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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.

On Crispin Sartwell’s discussion of “kalos:” What does knowing have to do with nobility or beauty?

1. Encountered Crispin Sartwell’s “Six Names of Beauty” at the bookstore. Saw that he had a chapter on kalos, the ancient Greek word meaning “noble” or “beautiful.” Started to give his chapter a read, thinking it dissertation relevant, and encountered this:

The Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and beauty (to kalon) have moral as well as aesthetic force. They refer to “nobility” as well as what we would think of as direct visual beauty. But these terms also have an epistemic dimension; they are connected to the idea of knowledge. All of these meanings might be brought together in a notion of “illumination:” the kalos is above all, we might say, what is drenched in light. The noble soul is the clearly illuminated soul, and such a soul will be beautiful. (Sartwell 88)

I agree with Sartwell that yes, kalos has moral and aesthetic force. And yes, it is also “connected to the idea of knowledge.” Where I disagree strongly is with the noble soul being “clearly illuminated.” That implies the noble soul is knowable, and that’s a much stronger claim than kalos being “connected to the idea of knowledge.”

Sartwell continues his case by going to Plato and linking the erotic desire for simple, knowable, all-clarifying truth in the Symposium with ascending from the cave in the Republic. There are Forms which are pure knowledge; we lust after them and strive after them. That means truth, beauty and goodness are all wrapped up, and if it seems Plato is giving us something a bit too simplistic, he is purposely doing so. Kalos seems to refer to the quality of truth to be, in a way, simple. We need to be able to apprehend it and use it when not admiring its elegance.

2. The main problem I have with Sartwell’s discussion is that he has it exactly backward. When I encounter kalos, it’s more like “shining forth,” stupidly obvious. The noble comes from the beautiful – the link is direct. Forget Plato for a second, think Homer. Someone who is noble and beautiful might be descended from the gods and certainly will make claims to rule over the rest of us. Aren’t they a better class of human being, maybe truer to being human than the rest of us?

The questions I’m raising are the heart and soul of Greek philosophy, the reason for the elaborate metaphysics and metaphor in many thinkers. If you tie kalos to the Forms too quickly, you miss what the dialogues are addressing. Case in point: the Symposium is about moderating the other speakers and perhaps Alcibiades. You’ll note that Socrates introducing Diotima to the conversation is quite radical; the other speakers, including Aristophanes, are adamant in defending pederasty in one way or another. You’ll also note that the need for Alcibiades to be moderated is a recurrent theme in a number of other works that give us the history of the time. Similarly, the cave image in the Republic is not a strict ascent, if it is possible to ascend at all. That cave is everyday life for all of us – we all worship likenesses. The city is the cave and grounds “common sense” for us; remember what Socrates says about people coming back down into the cave after having seen the light? You know, that little bit about not being believed and maybe getting beat up?

So before any talk about the epistemic side of kalos, one has to acknowledge that it serves a unique purpose in Plato. Plato is well aware that kalos is about political claims, which include claims about the gods. A kalos kai agathos – a “noble and good” man, a gentleman – wouldn’t want to know more than is needed. So how, exactly, does the epistemic side reveal itself?

3. There are several ways, but they don’t lead to natural philosophy directly. A discussion about generosity, something most would consider noble, does not necessarily break down and turn into one about cosmology. What happens, I think, is that kalos gets transformed into the question of how one leads one’s life. This is what we consider philosophy, but remember: philosophy is something you can be put to death for in ancient Greece.

So again, this is strange and subtle and hard to track. Sometimes, the word’s meanings are intentionally split off from each other. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the sections I’m writing on use “kalos” almost exclusively as noble or fine. “Beauty” is strictly a secondary consideration, as Socrates is talking to military leaders and politicians about civic affairs. Only later does Socrates encounter a very beautiful woman, and kalos becomes beautiful, but at the loss of noble overtones. All of those chapters, I should say, are about how one leads one’s life.

