Xenophon’s Socrates

Remarks that were meant to be delivered December 1st, 2017 by the author at the Gorman Faculty Lounge, University of Dallas. The dissertation defense was successful despite the botched lecture.

We begin with the problem of Socrates, and it certainly is a problem. Jobless, barefoot, he stands in the agora eagerly anticipating the company of attractive young men. It is not inconceivable that many, um, resisted his charms. Xenophon’s Socrates might beg to differ, as he boasts in a beauty contest of having superior looks. Consider that his eyes bulge to the side, giving him sight of the sides as well as straight ahead; a wide open, outward turned nose, able to receive more smells than other noses; a mouth that could take a large bite out of anything (Xenophon, Symposium V.5-7).

Some have thought Socrates a hedonist, lusting after others, lusting after knowledge, both with no end in sight. If this has an element of truth, it stands open to speculation that Socrates embarked on the creation of political philosophy for the sake of getting attention he could not get otherwise. Far superior to any sophist, who would receive pay for instruction in gaining power, Socrates received the love and loyalty of those in his circle who sought to understand how politics works. Purporting to think seriously about politics has an air of manipulation surrounding it. If one says that one studies literature or philosophy, for example, one is usually dismissed with the question “What are you going to do with that?” But say you’re studying political science, and you’re asked if you want to be a politician in tones with a hint of disdain. If one knows better concerning politics, then it would seem one ought to rule simply. The thought that our way—our traditions, our institutions, the things from which we derive meaning—could be imperiled by some alien knowledge drives much of what we do. I can’t begin to tell the number of times I pretended not to hear something or talked over someone because I didn’t like what they had to say. In this sense, perhaps, the personal is very much political.

Still, one can reconstruct a powerful complaint against Socrates, the same man who Cicero in his own way claims brought philosophy down from the heavens, compelling it to speak about the human things. Hard thinking about politics yields effective rhetoric and insight. But that thinking often involves wanting to manipulate morality and others, going beyond faithlessness to justify cruelty and violence. Not for nothing is it said that adultery occurs merely by lusting after someone else’s wife. On this count, Socrates’ association with Alcibiades may not be entirely helpful. Of superior beauty and intelligence, Alcibiades was reckless, immoderate, and had the potential to make any civilization the most powerful and glorious on earth. That last part tends to surprise most students, as they focus on Alcibiades as reckless and immoderate and charming. Thucydides and Plutarch do not critique him anywhere near as harshly as they do other leaders, however. I always like to think Alcibiades’ ability most manifest in the events leading up to the Battle of Mantinea and perhaps the battle itself. Alcibidean Athens deals the Spartans a series of defeats which nearly cost them the Peloponnesian War. Cut off from their northern allies, the battle the Spartans barely win, a battle which had to be won, is Mantinea. The army the Athenian side fielded wasn’t primarily Athenian: most of those who put Sparta, the leading power in Greece, in mortal danger, were Athenian allies. To put not too fine a point on it—if you can create a great empire, toppling another, at little cost to the country which would become the seat of empire, you are probably on a shortlist for one of the greatest political and military minds ever.

Of course, we recognize that if something is too good to be true, it probably is. The cost of Alcibiades’ brilliance is everything else: piety, norms, fraternity. An inability to accept anything other than a win causes a collapse in the ability to accept loss with any sort of grace. Now Plato speaks of Alcibiades, in his Symposium, as utterly captivated by Socrates. Xenophon only speaks to that indirectly, but in this case I hold indirect association more damning than direct. Hard thinking about politics will result in asking “What is law?”. Socrates, famous for questions of the type “What is X?”, never utters “What is law?” publicly, but Alcibiades was reported to have done so to no less than Pericles, the leading man of democratic Athens:

For it is said that before Alcibiades was twenty years of age he had the following sort of conversation about laws with Pericles, who was his guardian as well as the one presiding over the city.

“Tell me, Pericles,” he said, “would you be able to teach me what law is?”

“By all means,” said Pericles.

“By the gods, teach it then,” said Alcibiades, “for when I hear certain ones praised as law-abiding men, I think that someone who does not know what law is would not justly obtain this praise.”

