Archive for the ‘on Xenophon’ Category

Reflections: Socrates and Xenophon, the philosophic and the political life

At the very least, this is clear. The most fundamental difference between Socrates and Xenophon might be dangerously summarized by saying that Socrates, who rarely felt the need to physically leave Athens, never wished to rule over anyone under any circumstances, while Xenophon —–his questioning and nowadays seldom read student—– did in fact wish to rule over many under varying circumstances (see Buzzetti).

Or, to put it much more nobly and perhaps more truthfully: it would be best to say that the once unknown and adventure-loving Xenophon —–who had come into direct contact with Socrates—– suddenly came to recognize far outside the boundaries of his native Athens not only the unavoidability of ruling among humans, but also and perhaps much more importantly, his absolutely unique capacity for such ruling when true crisis touched upon his life and those surrounding him. However, later in life he seems to have given up this politically engaged desire for the desire to recollect in writing both tension-ridden forms of life: on the one hand recovering the life of Socrates in his Memorabilia and the other  truly amazing shorter Socratic texts, and on the other hand recovering the circumstances of his rise to fame and glory as a commander in his autobiographical The Anabasis of Cyrus. In contrast, Socrates also never felt the desire to write, not of himself or others.

Agoristic philosophy ——as the foundation of political philosophy—– begins in wonder (thaumazein) at such striking complex connections and deep tensions between the life of politics and the life of philosophy. Its path is that of an understanding of the dynamics of virtue(s); its guide remains Aristotle.



Xenophon only appears in direct conversation with Socrates in two short sections, one in his Memorabilia where he listens to Socrates’ views on kissing(!), the other in his The Anabasis of Cyrus where he recalls the conversation with Socrates with which he began his voyage. These astonishing sections read as follows:

Appendix 1: (Memorabilia I, 4; Bonnette translation)

“These were the sort of things he used to say with playfulness accompanied by seriousness.  On the other hand, he advised that one steadfastly refrain from sex with those who are beautiful. For he said that it is not easy when one touches these sorts to be moderate. In fact, after he perceived once that Critobulus the son of Crito had kissed the beautiful son of Alcibiades, he asked Xenophon in Critobulus’ presence”

“Tell me, Xenophon,” he said, “ didn’t you hold Critobulus to be one of the moderate rather than the rash human beings, and one of these with forethought rather than senseless and reckless?”

“Certainly,” said Xenophon.

“Well, hold now that he is hotheaded and heedless in the extreme. He would even make somersaults into daggers and leap into fire.”

“And what did you see him doing,” said Xenophon, “that you have formed such judgments about him?”

“Did he not dare to kiss the son of Alcibiades, who is most fair and in his bloom?” he said.

“But if that is the reckless deed,” said Xenophon,”in my opinion, I, too, would endure this risk.”

“You wretch!” said Socrates. “And what do you think you would suffer after kissing  someone so beautiful? Would you not immediately be a slave rather than free, spend a lot of harmful pleasures, be in great want of leisure for attending to anything noble and good, and be compelled to take seriously what even madman would not take seriously?”

“Heracles!” said Xenophon. “What terrible power you ascribe to a kiss.”

“And do you wonder at this?” said Socrates. “Don’t you know that poisonous spiders not even half an obol in size crush human beings with pain and drive them from their senses  merely by touching them in their mouths?”

“Yes, by Zeus!” said Xenophon, “For spiders inject something through their sting.”

“You fool!” said Socrates. “Do you think that when those who are beautiful kiss they don’t inject anything, just because you don’t see it? Don’t you know that this beast that they call beautiful in bloom is so much more terrible than spiders that, while spiders inject  something when they touch, it (even when it does not touch, but if one just looks at it) injects even from quite far away something of the sort to drive one mad? And perhaps ‘lovers’ are called ‘archers’ because those who are beautiful inflict wounds even from afar. But I counsel you, Xenophon, whenever you see someone beautiful, to flee without looking back .”

