“Memorabilia” by Xenophon

I find it very interesting to read the respective accounts of Socrates’ life and teachings by Plato and Xenophon. It is sort of like reading in the Gospels the life and teachings of Jesus, from four different perspectives, which provides not only depth of perception, but also the manifold meanings that a single narrative lacks.

Xenophon and Plato correspond well with one another in their interpretation of Socrates, the former focusing on practical application and the latter philosophical and logical consistency. Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, who heaped invectives on Plato, saying that the latter was nothing but “sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities”[1], thought highly of Xenophon, as he wrote in one of his letters, “Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name;”[2]

One thing that the Socrates of Xenophon does seem to possess more than he of Plato is practical knowledge of military strategies. It’s unclear to me whether Xenophon, being a general himself, paid more attention and understood Socrates better in these matters, or he attributed his own experience and insights to his beloved master.

Socrates, the Glory of Athens, or the Curse?

“As Lychas was said to be the honour of Sparta, because he treated, at his own expense, all the foreigners who came to the feasts of the Gymnopaedies, so it may, with much greater reason, be said of Socrates that he was the glory of Athens, he who all his life made a continual distribution of his goodness and virtues, and who, keeping open for all the world the treasures of an inestimable wealth, never sent any man out of his company but more virtuous, and more improved in the principles of honour, than formerly he was.”

Isn’t it ironic that Socrates was falsely accused and condemned to death by those very men whom he was supposed to have made virtuous? I’m reminded of Meno, in which Socrates questions whether virtue can be taught, and why the sons of wise men are not more virtuous than others.

Make Trial of the Power and Goodness of God

As you may make trial of the gratitude of a man by doing him a kindness, and as you may discover his prudence by consulting him in difficult affairs, so, if you would be convinced how great is the power and goodness of God, apply yourself sincerely to piety and his worship; then you shall soon be persuaded that the Deity sees all, hears all, is present everywhere, and, at the same time, regulates and superintends all the events of the universe.

Socrates’ Temperance

Upon being ridiculed by Antiphon the Sophist for being poor (wearing the same suit in summer and winter, and going barefoot), Socrates answered, “Did you ever observe that the cold hath hindered me from going abroad? Have you ever seen me choose the cool and fresh shades in hot weather? And, though I go barefoot, do not you see that I go wherever I will? Do you not know that there are some persons of a very tender constitution, who, by constant exercise, surmount the weakness of their nature, and at length endure fatigues better than they who are naturally more robust, but have not taken pains to exercise and harden themselves like the others?”

From Stage Director to General

“Antisthenes is fond of honour, and desirous to excel all others in
whatever he undertakes, which is a very necessary qualification in a
general. Whenever he gave a comedy to the people, he always gained the prize? Though he understands not music, nor the laws of the stage, yet he found out those who were skilful in both, and by their means succeeded extremely well. If in the affairs of war he take the same care to provide himself with persons skilful in that art, and fit to advise him, as he did in the affair of the plays, I see not what should hinder him from gaining the victory in the former as well as in the latter. And it is very likely that he will be better pleased to expend his treasure to obtain an entire victory over the enemy, which will redound to the honour and interest of the whole Republic, than to be at a great expense for shows, to overcome his citizens in magnificence, and to gain a victory, which can be honourable to none but himself and those of his tribe. Every man who has judgment enough to know the things that are necessary for his designs, and can procure them, can never fail of success, whether he concern himself with the stage, or govern a State, or command an army, or manage a family.”

Temperance

Debauchery, which pretends to lead men to pleasures, cannot conduct them thither, but deceives them, leaving them in disappointment, satiety, and disgust. Temperance and sobriety alone give us the true taste of pleasures. For it is the nature of debauchery not to endure hunger nor thirst, nor the fatigue of being long awake, nor the vehement desires of love, which, nevertheless, are the true dispositions to eat and drink with delight, and to find an exquisite pleasure in the soft approaches of sleep, and in the enjoyments of love. … But temperance, which accustoms us to wait for the necessity, is the only thing that makes us feel an extreme pleasure in these occasions. It is this virtue, too, that puts men in a condition of bringing to a state of perfection both the mind and the body, of rendering themselves capable of well governing their families, of being serviceable to their friends and their country, which is not only very agreeable on account of the advantages, but very desirable likewise for the satisfaction that attends it.

Notes:

  • 1^. Jefferson’s Letter To John Adams, July 5, 1814 “BONAPARTE AND PLATO”
  • 2^. Jefferson’s Letter To William Short, October 31, 1819 “I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN”

References:

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