Briefly Noted: Xenophon, “Art of Horsemanship”

The central chapter of the Memorabilia (III.3) tells of a conversation Socrates had with an unnamed cavalry commander. That commander was quite clueless how to do anything except make better horsemen (he didn’t know how to get them ready for war, whether or not he should check the condition of the horses, how to speak to the riders, etc). That may be the strongest hint that the clueless commander was Xenophon himself; he ends Art of Horsemanship saying that his rules are for riders in their private capacity (AofH XII 14), and that his “Cavalry Commander” is a separate work. Xenophon gives the distinct impression there is a division in his thought that may not always have existed. The significance of this for those of us who work on “the problem of Socrates” is that it is yet another response to Aristophanes’ Clouds: Xenophon implies that he was once a version of Phedippides, the fictional insolent youth in love with horses taught the unjust speech by Socrates. And Xenophon is silently emphatic that Socratic speech is most unlike Aristophanes’ parody. He does not name himself partly because testimonials are for a very shallow sort of reader.

The present concern is a post-dissertation project; my Greek is not good enough to translate the work entirely and sort through all the wordplay that make Xenophon’s simplicity far more labyrinthine. Still, a few notes are in order. The treatise of course serves a practical purpose, and much of its advice is considered sound despite being over 2000 years old. The Loeb edition of Xenophon’s Scripta Minora (ed. Jeffrey Henderson, copyright 1968) has an introduction which compares Xenophon’s writing with various vases, reliefs and actual ancient horse-riding equipment (bits, muzzles, etc.). Our concern follows from IX 2: “…it is necessary, therefore, to know this: that spirit (thumos) in a horse is the very thing which is anger (orgei) in man” (my translation; quotes that follow are from E.C. Marchant unless otherwise noted). This is not even an analogy: something of the beast is in man himself. The question is whether the thumotic (higher spirit) of the animal is lower in man. While anger in man seems lower than thumos in man – anger does not necessarily call forth nobility or courage – the truth is that horse and rider are linked most directly. Xenophon does not continue as if man or horse were particularly differentiable:

Therefore, just as you are least likely to make a man angry if you neither say nor do anything disagreeable to him, so he who abstains from annoying a spirited horse is least likely to rouse his anger. Accordingly, at the moment of mounting, the rider should take care to worry him as little as possible; and when he is mounted, he should let him stand still longer than is otherwise usual, and then direct him to go by the most gentle aids. Then let him begin at a very slow pace and increase the speed with the same gentle help, so that the horse will not be aware of the transition to a quicker motion. Any sudden sign disturbs a spirited horse, just as sudden sights and sounds and sensations disturb a man (IX 2-4).

Again, without getting into the Greek, which could refute my tentative argument: if man is made more sensitive by nobility – he puts up with little that is mannerless or seemingly disgraceful – then we can conceive of man becoming angry very easily. The treatment of horse and man is an education of a sort, and one could make the case that the horse is more persuaded by gentleness than man.

In any case, the horse as higher-spiritedness recalls the Phaedrus, where we are given a chariot image for the soul. There’s a rider, a black horse, and a white horse. The black horse seems to be linked to the baser appetites – sex and eating, that which lies underneath the heart (the seat of thumos). The black horse is chomping at the bit, pushing the chariot forward at the least sight, etc. There’s a white horse which is very attentive to the rider and responsive to praise: that horse, strictly speaking, is thumotic. Reason uses higher passion, the call to nobility, to govern the lower passions.

I suspect something a bit different is happening in this work. The rider is seated directly on the horse, and the points of contact are more than a practical issue for Xenophon. He takes time, of course, to describe the horse’s legs and how much attention should be paid to them. They are going to enable the rider/horse combination to become something almost superhuman:

…[the horse] must be tested in all the particulars in which he is tested by war. These include springing across ditches, leaping over walls, rushing up banks, jumping down from banks. One must also try him by riding up and down hill and on a slope. All these experiments prove whether his spirit is strong and his body sound (III 7).

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize at what speed the horse will be moving while doing these things: one will be moving in the manner of the Olympians across Earth if done right. The eleventh chapter is about parading, and how to make a whole cavalry unit look fearsome (get all the horses to be hyped up by the leader’s strutting, but still stay under control), and the last chapter includes a description of armoring horse and rider: the look that would be projected would be fearsome, to say the least. Now none of this is without irony: the more one armors a horse well, the more the armor covers both horse and rider, blending the two. And the more one does this, the more Persian cavalry becomes. Aristotle early in the Politics tells us the difference between Greek and barbarian is that a Greek can tell the difference between a woman and a slave. There is something about the soul/mind relation here that is deforming mind, perhaps. Socrates in Memorabilia III.3.14 only mentions equippage of the horses and riders in passing. Socrates is most emphatic that the cavalry commander can speak to the riders well (Mem. III.3.11).