In Plato, the discussion of kalos I can think of depends on a heck of a balancing act. I’m going to speculate and see what happens. One can start with the question of what “the beautiful” means for our trying to know. I’m thinking of something like Benardete’s Phaedrus commentary, which I know I’ll mangle. What I can get from it is that knowing is tied in with desire, but it isn’t as simple as “we lust after knowledge.” Most of us don’t; the parallel is more important for understanding how both work. What’s relevant for our present blogpost: when you fall in love, you want to explain to the beloved why you love them and have them agree. In other words: you want the beloved to fall in love with the image you have of them, and this unites you two in love. There are obviously a million catches here, not the least of which that you and the beloved both change not just during but because of this process. You put why you love in speech; your “first sight” changes and evolves. The beloved sees the speech or images you put forth and agrees or disagrees on his/her terms, however s/he is seeing. It looks like knowing each other is hopeless, but again, this isn’t about knowledge strictly. The problem of knowing parallels this.

Most people try to know things and also strive for things besides knowledge. Yeah, these are two vastly different things that sometimes correspond but can also diverge significantly. Think about how crazy overachievers are in high school, doing things like “science club” and “volleyball” back to back. It doesn’t add up at all except in the sense of going to a (noble and good) college. We need something to reconcile the knowing and striving: we do both and we somehow consider this sane behavior, when we should know better to start. The answer is “the beautiful.” Maybe: mind wants to see it, soul wants to be it, eros wants to apprehend it. But the beautiful isn’t the Forms necessarily. It’s more a construct created from the result of being a lover described above. It’s in flux and is anything but simple for a serious knower.


Benardete, Seth. “Socrates and Plato: The Dialectics of Eros” in The Archaeology of the Soul. St. Augustine’s Press, 2012

Sartwell, Crispin. Six Names of Beauty. Routledge, 2004.

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

On the surface, this is an exceedingly practical text. Xenophon tells us to make sure the horses in service don’t have bad legs, that the men can mount their horses, etc. There is a catch: in Memorabilia III.3, Socrates has an interlocutor who is an elected cavalry commander. Xenophon declares that he knows the presented conversation happened. This is not a claim he makes about many of his chapters. Socrates gives much of the exact same advice written in the first book of On the Cavalry Commander to the interlocutor, who comes off as extremely ignorant. As it stands, I’m developing an argument that Socrates’ practical advice in III.3 is actually about nobility and the soul. I suspect there is less truly about horses in both writings and a lot more about philosophy and human nature, some kind of direct hint about how Socrates educated Xenophon directly.

However, there is an enormous difference between Xenophon in On the Cavalry Commander and Socrates in Memorabilia III.3 that is revealed by the opening. Socrates never mentions gods or piety in giving the commander advice. He focuses on provision, training, motivation and obedience for horses and men alike. But Xenophon opens his treatise such:

The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends and your city the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage (Cavalry Commander 1.1).

Xenophon is not shy about repeatedly mentioning the service the commander owes to the gods. Is Xenophon more pious than Socrates? Hardly – the morality of this passage is extremely questionable. In return for giving the gods control over your thoughts, you get affection, glory and advantage. This is an attempt to bribe the gods. The “thoughts, words and deeds” that matter the most bring success, not justice or living within one’s means (contrast with: Mem. I.1.19). It is worth noting that Xenophon talks about the gods so much in his little treatise that he apologizes for it later (Cav. 9.8).

The full significance of piety in the treatise requires one to see competing claims about divinity. Xenophon is abundantly clear about the cavalry commander’s perspective. The other opinion comes about a roundabout way, as the figure of Socrates is hinted at. Xenophon’s practical advice is never just that. To take perhaps the most important example: it is sensible advice that one who wants a horse’s feet to be stronger will have it stand on large stones outside of the stable (they didn’t have horseshoes), making that horse as a matter of habit get used to the hardness (I.16). Xenophon gives a hint that this advice is central to the plan of his work, as he tells the reader that if he tries this, he will “believe in the rest of my rules.”

