Property and the Pursuit of Happiness: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.2.14-23

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

At times, ancient texts outdo our self-help gurus. Aristotle’s Ethics: “Read this book, be happy!” Plato’s Republic: “Learn justice while building a powerful city!” Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia): “Become a great general and near invincible ruler. Get the education Cyrus had today!”

It is true Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus starts with a narrower, more theoretical claim. Xenophon professes interest in whether men can be ruled like herds. He heard there was one Cyrus who was able to do this, even though it seems to many who meditate on politics that men cannot be ruled like animals. There aren’t pages with bullet points and headers proclaiming “Top 10 Tips for Quick Cash.” Rather, an epic story is recounted with a view to decisive conversations and deeds. There’s a lot to think about; things have not been made easy for the consumer.

But still, let’s get real – Xenophon’s world and ours have a lot in common. There’s ambition aplenty nowadays, just as there was then. Rhapsodes and rhetoricians can find their niche on American Idol or Oprah. It does seem that in Xenophon’s world, one could go out into the middle of nowhere and build a city or found an empire. But that’s happening in other parts of the world, including parts of the world bombarded daily by U.S. drones. Nobility and the desire for political greatness never went away. What died was any serious recognition by the academy of these phenomena. That lack of serious recognition carried over into education generally. However, I would caution anyone who thinks they can see what exactly the consequences of this are, or immediately try to pinpoint where we fail to engage more or less noble desires. For some strange reason, that sort of “inquiry” typically brings forth a lot of unhinged ranting.

To get to the theoretical problem, we have to recognize what pulls or pushes us away from the text. That recognition prepares us to be sympathetic to whatever we find as we consider things carefully. What pulls us to the Education of Cyrus is Cyrus himself. We are presented with a historical figure who conquered many nations and founded a great empire. He was a liberator: his conquest of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel. It is said Caesar took Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ life to heart. Now how much history is actually involved in this account is another question. Xenophon shows us Cyrus dying peacefully. Herodotus has Cyrus being killed in battle and decapitated. Cyrus’ head was then shoved into a bucket of blood so he had his fill of gore.

All of this is to say that the self-help surface of the text matters immensely. Xenophon really wants us to consider Cyrus’ life as worth living, regardless of how preposterous much of it is. In 8.2.14-23, Cyrus has finished his conquests and is ruling peacefully. He has wealth and happiness and his people are ruled as herds are ruled, herds of sheep:

People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (Cyropaedia 8.2.14)

Cyrus, wealthy, happy, in charge, gives leadership training seminars. A shepherd makes his flocks happy and gets goods for himself. That’s exactly how kingship works, right? A king makes his dominion happy in order to get goods from it. You can see something is a bit strange with this logic: don’t people make sacrifices to be involved in politics? Aren’t there some good rulers known for their piety? The end of a political life is not necessarily the happiness of those in charge.

Then again, who said we were talking about politics? People don’t attend leadership seminars because they want to be leaders. They want to get ahead in their lives or careers, they want to provide for themselves and their families. They pursue happiness through the acquisition of private property. “Leadership” helps them enlarge their domain. This is, to say the least, a more private version of an art we associate with public things. Try actually being a political leader in Cyrusland and see the fun. Still, Cyrus can’t help if his subjects think they can be him to a degree, perhaps learn from him. And, as noted before, Xenophon has a self-help surface of sorts.

The darker political implications remain. Cyrus lorded over others like they were in herds so he could obtain benefits for himself. Lest we be too cynical, a large degree of happiness and order can be presumed in his empire. Earlier in the book, Xenophon gave glimpses of the leaders Cyrus displaced. To call Cyrus a tyrant or despot does not appreciate how awful what he replaced was. Further, the whole idea that one is benefited by an order that keeps others in herds is linked to friendship, of all things: “Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends.”

From 8.2.15-23, Xenophon tells a story featuring Cyrus and Croesus. Croesus famously thought he was the happiest of men, before being challenged by Solon and conquered by Cyrus. Croesus tells Cyrus that he should store more gold of his privately, quoting him an amount that he would save if he gave less. Cyrus sends out a messenger to all his friends asking them for money, money he tells Croesus he needs. The friends are to write down how much they can pledge, but those sealed pledges are to be delivered by a man Croesus trusts. Of course the pledges, when opened, are considerably larger than the amount Croesus said Cyrus could save.

The surface teaching is to invest in friends. Cyrus takes his surplus and uses it to buy no less than loyalty. But is that a real teaching for those of us in private life? Cyrus is a ruler, after all. He can have the loyal turn on the disloyal well before imprisonment or any harsher tactics. That he can command loyalty is a product of having control of the administration of justice and warfare as well as giving to others.

But Cyrus does come down to earth. He admits he has an insatiable desire for wealth that he cannot rid himself of. He is like everyone else in this regard (8.2.20). But others merely store their wealth, letting it decay, finding their joy in continually counting or seeing it. What he does differently is use his wealth for “security” and “good fame” (8.2.22). These things, which come about through the loyalty he procures, do not decay or do injury to him. Rather, “good fame”  makes him “lighter of heart;” its benefits seem to continually accrue. Taking Cyrus seriously, we see exactly why American Idol was the direct result of a Constitution that protects private property. Wealth alone is not happiness. It must obtain the things which make life easier and preserve us. Ultimately, those things have less to do with property or our own bodies, more to do with reputation and loyalty. Take it from me – it’s a lot easier to work with people who respect you than with people who hold back on giving any support just because.

What Cyrus has given is a vision of a fulfilling life: “one who can honestly acquire the most and use the most to noble ends, him I count most happy” (8.2.23). Give friends as much as you can, and you will do nobly as well as well for yourself. People will guard your wealth for you. This isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but the dark political implications have not been purged, as you have probably noticed. The deep problem is that “freedom” and “respect for others” are not treated terribly seriously. One has to account for everyone else around himself as “herds.”

We haven’t found tyranny: what we’ve found is that our private notion of happiness is noble in a strange way. Again, this is commendable to a degree. Students that bash Cyrus as some kind of bloodthirsty despot miss this question: What is the best politics can do? Still, what we’ve also found is that “good fame” can accompany some of the most shallow behavior, that nobility can be watered down in any day and age. To find other political goods and see further, one should seriously note the points of contrast with another figure Xenophon presents in detail, Socrates. Cyrus’ continence, which served him well in war, is not in the service of any kind of moderation. For Socrates, one could say wisdom is moderation. Cyrus’ happiness residing in “good fame” completely denies the infamy that can be earned by standing for the truth. To use public things to secure one’s private standing may make everyone happy, but perhaps to the detriment of “everyone.” The funny thing about thoughts well-thought is that they aren’t private. Ultimately, they’re a genuine contribution to humanity. To see the world as property, as private gain, is dehumanizing on a level I can’t quite address, though I live in the midst of it.