“But you do not desire anything hard, Alcibiades, in wishing to know what law is,” said Pericles. “For all things are laws that the assembled multitude has approved and written, pointing out what should and should not be done.”

“Do they hold that one should do good things or bad things?”

“The good, by Zeus, lad,” he said, “and not the bad.”

“What if it is not the multitude, but the assembled few who write what one should do, as is the case wherever there is oligarchy? What is this?”

“Everything,” he said, “is called law that the overpowering part of the city, upon deliberation, writes that one should do.” “So even if a tyrant who overpowers the city writes for the citizens what they should do—this too is law?”

“Even what the ruling tyrant writes,” he said, “this too is called law.”

“But what is violence and lawlessness, Pericles?” he said. “Is it not when one who is stronger compels one who is weaker—not by persuasion but by the use of violence—to do whatever is in his opinion best?”

“In my opinion, at least,” said Pericles.

“And whatever the tyrant writes and compels the citizens to do without persuading them—this is lawlessness?”

“In my opinion,” said Pericles. “For I take back what I said about what the tyrant writes without persuasion being law.”

“And what the few write, without persuading the many but overpowering them, shall we say that this is violence or shall we not say it?”

“Everything, in my opinion,” said Pericles, “that one compels someone to do without persuading him, whether he writes it or not, is violence rather than law.”

“And whatever the whole multitude writes without persuasion, when it overpowers those having wealth, would be violence rather than law?”

“Alcibiades,” said Pericles, “we too were quite clever indeed at things of this sort when we were your age. For we too practiced such things and made precisely the sort of sophisticated arguments that you, in my opinion, are now practicing.”

And Alcibiades said, “Would that I could have been your companion at that time, Pericles, when you were at your cleverest.”

(Memorabilia I.2.40-46, translated by Amy Bonnette)

Xenophon’s encounter between Alcibiades and Pericles shows all the hallmarks of his writing. It is deceptively simple. We noted already that the conversation has a Socratic imprint. “What is law?” in Alcibiades’ hands immediately becomes an unnerving question as it attacks law-abidingness. All of us who think we obey the law cannot easily answer “What is law?” unless we have extreme commitments. Pericles sees this straightaway and thus does not simply defend law, but the very concept that one should aim to be lawful and moderate. Since he must argue that obeying the law is good, he becomes caught in a trap: democracies and tyrannies both write law, and yes, this implies their equivalence. On this count, we simply note that it was a democratic Athens which put Socrates to death.

Alcibiades does not stop at using the notion that one cannot obey what one does not know. He thoroughly humiliates Pericles and Athenian democracy before he’s done, strongly implying that Periclean Athens is nothing but class warfare against richer Athenians. Having argued in essence that at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, Pericles is then lured into arguing that justice as the interest of the stronger is mere violence. Then the fact that the democrats could not effectively persuade Athenian oligarchs becomes Exhibit A in arguing that Periclean Athens is illegitimate. Throughout the Memorabilia, Socrates criticizes Pericles, either saying that he had love spells to woo the demos or maligning his actual governance.

For my part, I hold Socratic comments about Pericles and democratic Athens to be more provocative than reflective of a philosophic politics. But it should be clear that the philosophic critique of political life, indirectly revealed by Alcibiades, is far deeper than high-powered sophistry. It pushes us to ask why we obey the law at all, pushes us to wonder about our moral standards and the things we hold dearest. And it does not accept the answer of “everyone else does it, so therefore I’m right in following them.” However, we note that Pericles needed a moderation beyond what is conventionally held moderation to restrain Alcibiades. Difficult questions can only be dealt with by the most sober of temperaments. Xenophon describes Socrates as exceptionally continent in the Memorabilia, exceptionally moderate in his Apology, in the latter moreso than anyone else in Athens.


