Preliminary Thoughts on Body, Soul and Morality: Xenophon, Memorabilia I 2.19-20

Xenophon, Memorabilia I 2.19-20, tr. Amy Bonnette:

Now perhaps many of those who claim to philosophize would say that one who is just would never become unjust, nor would the moderate one become insolent, nor would anyone who had learned anything else that can be learned ever lose that knowledge. But I, for my part, do not reach the same judgment about these matters. For I see that, just as those who do not train the body are unable to do bodily work, so also those who do not train the soul are unable to do the work of the soul. For they are able neither to do what they should nor to refrain from what they should.

Indeed this is why fathers, even if their sons are moderate, nevertheless keep them away from wicked human beings, as if association with the good is training in virtue, while association with the wicked is its destruction. There is witness for this also among the poets, one of whom says “You will learn noble things from those who are noble; but if you mingle with those who are bad, you will utterly destroy even the intelligence that you have,” and another says, “Yet a good man is bad sometimes and noble at other times.”

Xenophon’s Socrates in Bk. III Ch. 1 describes the qualities that make an effective general: he must know when to be vicious and when to be virtuous. This undermines the seemingly straightforward moral invocation of poetry above, “Yet a good man is bad sometimes and noble at other times,” for it is not simply a fancier way of assigning responsibility for the company one keeps. Recall, too, Meno’s lament in the Platonic dialogue named after him: Socrates was like a stingray, striking him dumb, destroying the intelligence he had obtained by virtue of his nobility.

Now thinking about thinking purely forces one to conclude that something truly learned cannot be forgotten. Individual experience, the act of seeing, introduces an analogy which may not hold up, but complicates the simple logic stated before: the body needs training to do bodily work, so must not the soul receive training?

The experiential proposition is common sense, but notice what underlies  it:  not that “body = soul,” but that the same reasoning used for the body can be extended, with some modification, to the soul. That, of course, is an absolute mess to work with: it comes perilously close to relying on “body = soul.” Following Benardete, any account of why bodies are is mythological: I could describe Socrates in prison by talking about the particular atoms forming his corpus lying in a set of certain spatial coordinates, but it makes a lot more sense to say “the dude violated the law and got thrown in jail.” Any account of soul is logical: when we do natural science and realize why things act the way they do, we empower the body incidentally by expanding the mind. We can put things into their proper categories more easily, list the facts in order to discover their relevance, but obviously, there is some overlap between myth and logic when I assert that.

In any case, lying at the center of these passages is the problem of fathers keeping moderate sons away “from wicked human beings, as if association with the good is training in virtue, while association with the wicked is its destruction.” There is no quick and easy moral teaching: philosophy isn’t simple logic, nor is it an appeal to experience even if the analogy between body and soul is correct. The logical foundations need to be addressed. In working towards that, one realizes that training in virtue does involve association with the wicked – the virtuous need not be trained, after all. The myth here – the placement of bodies – tells us something about the direction of the soul.

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