An Introduction to the Work of Xenophon

In his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius reports how Xenophon came to be associated with Socrates.

“They say that Socrates met him in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, ‘Follow me, then, and learn.’ And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates.”

Born around 430 BCE and dying around 354 BCE, Xenophon did indeed become a “follower” of Socrates. It is primarily from the writings of Xenophon and Plato that we learn of the speeches and deeds of Socrates. Yet, unlike Plato, who stayed in Athens and founded a philosophical academy, Xenophon chose a more active life, political and military. Apparently against the advice of Socrates, Xenophon became a mercenary, joining a Persian army led by Cyrus the Younger, an experience he would later memorialize in the Anabasis.

How, then, was Xenophon a follower of Socrates? Socrates enjoyed leisurely discussions with philosophic or potentially philosophic men. The generals and common soldiers with whom Xenophon had to deal were not philosophic. Does Xenophon offer us an example of the brilliant but wayward student, someone who, because of some character flaw, was unable himself to pursue the kind of life he nonetheless divined to be best? Or perhaps Xenophon, like Plato, concluded that the way of Socrates, however much an example of the best kind of life, could not and perhaps should not be perfectly imitated—and that there might be a variety of ways to be “Socratic.”

Whatever the case may be, philosophic and Socratic themes are never absent from Xenophon’s writings. With supreme artfulness and taste, Xenophon’s writings reveal how philosophic questions emerge directly from life. Whether a wayward Socratic or not, for us Xenophon provides a great example of how to be philosophic while “out in the world.”

Socratic Writings

Xenophon wrote four works about Socrates: the Memorabilia, the Oeconomicus, the Symposium, and the Apology of Socrates. What immediately distinguishes these Socratic writings from those of Plato is the more plebian character of their interlocutors. While the Platonic Socrates usually (though not always) converses with the best and the brightest, Xenophon’s Socrates almost always talks with ordinary folk. One example must suffice here. Xenophon’s only explicit portrayal of Socratic education occurs not in a dialogue between Socrates and a promising young student, but between Socrates and the slow-witted, easy-going Euthydemus. But Xenophon uses this conversation, in the last book of the Memorabilia, to point to a kind of common denominator shared by all students, at least at the beginning of their education. Euthydemus, we see, wishes to learn things in order to engage in politics. And he further believes that one cannot be good at political things without being just. The easy-going Euthydemus accepts that he knows enough about justice to engage in political action. It is doubtful that better students, and better readers, would be as easily satisfied. Euthydemus’ complacency helps to stimulate thought in the less complacent. Still, Xenophon implies that the starting point for all Socratic education is this political ambition—the desire to know for the sake of political action.

The treatment of Euthydemus in the Memorabilia is a prominent example of how Xenophon elicits essential philosophic themes from surprising, or counterintuitive sources. The conversation between Socrates and Euthydemus makes us wonder: Must political action always proceed on an incomplete sense of justice? Is the hallmark of a philosophic nature the extent to which one accepts such partial information? Is education—the replacement of partial with correct understanding—necessarily unending, and what are the consequences for political action?

In Socrates’ conversation with a know-it-all gentleman-farmer in the Oeconomicus, the farmer’s description of his wife’s talented management of the family’s pantry calls to mind, for philosophic readers, the act of dividing, separating, and ranking things scientifically. Even when philosophy is not mentioned, philosophy is present.

The Education of Cyrus

The Cyropaedia, or The Education of Cyrus, may very well be the most profound meditation on political ambition ever written. It is a literary account of the education and career of the founder of the Persian Empire, who died in 530 BCE. Xenophon’s works abound in political characters with varying degrees of talent. But, for Xenophon, Cyrus represents by far the most impressive political type. In his writings, Xenophon thus presents “Socrates” on the one hand and “Cyrus” on the other, and invites his readers to compare the two. In a kind of preface to the Education of Cyrus, Xenophon writes that he remembered the case of Cyrus when he wondered why all political regimes seemed to be so unstable and often overthrown. The career of Cyrus seems to demonstrate, says Xenophon, that political rule is not difficult provided one does it with virtue.

Xenophon invites readers to judge the extent of Cyrus’ virtue and how he acquired it. The narration covers the transformation of the “old Persia” (which bears some important resemblance to old Sparta) into the empire that Cyrus creates, with undeniable political mastery. Still, it is not an easy task to discern exactly what the “education” of Cyrus might be. Xenophon’s presentation of Cyrus’ education has important lacunae. For instance, Xenophon states that the years between eighteen and twenty-eight are the most important for the education of a man—but he tells us absolutely nothing of what Cyrus did or learned during those years.

Xenophon’s work is perhaps not a straightforward unfolding of how Cyrus himself was educated, but rather a study of what education is and what it can accomplish, and, perhaps, what might have been missing in Cyrus’ own education. The possible double meaning in the title is to be noted. The Education of Cyrus is not merely what Cyrus learns, but what we learn from watching Cyrus.