Appendix 2: (The Anabasis of Cyrus III, 1, 4; Ambler translation )

“In the army there was a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who followed along even though he was neither a general nor a captain nor a soldier; but Proxenus, a guest-friend of his from long ago, had sent for him to come home. He promised that if he came, he would make him a friend of Cyrus, whom Proxenus himself had said he believed to be the better for himself than his fatherland was. So Xenophon, on reading his letter, took common counsel with Socrates the Athenian about the journey. And Socrates, suspecting that becoming a friend of Cyrus might bring an accusation from the city, because Cyrus had seemed eager in joining the Lacedaemonians in making war against the Athenians, advised Xenophon to go to Delphi and take common counsel with the god about the journey. Xenophon went and asked Apollo to which one of the gods he should sacrifice and pray in order to make the journey he had in mind in the noblest and best way and, after faring well, to return safely. And Apollo indicated to him the gods to whom he needed to sacrifice.

When he came back again, he told the oracular response to Socrates. On hearing it, Socrates blamed him because  he did not first ask whether it was more advisable for him  to make the journey or to remain, but he himself had judged that he was to go and then inquired how he might go in the noblest way. “However, since you did ask it in this way,” he said, “you must do all that the god bade.”

So after sacrificing to the ones the god had indicated, Xenophon sailed off.”

Read Full Post »

Three biblical stories, two in the Old Testament ——specifically in Genesis—— and one in the New Testament, might aid us in trying to understand, however imperfectly and sketchily, the issue of brotherhood in the Bible. The first story is the well-known story of Cain and Abel; the second, the well-known story of Joseph; and finally, the third story, the well-known story of the parable by Jesus of the Lost Son. All three will be presented solely by way of puzzles and questions. In this regard we ask hesitantly: Could it be that the possibility of friendship according to the Bible is very limited in the case of brothers for some very precise reasons? But, why would this be so? Don’t citizen parents actually put all their conjoined strengths into bringing up their children to be good to each other, to love each other?

Story 1: Cain and Abel, Genesis 4

Why provide a second fall immediately following the most foundational of all falls by Adam and Eve? Why indeed are the primary models of brotherhood Cain and Abel? Why is the story so astonishingly short? Why did God not accept Cain’s offering even if it was the first? Why is Cain so wronged and upset by God’s not accepting his gift? Is it because he is the first born? But, what is it that the first born feels entitled to that feeds such angry responses? Moreover, why does he seek to kill his brother? Why not simply punch him a few times? What is the nature of such blinding rage? What is the fundamental importance of Abel’s being a “keeper of flocks” as against Cain’s being “a tiller of the ground”? Is there something about nomadic lives that is more akin to the nature of the divine? Would it be its greater independence from the earthly? Or is it that nomads are much more in need of the presence of the divine as they move around a “homeless” world? Does it have to do with the fact the Abel deals with animals and their care? But then again, why can’t Cain see that God himself actually speaks to him in the story and not to Abel? In the same vein, why is the story about Cain and much less about Abel? Why does it matter so little to know what Abel’s life was like? And furthermore, why does Cain lie to make things even worse? But if Cain knows he is a sinner, and the worst at that as a fratricidal kind of being, why continue to punish Cain with a permanent eternal sign that will mark him permanently to all on the earth? Why punish him beyond his own consciousness of his knowing he has done a terrible, spiritually self-destructive, deed? (See Appendix 1 below.) And dramatically for political philosophy as defended by Athens, why is Cain the one who actually founds the first city of the Bible, the city of Enoch? Why is the Bible so pessimistic about the political from the very start?

