Xanthippic Dialogues: A Philosophical Fiction by Roger Scruton - review by Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Women Speak Wisdom and Men Flee to the Pub

Xanthippic Dialogues: A Philosophical Fiction


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I yield to none in my admiration for Professor Roger Scruton. What Brains! And, as the Pimpernel of Prague, what courage! And I quite understand why he has written this fictionalised version of conversations from Greek antiquity between Socrates and his wife Xanthippe, Plato and his mother, etc. As he prompts Xanthippe to say in the section marked ‘Xanthippe’s Laws’, ‘there are ideas which only stories can convey’. This is manifestly true (considering that the entire edifice of Christianity is built primarily upon the stories in the New Testament), and it is manifestly daunting, too, for intellectuals to comprehend. However clever one’s ideas, some can only be transmitted by the story. And thus, Professor Scruton, surely one of our leading intellectuals (if we were in France, his distinction would be much more widely acknowledged), is offering us ideas through narrative dialogue, poetry and prose fiction.

The problem is that, as stories or dialogues, they are, well, difficult. The characters are cast as Shavian types, talking at each other in a fifth- and fourth-century BC setting. Xanthippe, who is by way of being a feminist heroine, not only unfairly ‘victimised’ by history for her alleged nagging, but credited by the A Feminist Dictionary as being the true author of the Socratic method of question-and-answer dialectic – does indeed emerge as the giver of wisdom, and Socrates as the receptive channel through which it flows.

We have no doubt, moreover, that as with Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes, Xanthippe is speaking as much about contemporary culture as about Athenian antiquity. ‘I mean,’ says Xanthippe,

‘in art and poetry and music, in morals and politics – the popular opinion is sacred, and whoever seeks to question it, or to deprive the people of their loathsome pleasures, is regarded as an outcast. Take these new fads in music: that appalling mixolydian mode, those clashing cymbals and mind-numbing rhythms, those bestial dances, and the waiting tuneless voices of the “stars”, as Plato calls them – what man of refinement can hear this stuff without a tremor of indignation?’

Xanthippe explains to her husband, whom she familiarly calls Socks (the name of President Clinton’s pussy-cat, incidentally), that it is the family and the individual, the particular experiences of men and women, which create civilisations, rather than the state and its ideals.

‘Our philosophers, you will recall, have lost the habit of observing particular things or individual people. Indeed the whole notion of the individual is anathema to them, since their power derives from abstract ideas alone.’ Socks is being given a fitting scolding about the dangers of totalitarianism, and in response, he reaches for more wine. How like our own dear home lives, to be sure. Women speak wisdom and men flee to the pub.

It is all very pro-woman – piquant, coming from the chap who has so enraged feminists by writing about the urgency of the rampant penis. Plato’s mother, too, is the mouthpiece of Scrutonian ideas, as she lectures her son on some of the higher truths. She is particularly perceptive on the function of myth. ‘The irrational belief in fall and redemption directs our feelings to another and better condition. It sets our world in the context of a cosmic drama, and deters us from altering what we must in any case learn to endure.’

Yes, quite. It seems Plato has been well instructed by his mother (though, being a bluestocking, she was not always good at motherly affections) and warms to Scrutonian themes himself, by and by. ‘Religion is not only natural to man; it is also necessary to the formation of his reason. It is religion that first implants in us the higher goals which are the spur to self-transcendence. Without religion the mass of men would scarcely be distinguishable from beasts.’

Everything that Professor Scruton produces is rich in ideas, but as stories, the Xanthippic Dialogues are not easily accessible. As drama (one section, ‘Xanthippe’s Republic’, has been performed at the Royal Court), they do not go anywhere, and nor do they obey the inner law of drama that something must change, or develop, within the characters in consequence of their conflict. Despite the elliptical way he introduces his oeuvre (as a cod find of ancient manuscripts) I am not sure that this whole endeavour would not have been better as a straight essay, not masquerading in fictionalised form.

Still, it is an inventive and imaginative try at doing things differently, and the approach is a homage to the genre of fiction. And I did get the feeling that, for the author, ‘Xanthippe: cest moi’. Transcendence, indeed.

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