That’s a good enough place as any to end these reflections: Xenophon is fairly silent in his early chapters on treating a horse badly in any way, and emphatic in his later chapters that the horse should be treated well and encouraged to do its best, which it will do under certain conditions naturally. High-spiritedness is natural; we note that a horse most certainly does not understand human speech, but can receive other signals from the mouth (a “chirp” or a “clack” are two Xenophon discusses). Xenophon tells his riders to never approach a horse in anger (AofH VI 13-15); one wonders if part of the problem is redundancy. It looks like high-spiritedness starts in anger and can evolve into something more – a desire to be godlike – but that there are clear limits to how far mind can condescend to this desire. Mind is pretty much reduced to patience in the Art of Horsemanship; the rider gives rewards or punishments literally, there is no question of valuation. The more one formally “merges” with the horse, the more one is prioritizing one conception of life beyond all others. We note that the Centaur – half horse/half man – had uncontrollable appetites and immense power. Nobility depends on power, seeks power: but the most noble man is not the most powerful man.


  1. Is something similar going on in the Apology, with the reference to Socrates’ conversation with Callias? There he points to two different animals – the colt and the calf – and says that if Callias’ sons were these two animals someone could be found to make them “noble and good.” Later, in his exchange with Meletus, Socrates again brings up the horse (I think even Machiavelli brings up the Centaur in The Prince).

    But then in the Crito, Socrates uses the doctor/trainer, whose art seems even LOWER than the art of horsemanship. If I could get some insight into that analogy, that would be absolutely awesome: I am doing a project on the Crito right now. But thanks; I never saw training thumos as part of horsemanship, let alone anything else about it that you have pointed out here.

    One thing that has puzzled me, however, is again Meletus’ claim that “the laws” make the youth “better” – something that Socrates is in fact not cold to: he asks WHO might know “first of all this very thing, the laws.” Just a little later is the expert on horsemanship brought up, but do the laws have anything to do with thumos?

  2. Xenophon is a behaviorist then. Interesting commentary here, Ashok.

    Eggshells come to mind when I read about “neither saying or doing anything disagreeable” in order to keep from arousing the horse to anger. The two passions (black and white) are clearly explained. The trouble with life is that the white horse invariably has some black on it and the black offers a noble sentiment just often enough to leave one wondering whether or not he ought to be considered completely black.

    Xenephon’s transition to Persian thought is intriguing. I’m curious about the order…whether he acted first and justified through thought, or thought and then began the strutting and armoring. Psychological warfare is often the most debilitating. Ultimately brute power is not influence…and influence triumphs slowly but surely.

    see…you got me thinking… :)

  3. @ thag – I’m sure you’ve read Strauss’ commentary on the Apology and the Crito, and I’d stick to the script for now. The thing is, there might be someone who can answer your question immediately, “here’s a list of professions and their dignity, and animals and their dignity in Aristotle.” But if it sounds like these considerations can get nuts really fast, they can. The thing is – and this is why I’m always going to poetry – leaping across works is very, very tricky. One needs a grip on the whole of works to do it.

    I don’t know that the doctor/trainer is necessarily lower. The doctor heals, putting him close to the philosophic; the doctor and trainer do cause pain/punish, and that does reflect the action of the laws. And again, all of this depends on the work and how the example comes up and why. I know music means different things if we’re talking about Plato’s “Minos” vs. the “Republic.”

    I think I’ve been clear before that horses are linked to gentlemanship; I know I’ve said somewhere that the gentleman being able to be cavalry and yet switch to being infantry is an image common to Xenophon and Machiavelli. So the thumos/gentleman link I’ve always thought pretty obvious. Law isn’t as obvious, and in fact, I don’t find myself talking about gentlemen and law very much even.

  4. Ashok, I’m getting quite an education here.
    I’m not sure I would know where to begin reading the works that you analyze. However, I can say that you bring the material to life!

    I have an innocuous aside to share: I recently saw Avatar. The image of the aliens merging with their mounts came to mind as I read this part:

    “[T]he truth is that horse and rider are linked most directly. Xenophon does not continue as if man or horse were particularly differentiable:”



  5. This reminds me of when I was in the service industry. Those who couldn’t handle the “service” aspect, i.e. the ones who only understood what was or “was not their job” ended up in the kitchen, largely oblivious of the big picture. If any of the rest of us (servers, bartender, etc) went back to the kitchen with any kind of special request, even if things were slow, that would be almost as if the world ended since we managed to throw these “kings of the castle of whom you couldn’t offend” aka the cooks. It was to make too drastic of a change as to throw them out of their equilibrium and everything would come to a screeching halt until we could translate in a way that they could understand that it was indeed “part of their job”.

    So while we were at the mercy of both the cooks and the people ordering the food, we servers had to make the middle ground and “fair” decisions and actions that would make the transition from oven to plate in front of the diner seem as transparent as possible. To govern the masses on both side of the fence was definitely a reflection of what it is to be nobility…to realize that, whether you like it or not, you will not question the reality that all things technically are “your job”. If you didn’t take the initiative to lead, nothing would get done without descending into chaos sooner or later.

  6. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.Any way Ill be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. Thanks so much!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.