Story 2: Joseph, Genesis 37-50

Why is the love of Joseph by his father so connected to the varicolored tunic he gave him in his old age? Does this shed light into the relation of the beautiful and the divine? Why is it also so intimately connected to his actually accompanying his father in old age as the younger one? Does this shed some light into the commandment regarding the honoring of our parents? Is honoring our parents primarily being able to accompany and prepare them for death? But if so, wouldn’t believers also learn much from Socrates for whom philosophy is a constant preparation for dying? And, why does the Bible see it fit to show that now it is not only one brother, but many, who hate Joseph? Moreover, why does Joseph so naively express such complex dreams to his brothers? Didn’t he surmise he would be in trouble? Must faith be necessarily naive (see Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy)? And besides, what is so special about dreams and our connection to the divine in the Bible? How to contrast these presence with Aristotle’s own consideration in his prudential text on dreams? And his brothers, why can’t they appreciate Joseph’s honesty? Would they have rather Joseph not tell them anything at all, that is, not prepare them at all for God’s presence? And very polemically, does Joseph’s being selected by God shed some light on our modern democratic families? And still, why in this occasion do the brothers decide only to fake Joseph’s death? Is it because they are thinking of their father with a certain sympathy? Surely not, for their father would still think Joseph to be dead, wouldn’t he? What is so particularly appalling about Judah’s idea of selling and wreaking profit from his brother’s enslavement? What is it about our desire to have and posses material things than makes Judah lead his own family into utter dislike by God? His future generations, the creations of his creations, are somehow condemned by his avarice, aren’t they? Is this part of the basis as well for Aquinas’ powerful condemnation of usury which speaks little to us nowadays? And what precisely could anger brothers and sisters about one of their own actually being chosen by God? Why wouldn’t this be an occasion for joy? What are brothers particularly so much in competition about? Could it be that at the bottom of their hearts lies a desire to become god-like and to be recognized as such by their kin? Wouldn’t this be what Aristophanes tells us as well in the Symposium? And moving closer to our times, why did Thomas Mann rewrite the story of Joseph in so many pages in our modern context of war? And very importantly, perhaps most importantly, how to understand Joseph’s final words to his fearing brothers:

“But Joseph said to them, “do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore do not be afraid: I will provide for you and your little ones” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis, 50: 20-21)

What exactly does Joseph mean by saying that God “meant it for good”? Was Joseph at all times aware that things would end so? Wouldn’t one apply the words “all ‘s well that ends well “ here? Is this last question simply a reflection of one’s pride? And why does he not suffer as much as Job does? What is it about Joseph that gives him such strength?

Story 3: Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15: 11-32

Why does this parable follow the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Why are they so ordered? Why one must speak of losing oneself in parables? Is it because we are moving in a particular direction? And crucially, why does the lost son wish to become a migrant risking his own life? Is it because he is more like Abel than Cain, the tiller of the land? Why wish to get lost? For surely, we know what is at stake in leaving our families, don’t we? And once again, why does the brother get so angry? Why is the love of his own recognition so important to him if he has lived right beside his father all his life? Wasn’t that enough? What more could he be looking for? And again, who would be envious of one’s brother’s having suffered and despaired in solitude? Which of these two brothers would actually be better prepared to honor his parents, as is our duty according to the 10 Commandments? Would the adequate honoring of one’s parents be a compromise between the two? But wouldn’t such a compromise involve a certain strange kind of anger that is not to be seen in the noblest of honorings and loves?

Appendix 1:

For a much more developed puzzling presentation of the Bible, one can turn to Professor Thomas Pangle’s difficult, yet engaging and puzzle-creating, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham where he touches on the life of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac. In particular, see pages 93-96 ‘The Puzzle of Divine Foreknowledge” which are three complete pages made up only of puzzles and questions. Or later on, in the chapter on “Guilt and Punishment” where Pangle writes in crucial relation to the above questions:

“But this last formulation brings close to us a final troubling question. However we are to understand criminal responsibility, what are the intelligible grounds for the overwhelming conviction that the guilty deserve to suffer for what they have done; and what are the intelligible grounds for the concomitant hope that they –that even we ourselves— will suffer the punishment that they, and we, deserve. For guilt betokens sin or vice; and sin or vice are either genuinely and severely harmful, in the most important respect, to the very soul of the criminal; or else they betoken an alienation of the criminal from the source of meaning for him as a being designed to devotion. Why, then, is it appropriate, why is it sensible, that such a crippled and or alienated being receive, in addition to and as a consequence of his corruption or alienation, further harm or suffering. Why is it so terribly important for us that to the suffering and mutilation of the spirit that is entailed in being unjust there be added extrinsic bad consequences for the perpetrator?” (PPGA, p. 101)

Pangle keeps alive, in critical contrast to modernity, the enriching yet tense debate between Athens and Jerusalem.