This passage reminds of Socrates’ hardened bare feet, one aspect of his disdain for wealth and his own continence (cf. Mem I.2.5). It only reminds, as we can only speculate. Much later in the treatise, Xenophon discusses how a thoroughly superior cavalry unit would come about, one that would make one’s opponents look like amateurs. The cavalry that will almost literally fly in difficult situations and over rough terrain – Xenophon says they will be like “birds to beasts,” the “sound from the lame” – that cavalry is trained and has hardened feet (Cav. 8.2-3). He goes further, saying that equestrian exercises are no work at all, for they are the activities where man comes closest to flight (8.6). If one is still not convinced of the value of cavalry, there is this: through war, states get happiness from the gods; no other competition among men is like it (8.7).

Our speculation is beginning to see the outline of a pattern. Men compete not just to be better than other men. They are trying to make claims over other men, trying to show that what other men could not do they can do. In other words: man is the species that is emphatically not content with being man. (One can argue that the text most Greeks know is Homer. A figure like Achilles cannot simply be ignored when reading Plato and Xenophon.) Xenophon is quietly pushing the idea that a superior warrior is near godlike while overtly pushing a more conventional piety. Not to make a bad pun, but to stay grounded, we have to try not to think about a lot of training making someone look like they can fly. We’re going to have to wonder why someone with rather tough soles would choose to stay in the city. The answer, I think, lies in an allusion near the end of the treatise. The gods, who know all things, give warnings through a variety of means; a commander must do his best to take them seriously (9.9). Socrates had the same warnings (Mem I.1.3). To a degree, to want the power of a god is to deny oneself direct access to divine knowledge. Why would someone truly godlike compete?

Is Fiction Useful? Note on Jefferson’s Letter to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Jefferson honors a request to create a catalog of books for Skipwith’s library. We find him, strangely enough, defending the value of fiction:

A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

Fiction is “useful” and “pleasant,” apparently, but why exactly is such a defense necessary? Jefferson imagines a “reverend sage” who has a head full of “Greek and Roman reading” objecting to fiction’s utility.

I can imagine a more scholastic mindset dismissing any need for stories. If there is a natural law, look to nature, not what we make up. That mindset does not conflict with a certain Biblical literalism. The Bible is the truth; who cares if someone wrote something about a princess living in the woods? Still, it is difficult to understand what exactly Jefferson sees as his chief objection from the classics themselves. Perhaps he means the classics as giving us histories and treatises.

If he is talking about tragedies, dialogues, epics, of course, all that stuff is made up. The Republic, which on the surface advances a severe critique of poetry and imitation, is itself a philosophical drama (cf. Book X). For my part, I can imagine Plato and Xenophon saying fiction is useless for the same reasons we would (I am not saying this would be their last word on the subject. Far from it). It isn’t clear what such entertainment produces; the things a body politic needs to survive are material or involve power and order. Jefferson goes on to say fiction aids virtue:

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence [sic] of vice.

Um, no. We see and read acts of charity and gratitude, and therefore feel moved to do such things? If this was true, no preacher would have a job. Most of the time we feel better simply because we read or saw something that looked good; we get our moral “high” for the least reason. And when people read of atrocious deeds, no matter how much sarcasm, irony and tragedy might be involved, there’s always some idiot who wants to be a copycat.

I don’t think Jefferson’s reasoning is faulty. I think he’s up to something. The argument that virtue seen or imagined yields more virtue fails. This is not necessarily an indictment of fiction. This is an indictment of anyone who thinks leading by example alone will fix everything. Jefferson follows his comment that fiction helps “fix the principles and practices of virtue” with a causal relation between emotion, habit and action:

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.

Jefferson knows Xenophon; he knows better than to argue emotions yield dispositions which yield habits and finally “thinking and acting virtuously.” Xenophon is blunt in the opening of the Memorabilia: one has to actually practice virtue, it’s that simple. One has to remember speeches concerning virtue and act on them and then do this over and over (Memorabilia I.2.23).

Again, though, it isn’t fiction which claims the right emotions create the right mindset which produces right action. That’s actually a claim about culture generally. For example, there are lots of people around me who’ve sworn off cursing and will not hang out with people who curse. One of these days I’ll list all the petty grievances, hatred, and drama these people have fostered. It’s beyond insane how much stupidity and cruelty accompanies illusions of moral purity.

