In his “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” Leo Strauss, the 20th-century political philosopher credited with reviving Xenophon’s status as a philosopher on par with thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, observed that modern readers who incline to the prose of Jane Austen would have an easier time accessing Xenophon than, say, those who naturally delight in Dostoyevsky. To discover what Strauss meant playfully is to understand why Xenophon is not better known: Namely, his syntax and subject matter, especially measured against those of his more famous peers, seem uninspired, overly simplistic; his oeuvre appears to lack anything approaching the philosophical depth of the Republic or De Anima. Thus, for quite some time Xenophon simply failed to ascend to the rank of philosopher. He was a figure better left to some spelunking classicist in need of a dissertation topic.
The waning of Xenophon’s philosophical reputation makes for an interesting case study. He produced some of the oldest surviving examples of a genre sometimes referred to as “mirrors for princes.” His works, especially The Education of Cyrus and the Anabasis, came to be seen as necessary reading for would-be leaders hoping to master the arts of war and ruling. Modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and some of the American Founders revered and relied upon him for his understanding of statecraft. A useful modern analogue to Xenophon is Winston Churchill: a statesman-philosopher; a prolific historian; a man with long and intimate involvement in military matters; and a keen observer of greatness (see his Marlborough for work deserving shelf space right next to Xenophon’s Cyrus).
And here is where some of the reputational imbalance can be found. Like Churchill, the more Xenophon became remembered for his military chronicles, to say nothing of the leadership role he took in many of his recorded exploits, the easier it became to forget that he was also a prominent student of Socrates, with much to share about the life and times of his great teacher—and much to teach of his own thought besides. Such was the fame of Xenophon’s martial writings that his more philosophic fare was obscured.
The poor quality of translations of his work has also contributed to Xenophon’s modest reputation as a philosopher. As Gregory A. McBrayer, professor of political science at Ashland University and editor of the magnificent new Xenophon: The Shorter Writings, describes in his introduction, previous translations tended to play fast and loose with the original language, likely in the mistaken belief that the old general, when he employed key terms, did not give two Greek olives whether politeia was understood to mean regime or constitution.
The book brings together eight of Xenophon’s short works, accompanied by interpretive essays by leading political theorists. The translators and commentators assembled by McBrayer approach Xenophon with a prudence and care that would have made the Athenian smile. Several of the texts show Xenophon’s philosophical chops in ways that are immediately obvious. There is a new translation of the Hiero, a dialogue between a tyrant and a poet over whether the private life is superior to the political one. There is also a kind of backhanded encomium of the Spartan king, Agesilaus—a fine work to read alongside Machiavelli’s “Epistle Dedicatory” to Lorenzo de’ Medici in The Prince for those interested in learning how to appear obsequious while still retaining one’s philosophic dignity. There is also a pair of treatises on the nature of the Athenian and Spartan regimes.
Rounding out the volume are four pieces with names that sound like the titles of instruction manuals—things that a beardless Greek youth would have to master during the ancient equivalent of boy scout training: The Skilled Cavalry Commander, On Horsemanship, On Revenues, and The One Skilled at Hunting with Dogs. But even these works are more philosophically serious than the titles might imply. The last text, for example, begins by connecting the activity of hunting to the gods, to the success of the Greek tradition, and thus to private virtue, and ends by tying hunting to theoretical inquiry, the life of philosophy, and the health of the community. As Xenophon notes, he undertook the writing of the text in order to make men “wise and good.” Yet Xenophon’s education in hunting, as Michael Ehrmantraut playfully hints in his accompanying essay, includes components of deception, defense, and attack. These tactics also of course relate to the life of the mind and the role of the philosopher in the city, hinting at just how deeply Xenophon thought—and wrote—about even seemingly day-to-day matters.
Xenophon: The Shorter Writings is the latest in Cornell University Press’s Agora Editions, an imprint that has already produced faithful renderings of Xenophon’s Anabasis, The Education of Cyrus, the Shorter Socratic Writings, and the Memorabilia. With the exception of the Hellenica, Xenophon’s magisterial history of the conclusion and aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, we now have all of Xenophon under one sturdy roof.
The imprint’s general editor, Thomas L. Pangle, has his own new book about Xenophon out. A professor of political philosophy at the University of Texas, Pangle is well known for his first-rate translations of Plato, Aristophanes, and Sophocles, to say nothing of his manifold interpretations of foundational texts in political philosophy. In his new study of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the influence of Leo Strauss is evident throughout.
The Memorabilia is the longest of Xenophon’s four Socratic works. Unlike that other Socratic star pupil, Plato, Xenophon here slips in and out of the first person, frequently providing commentary on the scene being described. Thus, throughout the Memorabilia, we are treated to a highly personal depiction of Socrates and his environs that is absent from the Platonic and Aristophanic accounts. It is one of the first examples in Western thought of the firsthand impression one first-rate philosopher had of another.
But what we are not provided with in the Memorabilia, and here it is important to tread carefully, is the unvarnished Socrates, the Socrates of infinite jest—we get only a peculiar version of the gadfly’s life. The Socrates presented by Xenophon is shaded by philosophic conservatism. He does not examine the hides of gnats (as Socrates does in Aristophanes). He does not delve into the big metaphysical questions (as he does in Plato). As Pangle makes clear, Xenophon’s Socrates has much smoother, conventionally respectful philosophic contours than Plato’s.
Pangle’s book is especially impressive in its portrayal of the Xenophontic Socrates’ understanding of the divine and the role of the gods in the city. It is difficult to overstate the importance to philosophy’s understanding of itself of the differences here between Plato’s Socrates and Xenophon’s. Pangle is to be applauded for grappling with this subject. May Zeus grant us more edifying commentaries from Pangle in this vein—and more work on Xenophon by any and all newcomers wishing to read him not just as a statesman but as a philosopher.
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