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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.”

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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…)

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