On Leisure and Philosophy: Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.9

For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to express an argument more simply. I don’t need the root of Xenophon’s rhetoric, I don’t think, though it has certainly felt that way at times. What I need is a demonstration of why writing on Xenophon gets complicated and thorny in a matter of seconds.

The passage below is from Memorabilia III.9. That chapter starts with Socrates talking about courage. Then he moves to the other virtues with an emphasis on wisdom. That’s followed by madness, a discussion of envy and leisure, what makes a ruler, what man should be doing with his life. Yes, that’s all in one chapter three pages long. – Stupid me, I keep thinking there’s a method to this madness. –

In any case, this brief comment on leisure is worth a look:

And when he [Socrates] examined leisure, what it is, he said that he discovered that most people are doing something; for even players at checkers and buffoons do something. And he said that these all have leisure, for it is in their power to go to do the things that are better than these. No one, however, has leisure to go from the better things to the worse; and if someone should go, he said lack of leisure afflicts the one who does this, so that he does badly. (III.9.9)

Socrates says people who have leisure are active because he’s seen those who engaged in trivialities or are simply ignorant do something. But activity does not seem to be his primary criterion for what is leisure. It seems rather to be what such activity points to. When something better could be done, one has leisure.

Isn’t leisure doing nothing? I know I’ve talked about motion and rest at times being a metaphor for a life of action versus the life of the mind (cf. Shakespeare, Sonnet 73). It’s a tricky metaphor, as mind does have a motion – no less than the motion of the cosmos for Aristotle (nothing is completely at rest).

Still, despite how problematic the metaphor can be, I do think doing nothing being leisure is the key to the puzzle. This chapter ends with Socrates talking a lot about “doing well.” “Doing well” is tied to poetry and the gods; it is described through the arts of farming, medicine and politics (III.9.14-15). Socrates himself thinks and asks questions. It’s tricky to describe this as doing something unless one presupposes the Aristotlean “being-at-work.” “Most people are doing something:” this may not include Socrates.

The rest of the selected passage gets even messier. I can’t sit around and drink – abuse the living hell out of my liver – and call that leisure? Last I checked, that’s leisure, and I’m not any better for it. What we supposed with “doing” above is that Socrates is indirectly talking about himself. Now either the life of the mind or the law puts one in a situation where one cannot fall from what is better. But notice that leisure involves having the power to always do something even better. The law can’t force you to be better. Strauss’ comment begins to make a lot of sense:

As for leisure, it is a state, not of abstention from doing, but of doing something rather inferior – a state between the ascent to a higher activity and leisurelessness, i.e., descent from a higher activity; it is in this sense a state of rest. Socrates does not spell out here what is superior not only to leisurelessness but even to leisure. (XS 81)

So the philosopher is in some kind of state of rest. I’d prefer to say he’s not doing anything; Strauss is both helpful and not-so-helpful with his comment. What is between an ascent and descent? I’m tempted to say being simply. My speculation: Philosophic activity is the other side of being and is inherently inferior.  Philosophic activity is not the highest. Eros is higher, strangely enough: I am guessing it is what philosophic activity is leading to. What makes the philosopher such a compelling and powerful figure is his return to his own origin, his self-knowledge corresponding with his being and knowledge. What is superior to leisure is knowing and living with one’s own desires.


Xenophon, Memorabilia. tr. Amy L. Bonnette. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.

Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. South Bend: St. Augustine’s, 1998.


  1. Ashok, you certainly stirred up lots of interesting, random thoughts for me in this post.

    Is watching TV doing nothing? (often I hear a useful idea for my work while I’m resting my mind and watching a show)

    Is writing a grocery list inferior to writing a poem? (maybe a grocery list is just another Andy Warhol painting? Lots of inner things are going on rather quickly to imagine a finished meal.)

