Book Club: Xenophon’s Memorabilia, part I

Massimo Pigliucci
Mar 9 · 9 min read

Time to to discuss a new book (previous entries here)! This time I am initiating what is likely to be a four-part discussion of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which is about the life and philosophy of Socrates. There are a few reasons to read the Memorabilia. First, it is the major account of Socrates that is alternative to the picture we get from Plato. Second, Xenophon’s focuses more on how Socrates lived than on how he philosophized. But of course the two — especially in the ancient conception of philosophy as the art of living — go hand in hand, which means that we can read Xenophon and Plato as complementary to each other, not antagonistic. Lastly, Xenophon’s Memorabilia is the very book that turned Zeno of Citium — the founder of Stoicism — to philosophy:

“[Zeno] was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus with a charge of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates [of Thebes, the Cynic] passed in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, ‘Follow yonder man.’ From that day he became Crates’ pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.2–3)

There is no logical structure to Memorabilia, which is simply divided into four “books” with no headings. However, broadly speaking, book I mounts a defense of Socrates with respect to his trial and then moves on to discuss more in general Socrates’ piety and self control. Book II talks about how Socrates helped his family, friends and fellow citizens. In book III we get more examples of Socrates helpful behavior toward his close associates as well as members of his polis. And book IV describes the Socratic method and an interaction between Socrates and Euthydemus (also described by Plato in a dialogue that takes its title from the main character, a sophist). So my plan is to discuss each book of the Memorabilia in a separate post. Follow me along by reading the book, if you’d like. You won’t regret it!

The Memorabilia begins with Xenophon wondering out loud what possessed the Athenians in condemning Socrates on the well known pair of charges: rejecting the gods acknowledged by the state while bringing in strange deities, and corruption of the youth (I.1.1). Xenophon immediately addresses the first charge, dismissing it on the basis of simple empirical observation: Socrates was known for making offers to the gods of Athens, both in the privacy of his house and publicly, in temples (I.1.2). Moreover, Socrates often said that he was following the counsel of the gods, which was manifested to him by way of signs. How could anyone be charged with impiety if he took advice from the gods, and himself gave advice to others on the basis of those very same signs? (I.1.4–5) Xenophon then gives us a description of Socrates’ typical day:

“Socrates lived ever in the open; for early in the morning he went to the public promenades and training-grounds; in the forenoon he was seen in the market; and the rest of the day he passed just where most people were to be met: he was generally talking, and anyone might listen.” (I.1.10)

Xenophon also states quite clearly (I.1.11) that Socrates did not indulge in metaphysical speculation, what he calls philosophizing on “the nature of the universe,” and which he takes to be yet another reason it is bizarre to impute his philosopher friend with impiety. This is interesting, in part because it confirms that Socrates turned away from the broad interests of Pre-Socratics like Thales and Heraclitus, and focused instead on ethics and what we would today call political philosophy. Which, of course, is what really got him into trouble with certain exponents of the Athenian aristocracy.

“His own conversation was ever of human beings. The problems he discussed were, what is godly, what is ungodly; what is beautiful, what is ugly; what is just, what is unjust; what is prudence, what is madness; what is courage, what is cowardice; what is a state, what is a statesman; what is government and what is a governor.” (I.1.16)

You know, obviously innocuous stuff like that! Xenophon himself must have been aware of the real motivations behind Socrates’ trial, because he says immediately thereafter (I.1.18) that Socrates refused to condemn Thrasyllus, Erasinides, and others to death, as requested by the Council, on the grounds that such condemnation was illegal. The reference is to an episode in which Socrates was president of the popular assembly and, as usual, preferred to follow his own conscience rather than common opinion. Some powerful people in Athens never forgave him for his stance. Thrasyllus and Erasinides were two of nine generals that the people wanted put to death because of their performance at the naval battle of Arginusae. The Athenians actually won that battle, despite a strong disadvantage they initially had against the Spartan forces. But the victors failed to rescue between 1,000 and 5,000 Athenian sailors, because of a storm that had ensued in the meantime. The generals — despite Socrates’ refusal to comply — were tried en masse and executed, a move that the Athenians soon came to regret.

Xenophon then shifts to countering the charges of impiety. He claims that such charges are obviously ridiculous, given how Socrates was to everyone an example of virtue and temperance. (I.2.1)

“How, then, should such a man ‘corrupt the youth’? Unless, perchance, it be corruption to foster virtue.” (I.2.8)

Here again one suspects that Xenophon realized that of course that was precisely the problem: Socrates was telling the Athenian youth that the elders of the city, the people in charge, were unvirtuous and unwise. And that truly is “corrupting” the youth, from the point of view of the establishment!

