Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.20

Michel Narcy, Alonso Tordesillas (ed.), Xénophon et Socrate. Actes du colloque d'Aix-en-Provence (6-9 novembre 2003). Bibliothèque d'histoire de la philosophie. Nouvelle série.   Paris:  J. Vrin, 2008.  Pp. 322.  ISBN 9782711619870.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by David M. Johnson, Southern Illinois University Carbondale (Southern Illinois University Carbondale)
Word count: 3502 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In 1988, when Donald Morrison published his bibliography on Xenophon's Socratic writings from 1600 to 1984, it would have been difficult to imagine that a supplement would be called for any time soon. But even as Morrison wrote, his own polemic against Gregory Vlastos's high-handed treatment of Xenophon was leading some to give Xenophon another look.1 Since then there has been a burst of interest in Xenophon's Socrates, particularly in continental Europe, where study of Socratics other than Plato has been rather more intense than in the Platocentric Anglo-American world.2 The current volume adds not only a series of important French language essays on Xenophon's Socrates, but a bibliography of the rather stunning 1384 items on Xenophon's Socrates published since Morrison's cutoff date. The bibliography is the work of Louis-André Dorion, editor, together with Michele Bandini, of the splendid new Budé edition of the Memorabilia, the first volume of which has been reviewed in these pages;3 the long-awaited second and final volume will soon be available. With the help of Dorion's extensive introduction and notes on the Memorabilia, his bibliography here, and this fine collection of essays, we are better positioned than ever to appreciate what Xenophon has to teach us about Socrates.

The present volume, edited by Michel Narcy and Alonso Tordesillas, is the result of a conference on Xenophon's Socrates held in Aix en Provence in November of 2003. The twelve essays are well arranged, and we move smoothly from moral psychology to religion to method to politics to economics. The Memorabilia is at the center most of the time, save for the final two essays on the Oeconomicus. There is rather little on Xenophon's Apology or his Symposium, but this is just as well, as these works have enjoyed more than their fair share of attention thanks to comparison with their Platonic namesakes. It is one of the great virtues of these essays that they read Xenophon in his own right, rather than simply as a poor relation of Plato.

The editors of our volume provide a concise introduction outlining the approach which is now taken by most who study Xenophon's Socrates. A more ambitious introduction could have pulled together the themes of these varied essays. The almost complete lack of any cross-references in the essays themselves is also unfortunate, if understandable in a volume of proceedings. One sometimes encounters here entirely different readings of the same passage, with no hint on how the authors would or did react to each other. This lack of cross-referencing is most telling in those essays that range widely over Xenophon's Socratica, presenting something like a comprehensive view of Xenophon's Socrates rather than an argument with a single, readily identifiable (and hence falsifiable) thesis. Several such essays here left this reader somewhat breathless, if also, without exception, with much food for thought. Ah, to have been in Provence not only for the papers but for the discussion about them!

In the emerging consensus view of Xenophon's Socratica, well sketched by our editors, we begin with the premises that the Socratic writings are fictional and that Xenophon and Plato are often irreconcilably at odds, and conclude that the Socratic question is unanswerable. We are thus freed from that tedious question, and can concern ourselves instead with the immediate après Socrate. As a matter of fact, though, none of the pieces in this volume is particularly oriented toward the study of the immediate reception of Socrates,4 and a number of them raise the officially bracketed question of the historical Socrates, a question rather difficult to avoid, as it turns out. Many stress differences between Plato and Xenophon, others find surprising similarities; what all agree upon is that Xenophon's Socrates is a figure coherent enough to warrant sustained philosophical scrutiny. These authors demonstrate that we can approach Xenophon's Socrates precisely as we approach Plato's. Why must we classify Xenophon's Socrates as a subject for reception study, then? Why not just call the study of Xenophon's Socrates a chapter in the history of philosophy?