What does it mean to be a philosopher? To love wisdom is not the same thing as having wisdom: is the philosopher just as guilty of residing in ignorance as we are? Not quite, because to seek knowledge of ignorance entails a radically different way of life. A lover of wisdom does not simply say “I could be wrong” or “I don’t know” (though: how many times do we even hear that from people nowadays?), but lusts after knowledge, eagerly seeking out what he does not have, not hesitating to admit his wrongness or lack of knowledge.

Still, speaking of the philosopher’s relation to knowledge does not quite do justice to how different his life is. The following passage from Xenophon’s Oeconomicus I feel to be the most central to Xenophon’s Socrates. In it, Socrates jokes about his infamy, as Aristophanes put a “Socrates” on stage before the entirety of Athens in order to mock his attempts at doing science, his disregard of conventional piety, and his peculiar relation to law. In the Clouds, Socrates is obsessed with observing and measuring fleas (they seem to be all he has), he mocks the traditional gods of Athens, and most famously, shows people how to make the Unjust speech stronger than the Just one. How did this critique affect the actual Socrates?

‘But how could I [Socrates] justly correct a perfect gentleman,’ I said, ‘especially as I am a man who is reputed to be an idle talker and to measure the air and who is reproached for being poor – which seems to be the most foolish accusation of all? And I would have been greatly discouraged by this charge, Ischomachos, if I had not recently encountered the horse of Nikias, the newcomer, and seen the numerous onlookers who were following it and heard some of them speaking about it; whereupon I approached the groom and asked him if the horse had much wealth. He looked at me as though I had not asked a sane question, and spoke: “How could a horse have wealth?” I was relieved then on hearing that it is permitted a poor horse to become good if it has a soul by nature good. Therefore, as it is permitted me to become a good man, you must fully tell about your works so as to enable me, insofar as I can learn by listening, to imitate you, beginning tomorrow. That is a good day,’ I said, ‘to begin in virtue.’

(Oeconomicus XI.3-6, translated by Carnes Lord)

Socrates claims to wish to learn from a gentleman, one noble and good, how to “become a good man.” He does not seriously plan to act on what he learns, as he will imitate that gentleman “beginning tomorrow.” But he does reveal how he orients himself, perhaps how Aristophanes’ criticism pushed him to look more closely at the city and the human things within. Socrates wonders how a lack of wealth could be a lack of virtue, not seeming as concerned about the attack on his use of speech or his drive for knowledge. This leads to the crazy question about the good horse having wealth, and to the not as crazy conclusion that if one has a “soul by nature good,” one can become good even if one is not. This affirms what is essential to the philosophic life: only some people really want wisdom. Only a few want more than to be simply right or honored in such a way. The philosophic nature of necessity seeks the knowledge to affirm itself. Nature and knowledge meet in an individual who can be pronounced good. By contrast, wealth is the conventional signifier of value. We do blame poor people for being poor, we sometimes join churches precisely because they have money, and we see ourselves as happy and good if we have wealth. The gentleman—the Greek is kalos kai agathos, noble and good—has land. Because of this, he and his family are literally part of the constitution of the country. It’s his land in question regarding governance. As he has wealth, he has duties and some part of leisure. He is expected to practice for war and defend his land, but it is freedom from want that enables him to practice true virtue.

My work on Xenophon asks about Socrates and nobility. The Greek word used for noble—kalon—can mean “noble” or “beautiful,” usually leaning in the direction of “beautiful.” But a series of chapters in the Memorabilia purports to show that Socrates made ambitious men more attentive to the noble, and those men are almost exclusively interested in military and political affairs. “Noble” almost operates as a synonym for “rule and honor.” Those chapters are my specific focus. One commentator on them notes that Socrates moderates most of the ambitious men with whom he deals and gives practical advice. Doesn’t this mean that Socrates was more than willing to help Athens, that philosophy can enhance politics? Not quite. Socrates’ practical advice is oftentimes too obvious—to one who wants to be a general: “if you want to be a general, you should learn about it,” to another who commands the cavalry “you should take care of the horses”—and the one person he fails to moderate, Charmides, seems encouraged by interaction with Socrates to take up tyranny. Historically, Charmides had no problem murdering his fellow citizens to seize their wealth.

