Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Xenophon's Kynegetikos

The Kynegetikos, or Cynegeticus, as it is in the more common common latinized version of the name, is Xenophon's treatise on hunting (the name literally means 'what has to do with hunting using dogs'). That it is more than a practical skills manual, however, is clear from the fact that it also contains an intense attack on sophists.

You can read the Cynegeticus online in English at the Perseus Project.

The Argument

Xenophon opens the treatise by noting that hunting is a gift of the gods, having its divine patrons (Apollo and Artemis), who gave the art to Cheiron the centaur, who then taught the great heroes of Greece: "Through the heed they paid to hounds and hunting and the rest of their scholarship they excelled greatly and were admired for their virtue" (1.5). Xenophon thus thinks of hunting as a form of education, one "by which men become good in war and in all things out of which must come excellence in thought and word and deed" (1.18).

Indeed, we find in Chapter 2 that he takes hunting to be a sort of foundational education, the kind of thing one should start a boy out with before branching into other things. He then gives practical advice on the kind of outfit and equipment one should have (Chapter 2), the kind of dogs one should look for (Chapters 3 and 4), how to go about hunting rabbits (Chapters 5 and 6), how to breed and name dogs (Chapter 7), how to track rabbits (Chapter 8). He then moves on to deer (Chapter 9), boar (Chapter 10), and then big predators like lions and bears (Chapter 11).

Having given practical tips, he looks at the advantages of hunting: "it makes the body healthy, improves the sight and hearing, and keeps men from growing old; and it affords the best training for war" (12.1). It is a kind of training in truth, as well, requiring restraint and fairness, and at least occasional self-denial. This is not a sufficient condition for virtue, but it is necessary; people who are driven to indulge in pleasures cannot achieve virtue.

This principle, and the art of hunting, is inconsistent with the education given by the sophists:

We have never seen anywhere the man whose goodness was due to the sophists of our generation. Neither do their contributions to literature tend to make men good: but they have written many books on frivolous subjects, books that offer the young empty pleasures, but put no virtue into them. To read them in the hope of learning something from them is mere waste of time, and they keep one from useful occupations and teach what is bad. Therefore their grave faults incur my graver censure.

Xenophon says that, unlike the sophists, his intent is to write a good book on a good subject that helps to make men good, advising everyone to avoid the sophists, who are hunters of the rich and young and not, like philosophers, friends to all. True hunters will hunt wild beasts, but sophists and wicked men hunt their friends; true hunters hunt for necessity or the good of others, but sophists and the like hunt for private gain. And Xenophon ends with a comment that shows him to be a true inheritor of the Socratic concept of education:

For all men who have loved hunting have been good: and not men only, but those women also to whom the goddess has given this blessing, Atalanta and Procris and others like them.


Quotations are from Marchant's translation at the Perseus Project.


  1. Enbrethiliel3:06 AM


    The more you post about the books I'm missing, Brandon, the more I wonder whether having a full-time job is worth it. =P

    Obviously, I can't comment on Cynegeticus itself, but the first idea--that hunting is an invention and gift of the gods--really grabbed me. I've been knitting for about a week and marveling at the mind that first thought up this ingenious way of turning yarn (which is sort of two-dimensional) into blankets (which are totally three-dimensional). It's like geometry and art and physics and crafts and home economics and whatever else I've missed, all rolled into one! (In case you're not picking up on it, I'm seriously impressed. Awed, actually.) And I can't blame the Ancient Greeks for thinking that knitting and its sister craft crocheting were developed by Athena--because surely only a goddess could have given all of humanity such an excellent gift! =D

    Perhaps somewhere in the world right now there is a hunter who appreciates the bountifulness of the design of his hobby in a similar way and who would, had he been born in Ancient Greece, be a great devotee of Apollo and Artemis.

    And I do have to chuckle at the parallel between hunters and sophists. I wish I that could follow Xenophon's line of thought to its conclusion. =)

  2. branemrys8:36 AM

    When I was reading it to make the post, it occurred to me that it would probably have fit well with your unschooling theme when you were doing that.

    The idea that that arts of civilization derive from the gods is quite widespread; it shows, I suppose, that it is natural to a human being to find something in the arts that is worthy of veneration, as if an art were a snippet of divine thought that a human being can pick up.

  3. Enbrethiliel2:09 PM


    It was shorter than I thought, so I went ahead and read it. =P And skimming over the practical parts made it even easier. LOL!

    It was also striking to see how different a Greek child's education was from that of all modern "schooled" children. But when I wonder what it would take to recreate a bit of it, I wonder if it remains sustainable. If every teenager in the United States (for instance) were required to go on a hunt at least once a year, would there be any wildlife left by the time the freshmen in that bunch graduate? =P

  4. branemrys1:40 AM

    It definitely is a question how well it would scale, given the massively greater, and massively more city-bound, populations of our day.


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