“Cyropaedia” by Xenophon


He who rules himself well can rule the world.

Plato writes in Republic that the principle of justice is the same for an individual as it is for a state. Therefore, the person who is eligible to govern a state must be a philosopher, i.e. lover of wisdom. Xenophon has found concrete expression of this ideal in the person of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, who embodied the essential characters of a philosopher-king, shepherd and guardian of the state.

Cyropaedia (“The Education of Cyrus”) is a fascinating biography of Cyrus the Great. It integrates seamlessly into one narrative all the interesting aspects of biography, history, romance, war epic, political philosophy, leadership manual and military treatise, and yet, like many other Greco-Roman classics, is written in a simple, elegant, vivacious, humorous and captivating style. Herodotus also tells the story of Cyrus the Great in his Histories, which differs from Xenophon’s version in a few aspects, most notably Cyrus’ birth and death. Cyropaedia has reportedly inspired Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Machiavelli and Thomas Jefferson among others. I suspect Abe Lincoln also got his leadership lessons (e.g. “Team of Rivals”) from Xenophon.

And when Cyrus heard that, he uttered this prayer: “Hear me, I beseech thee, O Zeus almighty, and grant that in service to them I may surpass the honour they show to me.”

The Art of Ruling

Most of the laws seem to teach these two things above all else, to govern and to be governed. In all things the chief incentive to obedience lies in this: praise and honour for the obedient, punishment and dishonour for the disobedient. This is the road to compulsory obedience, indeed, but there is another road to what is much better—namely, to willing obedience. For people are only too glad to obey the man who they believe takes wiser thought for their interests than they themselves do. And you might recognize that this is so in many instances but particularly in the case of the sick: how readily they call in those who are to prescribe what they must do;

Whatever it is not possible for man to learn, nor for human wisdom to foresee, that you may find out from the gods by the soothsayer’s art, and thus prove yourself wiser than others; and if you know anything that it would be best to have done, you would show yourself wiser than others if you should exert yourself to get that done; for it is a mark of greater wisdom in a man to strive to secure what is needful than to neglect it.

As to the love of one’s subjects— and this is one of the most important questions—the same course that you would take if you wished to gain the affection of your friends leads also to that; that is, you must show yourself to be their benefactor. It is a difficult matter, however, always to be in a position to do good to whom you will; but to show that you rejoice with them if any good befall them, that you sympathize with them if any ill betide, that you are eager to help them in times of distress, that you are anxious that they be not crossed in any way, and that you try to prevent their being crossed; it is in these respects somehow that you ought rather to go hand in hand with them.

Generalship in Particular

In his campaigns, if they fall in the summer time, the general must show that he can endure the heat of the sun better than his soldiers can, and that he can endure cold better than they if it be in winter; if the way lead through difficulties, that he can endure hardships better. All this contributes to his being loved by his men. Bear in mind that the same toils do not affect the general and the private in the same way, though they have the same sort of bodies; but the honour of the general’s position and the very consciousness that nothing he does escapes notice lighten the burdens for him.

A Man is Remembered and Destined by His Name

“Now Cyrus made a study of this; for he thought it passing strange that, while every mechanic knows the names of the tools of his trade and the physician knows the names of all the instruments and medicines he uses, the general should be so foolish as not to know the names of the officers under him; and yet he must employ them as his instruments not only whenever he wishes to capture a place or defend one, but also whenever he wishes to inspire courage or fear. And whenever Cyrus wished to honour any one, it seemed to him proper to address him by name. Furthermore, it seemed to him that those who were conscious of being personally known to their general exerted themselves more to be seen doing something good and were more ready to abstain from doing anything bad. And when he wanted a thing done, he thought it foolish to give orders as do some masters in their homes: “Some one go get water!” “Some one split wood!” For when orders are given in that way, all, he thought, looked at one another and no one carried out the order; all were to blame, but no one felt shame or fear as he should, because he shared the blame with many.

“I pray that the gods may grant many blessings to those who have shown their interest in me, and most of all to him who is responsible for their being so generous toward me.”

Know Yourself and Your Enemy

Cyrus addressed them as follows:“Friends and allies, I have called you together because I observed that when this news came from the enemy, some of you looked as if you were frightened. Now it seems strange to me that any of you should really be afraid because the enemy are mustering; but when you see that we are mustered in much larger numbers than we had when we defeated them and that we are now, thank heaven, much better equipped than we were then—it is strange that when you see this you are not filled with courage! …You were terrified when the report came that Croesus had been elected commander-in-chief of the enemy—Croesus, who was a worse coward than the Syrians; for the Syrians fled because they were defeated in the battle, whereas Croesus, instead of standing by his allies, beat a hasty retreat when he saw that they were defeated? And finally, you see, the report is brought that the enemy do not feel that they are strong enough to fight us by themselves, but are hiring others in the hope that these will fight for them more valiantly than they can for themselves. However, if there are any to whom the situation over there—such as it is—seems formidable, while our own condition seems contemptible, I say, men, that we ought to send them over to the enemy, for they would be much more useful to us over there than in our ranks.”

When Cyrus had finished his speech, Chrysantas, the Persian, arose and spoke as follows: “Do not wonder, Cyrus, that some looked disconsolate when they heard the report; for it was not from fear that they felt this, but from vexation—just as, if it should be announced, when people are ready and waiting to sit down to luncheon, that there is some work that they must do before they may eat, not one, I venture to say, would be pleased to hear it. So we also, thinking we were just on the point of getting rich, all put on a disconsolate look when we heard that there was some work left over which we must do; and it was not because we were frightened, but because we wished that this, too, were already accomplished. But our disappointment is past, seeing that we are to contend not for Syria only, where there is an abundance of grain and flocks and date-palms, but for Lydia as well; for in that land there is an abundance of wine and figs and olive oil, and its shores are washed by the sea; and over its waters more good things are brought than any one has ever seen—when we think of that,” said he, “we are no longer vexed, but our courage rises to the highest point, with desire to come all the more quickly into the enjoyment of these good things in Lydia also.”

The King’s Wealth

Do you observe, Croesus, that I, too, have my treasures? But you are proposing to me to get them together and hoard them in my palace, to put hired watchmen in charge of everything and to trust to them, and on account of those hoards to be envied and hated. I, on the other hand, believe that if I make my friends rich I shall have treasures in them and at the same time more trusty watchers both of my person and of our common fortunes than any hired guards I could put in charge. And one more thing I must tell you: even I cannot eradicate from myself that passion for wealth which the gods have put into the human soul and by which they have made us all poor alike, but I, too, am as insatiate of wealth as other people are. However, I think I am different from most people, in that others, when they have acquired more than a sufficiency, bury some of their treasure and allow some to decay, and some they weary themselves with counting, measuring, weighing, airing, and watching; and though they have so much at home, they never eat more than they can hold, for they would burst if they did, and they never wear more than they can carry, for they would be suffocated if they did; they only find their superfluous treasure a burden. But I follow the leading of the gods and am always grasping after more. But when I have obtained what I see is more than enough for my needs, I use it to satisfy the wants of my friends; and by enriching men and doing them kindnesses I win with my superfluous wealth their friendship and loyalty, and from that I reap as my reward security and good fame—possessions that never decay or do injury from overloading the recipient;



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