The first contribution to our volume comes from Donald Morrison, who employs the logical distinctions so prominent in the Anglo-American analytical approach to Socrates in order to better understand the moral psychology of Xenophon's Socrates. Morrison notes that, despite Xenophon's emphasis on the importance of self-mastery (enkrateia), control over one's non-rational desires, Xenophon also provides us with a clearer statement of psychological egoism, the doctrine that all people always act in what they regard as their own best interest, than any found in Plato (Memorabilia 3.9.4). Morrison goes on to suggest how we might address various apparent contradictions between psychological egoism and other views Xenophon attributes to Socrates. Xenophon says that one who knows what he ought to do always does it (Mem. 4.6.6), but the 'ought' here (δεῖν) may be prudential (cf. 4.6.11) rather than deontological. Xenophon admits that akrasia, the absence of self-mastery, can lead one to act contrary to one's usual view of what is in one's interest. But this slight diachronic weakness of will is to be distinguished from the graver, synchronic weakness of will, Medea killing her children while knowing full well how wrong it is to do so. Finally, Morrison notes that while the standard view of Plato's Socrates denies the presence of any non-rational desires, and hence has no place for the self-mastery that Xenophon's Socrates emphasizes, some influential scholars have argued of late that Plato's Socrates also recognizes non-rational desires, clearing the way to resolving one of the largest apparent conflicts between Xenophon and Plato.5 Some have gone as far as to claim that this must have been the view of the historical Socrates, but Morrison will not join them. One problem with such a historical construction, as Morrison points out, is that, if Plato's Socrates also admits the presence of non-rational desires, we need to address why he never deigns (in the early dialogues) to mention enkrateia, the pride and joy of Xenophon's Socrates.

Michel Narcy's contribution begins with his suggestion, first mooted elsewhere,6 that the "dearer (girl-)friend" (τις φιλωτέρα Mem. 3.11.18), the one Socrates may prefer to the glamorous hetaira Theodote, is his own soul. This suggestion strikes me as decidedly implausible. The standard view, that Socrates is joking about his male friends, the presence of one of whom would lead him to neglect the beautiful Theodote, makes far better sense of the immediate context. The girlfriends at issue need to be feminine in keeping with the heterosexual (sic!) banter of the passage, and their presence "within" (ἔνδον) is not some hint toward psychology but due simply to the fact that neither Theodote nor Socrates (who is also mixed up in the prostitution business, at least metaphorically: Symposium 4.55-64, 8.4-6) is a streetwalker who will turn tricks outside. The fact that Socrates has plural girlfriends (3.11.16) would seem to be a difficulty with Narcy's view (in which Socrates has only one dearer friend, his soul), but Narcy makes it the springboard for an insightful reading of Socratic psychology, in which the soul does indeed have something like parts, with pleasure playing an important role. Socrates' self-mastery, as Narcy argues, does not enable him to deny pleasure in pursuit of some higher end, but does allow him to enjoy at least the best sorts of pleasures. We have, then, a sort of hedonistic calculus, reminiscent of Plato's Protagoras; but it is complicated, as Narcy notes, by the fact that Xenophon's Socrates does seem to recognize different sorts of pleasure (as at Mem. 1.6.8). For if some other criterion allows you to choose between pleasures, that other criterion must be part of what you are after, and you are no longer an uncomplicated hedonist. So is Xenophon's Socrates a hedonist? We reach here, it seems to me, a question Xenophon may not address for us, whether due to his reserve in discussing hedonism (out of pedagogical or apologetic grounds) or because he--or perhaps even the historical Socrates--had simply not thought the matter through.

From psychology we turn to two pieces on religion. Tomás Calvo Martínez devotes most of his essay to showing that the religion of Xenophon's Socrates is every bit as conventional as Xenophon claims it is in Memorabilia 1.1-2. Calvo Martínez argues that Xenophon's Socrates, like Apollo, praises moderation and self-knowledge and, unlike other figures of the sophistic enlightenment, never critiques traditional representations of the gods in myth, even when discussing the affairs of Zeus in his speech against carnal love in Symposium 8. But Socrates' etymological defense of Zeus' relationship with Ganymede there is eminently sophistic, it seems to me, making him no more a defender of traditional religion than is Tiresias in Euripides' Bacchae. Calvo Martínez himself recognizes something more than conventional in the providential world order of Memorabilia 1.4 and 4.3, and nicely notes how Xenophon exploits the ambiguity of the neuter daimonion to obscure the difference between traditional polytheism and his less conventional conception of a singular divine craftsman. Calvo Martínez leaves us with an unresolved tension between conventional and unconventional religious views. I suggest that Xenophon emphasizes the conventional side of Socrates' religious views while also revealing that they are in fact rather unconventional; as the most pious of men, Socrates' piety goes well beyond the conventional.

