I was reading bits and pieces of Strauss’ “On Tyranny” [it’s a commentary on Xenophon’s dialogue “Hiero,” where a tyrant and a poet converse] all day yesterday. I was really into it a week or two ago and thought it would be finished, but it’s taken forever because I’m dwelling on all the footnotes, which are packed with particular readings of passages ranging from the pre-Socratics to Rousseau. I’m regretting I didn’t read this more carefully before writing the first dissertation draft: I had looked at it some years ago when I was taking a class on Xenophon, read it badly, didn’t quite realize how important Strauss’ commentary was to the other commentaries he wrote on Xenophon. Now I’m trying not to let a bit of it get away.
Several times I’ve thought about blogging a few themes – gentlemanship and its relation to wisdom and tyranny was on my mind earlier, but unfortunately it is still on my mind: there are a ton of questions that arise depending on how one wants to see the relation. It looks initially like being a gentleman has nothing to do with tyranny; it is the “many” for Xenophon who seem to hate tyrants that rule over them, but wouldn’t mind being a tyrant in the least themselves. But if one can divorce a gentleman from wisdom – and Ischomachus from the Oeconomicus is a “perfect gentleman,” and definitely not Socrates – it becomes unclear to me how a gentleman can guard fully against becoming a tyrant. Complicating this are at least two considerations: 1) a gentleman would be law-abiding (and thus not tyrannical himself, but perhaps acquiescing in tyranny) 2) a gentleman does not care for “freedom” as much as “virtue,” and doesn’t see “freedom” as indispensable to “virtue” (this sounds wrong, but think about the fact that gentlemen train themselves to willingly sacrifice, aim for honor at all costs). The considerations don’t indict tyranny from a gentleman’s perspective automatically, but then again, the whole line of thought is filled with traps (i.e. “On Tyranny” assumes the existence of beneficial tyranny – does this mean one can be virtuous under a tyrant? Strauss points out that the virtues even under the best sort of tyranny are diminished versions of themselves. Then again, Strauss emphasizes that Xenophon paints himself as an “aristocrat,” not a “democrat” – the end of the former is virtue, the latter freedom).
Anyway, none of the above is meant to be settled or even particularly clear. That’s what’s on my mind, and my head is swimming reading this stuff and wondering how to bring it to bear on what is more pressing. The neat thing about reading the commentary is that while the themes are a mess for me, the insights mean that I can go back to the dialogue and talk through it line-by-line: it’s like an instant lesson plan for a seminar.
Oh, in case you’re interested in reading the dialogue and seeing some of these issues for yourself: Xenophon’s Hiero – the dialogue is pretty short, it takes up about 20 pages in my edition.