Sunday, May 15, 2011


Dustin Gish, Wayne Ambler (ed.), The Political Thought of Xenophon. Polis. The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought, Vol. 26 No. 2. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2009. Pp. 230. ISBN 0412257x. (pb).

Reviewed by Noreen Humble, University of Calgary (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of contents is given at the end of the review.]

This special issue of Polis, dedicated to the political thought of Xenophon, springs from the lively panels on Xenophon sponsored by the Society for Greek Political Thought at the Northeastern Political Science Association annual meetings. These have been taking place for at least the past four years (I was a participant in 2008), and have been organised very ably and enthusiastically by Dustin Gish, one of the editors of this volume. One of the great virtues of these panels is that they bring together and encourage dialogue between scholars from varied backgrounds, in particular classicists, philosophers and political scientists, all groups with great interest in Xenophon though often for different reasons. The panels and this volume (which contains a brief introduction, nine papers and five book reviews) unite the diverse participants in their desire to better understand Xenophon as a political philosopher.

Three papers focussing on the Memorabilia start off the volume. Benjamin Lorch leads off by examining what Xenophon says Socrates deemed the first thing necessary to learn: moderation towards the gods (4.3.1), and he investigates this problem by comparing the conversation which Socrates has with Euthydemus in Book 4 and the conversation he has with Aristodemus in Book 1. Lorch rightly emphasises the different natures of the two interlocutors (p. 190) not least their starting positions regarding piety – pious Euthydemus (whom he also regards as somewhat dim in contrast with some scholarly opinion) v. skeptical Aristodemus. He argues that paradoxically Socrates did not think it was moderate to believe in the gods because it is not possible to determine whether the gods exist.

In the second paper David M. Johnson carefully dissects the two conversations Socrates has with the hedonist Aristippus (2.1 and 3.8), with particular attention to the important role of the dramatic context of each conversation. In the first conversation Socrates seems to be presenting the view that politics is a matter of masters or slaves (harm or be harmed) and in the second he appears to endorse a view of 'Protagorean relativism' by saying nothing is wholly good. Johnson argues that neither of these positions represent Socrates' real views; they are rather dictated by the nature of his interlocutor (who refuses to engage in political life and whose sole pursuit is pleasure) and by concerns for those who might be listening.

Carol McNamara rounds out the trio of papers on the Memorabilia by focusing on 3.1-7, which show Socrates conversing about practical politics. McNamara focuses on drawing attention to some key points emphasised by Socrates: the importance of having real practical knowledge about military and political leadership, having a proper understanding of ambition and how to moderate it, and having rhetorical skill. She spends some time on the conversation with Pericles in which Socrates gets Pericles to agree that a less democratic, more ancestral constitution would perhaps be the way to sort out the current problems (a view in sharp contrast to the policies of his more famous namesake and uncle). Thus, McNamara argues, Xenophon's Socrates is an advocate for what she terms 'political moderation'.

Laurence Nee starts his paper with a succinct overview of the differences in opinion with which scholars approach the Oeconomicus. He goes on to argue that like the Memorabilia, and Apology this work is also a defence against the charges laid on Socrates, in particular against the charge that he corrupted the youth. This dialogue, Nee maintains, shows exactly the reverse, that it was in fact the city which corrupted the youth by persuading them to work for its benefit and not for their own. The attempt to take the work seriously on its own terms is to be lauded but this conclusion is somewhat disturbing. Nee seems to be reading the portrayal as showing that Socrates was ultimately unconcerned with the civic life – and so, in fact, a danger to the state.

The next two papers deal with the Cyropaedia. First Gabriel Danzig looks at the broader issues via a small incident early on in which the young Cyrus is punished for not deeming unjust the actions of a big boy with a small coat who strips a small boy of a big coat. This leads into a discussion of redistributive justice and a close analysis of what Cyrus' teacher says about why he is being punished (particularly on the equation of the lawful with the just on the one hand, and violence with the unlawful on the other). Danzig compares Memorabilia 4.4.5-18, where even though Socrates starts by saying that the lawful is just, he ends up holding a utilitarian view: one should obey the law if there is some benefit for oneself (shades of Nee's argumentation here). Danzig then comes back to argue that Xenophon actually, therefore, is much more sympathetic to Cyrus' position than Cyrus' teacher's position, i.e. that justice is what is beneficial ... for Cyrus, and that violence is not always unlawful if it results in something beneficial.