Alessandro Stavru studies Xenophon's account of unwritten law in Memorabilia 4.4 via unpublished work by the great German scholar of Greek religion, Walter Otto. After a full and valuable account of other scholarship on this passage, Stavru shows how Otto addressed a fundamental feature of the unwritten laws, the fact that all who break them are inevitably punished. For Otto this is not a matter of natural law but reflects a faith that the order of things is somehow just; Xenophon's Socrates is not a utilitarian avant la lettre but a believer in a harmonious world-order in which it always pays to do the right thing. Otto found numerous passages in Plato based on this same belief, as Socrates' puzzling remark that it is not permitted for a better man to be harmed by a worse (Apology 30c). Here we have a fascinating study in the reception of Socrates, albeit one of his reception by Otto and other modern scholars rather than his reception by Xenophon.

In the next three essays we turn to method. Alonso Tordesillas argues that the implicit methodology and content of the tale of Herakles at the Crossroads (Mem. 2.1.21-34), which Xenophon's Socrates says he has adapted from Prodicus, are Prodicean enough, at least in spirit. A central point of his argument is that, if we are after Prodicus, we must strive to reconcile our evidence outside this passage, which overwhelmingly connects Prodicus with the study of synonyms, with the ethical focus of our passage. Prodicus, like Socrates, was interested in defining terms, and, like Socrates, stuck mainly to ethical and political topics; it is natural enough, then, to expect Prodicean influence on Socrates. Tordesillas takes the numerous references to Prodicus in Xenophon and Plato to reflect that influence (rather than as ironic put-downs of a sophistic rival). The passage about Herakles does not obviously reflect Prodicus' interest in terminology, but it offers not so much a choice between two paths as one between two speakers, Virtue and Vice: the passage is, for Tordesillas, as much a defense of rhetoric as a defense of virtue. There has been an outburst of interest in whether or not Xenophon's version of Herakles at the Crossroads accurately reflects the original work of Prodicus.7 While the Socratic question may be passé, the Prodicean one, despite our dearth of evidence, apparently is not.

Livio Rossetti argues that a careful reading of Aristippus' attempt to refute Socrates (Mem. 3.8) can show us much about the rules of Socratic dialectic--and how Socrates breaks them. Aristippus here plays Socrates, and Socrates takes a tack similar to one tried by some of his interlocutors elsewhere by refusing to name anything good or beautiful (kalon) tout court, insisting instead on naming many things that are good in one respect but bad in others (cf. Protagoras 334a-c). For Rossetti, Aristippus is an overconfident student who needs to be brought back into the fold by his master. While Aristippus recognizes that Socrates cheats by failing to give a definition of the good, he cannot take advantage of this point and is instead made the recipient of a Socratic sermon. Rossetti does not, to my mind, adequately explain why Socrates cheats. Xenophon confirms that Socrates breaks the normal rules of debate when he tells us that Socrates chose to forego maintaining a consistent position on the good in order to benefit his companions and get rid of an annoying interlocutor (Mem. 3.8.1-2). I suspect that Aristippus, a hedonist, thought that the only defensible unitary definition of the good would be the pleasant. Socrates, who may well have known of no better definition for the good than the pleasant, chose to wiggle out of Aristippus' questions in order to avoid supporting an avowedly hedonistic teaching in front of his impressionable companions. Aristippus is not, then, a wayward student who needs to be brought back into the fold but a rival with a dangerous hedonistic position.