    What about meditation? Is it leisure? I relate it to your question of what is between ascent and descent – your “being” And I agree that meditating all the time is inferior to Eros. So, I’m wondering then is writing a poem, where one does as the philosopher (“return to his own origin, his self-knowledge corresponding with his being and knowledge”) inferior to publishing and marketing that poem (“What is superior to leisure is knowing and living with one’s own desires.”)? I love these last lines of yours. If one writes a poem and leaves it in a drawer for no eyes to ever read it, it is for the poet’s purpose alone. I’m interested to know how even “doing well” might elevate writing poetry if only written for the self.

    Also, if you have a moment, could you please post a link on where to find the specific Socrates passage on madness? Thank you.

  2. It seems to me that Socrates is saying that leisure appears as what it is not: when a man is most at “leisure”, he actually is quite active–he has the false appearance of potentiality. And vice versa–no one “takes a break” from doing higher things. The man least at leisure has to be the slave, but he has the furthest to ascend–he has the greatest potential scope for increase in rest. Whereas the being completely at leisure can never be more so: he cannot rest from his state of rest. So maybe Socrates is “just” making a statement about the indeterminacy of leisure/labor opposition, but the implication is: there is no wisdom (which would have to be a state of immobility), only the love of wisdom which equals its pursuit. What do you think?

    You mention drinking as an example of taking leisure, but what an ambivalent example! I think of the beginning of the Laws, drunkenness or leisure as a precondition of a certain kind of labor, in this case speculating about the nomoi. And maybe even drinking can be work. I wonder.

  3. @Alice & @Chris – these are really good comments. I’m glad I shared what was puzzling me.

    I’m going to work on the dissertation a bit more and get back to you guys.

  4. Just a thought, Ashok–in the Socrates quote, it’s quite striking that leisure is not the highest state, but rather a “free” state from which it is possible to move (or be moved) higher. As Strauss underlines Socrates does not spell out what higher (and more active) state leisure is free move toward.

    This is very interesting to me since, from my reading of Plato, I take the philosophical life to be the cultivation of a certain purposive, questing ignorance about what is good, what is best, what kind of activity is highest for man. Philosophy exists in a state of leisure, a between state, because unlike other ways of being in the world it does not set its own ends for itself, but rather seeks to have its ends given to itself as though from above–it seeks out the not-yet-disclosed yet already present good that inheres in all genuine human activities, and it waits.

  5. @AS – interesting comment. Although I notice that the act of writing poems is “a between state”, I hadn’t previously thought that writing poetry was philosophical. That is how I set myself up to make a poem – I wait. I believed I was waiting for that which was already inside my head, but I like that it can also be looked at more expansively “as though from above.”

  6. Thanks for the response, Alice. Yes–I’d like to go so far to say that philosophy is only philosophical when, like poetry, it waits on a muse.

    Your last sentence raises the question of from where the muse speaks, surely from inside the head–but since, looking inward, we can only see down so far, there remains the possibility of more transcendent origins.

    I’m sure that, in this parable of a poem, Frost is wondering if/imagining that he has caught a glimmering flash of the deeper source of poetry. Of course, to be true to the images of this poem we would have to say “as though from below”:

    For Once, Then Something

    Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
    Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
    Deeper down in the well than where the water
    Gives me back in a shining surface picture
    Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
    Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud-puffs.
    Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
    I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
    Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
    Something more of the depths – and then I lost it.
    Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
    One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
    Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
    Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
    Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

    1. Nice, AC. The pineal gland comes to mind, a place where spirit and body meet always in motion. Maybe we can’t hold onto the visions, sensations, etc. but it’s all there floating around for us to do what we will with them. Poems are like fireflies that I used to catch and put in a jar with breathing holes.

  7. @AC Is that poem saying that causality somehow is the opposite of godhead? Is that what he learns about why the something withdraws?
    He’s staring into the well, then he says, in effect, ‘look, the waters are moving’–presumably, he cannot see himself any more than he can see in the waters anymore, so maybe that opposition is not comprehensive.–But he gives a poetic, animating version ‘rebuke’ before he gives the facts of the matter ‘one drop fell,’ which is what leads me to think that he learned something: He’s making something out of what would be his perplexity, were he philosophic.

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