Friday, July 11, 2014

Xenophon's Socratic Memorabilia, Book I

Xenophon son of Gryllus is the only student of Socrates besides Plato from whom we have extant complete works. (We have beyond this a small handful of substantial fragments from Aeschines and insignificant fragments from a few others.) While Plato's star has always been shining brightly above the horizon, Xenophon has not been so fortunate, and how highly he has been regarded has depended greatly on the tastes of the age. The past couple hundred years has been an era of depreciating Xenophon, usually on two grounds: he is a mediocre and unoriginal mind and he is morally platitudinous and conventional. I will say right up front that I regard both judgments as irrational nonsense backed by obviously stupid arguments. The first is almost always claimed on the basis of comparison with Plato; which is quite as dimwitted a standard as if I were to go about calling every novelist mediocre who did not write as well as Jane Austen. I think Xenophon is often not doing the same thing as Plato, so making straightforward comparisons is already unwise, but even if we pass this over, it is ridiculous to treat someone as intellectually or philosophically mediocre simply because they don't come up to the standard of Plato. I am very sure that those denigrating Xenophon on such grounds do not generally meet that standard themselves. Moreover, there are clear positive reasons for regarding Xenophon as brilliant. There have been plenty of times when he has been thought to be so. And he seems to have been the inventor of several different philosophical genres, and is an enduring master of them all. As for the other judgment, this is also false; but there's no better way to see it than actually reading Xenophon closely without prejudging the issue.

One of Xenophon's most important works is the Apomnemoneumata, most commonly in English as the Memorabilia. This work is a vigorous defense of Socrates against criticism. It is divided into four books. You can read it in English at the Perseus Project in E. C Marchant's translation or at Project Gutenberg in H. G. Dakyns's translation. He's an easier read than Plato, and he gives us Socrates in smaller portions than Plato does.

Theme and Structure

Book I is concerned with addressing directly the major charges against Socrates: impiety and corruption of the youth. Xenophon argues that he was innocent of both charges. This argument is naturally broken up into several segments:

1.1 Xenophon notes that Socrates regularly sacrificed to the gods in public and trusted in divination. He suggests that it was Socrates' daemon that led people to conclude he was introducing new deities; in fact, this is not any different than standard Athenian divination practices and shows Socrates' piety. Moreover, Socrates was always out in public without saying anything impious, and did not indulge in the kinds of speculations that get associated with that label. Moreover, one of the most famous events in Socrates' life, his defense of the rights of the generals after Arginusae, show him upholding his sacred oath.

1.2 It makes no sense to claim that Socrates corrupted the youth given that he practiced self-restraint or moderation himself. Xenophon then spends some time on Critias and Alcibiades, the two students who might be taken as evidence of Socrates' bad influence, arguing that their corruption was in fact a falling away from Socrates' teaching. After this, he handles specific arguments about the teaching itself: what he taught about family and friends and how he handled the poets. Socrates' life involved nothing worthy of a death penalty.

1.3 Xenophon moves on to argue that, far from corrupting his associates, he benefited them, partly by example and partly by discussion, in both religious practice and self-discipline.

1.4-7 The next criticism to which Xenophon responds is the claim that while Socrates might have been able to start people off in the pursuit of goodness, he could not lead them to it; Xenophon argues that people associating with Socrates actually became better people. He gives examples of particular cases in 1.4, and in the next three he gives more general features of Socrates' teaching that contributed to his associates being better: in 1.5, he gives a sample discourse of Socrates on self-discipline; in 1.6, he shows how Socrates in argument with Antiphon the Sophist emphasizes the importance of self-discipline and moderation; and in 1.7, he gives Socrates' argument against wanting only to seem good rather than really to be good.

Notable Highlights

(1) One of the most interesting passages in the first book occurs in 1.2, when Xenophon is discussing Critias, and showing how he and Socrates fell out, and the opposition between Critias and Socrates when the former became one of the Thirty Tyrants. Critias attempted to seduce a youth, named Euthydemus (whom we get more of later), and was warned that he was acting slavishly:

And when Critias paid no attention to these protests and was not diverted from his purpose, Socrates is reported to have said, in the presence of several persons including Euthydemus himself, that Critias seemed to be suffering from pig's itch: he wanted to scratch himself against Euthydemus like a piglet scratching itself against a stone.