So something else is occurring in these chapters regarding Socrates and nobility, something that Xenophon initially wants to hide but also have us discover. Instead of looking at how Socrates moderated various interlocutors, or focusing on the political themes as revealing a practical political agenda, I found bits and pieces that, put together, form a portrait of Socrates. It is a unique portrait. Early on in the Memorabilia, well before these chapters, Xenophon gives a memorable anecdote about Socrates’ insatiable eros. Socrates called Xenophon himself a “fool” and a “wretch” because he would not stay away from a rather attractive young man whom Socrates emphasized was dangerous to everyone else. At the end of the Memorabilia, well after these chapters about the noble, Xenophon says Socrates told his companions to learn things like geometry and astronomy for practical reasons, and even though Socrates himself knew more about those subjects, did not counsel people openly to follow his path.

One might be tempted to think that any portrait of Socrates from these chapters is hopelessly incomplete, as his lust for others is at the beginning of the book and the lust for knowledge at the end. What of the poor, neglected middle, with these chapters about nobility? “Nobility” sounds strange to our ears—I don’t think any of us have ever praised anyone else sincerely by calling them noble—but it is the heart of political life. Law shapes citizens a certain way, for it educates merely by being law, and the hope is that citizens will be noble and good, demonstrating virtue, because the political order is good. That Socrates is depicted with regard to the noble should be looked at in light of the traditional distinction used to interpret Xenophon’s corpus. Xenophon wrote one book, The Education of Cyrus, which depicts the founder of the Persian empire as the supreme political man, able to enable the virtuous and build his empire with ironic consequences. Cyrus the Great desired nobility and acted in many noble ways, as did Xenophon himself, when he commanded an army in the Anabasis. The typical distinction: Cyrus the Great, the perfect political man; Socrates, the philosopher par excellence; Xenophon himself, between the two. Again, normally one does not associate nobility with Socrates. But the traditional distinction groups him with two who badly wanted it. If the law ennobles people who obey it, what is the status of the founder of a given regime? If one founded an empire, like Cyrus, or attempted to create a city, like Xenophon, would one be considered godlike? When Cyrus has finished with conquest, he takes to dressing like he is perfect: taller, flawless, perhaps more than man.


The chapters I have examined do not feature interlocutors who want to necessarily be gods. They do want rule and the honors associated with rule, desiring these typically far more than wanting to know how to do their job properly. But the portrait we get of Socrates has some peculiar twists. At the opening of this series of chapters, he dramatically shows a companion to be unfit for the office of general, doing so by defrauding him with explicit reference to the problem of nature and knowledge. He tells the companion that a general must have many aspects to his nature, including the capacity to be devious, while having pushed that companion to go see a sophist in order to learn about being a general. It goes without saying the sophist’s training is useless. As we noted before, if a man has a soul by nature good, is it possible for knowledge to make him good? The companion’s nature and knowledge are clear, but Socrates shows himself devious and perhaps positions himself dangerously close to a sophist. Socrates follows this by telling an elected general to attend to the happiness of those he rules. All men go on campaign to be happier, he proclaims. But Socrates certainly does not go on campaign to be happy. Where does his happiness lie? In the very next chapter, a commander clueless about his task and unable to convince his men to obey him is told not only to learn to speak, but that speech identifies what is noble in the law, finds what is noble beyond the law, and that serious conversation between people who understand can be called noble. In the three opening chapters of this section concerning nobility, Xenophon shows Socrates to be no ordinary man. What makes him happy is not what makes others happy; his trust in the power of speech takes him far beyond the law.

Xenophon’s Socrates then argues to a most virtuous but clueless man that rule is simply knowing what is needed and being able to procure it. To this end, if one could manage a household well, one could rule anything. Socrates moreover declares the election of one who had wealth and seemed willing to use it to win battles a good thing. The reduction of rule to knowledge for the sake of utility is harsh: it seems to do away with not only civic virtue, but any freedom or protection a citizen might enjoy. If one knows what is needed and is able to procure it, one can rule. In this light, Socrates can be seen a household manager even though he is never home. Somehow, he eats and takes care of himself just enough. It’s like knowledge alone is wealth, because if you really know, your knowledge translates into effective action. Of course, this implication is crazy: only gods would be able to know enough to make chance work in their favor consistently. But it is where thinking about Socratic continence leads. At the very least, to be able to survive on less than one’s fellow man translates into power over the latter.

