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.