Thursday, January 31, 2019


Thomas L. Pangle, The Socratic Way of Life: Xenophon's 'Memorabilia'. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 288. ISBN 9780226516899. $35.00.

Reviewed by Yun Lee Too (

Version at BMCR home site


Pangle's book on Xenophon is of some interest as a prime example of the scholarship undertaken by followers of Leo Strauss with its techniques, particularly paraphrase, on obvious display. Paraphrase in the hands of a Straussian is a non-threatening manner of leading the reader to a reading of the ancient text that is skewed towards Strauss' ideology.

So I begin in imitation of Strauss by offering a paraphrase of a paraphrase. Pangle believes that the philosophical life—as best exemplified by Socrates—best enriches life by enabling self-government. In his Introduction, Pangle deifies Socrates, his hero, as the individual who resists society and helps the young people of his time question 'foundational civic opinions' (p. 4) and the world around them. Socrates runs afoul of the authorities and Pangle seeks to defend him through Xenophon's defence of the philosopher in the Memorabilia. The author even cites Nietzsche's suggestion that people will prefer the Memorabilia over the Bible as a guide to morals and reason. (p. 6).

The book is divided into two sections, part 1 concerning the impiety charge and the considerably longer part 2 concerning Socrates' help to other people. Pangle follows the order of the text of the Memorabilia quite carefully. In Chapter 1, Pangle insists, with Xenophon, that Socrates was not guilty of impiety or disbelief towards the gods. Socrates' worship, the daimonion, and his teaching all go to prove this. Chapter 2 addresses the accusation that Socrates corrupted the young. Pangle deals with the philosopher's association with two notorious young men, Critias and Alcibiades. The fact is that Socrates taught everyone who wanted to be taught, and they left him as soon as they got what they wanted (p. 27). Socrates is fully absolved as Critias came to hate the former (p. 31), while it is clear that Alcibiades imitated the philosopher simply to get ahead (p. 33). As Pangle notes, Critias and Alcibiades are contrasted with seven other students who went on to become useful to their communities (cf. 1.2.48 and p. 37).

Part 2 of the book indicates that Socrates followed the teaching of the Delphic oracle (p. 45). Chapter 3 opens with the observation that Socrates indeed prayed to the gods (pp. 45-7). This was the basis of his moderation and the self-mastery, which Pangle celebrates. He notes Socrates's urging the notoriously areligious Aristodemus to try worshipping the gods as a further indication of the philosopher's piety (pp. 50-5). Pangle continues that it is Socrates' self-mastery (engkrateia), the foundation for virtue, which enables him to help others (p. 55). This self-mastery takes the form of needing nothing for oneself (p. 59). Self-mastery or –discipline, which one acquires through education, is, according to Pangle, a sine qua non of one who aspires to rule well (p. 65). Furthermore, one must seek an active political life so as to benefit family, friends and fatherland. Pangle concludes this chapter by considering the Socratic summons to virtue, which he makes through a retelling of the choice of Heracles.

Chapter Four address Socrates' benefits to family and friends. Pangle's Socrates highlights philia as self-sacrificial and as deserving reciprocity. Familial philia has priority but extra-familial friendship, as in the case of the philosopher and Xenophon, can lead to a greater good, in this case the study of old books (p. 92). Pangle goes on to narrate four episodes of gentlemanly friendship, helping Aristarchus out of dire poverty by advising him to turn his household into a factory of sorts (2.7.4- 5), Eutheros to find a more ideal boss (2.8), Crito to escape sycophancy (2.9) and Hermogenes, who seeks the company of Socrates in order to become a gentleman, to return acts of charity (2.10).

Chapter Five considers how Socrates benefits those who aspire to the kalon. He considers what it means for someone to be trained in generalship, namely that it involves moral and practical skills (cf. p. 114), although Pangle, following Machiavelli (p. 116), praises above all the education that Cyrus receives in the Cyropaedia. There is attention given to various issues of leadership, e.g. on what the good leader needs to know, on the noble and the good. Pangle also concerns himself with what he regards as the comic depiction of Socrates as a courtesan: the philosopher, who entices with his wisdom, resembles Theodote, who draws men to her with her beauty. The author concludes his chapter with the observation that Socratic austerity as regards food, for instance, is one of way in which he promotes 'self-mastery'.

The final section of the book concerns Socrates as the beneficial teacher. This is Xenophon's ultimate defence of the philosopher against the charges brought by his accusers. Socrates taught three types of individuals with problems: first, those who though they were naturally good and despised learning; second, those who prided themselves on their wealth and disregarded education; and lastly, those who thought they had had the best education. Pangle focuses, as Xenophon did, on Socrates' seduction of Euthydemus, a youth who collected many books but was not wise. The topic discussed between the philosopher and the youth is justice, and Euthydemus is shown to be roundly refuted by Socrates on his own views of the virtue. The philosopher's views on justice are shown to originate with the oracle at Delphi, implicitly proving him to be a pious individual (pp. 176-7). And Pangle shows that Socrates teaches Euthydemus that the gods have human interests at heart so that the latter vows to be pious (cf. p. 188).

