Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Xenophon's Agesilaus, Books III-IX

Book III

As Xenophon turns to Agesilaus's inner virtues, he begins with reverence for divine things. So great was Agesilaus's respect for the gods that people trusted his oaths before the gods more than they trusted the normal ties of friendship. Religious piety is consistently, throughout Xenophon's work, treated as a very practical virtue, and this work is far from being any exception. Piety here is regarded as necessary to a general because it is a component of trustworthiness.

Book IV

In book IV we consider the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne), as exhibited in matters of money. No one ever accused Agesilaus of profiting by fraud. On the contrary, he is continually praised for his generosity to others. Not only did Agesilaus pay debts of justice, he paid debts of gratitude, as well, and in both cases he paid back more than he owed.

Book V

Agesilaus was also not enslaved to pleasures, avoiding immoderate drinking, eating, and sleeping, as well as sexual looseness; nor is this simply a matter of intensive discretion, since virtually everything he did was public. Xenophon insists in particular that these kinds of victories are greater victories than those Agesilaus had over his enemies; many men who can defeat external foes cannot defeat these internal ones.

While this book provides some of the most explicit statement, the emphasis on Agesilaus as willing to endure ponos, hard work, is a consistent point throughout the entire text; he will later be praised (IX.3) as philoponos, a lover of toil.

Book VI

In addition, Agesilaus exhibited manliness or courage, andreia, as well as wisdom, sophia. The sign of his courage was that he did not hesitate to fight even the strongest enemies, and when he did so, he did not hesitate to be on the front line. The wisdom Xenophon attributes to Agesilaus here is clearly that sort of wisdom that goes with courage in battle -- it is the military leader's tactical sagacity that serves to support, and is supported by, fortitude in battle, and which helps to spread it to others. By learning to make use of his advantages, he was able to turn even the strengths of his opponents against them. Thus he became both impressive to his enemies and a source of strength to his friends and allies.

Book VII

All of these virtues are tied up in his love of city, philopolis, which his every action exhibited (VII.1):

To speak briefly, we all know that when Agesilaus thought he would be serving his fatherland he never shirked toil, never shrank from danger, never spared money, never excused himself on the score of bodily weakness or old age; but believed that it is the duty of a good king to do as much good as possible to his subjects.

He served the laws and customs (nomoi) of the city. He was not afraid to praise even his enemies if they benefited the city and he treated all citizens, regardless of his disagreement or agreement with them, as people to stand by in times of trouble. He also stood for the rights of the Greek cities generally, so if it is honorable to love the Greeks, he has that honor; and if it is honorable to oppose the Persians who sowed so much discord among the Greeks, he has that honor, as well.


Book VIII gives us the social side of the king, in a flurry of virtue-words. Agesilaus was also gracious (eucharis). He was not boastful (megalauchos), but always was familially affectionate (philostorgos) and ready to help (therapeutikos) towards his friends. He liked to chat, but was always willing to work with those who faced serious issues, and as he was hopeful (euelpis), generous (euthymos), and cheerful (hilaros), people flocked to him. Nonetheless, he also had a high-mindedness (megalognomosyne) in matters touching Greek affairs, so that he could not be turned aside from what was good for the Greeks, and he had a profound simplicity of life.

Book IX

The end of Book VIII had begun a contrast between Agesilaus, as an ideal Greek, and the Persians, and Book IX continues it in force -- a somewhat different view than we get in other works, some of which are at least partly devoted to praising Persian heroes. But Agesilaus, of course, was a major rival to the Persians, and Xenophon implies that he could have conquered the Persian Empire if he had not put the needs of his city first, so the Persian Great King serves as a sort of equal and opposite to the Spartan king. Interestingly, Xenophon thinks the public nature of Agesilaus's displays of virtue is a thing to be said in his favor: "Agesilaus delighted to be constantly visible, believing that, whereas secrecy was becoming to an ugly career, the light shed lustre on a life of noble purpose."

Additional Comments

* Ashok Karra summarizes Xenophon's account of Agesilaus's virtues:

The complete list of his virtues: piety (III), justice (IV), moderation (V – the virtue is unnamed in the text; it is tied to piety. See Leo Strauss, Xenophon’s Socrates p. 101), courage, wisdom (VI), love of the city (VII), gracefulness (VIII). The center of his virtues is courage – no surprise, given II: 12-13. Courage is discussed in the same chapter with wisdom. There are 11 chapters in the work as a whole; chapter VI is doubly central.

As the post goes on to note, this list of virtues is similar to the list of Socratic virtues in the Memorabilia, raising the question of how the two are related.

* At the end of Book VIII, Xenophon affirms the importance of holding the soul inviolate against the assault of wealth, pleasure, and fear; this is exactly parallel to the progression in Books IV, V, and VI. Thus one can see love of the gods (Book III) as providing a foundation for his freedom from vice (Books IV-VI), which is linked to love of one's city (Book VII), all of which is adorned by a gracious and cheerful manner (Book VIII). This provides a perfect profile of the great Greek man, which Xenophon brings into sharper relief by contrasting it with the Persian (Books VIII and IX), whose great weakness is not having a life conducive to love of city, and therefore to true civilization, which requires it.

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