Xenophon (ca. 430 BCE – 350 BCE) was a brilliant leader, kind horseman and friend of Socrates. Eve Browning writes about his intriguing portrait of Socrates, so contrary to what we know about him that was written by Plato. Published in Aeon and SOTT on 14 January 2019.
Xenophon wrote histories, portraits of leaders, practical treatises on horse training, hunting and running a household, among other things, and also wrote down his remembrances of a local philosopher named Socrates. Those who know Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato – Xenophon’s near-exact contemporary – will find Xenophon’s Socrates something of a surprise. Plato’s Socrates claims to know nothing, and flamboyantly refutes the knowledge claims of others. In the pages of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, however, Socrates actually answers philosophical questions, dispenses practical life advice, provides arguments proving the existence of benevolent gods, converses as if peer-to-peer with a courtesan, and even proposes a domestic economy scheme whereby indigent female relatives can become productive through the establishment of a textile business at home.
© Courtesy Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Socratic dancing as imagined by Honoré Daumier
Socrates’ conversation, according to Xenophon, ‘was ever of human things’. This engaged, intensely practical, human Socrates can be refreshing to encounter. Anyone who has felt discomfort at how the opponents of Plato’s Socrates suffer relentless public refutations and reductions to absurdity can take some comfort in Xenophon’s Socrates who ‘tries to cure the perplexities of his friends’.
For instance, what could be more enchanting than a Socrates who solo-dances for joy and exercise, so unlike the Socrates we know from Plato? In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates asks the Phoenician dance-master to show him some dance moves. Everyone laughs: what will you do with dance moves, Socrates? He replies: ‘I’ll dance, by God!’ A friend of Socrates then tells the group that he had stopped by his house early in the morning, and found him dancing alone. When questioned about it, Socrates happily confesses to solo-dancing often. It’s great exercise, it moves the body in symmetry, it can be done indoors or outdoors with no equipment, and it freshens the appetite.
Another surprising side of Xenophon’s Socrates is shown through his encounter with a person who not only doesn’t honour the gods, but makes fun of people who do. To this irreligious person, Socrates presents a careful and persuasive line of reasoning about the designed usefulness of all elements of creation. For humans and many other animals, there are ‘eyes so that they can see what can be seen, and ears so that they can hear what can be heard’, eyelids, eyelashes, molars and incisors, erotic desire to aid procreation; all these are ‘the contrivance of some wise craftsman who loves animals’. And what about the cosmos as a whole? ‘Are you, then, of the opinion that … those surpassingly large and infinitely numerous things are in such an orderly condition through some senselessness?’ Human beings even have the spiritual capacity to perceive the existence of gods, ‘who put in order the greatest and noblest things’, and ‘they worry about you!’
It is noticeable that this Socrates takes his conversation partner through logical steps that are not designed to refute him or humiliate him, but to awaken him to a different way of looking at the natural world. He already acknowledges that there are ordered systems of utility and benefit in nature; he just needs to think about how these could have come to be, and why, and to what end. It’s not brow-beating, but gentle leading, which leaves his intellectual self-respect intact. This is a hallmark of Xenophon’s Socrates. Through such conversations as these, Socrates showed his commitment to leading his companions toward virtue, making them better human beings – the highest aim of any leader, in any field.
Though the historical person of Socrates will remain forever enigmatic, it could be argued that Xenophon strikes closer to real life in his depictions of the man. Plato had a serious philosophical agenda of his own, involving a search for transcendence, purified rationality and sublimity. Xenophon’s interests are at once more worldly and more realistic.
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