“Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1819, comparing Xenophon’s work favourably with the “mysticisms” and “whimsies” of Plato’s dialogues. More recently, many philosophers have taken the opposite view; a typical verdict is that of Terence Irwin in 1974, who described Xenophon as a “retired general” who presented “ordinary conversations.” The idea that Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues entirely lacked the philosophical bite or intellectual depth of Plato’s had become a commonplace in a philosophical discourse which prioritised abstract knowledge over broader ethics.
Both Jefferson and Irwin were right in identifying the characteristics of Xenophon’s depiction of his teacher—his overwhelming concern with providing practical advice for living a good life, and for managing relationships with family and friends. But both missed Xenophon’s lively wit, and his use of the dialogue form to put Socrates in conversation with Athenians, both friends and family and more public figures whose identity adds some spice to the discussion. Xenophon depicts a Socrates who offers pragmatic solutions to the difficulties his Athenian friends face, from Socrates’ own son’s rows with his mother to his friend Crito’s difficulties with vexatious lawsuits targeting his wealth. Where Plato shows Socrates leaving his conversation partners numbed and distressed by their recognition of their ignorance, as if attacked by a stingray, Xenophon takes more care to show how Socrates moved friends and students on from the discomfort of that initial learning moment. He offers practical solutions and friendly encouragement, whether persuading warring brothers to support each other or finding a way in which a friend can support the extended family taking refuge in his home. His advice is underpinned by an ethical commitment to creating and maintaining community.
It is not that Xenophon’s Socrates is afraid to show the over-confident the limits of their capabilities; while he offers encouragement and practical advice on personal and business matters, he rebukes those who want power and prestige without first doing their homework. His Socrates demonstrates to the young Glaucon that he needs to be much better informed about the facts and figures of Athenian civic and military resources before he proposes policy to his fellow citizens in Athens or seeks elected office. Socrates’ forensic uncovering of the young man’s ignorance of practical matters is sharpened for readers who recognise that this is Plato’s brother, depicted in his Republic as an acute interlocutor, able to follow Socrates’ most intellectually demanding arguments. In the conversation Xenophon presents, Glaucon is reduced to mumbling one excuse after another:
“Then first tell us,” said Socrates, “what the city’s land and naval forces are, and then those of our enemies.”
“Frankly,” he said, “I couldn’t tell you that just off the top of my head.”
“Well, if you have some notes of it, please fetch them,” said Socrates. “I would be really glad to hear what they say.”
“Frankly,” he said, “I haven’t yet made any notes either.”(Memorabilia 3.6.9)
Xenophon might be making a very ordinary claim here, that good leadership decision-making rests on a firm grasp of practical detail. But it gains depth when read against Plato’s argument in the Republic for handing over political leadership to philosopher kings, trained in theoretical disciplines. Xenophon argues that rule should be grounded from the bottom up; he is a firm believer in transferable skills, and that the ability to manage a household might equip someone to lead an army or their city.
Xenophon does not leave Glaucon quite as discomfited as Socrates’ interlocutors in Platonic dialogues become, such as the Euthyphro where the titular character hurries away rather than go through another round of being disabused of his opinions. He shows how Socrates moves on from the low point of the realisation of ignorance and starts to rebuild his interlocutors’ self-confidence, now underpinned by knowledge and self-awareness. Socrates offers Glaucon a careful recommendation for developing his management skills and gaining credibility before returning to public debates as a more impressive contributor. With another student, Euthydemus, Socrates switches from the argumentative mode familiar from Plato’s work—the Socratic “elenchus” or refutation—to exhortation and encouragement, as teacher and student become more familiar with each other and learn together cooperatively.
“Responding to Plato’s dialogues with a less intellectualist account of the capacities that leaders need, Xenophon made a case for the importance of leadership skills and knowledge as the basis of public trust.”
One reason that Xenophon was motivated to show a Socrates who encouraged his students to make useful contributions to public life was to rebut critics who presented him—not entirely without cause—as the teacher of some of the leaders of the brutal regime of the Thirty, which briefly overthrew Athens’ democracy after the end of the Peloponnesian War. Xenophon insists that these former students had abandoned Socrates’ teaching in favour of an aggressive pursuit of power.
Xenophon recognised the usefulness of a wide range of practical experience. A businessman might well make a useful general. But he makes Socrates insist that leaders must show practical knowledge and analytical skills in order to persuade others to follow them and to deliver successful outcomes, whether in business or in battle. The combination of knowledge and skill, which his students label basilikē technē, the “royal art”,” is an essential attribute of leadership. By responding to Plato’s dialogues with a less intellectualist account of the capacities that leaders need, Xenophon made a case for the importance of leadership skills and knowledge as the basis of public trust. In a contemporary context where trust in leaders and educators alike is low, perhaps there is a powerful and accessible case for the role of expertise in government and society, which Xenophon makes through his memories of Socrates’ conversations.
Featured image: “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David via The Met (public domain)
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