Jefferson does insist on the writer being good at what he does, but I don’t think that’s a key consideration. After all, if he’s defending fiction as useful and pleasant, he has to defend the not-as-useful and not-as-pleasant works. Otherwise, his defense of fiction is only a defense of greatness. He can’t defend greatness, though. The most solid argument in his letter, the one I think he was building up to, is an implicit rejection of greatness:

Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. [my emphasis]

If we work from history alone, we don’t get much to work with. For a man who would eventually build a republic, examples like Caesar aren’t particularly helpful. But he’s one of the biggest names in history. The issue isn’t so much that fiction is useful: it’s more that the alternatives are inadequate.

Jefferson in his letter shares examples of political and personal drama. What stands out is his mention of King Lear and the filial duty he feels it inspires. To be the person you want to be even in the minutest, most everyday sense, you may need to bear witness to someone like you. I think there’s not just an emphasis on the personal here, but on diversity. Not that fiction would call you to something higher, but that it would simply call to you.

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.

On Leo Strauss’ Esotericism: Xenophon’s Socrates 76

I wish Strauss’ esoteric writing would contain awful drivel like “bomb Iraq” or “we need real men, a new aristocracy” – it probably would make reading his work a lot easier. As it stands, Strauss says none of those things. In Xenophon’s Socrates, he goes out of his way to show a Xenophon willing to cover for what is, in essence, modern science (XS 123-4). He shows any favoritism Socrates had for aristocrats or oligarchs to be fatal (73). You can’t really label Strauss’ thought as “conservative” or “liberal.”

What really interests Strauss is the approach he himself is taking to the text. That approach is always vulnerable to the charge of insufficient evidence. A good close-reader thinks through the text. You bring out assumptions, associations and implications that may or may not hold. Some of the more tenuous are the most provocative and interesting. When you’re arguing that some of the greatest in the history of ideas hid some of their more radical thoughts, you wonder if you have to leap from assumption to assumption to get a sufficiently challenging set of ideas. The question for Strauss is how close-reading itself could be an invitation to philosophy. How can you write a book that genuinely gets its reader to question?

I can’t put what follows in the dissertation. It’s far too speculative. Still, I think it complements the argument Richard Velkley is more thoroughly making in On Original Forgetting (the “Parabasis” of that book is highly recommended. The footnotes are very important). Strauss declares [for Xenophon?] that “wisdom for which the philosophers long is obviously something noble” (74). This doesn’t make a lot of sense taken alone. One would need to argue that nobility is a “shining forth” from man, man at his best, to connect it to the apprehension of truth. Heidegger emphasizes Greeks who thought such a thing, but not Strauss. Strauss gives us a narrative where the philosopher asks “what is” questions – he inquires after the nature of things – and by implication nobility is “conventional,” i.e. not natural. In the Oeconomicus, the problem is visible at points: the noble and good gentleman has to have wealth and stature, but then must be ready to sacrifice everything on behalf of the city. If nobility was natural, wouldn’t it simply be good for the gentleman? Does nobility alone reflect the whole truth of human being, or is it an opinion of the city?

Wisdom as something noble breaks into two approaches. First, “things are good in relation to needs” (75). One can say Socrates needs wisdom and wisdom is therefore good. The result is the Socratic self-control that gives him exceptional continence and command over speeches. He needs virtually nothing and perhaps even no one; he is self-sufficient. The complication here is that love of wisdom – not wisdom itself – is creating the Socratic life which we are assuming good. It is not clear wisdom is good for human beings. Most times when we get something good, it has more to do with what is effectual, less to do with the truth.

That leads to the second approach. Strauss cites as evidence that “the identification of the good and noble is paradoxical” a section that doesn’t exist: Memorabilia III.6.30 (76). At first I thought this a misprint; it is true at III.6.3 has Socrates tell Glaucon that if he does good for the city, one will be honored (considered noble) by it. Fair enough. But just to see what III.6.30 could be, I counted 30 sections from the opening of III.6. That brought me to III.8.3, where Socrates declares this: “if you are asking me at any rate if I know something that is good for nothing, I neither know it, nor need it.” One could characterize wisdom as good for nothing: we lie because it is useful. One could go so far as to say that wisdom is “obviously” noble because nobility itself is literally good for nothing. There are other ways to defend and equip the city and its citizens. Someone could simply know better and lead through that. Only a comprehensive wisdom that knew the results of every action would be good for most. Wisdom as self-knowledge or even as physics may be useless most of the time. The character of whatever wisdom Socrates “needs” has to be good, but it is an open question what is good given Socrates’ life.