Pangle concludes his study by returning to 'self-mastery', which he claims that Socrates teaches as being the foundation of virtue (cf. p. 197). It appears that self-mastery makes men the best leaders and those who are most dialectical (p. 200). Furthermore, Pangle notes that Socrates dealt with his interlocutors in two distinct ways: to those who challenged him, he answered with questions that would lead to the truth, and to those who did not, such as Euthydemus, he did not deal with the premises of the truth but approached matters much more gently (pp. 206-7).

The conclusion of the study is an affirmation of Socrates' piety, for it makes the point that the philosopher chose death over prolonged life due to the daimonion. The philosopher has lived a good life and helped others to live better lives. So for Pangle the trial and death of Socrates are gloriously transfigured for posterity.

Paraphrase is perhaps a mode of mimicry, but I also think of it as a voiceover. The prior text is there; however, the text that is overlaid in the voice of the Straussian attempts to take precedence, while acknowledging the prior text, upon which it rests its authority. Paraphrase is a means of arrogating the originality and power of mostly classical works and authors to a somewhat alien and anachronistic political mode of thinking.

Now I will read esoterically, that is between the ostensible lines of the work, to demonstrate how the study seeks to put forth Straussian ideology. It is necessary to provide an ideological framework for this book. As its author Thomas Pangle is a loyal Straussian, the indications are that the book is heavily skewed towards this school of thought. Certainly, it is published by the University of Chicago, an institution where Leo Strauss made his home as a professor of political science as the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor, and once upon a time, a breeding ground of Straussianism. Pangle was, moreover, a PhD student at the University of Chicago where Strauss had taught; furthermore, he was a pupil of Allan Bloom, who studied directly under Strauss. Pangle thus has a very strong Straussian pedigree, and he reveals his proclivities on p. 40 when he observes that Strauss 'sets us on the path to a further deciphering of the puzzle of Xenophon's design'.

Straussians do not appear initially so sinister or ideologically interested because they tend to paraphrase extensively the works they are presenting to the reader. And so, for some 214 pages, Pangle retells in his own words, rather than analyses, the Memorabilia. In his now renowned article, 'Sphinx without a Secret', Myles Burnyeat observes that Straussians paraphrase in tedious detail and remain silent about points that are unclear in the text. They then nudge the reader gently to a meaning of the text that is different from what the ancient author intended.1 Indeed, Pangle nudges us towards his doctrine by selectively returning to certain themes in the work and by highlighting specific terms that those in the know will value as speaking to an ideal.

A recurrent phrase in the book is 'self-mastery' (Pangle's translation of engkrateia), a notion derived from Nietzsche, which is a way of life that helps the weak to achieve strength and presumably, the strong to become stronger2: Socrates teaches control over bodily appetites as the foundation of rule. For Pangle, this seems to be a rather solipsistic pursuit, focussed on the management of the self alone, perhaps like a programme of self-help or self-improvement. As Henry Jaffa, the 'father' of the West Coast Straussians, states, Strauss believed in prudence, a combination of moral and intellectual rule, as being necessary for statesmanship.3 Hence, for the Straussian, self-mastery is what makes the ruler, and the figure of the ruler is to be understood as a timeless ideal.

This is how the method of Strauss draws material from antiquity into the present sphere. In my view, however, this topic is not particularly highlighted by Socrates or his author, Xenophon, and particularly, not as such a self-absorbed concern where the individual is concerned. Throughout the Memorabilia, Xenophon is concerned with man as a social creature. He is always oriented towards others, whether the gods in his worship of them or other people in his treatment of them. For Socrates this means educating, rather than corrupting, the youth so that they in turn are good for the civic community, being good to one's friends (e.g. 2.2.5), and helping out the city as a whole (1.6.9).

Furthermore, the ideal ruler is a gentleman. That this is the case for Pangle becomes apparent on page 208, where he observes that Socrates' students were gentlemen who nonetheless needed to be turned towards what was fitting for them to learn in order to be leaders and away from the study of geometry and astronomy. It is Straussian ideology that an ancient author writes both exoterically for the masses. who lack true understanding, and esoterically for the select few, who have studied the qualities that enable them to rule. Those who understand the teaching of the ancients, in this case Socrates, as communicated by Xenophon, are able to read esoterically.

This was not an easy book to review by any means but if you wish to be indoctrinated into a neo-conservative ideology this will be right up your alley. I suggest that it leaves much to be desired where careful and accurate analysis of the Memorabilia is concerned.


1.   Burnyeat, 'Sphinx without a Secret' in Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: 2012), p. 301.
2.   Cf. C. Baldwin, 'Thinking Nietzsche Through and Strauss's Recovery of Classical Political Philosophy', Revue Philosophique 19 (2011), p. 145.
3.   Jaffa, 'The Legacy of Leo Strauss: A Review of Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, by Leo Strauss,' Claremont Review of Books 3.3 (1984).

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