Hugues-Olivier Ney studies the intersection of dialectic and politics, and finds the two meeting at a vanishing point of sorts. Xenophon says that Socrates made his students more dialectical and more capable of ruling in one fell swoop (Mem. 4.5.12). In Xenophon, unlike Plato, there is no divide between philosophical dialectic and the mere rhetoric of politics. The ability to rule consists above all in the ability to convince others that one is worthy of rule. Where Plato ultimately discovers a transcendent subject matter, mastery of which makes philosophers the ideal rulers, but struggles to maintain a connection between philosophy and politics, Xenophon's Socrates never separates philosophy from politics. A problem for Xenophon's Socrates is his inability to identify any subject matter for politics beyond dialectic expertise. Despite certain appearances to the contrary,it is not, in Ney's view, knowledge of troop strengths and similarly technical matters which disqualifies someone like Glaucon from rule, but his inability to convince others that he is worthy even when he does have the relevant expertise (Mem. 3.6.14-15). Rulers show themselves worthy of rule by convincing others that they are worthy of rule. Thus Socrates is incapable of saying what it is that politicians need to know. We have paradox and circularity here aplenty, but for Ney the circle is not vicious. Socrates' political teaching is left unspoken not because he didn't have any (or because was hiding it, Straussian style--though there is much in Ney's article reminds one of Strauss), but because Socrates wants us to become our own masters.

Vana Nicolaïdou-Kyrianidou argues that the successes of the Cyrus of Xenophon's Cyropaedia show the limitations of Xenophon's Socrates. Nicolaïdou-Kyrianidou denies any divide between philosophy and politics, rather as Ney does, but she does not identify dialectical skill--a skill we might particularly associate with the philosopher--as the essence of political power. Successful leaders are those who put all their advantages to good use: not only wisdom, but good looks and high birth are to be utilized to their full extent. Where the ugly Socrates attempts to argue his way to a victory in the beauty contest against the beautiful Critobulus (Symposium 5), Cyrus takes great care to make himself appear more beautiful (Cyropaedia8.3.13). Xenophon's Socrates has no access to a world of ideas beyond the city or any philosophical lifestyle wholly separate from the life of the city. Hence his success, for Nicolaïdou-Kyrianidou, pales before that of Cyrus. Yet Xenophon would apparently attribute Socrates' failings, and his particular forms of success, to the special circumstances of Athenian democracy, a regime that neither man found terribly congenial.The idealized Persia of the Cyropaedia needed no Socrates, and could make good use of a Cyrus. This is a rich article, but perhaps assumes too readily that Xenophon idealized Cyrus as well as Socrates: contrast the end of the Memorabilia, where Xenophon fulsomely praises Socrates' continued ability to inspire his followers, with end of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon's bitter critique of the Persian decline that commenced immediately upon the death of Cyrus.

Domingo Plácido boldly breaks with the party line of the volume by directly addressing the Socratic question in his contribution, "The Historicity of the Figure of Socrates in the Oeconomicus of Xenophon." He provides a political reading of the Oeconomicus, arguing that the historical Socrates, as Xenophon, argued that Athens should abandon radical democracy for a regime based on the hoplite class and run by well-educated aristocrats. Socrates, thanks to his service as a hoplite and his mixing with aristocrats, was ideally suited to unite the hoplites and aristocrats.Agriculture, a main topic of the Oeconomicus, is another factor which unites these two classes against the artisans. The aristocratic rulers are masters of the royal art; as both Plato and Xenophon attribute a version of royalist politics to Xenophon, Socrates himself must have had some affinity for monarchy. Plácido is certainly right to note the presence of monarchical language in Xenophon's discussion of Socrates' politics, and to consider how such ideas would have been perceived in contemporary Athens. But I see little basis for any notion of a "hoplite class" in the Oeconomicus or elsewhere in Xenophon's Socratica. And while there is much of political importance in the Oeconomicus, I do not see how one can base a reading of Socrates' politics on this dialogue.

Louis-André Dorion directly addresses the central problem of the Oeconomicus, whether the gentleman-farmer Ischomachus is compatible with Socrates, and argues that the two provide different but complementary views of oikonomia. Ischomachus doesn't replace Socrates as a spokesman due to Socrates' lack of expertise or interest in economics. While Xenophon never explicitly says that Socrates is oikonomikos, numerous passages imply as much, and Socrates' disavowal of such knowledge in the Oeconomicus (2.10-13) isn't to be taken at face value. Socrates teaches his interlocutor, Critobulus, much about oikonomia before introducing Ischomachus, and by reporting his conversation with Ischomachus to Critobulus, rather than just sending him off to Ischomachus (as he sends others to other specialists), Socrates lays implicit claim to some relevant expertise. Socrates' economic skill is based on his self-control; as his desires do not outrun his resources, he is not, despite appearances, a poor man. Ischomachus, like Socrates, emphasizes the importance of self-control, and while, unlike Socrates, he understands oikonomia to consist of increasing one's estate (rather than ensuring that one's desires do not outrun one's resources), Ischomachus' pursuit of wealth allows him to benefit his friends and the city, making the city virtuous. Xenophon's Socrates teaches both politics and economics, but practices neither, at least in any conventional sense. The Oeconomicus thus defends Socrates by showing that his views are entirely compatible with those of the conventional Ischomachus, but perhaps succeeds too well. Ischomachus had no need of Socrates, so what need have we? After all, Dorion notes, Xenophon himself chose a life more in keeping with Ischomachus than with Socrates.

