Category: Persons

Xenophon (and Plato)

Statesman, historian, author of ethical dialogues; Xenophon is a valuable source of information on Socrates’ life and activities.

Life

Xenophon was born around 430 BCE in Athens and it was there that he became acquainted early on with Socrates’ circle. A milestone in his life and in the development of his personality was his participation in the Greek troops that supported Cyrus, the Persian who challenged his brother Artaxerxes for the throne in 401. The defeated army, led by Xenophon, returned to Greece -- the return is known as “descent of ten thousand”. His later turn toward and association with Sparta will lead to his being exiled from Athens. Abandoned in Scillus of Elis, he devotes himself to writing most of his historical, didactic and Socratic works. A few years after the battle of Leuctra the Athenians recalled him from exile, around 365. Xenophon dies in Corinth, most probably before 350.

His works

Xenophon continues Thucydides’ history in his Hellenica, in which he tries to retain (not always successfully) his great predecessor’s model of recording events by year. He also writes many other works, two of which (the Anabasis of Cyrus and the Cyropaedia) inaugurate new literary genres in antiquity (the “military memoirs” and the “didactic novel”). Moreover, his association with the circle of Socrates adds to his writings the dialogical works Oeconomicus, Apology, Symposium and Memorabilia, in which, the historical account of events linked to Socrates’ life notwithstanding, an attempt is made to approach and develop concepts from the field of ethical philosophy.

Xenophon was a multifaceted personality: a literary man of substantial education, a disciplined soldier, an admirer of rural life, an especially pious person. He was quite familiar with the philosophy of his time, but he is not considered as a main or important representative of the field. His relevant views and beliefs, presented in Socrates’ voice, can be examined in light of Plato’s evidence and evaluated accordingly. Xenophon’s Socrates is clearly different from the more familiar Platonic figure of Socrates: the former retains only an outline of the true philosopher, he is a person struggling to define concepts from the realm of ethics through dialectic.

Socrates in the works of Xenophon

The Oeconomicus presents us with a Socrates who is knowledgeable regarding household management. The foundations of correct production, arrangement and utilisation of products are located in the family. Each of its members takes up the task assigned to it. Truth is brought out of the farmer-philosopher through questions that are relevant to the field of production and proper economic management. In this task Socrates, although tackling a bizzare topic, does not cease to observe and test his co-citizens’ character, by using his preferred method of questions and answers.

In the Apology Xenophon claims that Socrates’ attitude/stance on the day of his trial is in line with piety. This means that the way the philosopher faces death is determined by his respect toward the gods, but also by the justice exhibited in his relations to his co-citizens. Xenophon attributes to Socrates the claim that he was the most frugal man of his time. At the end of this short work he states that he could not but praise the wisdom and bravery of Socrates and that every time he recalls him he wishes to praise him.

In the Symposium Socrates is presented as an everyday, spontaneous citizen. On the occasion of a discussion of eros, a commonplace topic for Athenian symposia, Socrates supports his main claim that the love of the soul ranks higher than the love of the body. Hence, Callias, who is giving the banquet in honour of Autolycus, must indicate that he is interested in the beauty of Autolycus’s (in whose honour ) soul, by acquiring virtue; such virtue that a lover must possess in his soul so that he can teach his beloved. One could speak at this point of a Platonic reading of love -- since Plato’s Symposium is definitely known to Xenophon. Yet the work’s structure, the awkward transition from one topic to the next and their brief development, as well as the narrative’s point of view giving a sense of reminiscing, testify to Xenophon’s particular authorial voice.

The title Memorabilia signifies the content of Xenophon’s last and most important work about Socrates. It is made up of all kinds of memories and unconnected episodes from the philosopher’s life and activities. Its goal is not to provide a biography of the teacher, but to disseminate his exemplary nature in society. An effort is made at the same time to refute the charges brought against him. The frequent use of examples in the Memorabilia has led to the suggestion that Xenophon takes up a similar stance with Antisthenes and that he is clearly influenced by the latter. The text is a valuable source for anyone studying the so-called “Socratic problem”, since it includes evidence on Socrates that one is not familiar with from Plato’s works.

Author: Ioannis Petrakis
  • Morrison, D. R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Tuplin, Ch. ed. Xenophon and His World: Papers from a Conference Held in Liverpool. Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.
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