Obviously I don’t want to argue anything based on an incorrect section number. Not only does it seem a misprint, but it leads to issues of “what edition was Strauss using” blah blah. But I do think that Strauss’ esotericism leads directly to philosophy itself being questionable. The value of philosophy is being questioned in the passages Strauss points to, independent of the “misprint” issue. And I think, on a larger level, that’s how the strangeness of reading thoughtfully is justified. You can’t just go into a text and think “I am thinking philosophical thoughts.” That rapidly leads to all kinds of bloviating. What might keep one in check is the continual uncovering of challenges, serious challenges. The most serious is whether philosophy should be done at all. Strauss was sensitive to that question, but our age thinks philosophy rigorous and at times science itself, without realizing why other ages were scared to death of science and where they saw rigor most necessary.


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

Horses, Wealth & Virtue: Xenophon, Oeconomicus 11.3-6

Socrates is speaking to the noble and good (perfect) gentleman Ischomachus, eager to learn, um, something:

“‘As to that,’ said I [Socrates], ‘how could I presume to correct a perfect gentleman, I who am supposed to be a mere chatterer with my head in the air, I who am called — the most senseless of all taunts — a poor beggar? I do assure you, Ischomachus, this last imputation would have driven me to despair, were it not that a day or two ago I came upon the horse of Nicias the foreigner. I saw a crowd walking behind the creature and staring, and heard some of them talking volubly about him. Well, I went up to the groom and asked him if the horse had many possessions. The man looked at me as if I must be mad to ask such a question, and asked me how a horse could own property. At that I recovered, for his answer showed that it is possible even for a poor horse to be a good one, if nature has given him a good spirit. (Oeconomicus 11.3-5)

Socrates’ speech isn’t quite done yet, but there is much to discuss. The accusation against Socrates is that without wealth, he must be begging from others or doing something unjust: he is not earning his keep properly. Moreover, without wealth, how could he lead a happy life or lead anyone to happiness? Aristophanes’ Clouds develops both these ideas and firmly rejects the philosophic life (and, by extension, the natural sciences) as being of any benefit to the city. So after being accused by the Clouds, Socrates sees a horse being talked about as (presumably) virtuous and wondrous, asks if the horse has property, then concludes because the horse doesn’t have wealth he himself does not need wealth to be virtuous.

Strauss says that it isn’t immediately clear whether human beings can lack wealth of any sort and be virtuous. There are a few other curious things hiding here. Look closely at the last sentence above:

At that I recovered, for his answer showed that it is possible even for a poor horse to be a good one, if nature has given him a good spirit [soul]. (Oec. 11.5)

I need to check this with someone, but I suspect that “possible” is colored by the word themiton, which can mean “allowed by the laws of God and men.” I’m just speculating, but it would make perfect sense given Socrates’ comments in Plato’s Apology that the gods have something to do with instruction in nobility & virtue (to go further: “knowledge of ignorance” is what it says it is). “Spirit” isn’t quite the word I’d use; the word is psyche, not some derivative of thumos. Strauss is right. Socrates is conflating animals and people. Nature is the word you’d expect – phusis – if you needed any more confirmation.

So far, we have a Socratic inquiry in full bloom here, one that is directed toward himself. He is going to try and use and an understanding of nature – perhaps a divine understanding, a cosmology – to make himself virtuous:

Assume, therefore, that it is possible for me to be a good man, and give me a complete account of your occupations, that, so far as my understanding allows me, I may endeavour to follow your example from to-morrow morning; for that’s a good day for entering on a course of virtue.’ (Oec. 11.6)

The word for man is aner, “manly man.” Xenophon never describes Socrates as a “manly man;” he is always anthropos, human being. The whole inquiry is in jest. If virtue is so important, why wouldn’t Socrates start asap? (Moreover: Ischomachus himself has a few rather contradictory ideas – that post needs to be revised, but it’ll do for now.)