Despite this cynicism about ordinary life, Xenophon’s Socrates shows himself most able to comment on and address political life. An encounter with the son of Pericles discusses no less than the prospects for renewing Athenian virtue, perhaps directing Athenian piety to new ends. A comic encounter with Glaucon makes Socrates sound like the most informed citizen and then some. He articulates sharp questions about the budget, the grain supply, the status of Athenian defenses, the currency. One might dismiss Socrates’ questions as exaggerated for the sake of comedy, but given that politicians themselves can’t always articulate the sorts of questions they need to ask about a given policy, I wonder. Obviously part of me feels that if you have the right questions, you can find the answers you need, and put together priorities from there. It sounds strange to say leaders would wonder how things work, but it does feel true that really good leaders have more questions than opinions or plans.

Xenophon gives us a Socrates who can procure his own happiness, command through speech, take care of his needs and understand the needs of others enough to rule them. Then Xenophon lets this portrait of Socrates—one which seems noble in its own way—be undone by the very reasoning underlying it. If rule is no better than utility, if one is a ruler because one knows what is needed and is able to get it, then there may not be a check on those like Charmides, those who are selfish and willing to hurt others. There is no guarantee that using reason to rule will not collapse into tyranny.

Yet that is not the whole story. Let’s be clearer about the gods. We recall from the Odyssey that Hermes visits Odysseus when Circe is transforming his men into animals. When Hermes shows Odysseus the mole, the root which he plucks out of the ground, he does not discourse on any magical properties it has. Nor does Odysseus seem to do anything with the mole other than observe it, understanding what it says about his own nature. He is simply not susceptible to being turned into an animal because of something akin to self-recognition.

I do not mean to say that Odysseus has complete self-knowledge. He knows what he is not, and even then, that can be qualified. But the idea of gods and those godlike being ruled by reason, able to find and make their way in the world in the way they know how, is what I want to draw our attention to. Diotima, from Plato’s Symposium, declares that gods do not philosophize: they simply have wisdom. Diotima wonders how Socrates can accept the common opinion regarding Eros, and Parmenides joins her in thinking the young Socrates values other opinions far too highly. Do gods philosophize, countenancing the opinions of mere humans? I do think the question, as ridiculous as it sounds, helps open up Xenophon’s meditation on Socrates and nobility.

An epilogue to this set of chapters features one Aristippus, a man who was considered a philosopher and was ardent in his hedonism. Aristippus held that one need not decide to live in the city, one could simply travel among them and indulge; he confronts Socrates for having made him look like a fool. Aristippus tries to refute Socrates by asking him if he knows anything absolutely noble, or anything absolutely good. Socrates argues that he knows nothing of the sort: things are noble and good depending on how they are used. You’ll notice that Socrates took a form of relativism and deployed it against one who would argue that since nothing is absolutely noble or good, pleasure is all that matters. Maybe that doesn’t even describe Socrates’ accomplishment well-enough: Socrates uses utility to ground the noble and the good, and he does so in a way which preserved them nearly entirely.

Xenophon writes small, challenging us to think big. It seemed that rule by reasoning about what is useful would throw away virtue and only empower one who was wise, someone like a philosopher-king. It also seemed that the fear of the law was most necessary to keep immoderate people from becoming tyrants, that a taste of philosophy could get out of control. And yet in the refutation of Aristippus, there’s the philosopher using utility, using a relativistic standard, to keep people from arguing that pleasure is the only drive. Human reason encompasses the law and all it stands for. The philosopher wants reason to work and puts all his resources into that enterprise.

Which brings us back to Socrates, in the agora, trying to talk to attractive young men. He doesn’t seem like ruler material, or particularly godlike. What we’re seeing at that moment is reality. Do gods philosophize? That’s literally up to you.

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