BMCR 1998.12.08

The Framing of Socrates: The Literary Interpretation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia

, The Framing of Socrates: The Literary Interpretation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Hermes Einzelschriften 79. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. Pp. 202. ISBN 9783515073134

Xenophon quite closely resembles a familiar British figure — the retired general, staunch Tory and Anglican, firm defender of the Establishment in Church and State, and at the same time a reflective man with ambitions to write edifying literature (American Xenophons do not seem to be so common).

These amusingly sniffy remarks of Terry Irwin are quoted without comment by Vivienne Gray as paradigmatic of the negative evaluation of Xenophon — the prevailing view of the last century of scholarship. The post-Romantic, post-Nietzschean obsession with the essentially ironic — and hence Platonic — Socrates radically revised a long tradition, which, as Alexander Nehemas has recently argued at length in The Art of Living, took Xenophon rather as a privileged model of biographical didacticism. Thus the 20th century has been keen to denigrate Xenophon in ideological and literary terms as a sort of Colonel Blimp. Yet Irwin’s description — for all the easy seductiveness of its literary and national stereotyping — spectacularly misses its target. After all, ‘firm defender of the Establishment in Church and State’ scarcely represents a man who was exiled from his democratic country to live in the community of its worst military and political enemies, and who fought (and wrote about his fighting) for a charismatic barbarian revolutionary. Nor does ‘staunch Tory and Anglican’ — to which ancient Greek could such terms ever by sensibly applied? — help us get close to the man who boldly developed literary forms, who wrote a founding text of erotic fiction, and who passionately defended and memorialized a fashionable philosopher put to death by the state for religious and political crimes. Indeed, for contemporary cultural historians Xenophon should be seen as a figure of exemplary importance and attractively transgressive social positioning: the man who crosses the boundaries of engagement between Greek and barbarian, Athens and Sparta; who argues his dissent within and against democracy through his writing; whose texts innovate in form and genre, and play with the voices of first and third person expression; whose interests spread from the key cultural institutions of hunting and fighting, to political biography, trendy philosophy, and tourism. Xenophon is ripe for rehabilitation.

Gray’s book is cautious and scholarly step in this direction. It offers a literary interpretation of the Memorabilia which does not claim to provide a ‘commentary on each of the episodes of the work, but prepares the way for such a commentary’. The Memorabilia certainly needs such general, serious, intellectual treatment, which is lacking for most of Xenophon’s works, with the possible exception of the Cyropaedia. Gray focuses almost exclusively on the Memorabilia (there is no attempt to bring it into an integrated picture of Xenophon’s varied output), but unlike most recent criticism she tries to see the work as a coherent project with a consistent agenda. For Gray, the Memorabilia is a highly rhetorical attempt to refute the charges against Socrates both by repeated rehearsal of his ‘usefulness’ to society, and by producing a biographical portrait whose elements are designed to persuade and attract, rather than repel through alienating irony. Not failed philosophy, but controlled, expressive, normative picturing. The piece emerges as a ‘revolutionary advance in the literary expression of wisdom’. Repeatedly, Xenophon’s strategy is defined as one of ‘amplification’, as a rhetorical position is first limned and then expanded and repeated in different ways. The figure of Xenophon that emerges is of a skilled and committed polemicist, manipulating his material for specific and bold rhetorical effect, powerfully contributing to the politics of authority and knowledge in the classical polis.

Gray begins by outlining the status quaestionis. This is expressed with great politeness but with only little attempt to see any broader picture of the intellectual or cultural politics which inform the negative image of Xenophon; she catalogues pointedly but with a (Xenophontic) resistance to any (Platonic) aggressive irony. There is little discussion, for example, of the vested disciplinary interests of professional philosophers and how they may clash with those of cultural historians when dealing with Xenophon. Thus Irwin and others are left to speak for themselves. This introductory section, however, prepares well for Gray’s account of Xenophon’s opening version of the accusations of Socrates and the rebuttal of them. She firmly argues the necessary point (familiar from Erbse) that this formal apologia frames the pictures of Socratic conversations which enact an apologia — or, in Gray’s more developed expression, a ‘rhetoric of dokimasia’ — at different levels (a point which, as Gray notes, has bizarrely been ignored or denied all too often by critics). She argues both that the conversations are to be seen as rhetorical proofs in themselves, and that the structure of the series of conversations itself forms a rhetorical argument. She explores the careful positioning of the authorial voice in the construction of his authoritative view, and the persuasiveness of this argumentative technique. Finally, the particular and novel form of the conversations is seen as a development of the chreia (and thus as a major contribution to the development of wisdom literature). All this in the service of re-reading Xenophon’s rhetorical positioning seriously: her aim is to vindicate the rhetorical success of the Memorabilia.

In its own terms, much of what Gray says marks an an essential development of the standard image of Xenophon, which is often grotesquely unnuanced. Her scholarship is sound, the exposition clear, direct and rigorously within the restricted bounds she sets herself of a preparatory study to a full commentary. In particular, her sensitivity to rhetorical form and force; to Xenophon’s intellectual and polemical seriousness; and to the novel discursive structure of the Memorabilia, will make this book a necessary port of call for those working on Xenophon, and especially on his representation of Socrates. It is aimed (as one would expect from the Hermes Einzelschriften series) primarily at the professional scholar. The Greek is only sometimes translated; the significance in the political history of Athens of named figures such as Critias or Alcibiades is taken for granted, as is the context of the Sophistic enlightenment; there are many passages of detailed, extended exegesis of arguments and their amplification which might strain the less than fully committed reader.

Gray’s very caution, however, leads also to some more awkward restrictions. Although Isocrates is usefully offered as a comparandum, the connection between Xenophon’s literary form and didactic strategy would benefit from a more developed contextualization both in his own work and in the relevant intellectual traditions. The chreiai may lurk behind Xenophon’s anecdotal technique; but in many ways to expand a ‘witty and wise saying’ into a two page narrative is to destroy rather than to ‘develop’ its form. The full range of narrative prose and the different possibilities of performative context might frame Xenophon’s innovations more tellingly. What is more, the more discursive and argumentative reading of a commentary (or a different type of literary criticism) would greatly add to the understanding of Xenophon’s rhetorical strategy — and might be thought necessary for its adequate description, since Xenophon’s narrative is more playful, tricky and convoluted than can be allowed in Gray’s account. It is also striking that for all the re-evaluation of Xenophon, Plato still emerges all too often as the yardstick of reliability, the privileged picture of Socratic argument, the master — so hard is it to escape from Plato’s modern status.

Indeed, I suspect that Xenophon will not receive the full rehabilitation he deserves until the terms of the inherited scholarly debate are themselves radically realigned. Within the field of Xenophontic scholarship, however, this book should have a broad effect. And who knows? Perhaps slowly the Colonel Blimp of 20th-century imagination will metamorphose into a more dashing culture hero — and Xenophon’s significance for understanding the categories and tensions of the politics of culture in the classical polis will shine forth.