A human being eager to learn, eager to pursue wisdom, can be very different from one who wants to be recognized for virtue. The difference between “rational” and “animal” is most pronounced. We can and do describe animals as virtuous and good. This doesn’t lead to the absurd idea that non-human animals are moral. Rather, it leads to wondering about rationality: is that exclusively human? It seems to be the province of the gods or those with hubristic claims. Whatever man is, he’s a mix of the rational and animal. In a way, “wealth” – the idea of appropriation, making something your own – ends up making sense of that mix. Socrates in learning is constantly accumulating wealth of sorts. Our wealth is most conventional; we have ways of constantly reinforcing our opinions without even realizing what we’re doing.

Quatrain: “Xenophon’s Anabasis”

Bought William Baer’s Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms for $6 at Half-Price Books. It’s not that I want to write terribly metrical poetry. Right now, just want the haiku to be stronger. Have a more refined ear, more command of language, more compelling and thoughtful imagery. I want something to get me writing regularly.

A long time ago I was asked to do metrical commentary on poems. It is true some poets have considerations relevant to theme or even hidden jokes in the meter. I don’t think I’ll be writing on meter much anytime soon. It can be important, but thinking through words and images should always be the primary focus unless there is compelling reason to believe otherwise. Too-formal criticism runs the risk of commenting only on craft and not working hard enough to appreciate or question.

Baer’s first assignment was to write a quatrain in the style of Stephen Vincent Benét’s “Daniel Boone:”

When Daniel Boone goes by, at night,
The phantom deer arise
And all lost, wild America
Is burning in their eyes.

The quatrain should have the same rhyme scheme (abcb), use iambs (4 metrical feet the first and third lines, 3 the second and fourth), have a metrical substitution that is relevant. Baer says to make the poem about a historical personage. I wrote a quatrain entitled “Xenophon’s Anabasis:”

Encamped in Persia searching for
the city Plato made.
Armed glory, Spartan friends, regret:
The loss of homeland gained.

I’m happy with this for now. The metrical substitution might be weak. “Searching for,” as I read it, is a dactyl. I wanted that falling, unaccented sound because “for what?” is the central issue to me.

In terms of subject matter, this is a brief recap of Xenophon’s Anabasis. Xenophon left Athens against Socrates’ advice to travel with an army to overthrow the Persian Emperor. That army lost its leadership and its very reason for being in Persia. Xenophon led it back to Greece. Two things of especial relevance: Xenophon’s friend who invited him on the expedition was an ambitious gentleman who was too gentle. He could not command base types. Xenophon himself was not afraid to get his hands dirty. Still, Xenophon believed in his army so much at one point that he wanted to found his own city with it. He was not able to found a city; the army left his command, despite getting back to Greece; he was exiled from Athens as he aided an Athenian enemy. The end of the Anabasis has Xenophon ambushing Persians in order to steal money for his estate in exile.

More poems to come soon. I’m going to try to do an exercise a day for the next week or so.

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.

Xenophon and Gratitude

The revealing keynote of the education in virtue is struck by Xenophon’s description of the law on education to justice and to gratitude (understood as a subdivision of justice). The boys learn justice, Xenophon explains, by indicting and convicting one another on many charges but especially on that charge “for which humans hate one another the most but indict one another the least, ingratitude; and whomever they know to be capable of returning a favor but not doing so, they punish severely” (Cyr. 1.2. 7). Old Persian moral education thus guarantees that almost everyone practices “gratitude,” and almost no one ever experiences gratitude.

– Thomas L. Pangle, “Socrates in Xenophon’s Political Writings” p. 148

1. I’ve been thanked plenty and certainly have said thank you in many ways to many people. I do suspect we could be a bit more grateful, though. There do seem to be large numbers of students who do nothing but cheat their way through school; elites with contempt for those with differing opinions; laborers and even public servants who think “service” more a title than a duty; self-proclaimed “regular folk” all too willing to believe the worst about anyone else. I’m sure I’m missing a few groups. Ungratefulness to some extent need not be fatal in our society. As things stand now, it has the potential to be very dangerous. The fighting over the debt ceiling, to take one example, has gotten out of control. People are pushing the idea of withholding Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits to make a point which I’m not entirely clear on. But even before this fight, the vilification of President Bush and passing of health care reform on a straight party-line vote were not classy moves that showed respect for the other party (think: almost always at or around 50% of the electorate).

