Note on Xenophon, Education of Cyrus I.3.6-7

To this Astyages said, “If you are so resolved, my child, feast at least upon these meats, so that you may go home a vigorous youth.” As he was saying this, he had a great deal of meat brought to him, of both wild and tame animals.

When he saw all this meat, Cyrus said, “Are you giving me all this meat, grandfather, to use however I want?”

“Yes, my child, by Zeus I am,” he said.

Then Cyrus, taking the meat, distributed it to his grandfather’s servants and said to each, “This is for you, because you teach me to ride with enthusiasm; for you, because you gave me a javelin, and now I have it; for you, because you serve my grandfather nobly; for you, because you honor my mother.” He proceeded like this until he distributed all the meat that he received.

– Xenophon, Education of Cyrus I.3.6-7, trans. Wayne Ambler

It seems to me there are times that Xenophon, himself a general, teaches things generals-to-be should learn. This is a tricky claim. Memorabilia III.1 emphasizes placing things in their proper order so something worthwhile comes into being. An army and a house are two of the examples discussed there. Yet Socrates brings up so many contradictory behaviors and characteristics of a general that one has to wonder: Is there any nature suited to rule human beings? Cyrus is the subject of the Education of Cyrus because he rules human beings as if they were herds of animals, and that is the problem Xenophon is considering (I.1). A herd is ordered: you can get those cows to line up at the slaughter-house, I imagine.

So exactly what teaching besides “be deceitful enough to maintain your rule” can be had is an open question. Still, despite my cynicism, we seem to have an example at hand of generosity used well. Cyrus’ grandfather gave him a lot of meat for nothing. There are plenty of ways to keep a child vigorous. Cyrus gives all the meat away and more than likely earns the loyalty of everyone in the palace.

The lesson for a reader who thinks he’s going to rule the world – supposedly Caesar was a student of the Education of Cyrus – is pretty obvious. Don’t be afraid to give away the things you get for nothing to those who serve or will serve you. It’s free goodwill, for you. Of course, something is happening here that clues us in to the nature of rule. Cyrus’ grandfather, strictly speaking, is generous. Cyrus is manipulative. We see that and I’m sure at least a few of us have moral intuitions that tend to side with Cyrus. I don’t think that’s because we live in a society where we think greed is good. I think we recognize at some base level there is some sort of phenomena such as morality (or virtue) used well.

This is very peculiar. Rule depends on the ability to manipulate morality? What makes Cyrus effective is that he takes advantage of a gap in our reasoning about generosity. Should gifts from a relative ever be given away? The gap has to exist, a too-strict generosity would be imprudent (Do you know how many bad gifts I’d be stuck with if I couldn’t return stuff?). At the same time, we need rulers to be law-abiding in a fundamental sense. They can’t simply flout every law. We don’t trust them because they are merely effective. We trust them to keep things secret, to lie to us at times, because there is a greater good involved. Now Astyages’ servants are benefiting from their service to Cyrus, not from their actual ruler.

We could distinguish at this point between types of rule and even include coming-to-rule as a type of rule. A general is an ambitious sort, not one who has completed his ambition. Memorabilia III.2 allows for a distinction between a general, king and “leader” (one who has an art). We might say that Cyrus, in coming-to-rule, is only displaying a “generosity” that allows one to get to the top. But I don’t know how true that is. At the top, you do want to look like a benefactor even as you maintain fear and respect. It’s dangerous to foster hate.

A few more considerations. This passage is preceded by Astyages wiping his hands after touching the meats at his table. There’s something unnatural in acquiring so much meat and having to sample among them. Whatever is natural is “worn” on one, so to speak. One has to wonder if the decadent king and the philosopher have something in common. Socrates is most certainly a dissimulator at times. After this passage, it is revealed Astyages and friends enjoy drinking quite a bit. Cyrus does not understand inebriation or the benefits of being less inhibited; Cyrus’ extreme continence is a means to his ruling others. There is a contrast here with the first book of Plato’s Laws and its recommendation of symposia for more severe societies.

In any case: the distinction between the good (use the generosity of others to your advantage) and the laws which create an established order (and thus, some sense of justice) is what a general has to be attentive to. You can’t give your soldiers everything all the time. But good laws and guidelines aren’t enough for them. We are only human, after all, and generosity is some sort of virtue – some recognition that we are more than our duties, more than our jobs.


  1. > Cyrus’ grandfather, strictly speaking, is generous.

    Is that really true? He has a motive, of sorts, specifically laid out: “that you may go home a vigorous youth”. Is the grandfather interested in Cyrus’s own good, or in what credit from Cyrus may redound to him?

    (I think of the stereotypical Asian family – ‘you must go to Harvard and become a doctor or you will bring shame on your parents and the family!’)

  2. I’ve never read this work, but it reminds me somewhat of Machiavelli’s The Prince; specifically, as it relates to the teaching of leadership skills (generals here vs heads of state), and the notion that you must oftentimes be duplicitous if you want to stay in power.

  3. I’m not familiar with this work either but from this little snippet i like the way Cyrus makes certain that he has the right to do anything with the gift. We sometimes receive gift with strings – expectation from the giver.

    Its interesting that folks get offended when you don’t want their gift – though the notion of gift – should give all rights to the receiver.

  4. “I don’t think thats because we live in a society where we think greed is good.”

    I honestly disagree with this, we are living in society where greed is not so high. The highest level of greed is in post-soviet society, because people inside have high level of fairness – most of wealthy people in Eastern Europe got rich by corruption or not so good legal system, thats why people are greedy, because they think its not fair.

    I see a high level of understanding in our society of what we call self-made wealth. And that´s part of American dream and people admire that, not greed.


  5. GREED is good! Michael Douglas said that before the mortgage crisis right? Or was it Shia Laboef?

    Europe sucks! USA USA USA

  6. Awesome blog and post! Cheers! How long has this blog been running now? The only thing is I seem to be having slight technical difficulties getting to your RSS feed though.

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