Appendix 2:

For a striking story of how Socrates views, at least minimally, the relation between brothers see Memorabilia 2.3 where one finds an astonishing conversation with Chaerecrates who has fought with his older brother. To begin to even try to understand this story, one would have to reconsider what Socrates considered to be a philosophical life and its relation to the citizens who inhabit the agora. Without such a perspective, the story seems merely to involve a strange naivety. And we know for certain that Xenophon, a general, was anything but naive.

But perhaps the true nature of brotherhood is best exemplified in The Republic where Glaucon and Adeimantus —both Plato’s brothers— encounter Socrates dialogically on the question of justice and reveal dramatically to the reader their unique and differing characteristics as regards the political and philosophical life. Perhaps it is by looking at the question of justice that at least some healthier brotherhoods may come about.

Read Full Post »

Almost everyone knows Socrates did not write anything. But knowing this fact makes it even more difficult to be surprised by it, and much less to seek, however partially, to understand its implications for us. For what does not surprise, rarely forces us to open ourselves to its unexpected appearance. This is primarily so in our culture where writing has become the hallmark of recognition. To be illiterate —— a form of quantifiable statistics of crucial importance in measuring the educational state of a nation———– is defined as being unable to read and write. Take for instance the shame of those who do not learn to write, it is so overwhelming that they prefer to live secluded lives. Take as well the assumed superiority of our culture to that of oral traditions (Rousseau saw this early on in his precious Essay on the Origin of Language).

In a similar vein, it is particularly in academia —–specially but not exclusively in the Humanities—- that the requirement to publish is not only the hallmark of assured creativity and proof of continued reflection, but also the avenue for institutional success. To rise academically one must publish. Nothing seems more obvious and normal to us than this. I remember once a professor speaking mockingly of some PhD candidates who had not published anything yet. Although I was rather young, I still remember even then being a bit surprised by the whole thing.

This is why I think Socrates’ decision not to write might be considered, at the very least, as a necessary corrective and counter-balancing presence. Does this mean we can do without publishing? Of course not, it just simply means that we might look at what Socrates did. That is all, or mostly all. And this is why for those of us who see in Socrates the model of the philosophic life, it makes sense to ask: Why would Socrates not write anything? Would he not be seriously considered as an odd figure among us because of this, exactly as he was seen in his very own time? (See Alcibiades’ description in the Symposium.) Socrates seems to remain a stinging ray! And moreover, and please bear with me, did Plato and Xenophon not commit a terrible injustice to Socrates in writing about him? But then again, who would have Socrates written about if HE was the one worth recording? For surely the whole thing was not simply because Socrates did not have the time to write; he himself confesses he only dedicated himself to oral dialectics, so he could have found the time! He chose not to do so, in contradistinction to our contemporaries who choose to do so. And of course, if Plato and Xenophon did commit an injustice, we are thankful for it, and understand that some such injustices must be pardoned for our very own sake and well-being. To this idea we shall return.

Why then would Socrates proceed in this strange way? The single most important aspect of Socrates’ refusal to write is his constant reminder that philosophy is primarily a way of life. A way of life can be written about, but the person living it, well, she just lives it! Socrates at one point in Xenophon’s writing, simply dances alone. The only exception would be if such a person decided to write his own autobiography; and Socrates, contrary to, for instance Churchill, chose not to. Our modern way of philosophizing, in contrast, sees writing as precisely THE way of life for the humanist; writing is of the essence. Of course, we teach courses, but once again the courses are primarily on written material themselves. In this respect, it is clear that what Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes saw in the Socratic experience was fundamentally an ergon (that is, an activity; deeds or action) AND a logos (a discursive account carried out in dialogue with other diverse interlocutors). (more…)

Read Full Post »

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Read Full Post »

For those of us who find the life of Socrates to be a truly philosophical life, perhaps THE model of the philosophical life, some aspects of his two Apologies (for I take Xenophon’s Apology as seriously as Plato’s) truly stand out.

