An Introduction to Xenophon: Is Deliberation Possible In Politics?

Passages cited are from Xenophon: The Education of Cyrus, trans. Wayne Ambler. Ithaca: Cornell, 2001.

So we know that democracies are brought down by any random set of people with a grievance, and that monarchies and oligarchies collapse because of the desire for democracy (1.1.1). What we also know is that tyrants who can preserve their rule are admired.

You might be thinking right now that you do not admire any tyrants. After all, you know Hitler was bad and Stalin was bad too and Che was mean. You probably also subscribe to a notion of politics which places emphasis on education and awareness for the sake of making as many as possible independent. – I’m not putting anyone down here, I believe this stuff too. –

But wait a second – was there ever a time you dreamed that it might be cool to live in a house with servants that did your bidding willingly? Or that when all is said and done, there’s some notion of the afterlife where all wants are fulfilled?

Even trying to eliminate wants ultimately – i.e. asserting that selfishness is transcended through harmony with the universe – does not solve this problem. Politics is about the here and now: if people have one want that cannot be fulfilled entirely, we have a political problem. Moderation is an aid to politics, and in Aristotle and Plato it is a central task of politics (it certainly helps the gods are known through the city’s laws in both those thinkers).

For now, though, we are starting with the idea that acquisition more than moderation defines politics of all sorts. And we’re going to start by contemplating one who saw that human beings could be managed as herds:

…all those called keepers of animals could plausibly be believed to be the rulers of the animals in their charge. We thought we saw all these herds more willing to obey their keepers than are human beings their rulers; for the herds go wherever their keepers direct them, they feed on whatever land their keepers drive them to, and they abstain from whatever lands their keepers turn them from. And as for such profits as arise from them, these they allow their keepers to use in whatever way they themselves wish. Nor have we ever perceived a herd uniting against its keeper, either so as not to obey or so as not to allow him to use the profits, but herds are more harsh toward all others than they are toward those who both rule over and benefit from them; on the other hand, human beings unite against none more than against those whom they perceive attempting to rule them (1.1.2).

Xenophon hones right in on the fact that the practical logic of politics, that things need to get done, means that there is always an element of ruling people like herds. If we sit and deliberate about everything, and treat each other like equals all the time as opposed to insisting on obedience, the result is chaos.

Is politics purely ruling people like herds? The tyrant, not so charitably, can be described this way. But so can any practical, effective politician.

So what do we make of Cyrus of Persia? According to Xenophon, he was born and initially raised in a Persia that was a republic (none of the following is historically accurate). Eventually he was educated in Medea, where his mother’s father was a despot. The Persian republic has two classes of citizens – “peers,” who did the tasks of governing after receiving an education in continence, obedience to the law, shamefulness and courage. Then there’s everyone else, who works the land and provides food for the peers. The peers, of course, are the only people who are armed.

If this republic sounds like a tyranny, it actually isn’t – it’s just awful to live in. The truth is that Persia isn’t interested in expanding beyond its borders, wants to preserve the institutions it has via rule of law, and their laws do aim at equality. Techincally, anyone can be a peer, and education is open to all if one can afford it. There isn’t much money to go around, either – the main difference between the peers and the rest of the people is in their training, not in their possessions. Both the peers and citizens are taught to live with less.

But Cyrus goes on to conquer great amounts of land and establish a resplendent court with the Persian peers and Median cavalry. And it is Cyrus’ education in Medea that is the key for us. No one would want to live in Persia: the only reason why the peers put up with living there is that they are raised to be obedient. The second Cyrus brings up the possibility of getting material rewards for their training, nearly all leap at the opportunity.

The Medes are ruled by a king whose pomp makes him look ridiculous – fancy clothes and makeup and perfume are a sharp contrast to the training of the Persian peers, as is the luxuriance of the food.

What Cyrus learns from the Medes isn’t simply to love wealth: the first thing he does when given something elaborate from the Median king is distribute it to everyone else at the table. Nadon points out how Machiavellian this is, how Cyrus is being “generous” with the wealth of others and thus losing nothing as he secures his reputation/ability to rule.

But independent of the “Machiavellian” overtones, we can see a more fundamental principle of ruling and ruled that acquistion seems to solve. If one is devoted entirely to gain, and actually gains, then neither ruling nor ruled ever have to be in conflict (as Montesquieu and Machiavelli point out, the Romans found a way of messing this up. Demagogues would assert that the upper classes took more of wealth gained during conflict than they should have).

What is ironic is how this very practical, sensible principle unleashes some of our worst tendencies. It doesn’t seem like asking for more – just one little thing more – should push us into the realm of empire.

And yet, the reason why I wrote this post is because it is the Persian and the Median modes combined which gives us a complete picture of politics. The Persian gives us order for the sake of security and sustinence, but not happiness. The Median gives us no “order,” just one ruling over all, but that one is happy with all the junk he’s collected. A means finds an end, and what is shocking is how our common opinions about politics are reflected in the combination. In fact, many necessary calculations we make about politics are in that combination.

Deliberation may have to come from conceiving politics a whole other way. The trouble with making that move is that we do move further from the actual practice of politics. Men like Cyrus are effective in how they think and act, and will always rule in the largest sense. The question of moderating them probably has to do with how political we want to be.

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