What should our politicians be grateful for? The opportunity to serve at a decent time in American history. They should be looking to the respect their offices (still) get, the ability to acquire knowledge and skill on complicated policy matters, their role in making life better for all Americans. They should not be as partisan as they are, driven by fragments of ideology that are really hate for the other side of the aisle. They should be grateful that professionalism and leadership actually correspond to each other. That is not the case in all times and places.

2. Xenophon’s introducing the concept of gratefulness is not without complications. I am tempted to think his most complete statement on the matter happens during consideration of the philosopher qua philosopher: Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates is a statement that his own independent thought would not have been possible without Socrates. But as you can tell from Pangle’s discussion above, gratefulness as civic virtue has nothing to do with philosophy. A gentleman-like class goes to school and trains to be lawyers by literally accusing one another all day. Gratefulness is a subdivision of justice. Justice, for the most part, can be identified with lawfulness (cf. Memorabilia IV.4). Therefore, ingratitude can be made illegal?

Something doesn’t add up. It isn’t clear the law can educate to virtue generally. Virtue depends on wisdom. Even the Socratic knowledge of ignorance falls short: inasmuch as it procures wisdom, it does not guarantee the actual practice of virtue. Socrates, for his part, cannot even compel his students to be around him, let alone listen well.

Now this discussion is almost begging the question. Justice may depend on wisdom, but we make do with an all-too-human justice anyway. That justice establishes laws and those laws can habituate. So we can teach virtue (and Socrates can’t). Perhaps the problem is more specific. Perhaps gratitude has to stem less from habit and more from the heart. One’s fellow citizens are looking to be acknowledged, after all.

I still think there’s a larger problem we’re missing. Aristotle on the surface seems to be talking about forming virtues habitually. He still talks about reason and choice in that formation. The more one emphasizes reason and choice, the more wisdom is in tension with law. The philosophic life is not merely alien to political life. Socrates goes to his death proclaiming himself to have lived “piously” (!) and “justly” (Apology 5-6). One might claim this is simply Socrates emphasizing his visible conformity to law: not saying anything particularly impious, making traditional sacrifices, etc. But if Socrates gained any wisdom, then it may be the case he had a deeper understanding of piety and justice and acted on it. We do acknowledge him to be far more just than the Athenians who put him to death.

3. Even though the Greek gods are the city’s gods, piety comprehends something beyond justice. One who practices all the virtues well – one whose soul is well-ordered – might be called divine. If justice is subordinate to wisdom, if the virtues generally require wisdom, perhaps an order of another sort entirely can de-emphasize the role of knowledge and get us to focus on our actions. That order is revealed to us through the poets, particularly epic poets like Homer and Hesiod.

The trouble with the gods is not merely that they live outside of the city despite their support for its laws. They actually come a bit too close for comfort when compared with dialectic. Note how many times Socrates becomes imaginative in the dialogues, whether it is telling the Myth of Er in the Republic or discussing an afterlife where there is a realm of ideal forms (where red is truly red) in the Phaedo. Heck, Socrates is a figure in a particular sort of literature: isn’t he just another myth? In what way is logos preeminent, and how does it claim any credibility?

Human wisdom in Plato’s Apology has less to do with knowing how to be noble – that only gods or sophists can teach – and more to do with knowing with what isn’t. Socrates may not be wise, but he knows for certain other people aren’t wise.  The via negativa is how dialectic proceeds, the slow and sure accumulation of knowledge which leads to credible opinions that may or may not withstand prolonged scrutiny. Love of wisdom isn’t just love of truth. It’s love of the way one gets there, through all the serious opinions one has to work through and – it is to be hoped – be grateful for.


Pangle, Thomas. “Socrates in Xenophon’s Political Writings” in The Socratic Movement, ed. Vander Waerdt. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.

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