Briefly Noted: W.R. Newell, “Tyranny and the Science of Ruling in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus”

Lots worth thinking about in this article. Newell starts with an obvious but important premise. Plato and Aristotle used as a starting point for their contemplation of politics “virtuous citizenship within a small, self-governing community;” Xenophon’s “Education of Cyrus takes as its explicit theme how one supremely talented and aggressive ruler can satisfy his craving for recognition by improving the material welfare of millions” (889).

The obvious quickly raises serious questions:

A king, according to Xenophon’s definition, rules over willing subjects in subordination to law or convention (nomos). Tyranny, in keeping with this this conventional approach, contrastingly is defined as lawless rule over unwilling subjects (Memorabilia 4.6.12-13; Education of Cyrus 1.3.18). But it remains an open question in Xenophon’s political thought whether rule according to law is an adequate standard for political practice in comparison with rule according to knowledge or science (episteme; Memorabilia 3.9.10-13).

The Persia Cyrus grows up in is a republic that uses strict laws to inculcate virtue: it is “a cohesive, self-governing community bearing many parallels to [the Platonic/Aristotlean] prescription for a small and virtuous ‘civic republic’” (893). There is “freedom” in the sense of “equal subjection to the laws and… full-time participation in the duties of direct self-government.” To be a gentleman is a highly regarded thing, as gentlemen restrain “their private desires through practicing the virtues of moderation, self-control, courage, and justice so as to be better able to serve the common good.”

There are enormous flaws with the idealized “Persia” which resembles a modified Sparta. An overall lack of wealth means the few with more get the education which theoretically should be accessible to all (896). Cyrus himself finds the “average, albeit rigorous…standards” of that education to be easily surpassed (893-4). Persian honor means being considered better than someone else. Honor in despotic Media gives Cyrus the ability to learn horsemanship (“which neither Persia’s poverty or code of equality can support”) and material benefits that are not titles or duties. Newell does not simply dismiss Media as corrupt: “In contrast to Persia’s emphasis on the common good, the principle of the Median regime is a kind of individualism” (894).

You can see already where these sorts of considerations are going. A blend of Persia and Media will be an empire where virtue gets substantial rewards. “Under Cyrus’ revolution, virtue becomes the prowess of the naturally talented individual for overcoming fortune’s dispensation by wresting wealth and prestige from the outside world” (898). That empire may have outwardly a republican, meritocratic form, but it will have all sorts of dark problems. The problem of ambition will mean the one in charge is continually threatened by his best lieutenants (900, 902). The necessary enlargement into empire will make the regime dependent on terror, for the simple reason that many will be within who cannot be educated fast enough (898-9).

Newell rightly does not call any of this tyranny. What we are actually looking at is politics simply. What is missing is not necessarily freedom, merit, virtue, citizenship or wealth. All those things may be ironically treated and curtailed at key points in the empire, but they are there. What is really missing is eros, and I hope you will look at his treatment of that issue (900-905). I want to conclude with a look at a theme Newell has brought up in passing in another of his papers, “Machiavelli and Xenophon on Princely Rule: A Double-Edged Encounter.” The theme is that of household rule:

For the art of true or reasonable – as opposed to conventional, constitutional – kingship must be able to dispense with the laws in order to achieve the absolute power which enables the royal ruler to assign people their proper tasks within a division of labor modeled on that of an efficient and productive household. In Xenophon’s full presentation, the primacy of knowledge as the title to rule so weakens the claim to authority of law that forms of rule conventionally deemed tyrannical, such as force and deception, while they are not sufficient for achieving rule according to knowledge, cannot be excluded as routes to it (890).

There is, of course, no such thing as a political science in Plato or Aristotle. There is the “philosopher-king,” a conjunction of two natures that cannot truly be put together. One is to contemplate, the other to rule. But our claims about politics always involve knowledge, and there are arts and natures which seem to resemble a science of politics. Perhaps economics is political science?

According to Aristotle in the Politics, economic productivity belongs to the realm of the household (oikos). Because man’s household or, literally, ‘economic’ interests are both private and universal, they are least in need of a real “regime” (politeia) – a community set apart from other communities by its particular notion of justice. Aristotle argues that to make these economic interests the primary concern of politics would be like “bringing Megara to Corinth” – in effect, like making the world into a single city. Such an authority would not have to involve people directly in political affairs, but need only regulate the contracts by which individuals exchanged commodities (Politics 1280a-b). Cyrus’ mature policy is to make the world into just such a cosmopolis, and Xenophon’s political science, as elaborated through the pseudohistory of Cyrus, is remarkable for its openness to the virtual assimilation of politics (in the sense of a shared way of life of a “regime”) to economics. This is why the opening consideration in the proemium of how rule might be preserved within individual cities gives way so rapidly to how rule might be preserved over many cities and peoples (899).

These considerations require an understanding of the Oeconomicus to be fleshed out properly. That will be a forthcoming project.


Newell, W.R. “Tyranny and the Science of Ruling in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus.” The Journal of Politics 45 (1983): 889-906

1 Comment

  1. I think Aristotle denies that political rule is simply a bigger version of household management (economics):

    “Consequently all those who think that a politician, a royal ruler, a household manager, and a master over slaves are the same are not speaking nobly. For they suppose that these rulers do not differ in kind but only in the number of subjects ruled over.”

    Newell might reply that if you can make the world into one city via empire, political rule may be the same kind of rule as household management (the last long quote you cite). But part of Aristotle’s consideration in his discussion of the best regime is how big the city should be. It should be big enough to defend itself but small enough to survey, he says.

    And in a sense, part of Cyrus’ problem is that the empire is just too dang big. But still, Cyrus has to make it that big. Machiavelli might reply that this can’t be blamed; after all, the Romans conquered the world in “self-defense.”

    But if we can call Machiavelli the inventor of political science, then maybe political science is economics. That, of course, involved taking moral judgment out of the equation (no moral distinctions between regimes as Aristotle set them up, just old, semi-new, and new principalities) — which is precisely what economics does. I dunno, maybe that is right.

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