Then again, continues Xenophon, part of the (informal) accusation against Socrates was that some of his associates turned out to be bad for the city, especially two of his students, Critias and Alcibiades. Critias was Plato’s first cousin, and eventually became one of the infamous Thirty Tyrants who briefly governed Athens after the city’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was a fascinating figure, who won great victories for Athens during the war, but was then put on trial, defected first to Sparta and then to Persia, was recalled to Athens only to be exiled again, and was eventually killed — likely by Spartan spies.

Xenophon’s response here is that Critias and Alcibiades were actually positively influenced by Socrates while they were associated with him, and that it was only after they distanced themselves from the philosopher that they lost their way:

“So long as [Critias and Alcibiades] were with Socrates, they found in him an ally who gave them strength to conquer their evil passions. But when they parted from him, Critias fled to Thessaly, and got among men who put lawlessness before justice; while Alcibiades, on account of his beauty, was hunted by many great ladies, and because of his influence at Athens and among her allies he was spoilt by many powerful men: and as athletes who gain an easy victory in the games are apt to neglect their training, so the honor in which he was held, the cheap triumph he won with the people, led him to neglect himself.” (I.2.24)

This is not at all a bad analysis of what happened, especially in the case of Alcibiades, as can be evinced by reading a biography of him that came out recently: Nemesis — Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, by David Stuttard. Not to mention, of course, that several of Socrates’ associates did go on to serve Athens in a positive fashion, and that a teacher is not responsible for how all his students turn out to be, as Xenophon himself says:

“For what teacher of flute, lyre, or anything else, after making his pupils proficient, is held to blame if they leave him for another master, and then turn out incompetent?” (I.2.27)

Xenophon then provides us with a list of Socrates’ virtues, beginning with his piety (I.3.1) and continuing with his frugality (I.3.5). Here we get some fascinating glimpses of Socrates the practical philosopher, far more so than we get from Plato’s more consciously intellectual treatment:

“He advised those who could not [resist temptation at the dinner table] to avoid appetizers that encouraged them to eat and drink what they did not want: for such trash was the ruin of stomach and brain and soul. … Of sensual passion he would say: ‘Avoid it resolutely: it is not easy to control yourself once you meddle with that sort of thing.’” (I.3.6,8)

Xenophon’s next move, still part of his overall project of defending Socrates from his accusers, is to remind us that Socrates was actually critical of the impious. In one episode, he chastises Aristodemus for not sacrificing, praying, or using divination. Socrates explains to Aristodemus why we ought to be convinced that there is a loving god, and the argument he uses is clearly recognizable as an argument from design, still used by theists today:

“Do you not think then that he who created man from the beginning had some useful end in view when he endowed him with his several senses, giving eyes to see visible objects, ears to hear sounds? Would odors again be of any use to us had we not been endowed with nostrils? … Besides these, are there not other contrivances that look like the result of forethought? … With such signs of forethought in these arrangements, can you doubt whether they are the works of chance or design?” (I.4.5–6)

Socrates builds on his argument, telling Aristodemus not only that there is evidence of forethought in the cosmos, but that there is clear evidence pointing to humans as being the ones favored by God above all creatures:

“Nor was the deity content to care for man’s body. What is of yet higher moment, he has implanted in him the noblest type of soul. … For it is not obvious to you that, in comparison with other animals, men live like gods, by nature peerless both in body and in soul? For with a man’s reason and the body of an ox we could not carry out our wishes, and the possession of hands without reason is of little worth. Do you, then, having received the two most precious gifts, yet think that the gods take no care of you? What are they to do, to make you believe that they are heedful of you?” (I.4.13–14)

Note that Socrates often, though not always, refers to God in the singular (“the deity”), as he also typically does in the Platonic dialogues. This is one reason why the charge of impiety might not actually have been that much off the mark. Moreover, Socrates’ speech at times gets downright seditious, as in the following passage, which Xenophon presents as illustrative of Socrates’ encouragement of temperance in others:

“My friends, if we were at war and wanted to choose a leader most capable of helping us to save ourselves and conquer the enemy, should we choose one whom we knew to be the slave of the belly, or of wine, or lust, or sleep?” (I.5.1)

Depending on whom exactly Socrates had in mind when uttering those words, and when and where exactly he uttered them, you could imagine that he made some of the men in power in Athens, who might have recognized themselves in his description of the unvirtuous leader, rather nervous.

Near the end of book I, Xenophon details an illuminating dialogue between the sophist Antiphon and Socrates, which in part touches on how to better influence the politics of the city. At one point, Antiphon remarks that Socrates is in no position to make politicians of others, since he himself has never been a politician. To which Socrates responds:

“How now, Antiphon? Should I play a more important part in politics by engaging in them alone, or by taking pains to turn out as many competent politicians as possible?” (I.6.15)

This is a question, and a perspective, very much relevant still today, 24 centuries after the sage of Athens. What is the best way to make a contribution to the human polis? What are you doing, right now, in order to make such a contribution?


A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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