notes, even someone who fails to tend the graves of his dead parents might have that held as a serious charge against him when applying for public office.

So my son, Socrates concludes, if you’re prudent you’ll ask the gods to forgive you for any disregard you’ve shown toward your mother in the past, and you’ll take care that your fellow Athenians don’t observe you neglecting your parents in the future.  That’s a sure fire way to lose their respect and friendship, he adds, as they’re bound to conclude, if they think about it, that from someone who has shown ingratitude toward his own parents  nobody can expect to receive gratitude in return for doing them a favour.


It’s worth mentioning that similar remarks about Xanthippe are attributed to Socrates by Diogenes Laertius.  We’re told that when she scolded him and then throw water over him, he merely joked about his indifference: “Did I not say that Xanthippe’s thunder would end in rain?”  Much like Lamprocles in the dialogue above, we’re told that Alcibiades, Socrates’ friend and military messmate, once complained to him that Xanthippe’s tongue-lashings were simply intolerable.  Socrates replied that like the rattling of a windlass (used to winch heavy weights, perhaps when Socrates worked as a stonemason) he’d simply grown used to it and didn’t notice it anymore.   

Socrates asked Alcibiades in return “Do you not mind the cackling of geese?”  Alcibiades responds that he does not but that they furnish him with eggs and goslings to which Socrates replies “And Xanthippe is the mother of my children.”  That sounds a lot like the underlying argument presented to Lamprocles above.  Socrates also frequently states that in the same way trainers hone their skills by working with spirited horses, he strengthens his character and is better able to cope with other hardships by rehearsing his skills with Xanthippe.  (Which probably makes a play on the fact that her name means “Yellow Horse”.)

So there are three distinct aspects to this argument in total:

  1. The behaviour of Xanthippe is in itself indifferent and harmless.
  2. Xanthippe does good things, which are of greater importance, such as providing Socrates with children and caring for them.
  3. If Socrates approaches it wisely, her behaviour actually provides him with the opportunity to strengthen his character and attain greater virtue, which is a good.

6 replies on “Parenting: What Socrates Said”

Although there are many great points in this I have to say Socrates got it wrong in his attempt to do a reframe on the mother’s anger. People do intend to cause harm when they get angry at you. They hope you do feel bad as a part of a retributive drive but also as a hope your pain will cause you to change your behavior.

But in this case Socrates and Lamprocles claim to know that Xanthippe doesn’t mean any harm. That’s a premise of their argument, not a conclusion they’re trying to draw. They both take that to be true, in advance, on the basis of their knowledge of her character.

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