While Danzig argues that authoritarian rule, as embodied by Cyrus and which is essentially predicated on what is of benefit to him, is Xenophon's ideal, J.R. Reisert reads Xenophon's presentation of Cyrus' rule quite differently. He focuses his examination on Cyrus' understanding of what motivates men and how he exploits this. Like Danzig, Reisert sees the pattern of Cyrus' behaviour set in childhood (though he focuses on a different element of his education): Cyrus learns the art of despotic rule in Media, though his adoption of it is moderated by his earlier training in Persia, which has given him the self-control over his own passions which his grandfather Astyages lacks. Reisert examines how the boy Cyrus exploits the desires of his companions and thus corrupts them, then how he does the same to some of the Persian peers and the commoners, and likewise to the Persian Empire itself. Unlike Danzig, however, Reisert does not view Cyrus' behaviour as representative of Xenophon's ideal, but rather primarily as an example of what should be avoided.

The next two papers examine Xenophon's political thinking in his historical work, the Hellenica. B.J. Dobski concentrates on the first two books of the Hellenica and their critical relationship with the work and thought of Thucydides, in particular what each author thought was the best possible regime: the regime of the 5000 (8.97.2) for Thucydides, the restored democracy for Xenophon. Dobski suggests that when Thucydides' characterises the 5000 as metrios ('moderate'), he mean that they respond flexibly and in a measured way to constantly changing political necessities but at the cost of abandoning 'ancestral law and traditional religion' (pp. 326-7). Xenophon, on the other hand, he argues, shows us a restored democracy which respects ancestral laws and traditional religion and thus, unlike the regime of the 5000, brings political stability. However, Dobski goes on to argue that the two aren't as far apart as these points actually suggest. Thucydides' characterization of the 5000 is of a regime which invites questioning of its authority and which thus, ultimately, makes possible the living of a philosophic life. Xenophon recognizes this, but also realises the need to protect the philosophers from the dangers they present to traditional authority. So he praises the traditional ways and emphasises Socrates' lawfulness in order to protect 'the possibility of political philosophy'.

Dustin Gish takes a rather singular episode in the Hellenica, the 'conspiracy of Cinadon', and asks broader questions of it. Gish closely examines the narrative position of the episode with a view to discovering the purpose of presenting it (after all, the conspiracy was discovered before it happened so why bother bringing it up at all?). He suggests that Xenophon means us to link the unjust trial of Cinadon with the similarly unjust trial happening in Athens around the same time -- and which Xenophon is silent about in the Hellenica -- that of Socrates. This is an intriguing suggestion and while there are some problems with the dating,1 and with the comparison of the two in general (e.g. Cinadon is not a full citizen of Sparta so comparing him to Socrates on issues of citizenship duties and rights doesn't really work), the approach allows Gish to move to broader speculation on the nature of justice and injustice and on internal deficiencies in the Spartan regime particularly with the regard to the limits of Spartan training in all aspects of virtue.

The final paper, by John Lewis, presents an examination of Xenophon's understanding of political economics by providing a mini-commentary on his Poroi. Lewis essentially argues that Xenophon's approach is more in line with the early nineteenth-century theories of Jean-Baptise Say than those of John Maynard Keynes, i.e. Xenophon's suggestions are production-oriented not consumer-oriented. I am hardly qualified to judge the arguments about economics, but it does seem to me, for example, that Keynes advocated government investment in public works, which is certainly a keystone of Xenophon's discussion of the Athenian silver mines.)2

One of Lewis' concluding comments, however, betrays the still all too common tendency to criticize Xenophon for what he has not done: 'he has not demonstrated the conceptual range needed to universalize these principles beyond the particular polis at hand into an integrated science of wide application' (p. 387). At the risk of being accused of doing the same regarding this article, I do wonder whether a little more direct historical contextualization might have been more useful addition to the discussion: I'm thinking here, for example, of the relationship between the Poroi and the economic measures of Eubulus. It seems clear that, however practical we or the Athenians view Xenophon's suggestions as being, he is responding to a specific economic crisis in Athens and he is engaging with potential political solutions for this particular problem. Acknowledging where some of his suggestions appear to have been taken up would add to the case for viewing him as a proto-political economist.