We come at last to the still more fundamental question of whether Xenophon was a true follower of Socrates or only held up Socrates as one of many paradigmatic figures suitable for emulation. Those thinking that there was something special about Socrates for Xenophon may perhaps take a certain ironic comfort in noting that Ischomachus, Xenophon's chosen exemplar of conventional kalokagathia, ended up impoverished, and that his innocent bride, Chrysilla, ended up in a scandalous affair with none other than Callias, the apparent exemplar of conventional pederasty in Xenophon's Symposium. Socrates, by contrast, ended gloriously--or so Xenophon insists. We chair-bound scholars can too readily assume that anyone who knew as much about farming, horses, and warfare as Xenophon did cannot have known much more. Xenophon was, after all, not your average gentleman farmer; he was, as these essays so well show, a writer, and one not only of great breadth but of considerable subtlety.

Table of Contents

Donald R. Morrison: Remarques sur la psychologie morale de Xénophon.
Michel Narcy: Socrate et son âme dans les "Mémorables."
Tomás Calvo Martínez: La religiosité de Socrate dans Xénophon.
Alessandro Stavru: Socrate et la confiance dans les "agraphoi nomoi" (Xénophon, "Mémorables", IV, 4): réflexions sur les "socratica" de Walter F. Otto.
Alonso Tordesillas: Socrate et Prodicos dans les "Mémorables."
Livio Rossetti: Savoir imiter, c'est connaître : le cas de "Mémorables," III, 8.
Jean-Baptiste Gourinat: La dialectique de Socrate selon les "Mémorables."
François Renaud: Le "Gorgias" de Platon et les "Mémorables": étude comparative.
Hugues-Olivier Ney: Y a-t-il un art de penser ? La "techne" manquante de l'enseignement socratique dans les "Mémorables."
Vana Nicolaïdou-Kyrianidou: Autorité et obéissance. Le maître idéal de Xénophon face à son idéal de prince.
Domingo Plácido: L'historicité de Socrate dans l' "Économique."
Louis-André Dorion: Socrate "oikonomikos."
Louis-André Dorion: Les écrits socratiques de Xénophon : supplément bibliographique (1984-2008).


1.   Bibliography of Editions, Translations, and Commentary on Xenophon's Socratic Writings (1600--Present). Pittsburg, 1988. "On Professor Vlastos' Xenophon" Ancient Philosophy (1988) 7: 9-22.
2.   The grandest product of that interest is Gianantoni's Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae (Naples, 1990). Noteworthy also is another collection of essays devoted solely to Xenophon's Socrates: Dorion, Louis-André and Luc Brisson, eds. 2004. Les écrits socratiques de Xénophon (= Les Études philosophiques 2004.2, pp. 137-252. Updates on the recent international work on the Socratics can found on the Socratica website.
3.   Dorion, Louis-André and Michele Bandini, eds. 2000. Xénophon: Mémorables. Tome I. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.03.
4.   For the reception of Socrates, see now the two volumes edited by Michael Trapp: Socrates from Antiquity to the Enlightenment and Socrates in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Aldershot, 2007).
5.   Devereux, Daniel T. 1995. "Socrates' Kantian Conception of Virtue." Journal of the History of Philosophy 33, 381-408.
6.   Narcy, Michel. 2004. "La meilleure amie de Socrate: Xénophon, Mémorables III.11." 213-234 in Dorion and Brisson 2004 (note 2 above).
7.   Most recently (and with references to prior work): Dorion, Louis-André. 2008. "Héraklès entre Prodicos et Xénophon." Philosophie antique 8: 85-114.

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