First, these apologies are intended as a defense, a juridical defense of a way of life which physically endangers he who holds fast to its foundations. If this is so, then the first striking aspect of Socratism nowadays lies in that it is very rare to have an academic philosopher actually have to engage in such a public defense. This is odd and puzzling. Perhaps it is because philosophy has opened a space for itself among our democratic societies. But most likely, in doing so, philosophy has lost its most original and powerful reality. To put it boldly, one could even say that philosophy has actually retreated although it thinks itself to be at the very forefront.

Second, the Apologies show something that is altogether striking. Socrates’ audience, once he begins his voyage towards learning of his own wisdom which lies in knowing that he does not know, is not an academic audience. My life within academic circles has allowed me to see argumentation amongst academicians many a time. But herein lies what is striking, Socrates sought in the Apology as his interlocutors others, namely, artisans, poets, and politicians. It is these who find themselves angered by Socrates’ words and actions. It is they who take him to court. In this respect one could say that Socratic philosophy is essentially agoristic, it has its place primarily in the agora, the public space par excellence. Nowadays academic philosophy has lost sight of this and therefore has lost sight of the political foundations of Socrates’ life (Heidegger specially so). In this respect, if one has worked outside academia, it is not surprising to find the very real anger by many towards the “uselessness” of the philosophical life. Little in academic circles prepares one for such anger. Much can and has to be done to redress this.

It is little wonder that in classical political philosophy the civic virtue of courage is mentioned repeatedly. It is mentioned in order to moderate it via the courage of reflection. Little is heard of such topics today; for instance, Aristotle’s books on the virtues within both of his Ethics are quickly passed over as irrelevant to our condition. This amounts to a kind of unreflective surrender. In this same vein, little is said about rhetoric itself, the public political art par excellence. As a matter of fact, this is precisely why Xenophon is no longer taken seriously in academic circles themselves! (How many philosophers actually are such that excellent generals write about them?)

Agoristic philosophy is the foundation of Socratic political philosophy. Actually, agoristic philosophy is the foundation of all serious philosophy (both beyond the seriousness of the spoudaios and the seriousness of the modern intellectual.)

Read Full Post »

Socrates on love-charms and magic spells

Xenophon reports many intriguing conversations Socrates had with fellow Athenians and foreigners. One of these was held with an extremely beautiful young woman called Theodote who, given her beauty, frequently posed for painters and artists. The very end of their conversation reads like this:

“How, then,” she said. ‘would I be able to induce hunger in someone for what I have?”

“By Zeus,” he said Socrates, ‘if, first, you neither approach nor offer any reminder to those who are satiated until they stop being full and are in need again. Then, if you offer reminders to those who are in need by means of the most decorous intimacy possible and by visibly wishing to gratify, yet fleeing —until they are most in need. For it makes a big difference to give the same gifts at that point, rather than before they desire them.”

And Theodote said, “Why then, Socrates, don’t you become my fellow hunter of friends?”

“If, by Zeus,” he said, “you persuade me.”

“How, then, might I persuade you?” she said.

“You yourself will seek this out and will contrive it,” he said, “if you have some need of me.”

“Then visit me often,” she said.

And Socrates, joking about his own lack of busyness, said, “But Theodote, it is  not very easy for me to find leisure, for in fact many affairs both private and public deprive me of leisure. And I also have female friends who will not allow me to leave them day or night, since they are learning love charms and incantations from me.”

“Do you understand these things, as well, Socrates?” she said.

“Well,” he said,” why do you think Apollodorus here and Antisthenes are never absent from me? And why do you think Cebes and Simmias are present from Thebes? Know well that this hasn’t happened without many love charms, incantations and spells.”

“Then lend me the spell,” she said, “ so that I might draw it first against you.”

“But, by Zeus,” he said, “ I myself do not wish to be drawn to you —but that you come to me.”

“Then I will go to you,” she said. “Only receive me.”

“But I will receive you,” he said, “unless some female dearer than you is inside.”

Xenophon Memorabilia III, 11 (Translation by Amy L. Bonnette, (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1994)

No wonder ugly Socrates ——who knew he knew nothing—– also knew he only knew much about only ONE specific topic. That topic was eros. In this respect he is not far from artists, who also claim to know much about our erotic life.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts