The Magazine


No longer blind to the greatness of this versatile Greek.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The most important relationship of Xenophon’s early life was with Socrates. The anecdote is told that the handsome young Xenophon one day came upon Socrates in a narrow street in Athens; the philosopher barred his way by putting up his staff and inquiring of him the whereabouts of various goods in the city. He then asked Xenophon where he might acquire virtue, and when he didn’t know, Socrates replied, “Then follow me, and learn.”

How much time Xenophon spent with Socrates, what Socrates’ opinion of him was, how accurate his portrait of Socrates is, none of these things is, or can be, known with exactitude. Xenophon wrote four longish Socratic treatises—“Socrates Defence,” “Memoirs of Socrates,” “The Dinner Party,” and “Estate Manager,” also often called “Oeconomicus”—which, along with Plato’s more extensive Socratic writings and Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds, furnish the most complete knowledge we have of the great philosopher. 

Although recognizably the same man, the two Socrates, Xenophon’s and Plato’s, differ in intellectual character and temper. Scholars claim that the later dialogues in Plato, which are more concerned with matters metaphysical and the exhaustive definition of moral terms, are in fact more Platonic than Socratic—that in these dialogues it is Plato rather than Socrates who is speaking. Xenophon’s Socrates is less subtle, not so aporeticthat is, he doesn’t raise questions without answering them, or undermine confidence by incessant questioning—but instead supplies his knowledge to his pupils straightaway. Nor does Xenophon’s Socrates proclaim his own ignorance, which is of course at the heart of Socrates’ investigations in the dialogues of Plato, used as a device to deflate the other fellow’s assumption of knowledge. The English scholar J. K. Anderson puts it nicely when he writes that “it may well be that Socrates did in fact prefer, in Xenophon’s case, to confirm his beliefs rather than [as in Plato’s] to dissect them.”

The Socrates of Xenophon is also much more pious than the Socrates of Plato, not only regularly acknowledging the hand of the gods in the fate of men and their various endeavors but emphasizing the importance of good order in one’s life so that the unpredictability of the gods does not undo all one’s plans, though it is understood that even the utmost prudence will not always fend off the occasional arbitrariness of the gods. Plato’s Socrates, then, turns out to be more like Plato, and Xenophon’s more like Xenophon. Yet in the end, if one partially agrees with the Russian classicist Michael Rostovtzeff, that “Xenophon was a man of moderate ability and slight philosophic training, [and] Plato one of the greatest thinkers in the world’s history,” it would nonetheless be a mistake to take Xenophon’s own Socratic contributions as negligible or without interest. Unless one has a strong taste for metaphysics, which is not everyone’s cup of mead, Xenophon’s Socrates, with his stress on the first principles of order, prudence, and good sense, provides many compensations.

 Xenophon was perhaps less subtle than Plato and not so penetrating as Thucydides, but he was by no means unintelligent. His interest in historical causes may have been minimal, for he concentrated instead on great men and major events. He was pious in his belief that the gods needed to be consulted regularly through divination—which meant animal sacrifices and the investigation of entrails that followed—and tended to hold that, while the gods do not always reward virtue, they do punish wickedness. What one comes to realize in reading Xenophon is that his real subject, not only in his Socratic dialogues but throughout his work, is leadership. In Xenophon’s dialogue “Oeconomicus,” Socrates, professing to be discussing how best to run a household and thereby increase its wealth, is really (as Leo Strauss underscores) getting at how best to run an army and a state, and how, finally, to lead the good life.

Xenophon’s own experience as a leader of men was acquired during the Anabasis (called The Persian Expedition in the Penguin edition), an account of the roughly 900-mile trek from Persia after the defeat of Cyrus at the Battle of Cunaxa (401 b.c.) through the territory of hostile barbarian tribes, making his way with 10,000 Greek soldiers back to the Hellespont. After the Persians had killed first Cyrus and then the Greek generals who led the mercenary force, Xenophon, in his own version of events, stepped up and, with the Spartan Chirisophus, led the Greeks back to their homeland. The extent of his role as leader is sometimes disputed, as is much else in Xenophon: how close he was to Socrates, which parts of his various books he wrote at what age, where and when he died.

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