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.