Xenophon and Gratitude

The revealing keynote of the education in virtue is struck by Xenophon’s description of the law on education to justice and to gratitude (understood as a subdivision of justice). The boys learn justice, Xenophon explains, by indicting and convicting one another on many charges but especially on that charge “for which humans hate one another the most but indict one another the least, ingratitude; and whomever they know to be capable of returning a favor but not doing so, they punish severely” (Cyr. 1.2. 7). Old Persian moral education thus guarantees that almost everyone practices “gratitude,” and almost no one ever experiences gratitude.

– Thomas L. Pangle, “Socrates in Xenophon’s Political Writings” p. 148

1. I’ve been thanked plenty and certainly have said thank you in many ways to many people. I do suspect we could be a bit more grateful, though. There do seem to be large numbers of students who do nothing but cheat their way through school; elites with contempt for those with differing opinions; laborers and even public servants who think “service” more a title than a duty; self-proclaimed “regular folk” all too willing to believe the worst about anyone else. I’m sure I’m missing a few groups. Ungratefulness to some extent need not be fatal in our society. As things stand now, it has the potential to be very dangerous. The fighting over the debt ceiling, to take one example, has gotten out of control. People are pushing the idea of withholding Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits to make a point which I’m not entirely clear on. But even before this fight, the vilification of President Bush and passing of health care reform on a straight party-line vote were not classy moves that showed respect for the other party (think: almost always at or around 50% of the electorate).

What should our politicians be grateful for? The opportunity to serve at a decent time in American history. They should be looking to the respect their offices (still) get, the ability to acquire knowledge and skill on complicated policy matters, their role in making life better for all Americans. They should not be as partisan as they are, driven by fragments of ideology that are really hate for the other side of the aisle. They should be grateful that professionalism and leadership actually correspond to each other. That is not the case in all times and places.

2. Xenophon’s introducing the concept of gratefulness is not without complications. I am tempted to think his most complete statement on the matter happens during consideration of the philosopher qua philosopher: Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates is a statement that his own independent thought would not have been possible without Socrates. But as you can tell from Pangle’s discussion above, gratefulness as civic virtue has nothing to do with philosophy. A gentleman-like class goes to school and trains to be lawyers by literally accusing one another all day. Gratefulness is a subdivision of justice. Justice, for the most part, can be identified with lawfulness (cf. Memorabilia IV.4). Therefore, ingratitude can be made illegal?

Something doesn’t add up. It isn’t clear the law can educate to virtue generally. Virtue depends on wisdom. Even the Socratic knowledge of ignorance falls short: inasmuch as it procures wisdom, it does not guarantee the actual practice of virtue. Socrates, for his part, cannot even compel his students to be around him, let alone listen well.

Now this discussion is almost begging the question. Justice may depend on wisdom, but we make do with an all-too-human justice anyway. That justice establishes laws and those laws can habituate. So we can teach virtue (and Socrates can’t). Perhaps the problem is more specific. Perhaps gratitude has to stem less from habit and more from the heart. One’s fellow citizens are looking to be acknowledged, after all.

I still think there’s a larger problem we’re missing. Aristotle on the surface seems to be talking about forming virtues habitually. He still talks about reason and choice in that formation. The more one emphasizes reason and choice, the more wisdom is in tension with law. The philosophic life is not merely alien to political life. Socrates goes to his death proclaiming himself to have lived “piously” (!) and “justly” (Apology 5-6). One might claim this is simply Socrates emphasizing his visible conformity to law: not saying anything particularly impious, making traditional sacrifices, etc. But if Socrates gained any wisdom, then it may be the case he had a deeper understanding of piety and justice and acted on it. We do acknowledge him to be far more just than the Athenians who put him to death.

3. Even though the Greek gods are the city’s gods, piety comprehends something beyond justice. One who practices all the virtues well – one whose soul is well-ordered – might be called divine. If justice is subordinate to wisdom, if the virtues generally require wisdom, perhaps an order of another sort entirely can de-emphasize the role of knowledge and get us to focus on our actions. That order is revealed to us through the poets, particularly epic poets like Homer and Hesiod.

The trouble with the gods is not merely that they live outside of the city despite their support for its laws. They actually come a bit too close for comfort when compared with dialectic. Note how many times Socrates becomes imaginative in the dialogues, whether it is telling the Myth of Er in the Republic or discussing an afterlife where there is a realm of ideal forms (where red is truly red) in the Phaedo. Heck, Socrates is a figure in a particular sort of literature: isn’t he just another myth? In what way is logos preeminent, and how does it claim any credibility?

Human wisdom in Plato’s Apology has less to do with knowing how to be noble – that only gods or sophists can teach – and more to do with knowing with what isn’t. Socrates may not be wise, but he knows for certain other people aren’t wise.  The via negativa is how dialectic proceeds, the slow and sure accumulation of knowledge which leads to credible opinions that may or may not withstand prolonged scrutiny. Love of wisdom isn’t just love of truth. It’s love of the way one gets there, through all the serious opinions one has to work through and – it is to be hoped – be grateful for.


Pangle, Thomas. “Socrates in Xenophon’s Political Writings” in The Socratic Movement, ed. Vander Waerdt. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.