This lack of or selective consideration of the dramatic or historical context of the passages and lack of engagement with recent scholarship (particularly scholarship by European colleagues) is, in general, more a feature of papers whose authors have been strongly influenced by Straussian lines of thinking. So, for example, though there are certainly disagreements over compositional issues in the Memorabilia, Lorch never mentions this nor explains why he reads a conversation in Book 1 in light of a conversation in Book 4, and not the other way around. Whether or not one agrees with Vivienne Gray's view that philosophical points are continually amplified as the work progresses,3 some engagement with this view is a necessary precursor to reading the conversations in a less disembodied way. Likewise, McNamara might have considered the implications of her reading of 3.1-7 as a response to 1.2.9 or considered Charmides' famed beauty when wondering why Socrates might be associating with him. And Dobski's line of argumentation is often obscured by lack of clarity about the historical and literary context: e.g. he seems to conflate actions undertaken by the 400 with those of the 5000 in Athens (e.g. pp. 323-5), and he might have made more of the fact that Thucydides' judgement is in his own voice whereas the argument for Xenophon is based on words he puts in his characters' mouths. It would have been interesting to note, too, how Dobski squares all this with the fact that this restored democracy was in fact the regime which executed Socrates.

Those frustrations aside, the volume is a welcome addition to the recent flowering of scholarship on Xenophon's Socrates4. The presentation of competing perspectives (e.g. Danzig and Reisert on the message of the Cyropaedia, or Johnson and Nee on how Xenophon chooses to present Socrates) should provoke and promote further intra- and inter-disciplinary debate and investigation into the political thought of Xenophon.

Table of Contents

B. Lorch, 'Moderation and Socratic Education in Xenophon's Memorabilia, pp. 185-203
D.M. Johnson, 'Aristippus at the Crossroads: the politics of pleasure in Xenophon's Memorabilia, pp. 204-22
C. McNamara, 'Socratic politics in Xenophon's Memorabilia', pp. 223-45
L.D. Nee, 'The city on trial: Socrates' indictment of the gentleman in Xenophon's Oeconomicus', pp. 246-70
G. Danzig, 'Big boys and little boys: justice and law in Xenophon's Cyropaedia and Memorabilia', pp. 271-95
J.R. Reisert, 'Ambition and corruption in Xenophon's Education of Cyrus', pp. 296-315
B.J. Dobski, 'Athenian democracy refounded: Xenophon's political history in the Hellenika,', pp. 316-38
D. Gish, ' Spartan justice: the conspiracy of Kinadon in Xenophon's Hellenika', pp. 339-69
J. Lewis, 'Xenophon's Poroi and the foundations of political economy', pp. 370-88
Book reviews, pp. 389-410


1.   Gish asserts that Xenophon explicitly tells us the conspiracy took place in the summer of 399 (p. 360). This is not strictly true. Xenophon only says that the conspiracy took place before the first year of Agesilaus' reign was completed. And the dating of Agesilaus' accession is somewhat problematic (dates range from 401-398); so, e.g., E. David, 'The Conspiracy of Kinadon', Athenaeum 57 (1979), 243 dates the conspiracy to 398 BC.
2.   Lewis (p. 372 n. 8) does note that Ralph Doty, Xenophon. Poroi (Lewiston, 2003) argues that Xenophon's approach is proto-Keynsian (non vidi) and J.N. Jansen follows and elaborates on Doty's suggestions in his recent dissertation After empire: Xenophon's "Poroi" and the reorientation of Athens' political economy (University of Texas at Austin 2007).
3.   V.J. Gray, The Framing of Socrates, (Stuttgart 1998).
4.   For an overview of recent bibliography see David Johnson's review of Michel Narcy and Alonso Tordesillas (edd.) Xe/nophon et Socrate (Paris 2008) in BMCR 2009.03.20.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.