(One of my favorite passages in any Socratic text!) According to Xenophon, Critias took this quite personally, and so when he became one of the Thirty, he along with Charicles insisted on passing a law against disputations, specifically out of spite against Socrates. Of course, this couldn't stop Socrates from being Socrates:

When the Thirty were putting to death many of the citizens (and those not the worst of them) and were inciting many others to do wrong, Socrates observed on one occasion that it seemed extraordinary to him that a man appointed to look after a herd of cattle who made them fewer and worse than they were before should not admit that he was a bad herdsman, and still more extraordinary that a man appointed as a political leader who was making the citizens fewer and worse than they were before was not ashamed and did not consider himself a bad political leader.

He gets called before Critias and Charicles, and we get an interesting and typically mischievous dialogue between Socrates and the two tyrants. He asks them whether they take the art of disputation to involve speaking correctly or not, so that he can be sure to obey the law. Charicles impatiently tells him not to speak to the young at all. So Socrates asks what ages he means; Charicles says anyone below thirty. Socrates asks if these means he can't speak to people below thirty if he is just buying something from them and wants to know what the price is -- and so it goes on, and ends with an implied threat by Charicles that if he doesn't watch out, Socrates might be guilty of thinning the herd himself.

(2) Another interesting passage occurs in 1.3, where Xenophon relates a discussion between Socrates and himself. We never get this kind of thing with Plato, of course, who does not show himself interacting with Socrates; and it shows something about Xenophon that he is willing to write a little dialogue in which he gets called a fool or dullard (moros) by Socrates.

Socrates and Xenophon talk about Critobulus (the son of Crito), who had kissed the son of Alcibiades. (Critobulus is apparently there.) Socrates remarks that he was being reckless, and when Xenophon asks why, he remarks that it's the kind of action that turns men into slaves, just like a little spider can poison a person and drive them mad with a little bite. Xenophon remarks that spiders do it by injecting something. Socrates says he's a fool; good-looking people with the bloom of youth inject a poison as well -- but they can sometimes do it even without contact, just by sight. He advises Xenophon to flee anyone who is good-looking, and recommends that Critobulus go away for a year to recover from the poison.


  1. Enbrethiliel2:56 PM


    I just finished Chapter 2. This is fantastic! I like getting a finely drawn portrait of Socrates for a change. =)

    But I have a question about the dialogue between Alcibiades and Pericles, when the former seems to convince the latter that any law which people are forced rather than persuaded to follow is not properly a law. That "scene" in Alcibiades's life seems to mark the moment when he abandons philosophy for politics--which Xenophon obviously thinks is unfortunate. But I was kind of enjoying the point Alcibiades was making (especially since it meant that martial law--every Filipino's favourite dystopian nightmare--is actually an oxymoron!) and don't get what is so sinister about it. Is it that point from the Gorgias again about persuasion not necessarily being in line with the truth?


  2. branemrys3:32 PM

    That's a good question; particularly since Xenophon speaks favorably of government by persuasion earlier in the chapter. I might be entirely wrong, but the way I read it is that Pericles is implicitly giving an argument for democracy against oligarchy -- democracy is based on persuasion, oligarchy on violence. But Alcibiades' response shows that the institution of democratic regimes -- which involves the whole people enacting measures to limit the power of the propertied classes -- is subject to the same argument. And Pericles and Alcibiades pretty much just leave it at that -- all the kinds of government the Greeks knew, despotism, oligarchy, and democracy, turn out to be nothing but the exercise of force.

  3. branemrys3:40 PM

    I should add that I like the finely drawn portrait aspect of Xenophon, myself; Plato's great, but it's so very refreshing to get Xenophon after a stretch of Plato.

  4. Enbrethiliel3:15 AM


    Would you believe I'm still here? =P One reason I'm so slow is that I'm taking notes. (Awesome notes.) There's more here on Socrates's philosophy of life than I've read so far in Plato--or rather, more of what leans toward the practical. I can think of a couple of friends who've had their low-key lifestyles criticised, who would be very gratified by Socrates's moral support.

    I have another question which is related to taking money from one's companions. In this case, are the companions clearly students or was it common among friends in Ancient Greece to exchange monetary gifts?

  5. branemrys7:01 AM

    There is certainly enough in Xenophon worth taking time on! And Xenophon is famously more practical than Plato -- his Socrates will discuss things like how to manage a farm or what kind of person to hire in a business, and it is difficult to imagine aristocratic Plato's doing so.

    Gift-giving was pervasive in Greek culture, but my suspicion,without complete certainty, is that monetary gifts would more commonly have indicated an asymmetric relationship, and that it would have been more common for Greeks to give gifts to friends by things like throwing parties for them. But charging students fee was a relatively new thing -- it is said that the first one to do it was Protagoras, and he was only just finishing up his career as Socrates was starting his (if you put all of Plato's dialogues in the chronological order implied by their narratives, the second is young Socrates arguing with an old Protagoras).


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