Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Xenophon's Socrates

I’m still catching up with myself.  I wanted to spend March thinking about Socrates as a philosopher, independent from Plato’s use of him, to the extent that it is possible.  The Socrates of Aristophanes in The Clouds is not much help.  But luckily we have Xenophon, a close contemporary of Plato, and his Recollections of Socrates.

Xenophon was not really a philosopher.  He wrote many books in a wide variety of genres, most famously Anabasis, his account of leading ten thousand Greek mercenaries to safety through hostile Persian territory, and since he wrote some of everything he wrote some philosophical works, since that was one of the modes of the time.  Since he did not have any original ideas, the lasting value of his philosophy is his loving, down to earth portrait of Socrates.

Just today I found a quite good piece by Cambridge professor Carol Atack about Xenophon’s “kinder Socrates.”  I am not sure that “kinder” is the right word.  Maybe.  Xenophon shows a practical Socrates who dispenses common sense ethical advice on a range of problems.  My brother is being a jerk to me; should I therefore be a jerk to him?  Socrates says no, be a good guy.  Much of his advice is not so far form the Golden Rule. 

He takes the position that leaders ought to have knowledge, which does not sound so controversial to me.  Young Glaucon is planning to get into politics:

“Shouldn’t we give advice when we no longer surmise something, but actually know it?”
“Perhaps,” said Glaucon, “that is better.” (3.6, tr. Anna S. Benjamin)

“Advice to Artists.”  “On Table Manners.”  “Socrates Advises Eutherus on Finding Suitable Employment.”  For example.

Xenophon does not contradict but extends my idea of who Socrates was.  It is easy to imagine him playing the advice columnist for most people while saving the aggressive Socratic takedowns for his enemies the Sophists and the complex investigations of fundamental concepts for dedicated students like Theaetetus.

I tried Xenophon’s Socratic dialogue.  Oeconomicus is about household management, a long-lasting genre of book that is rarely especially literary.  I do not understand the advantage if the dialogue in this case, except to lend Xenophon’s common sense ideas the authority of Socrates.

Symposium is more fun, although hardly as interesting as Plato’s.  It’s another drinking party where the guests talk about love (of men for boys), but this time there is no Aristophanes fantasy and no interruption by Alcibiades.  There are, though, flute girls.

After this, the other girl began to play the flute for the dancer and someone standing beside her passed twelve hoops over to her.  As she took them she danced and threw them spinning into the air, calculating how high she would have to throw them in order to catch them on the beat.  (138, tr. Robert C. Bartlett in The Shorter Socratic Writings, Cornell University Press)

I also read the nine-page Apology of Socrates to the Jury.  Where Plato’s Apology purports to be the actual speech Socrates gave in his own defense, Xenophon’s Apology is a dialogue in which Socrates and his friend discuss his defense.  It is a quite interesting piece n the way it reinforces but occasionally contradicts Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates.

Tomorrow I will move to Plato’s version.


  1. I read The Republic last year, but I will reread it now, but am very interested in Xenophon too. This was a very helpful blog post thanks.

  2. Xenophon gives such a different - but not contradictory - picture of Socrates. He clearly deeply loved his teacher.

    I guess I am ready to get going on The Republic. I am looking forward to it although dreading a bit the endless litany of "Yes, Socrates."