As Cyrus develops his empire, he continues to appear moderate and restrained in his personal habits. But we see how the appetites of his Persians grow, and the virtue of moderation that seemed to characterize old Persia falls away with the possibilities and temptations of empire. This is not necessarily an indictment of Cyrus. If one accepts Xenophon’s statement at the outset of the work regarding the cyclical character of regimes, one recognizes that a certain degree of corruption becomes inevitable in political life. The corruption in Persian manners was perhaps a necessary consequence, however regrettable, of the Persian Empire. After all, Cyrus embarked on empire in the first place for reasons of self-defense: it was a response to necessity and therefore just. Cyrus himself, it seems, was not unaware of this dilemma. Still, the growth of the Persian Empire is not altogether unproblematic. Though Cyrus pretty much succeeds in everything he sets out to do, Xenophon tells us that his empire begins to collapse swiftly immediately after his death. The obvious defect of empire is the requirement of someone of superior virtue like Cyrus, and such men are not always at the helm. The collapse of Cyrus’ empire has given rise to multiple interpretations. Is this Xenophon’s way of indicating his preference for philosophy? Cyrus’ political ambition, however noble, is still subject to fortune, and thus to decay. Only ideas defy this fate. Or is Xenophon rather joking at the expense of the philosophers, inviting them, as they sometimes do, to speak proudly of the ultimate futility of all politics? In causing us to raise such questions, Xenophon’s Cyrus allows us to consider political action at its peak.

Xenophon’s Ascent

Of all Xenophon’s writings, the Anabasis (literally Ascent), sometimes called the Anabasis of Cyrus, has had the most enduring hold on the imagination of Western civilization. For one thing, the narrative is indisputably gripping. The story recounts the attempt of Cyrus the Younger, a Persian contemporary of Xenophon, to dislodge his elder brother from the Persian throne, with the help of 10,000 Greek mercenaries, including Xenophon himself. After the disastrous failure of Cyrus’ campaign, Xenophon realizes he must take charge of the Greeks, and through brilliant leadership he leads the Greeks through Persian territory back to safety. Also, Xenophon’s Attic Greek prose in this text is so clear that it became a standard text for the instruction of Greek over the centuries. Indeed, the deceptively “straightforward” character of this and other Xenophontic writings has led too-clever-by-half pedants to conclude that Xenophon was philosophically uninteresting.

A careful reading, however, reveals that it is a work of immense subtlety and sophistication. In this work, too, philosophic questions emerge from “action” as well as speeches. To take one somewhat less well-known example, one can consider the case of Xenophon’s treatment of a character called Meno in the Anabasis. Like Xenophon, Meno was a mercenary general in Cyrus’ army. Also like Xenophon, Meno had been an associate of Socrates. We possess a Platonic dialogue by that name. What seems clear is that in the Anabasis we see Meno, as a general, acting very much in line with what we learn about him from his conversation with Socrates in Plato, in which he denies the unity of virtue. While clever at manoeuvers and a competent trickster, Meno is unable to muster any doctrine or policy that might unify the divergent strains of his army. His inability to think of “unity” or the “whole” proves to be a remarkable weakness when in command of an army. We are stimulated to reflect on the doctrine of “parts and wholes” by witnessing it at work in the realm of politics.

On Tyranny

Xenophon’s dialogue the Hiero, also known as On Tyranny, had been nearly forgotten until Leo Strauss rediscovered it in the first half of the twentieth century. Strauss’ interpretation of that dialogue, and a counter-interpretation offered by Alexandre Kojève, form the basis for what has come to be known as the “Strauss-Kojève debate” on the nature of modernity and the possibility of translating “philosophy” understood as the unending search for clarity about our situation, into “wisdom,” understood as the fruits of philosophy that can then be used politically to resolve the tensions of human life.

In the dialogue, Xenophon stages a conversation between a poet, Simonides, and a tyrant, Hiero. Over the course of the dialogue, Simonides tries to persuade Hiero not to abandon tyranny, but to practice a gentler version of it. Better treatment of the people by the tyrant would spell happiness for the tyrant, Simonides claims. The poet does not ask whether the tyrant loves to rule or what his political ambitions are, but only about how he experiences the senses and sensual passions. Simonides uses Hiero’s sometimes-dishonest account of his passions to construct a kind of tyranny that would enable him to be less miserable and happier. (The tyrant tells Simonides that he hates his life.) Would such a tyrant ever listen to a poet in this way? Was Hiero honest about the grounds of tyranny? Were Simonides’ goals actually practical? Xenophon offers many indications that he does not view the goal of “enlightened” tyranny as possible or desirable.

The Hellenica and Other Writings

Xenophon’s Hellenica narrates the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, picking up where the history of Thucydides leaves off. It is the only work in the history of philosophy to begin with the word “afterwards.” Like Xenophon’s statement on the rise and fall of regimes at the outset of the Cyropaedia, this introduction indicates a key theme of the work: the things of the world are in continual motion.

Xenophon’s Sentimental Education

Xenophon offers us playful and ironic characterizations of the whole range of human types. But does the substance of Xenophon’s political philosophy differ much from that of Plato? This question must here remain open. Whatever the answer, it is clear that Xenophon’s writings, through their extremely subtle presentations of the widest range of human character and motivations, offer us a unique education in taste; at the very least they should supplement any reading of Plato. As has been the case throughout history, Xenophon’s writings are perhaps most exciting for those who choose to spend their lives outside academia in politics, the military, and business. For Xenophon, while indisputably a Socratic, chose the most active, most political life. But his writings show us how even in the practical world one can glimpse the fundamental philosophic problems.

For further introductory reading, see:

Christopher Bruell, “Xenophon” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss & Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

Leo Strauss, The Spirit of Sparta or The Taste of XenophonSocial Research, 6: 502-36, 1939.

(Photo from Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy).