A Question of Wealth: On Xenophon, Memorabilia I 2.62

Xenophon, Memorabilia I 2.62, tr. Amy Bonnette:

In my [Xenophon’s] opinion, Socrates – since this was the sort he was – deserved honor from the city rather than death. One would find this out by examining the matter also according to the laws. For, according to the laws, the penalty is death if someone is visibly stealing or taking clothes or purse-snatching or breaking into a home or selling free people into slavery or robbing temples. But he above all human beings refrained from these things.

I don’t know how to fit a comment on this passage into the dissertation just yet, so I want to comment here and figure it out later. I’ve been telling friends the last couple of days that Gotham, the world Batman is set in, is the question of what good wealth is. Nearly everyone in Gotham just wants money for money’s sake. What sets Bruce Wayne apart is that, having wealth, he wants the city to be a better place; the super villains are set apart in that they reject money as debased for the most part – one wonders if that’s why they’re considered “insane,” that they value other things. Notably absent from the Watchmen movie was the question of wealth, the question of “what’s worth having.”

Can any philosophic discussion occur with the question of value absent? If what is valued is presupposed, is that philosophic? Moralistic? None of the above?

In any case – “stealing” moves away from the visible to the covered (“stealing clothes,” “purse-snatching”). Again, we recall “uncovering” is alethea, the Greek word for truth. The purse conceals its contents completely, but more than likely contains wealth. Then there is “breaking into a home,” “selling free people into slavery,” and “robbing temples,” all of which presuppose violence against another’s property, citizenship itself, and finally the gods. All of these things are punishable by death.

We can see why Xenophon has organized this list the way he has: reasoning is implicit in the first half of the list; the seemingly less consequential crimes are statements of value, and perhaps what is most valuable is invisible, but reached for from the visible.

The more consequential crimes, the latter half of the list, are more public problems. “Breaking into a home” – violence against private property – is used by Montesquieu as an “alarm system” for our nonclassical order; even dumb people can tell something’s wrong with the government when it is taking away land and money left and right. But if the first half of the list ended with the question of wealth and the intellect, the second half – after a brief flirtation with the theme of freedom – ends with the question of wealth and piety. There is a lack of parallelism here: do freedom and visibility really coincide as themes? Something is strange about how this list moves, or ties together. As it primarily concerns wealth and freedom, two ideas which can contradict sharply, then given that one devotes oneself to one’s true wealth, one wonders if this tension can be escaped.


  1. If I were you, I’d check the original greek and several other translations. The translation you are using is being a little over literal, even for Xenophon.

    Xenophon is saying that the penalty is death for those known to have committed those crimes, i.e. that they have been tried and found guilty.

    “Phaneros” has a secondary meaning of “known”, it is best not to emphasize the primary meaning where its selection in odd in context. To choose the primrary meaning here would be to add to your argument the weaknesses that Heideigger often added to his, to weaken his argument significantly by choosing strained translations of Greek terms. I stopped reading Heidegger when I came across a passage in “Contributions to Philosophy: From Enknowing” where he based an interpretation of the cave passage in the Republic on interpreting “einai” (the infinitive “to be”) as “to become” — pure charlatanism. That is an extreme that caused me to see the other strained readings in a bad light, and thus most anything he had to say, in a suspicious light.

    While I am not suggesting that you are guilty of this crime, it is best not to start on Heidegger’s road if you do not want to end up where he did. :-)

    In any case, you don’t need the wordplay to get to more or less the same interpretation, or at least be working with the same themes in this passage.

    In embedding a scale of severity into the list, I believe that Xenophon is just making a reflection of the crimes that Socrates was accused of at the trial: corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the city. Your argument about visibility can be brought back into play in two ways. First, the less serious crime has to do with hurting real people and stealing them away from their families (corruption of youth) — these are things done to visible objects. The other accusation has to do with the less observable crime of not believing in the gods of the city. So you have visible and invisible forms of impiety.

    The visible and invisible come into play again when one considers that behind both charges was the unspoken charge of Socrates and his friends holding clandestine Spartan sympathies.

    More generally, using his mirrored examples, Xenophon seems to reinterpret the charges as accusing Socrates of “stealing” truth from the city — in other words, impiety is reinterpreted as a specialization of stealing.

    ***It may very well be that while Socrates did not steal truth from the city, he did withhold or occult it.*** The examples of stealing are used so that Xenophon could “truthfully” deny that Socrates was guilty and that he deserved to be honored without talking about what Socrates was really guilty of.

    While he did not act to hurt the city, neither did he do all that he could to help the city; but that is the problem the philosopher has — the city doesn’t want to be helped in the way the philosopher can help it, so he will always carry the taint of impiety because of the city’s intransigence with respect to him. It is not the philosopher’s desire to hold the city at arm’s length, but the danger that the city poses to him that makes him circumspect. The philosopher will always seem to be hiding something from the city because, while they are generally unwise, people are not stupid and can see that the philosopher is not saying everything he could say.

    You start to see how Glaucon and Adeimantus’ charges to in how he must argue in favor of the just life in book II of the Republic are less hypothetical than they seem to be in context.

  2. Thanks again Ashok. Very interesting points. BooBoo’s points are also good, although I would have a hard time committing someone to death because they did not do everything in their power to save society from itself. At some point, society has to take responsibility for its own actions and enlightenment. That’s part of the problem we have today; it’s easier to wait around for the government to take care of our problems than it is to do it ourselves.
    I can’t speak for the accuracy of the translation, but I can say I relate to your points. Keep it up, and good luck.

  3. I just translated the line for those of you interested – I think it’s purely a matter of preference whether or not one wants to use “visible” or “known” (more properly, “manifest” with that latter).

    Given that the “known” secondary definition depends on “visible,” I’m sticking with “visible” unless one of my professors insists otherwise, or my Greek gets better.

  4. visible and known actually can be interchangeable- meaning something along the lines of tangible or “manifest” as he put it. But I know no Greek and am too lazy to try and determine what translation is appropriate.

    Assuming the philosopher is a doctor and the entrusted caretaker of society (and that it cannot care for itself) is required to condemn him for not saving society. Hmm, no, me neither.

  5. According to Heidegger nothing can be wholly known with absolute certainty. The eye/brain will always miss something vital to the interpretation. For that observation alone, he deserves some respect.

    How can you dismiss Heidegger merely because he wasn’t perfect ;>) ?

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