BMCR 2022.06.34

Xenophon’s other voice: irony as social criticism in the 4th century BCE

, Xenophon's other voice: irony as social criticism in the 4th century BCE. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Pp. 264. ISBN 9781350250529 $115.00.


The book comprises an introduction, four parts entitled “Socrates on Athens”, “Xenophon on Athens”, “The Rest of Greece” and “Persia”, followed by concluding remarks, notes, bibliography and two indexes. Two chapters were previously published.[1]

A major part of Xenophontic research in the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century has been about the role of irony. Some scholars find irony hidden in the texts, other deny it. In the Introduction, Yun Lee Too rejects both positions. She criticizes Leo Strauss and his followers for reading Xenophon in ideological and contemporary terms, but objects also to a non-ironic reading begun with Søren Kierkegaard’s Danish dissertation from 1841 and arguing in particular against Vivienne Gray, although she admits that Gray accepts some ironic readings in her later works.[2] Too’s own suggestion (p. 3) is that irony is a feature of the presentation, gesturing at inconsistencies in the texts that serve to achieve the author’s goal: social criticism of the fourth century world and its institutions. Too maintains the simplest and most encompassing articulation of irony for her study, namely that it occurs when there are differences of thought and perception about a matter (pp. 7-8). Too calls her reading a historicist reading because she sees Xenophon against the literary context of the 4th century BCE. With references to Isocrates, Plato and Thucydides, she draws a picture of Athens as a chaotic and disorderly place where business was conducted through the spoken word, and where the mob’s favor decided policy and legal outcomes (p. 3). Together with Thucydides, Isocrates and Plato, Xenophon, in her view, articulates with his writing the elite’s rejection of this civic ideal seeking the attention and the approbation of the inevitably educated, wealthy few: “As a conservative elitist, a member of a minority privileged by wealth, status and education, he (Xenophon) preferred to live his life apart from the commonality of Athens. In this sense, he would have been to a greater or lesser extent a ´quiet Athenian, he himself avoided the places of public speech and sought ways of expressing himself as such apart from public speech” (p. 4).

Too finds irony in all of Xenophon’s works, but not the same kind. In the Socratic writings, the irony is understated and presented by the figure of Socrates as the knowing philosopher against the ignorant citizens of Athens (p. 208). In the rest of his work, Xenophon, as author, constructs the irony or ironies by showing himself to be more cognizant of the way things are than the interlocutors, readership included. Too suggests: “irony is the ideal figure of speech for an elitist such as Xenophon to employ, determining a divide between an audience that will not properly understand what the author seeks to convey—the mass—and an audience that will understand more deeply—an elite—which is probably educated and able to read” (p. 8).

Too is in agreement with those scholars who want to consider Xenophon qua Xenophon, but she regards generic distinctions as anachronistic (p. 9ff.). Instead, she organizes her discussion according to geography and states (p. 13ff): “Yet, because he (Xenophon) is an ironic author, the subjects of his works are not as important as his method.” Consequently, Too couples all the Socratic works in Part One; On Hunting, the equine works, and Ways and Means in Part Two; Hiero, On the Constitution of the Spartans, Agesilaus, and Hellenica in Part Three; and Cyropaedia and Anabasis in Part Four. Each work receives a separate discussion, but the two works on equine culture are discussed together because they—according to Too—share the same kind of irony. The same applies to On the Constitution of Sparta and the Agesilaus. Less obvious is the coupling in Part Three of Hiero, the Spartan works and the Hellenica.

An important element in the analysis is the conviction that the purpose of literature in 4th -century Greece is teaching. Like Thucydides, Isocrates and Plato, Xenophon as writer functions as a teacher and the reader as his student. Xenophon as the narrator and teacher has the knowledge, whereas the reader is ignorant (p. 13).

The method is a close reading of the texts, paraphrasing paragraph after paragraph (not so different from the Straussian method)[3] Although Too finds Xenophon’s method more important than his subjects, the subject is the basis for understanding the method. Xenophon’s precise text in Greek or in translation is rarely given.

To engage in a discussion in all of Xenophon’s works in one book is impressive and the extensive bibliography and the frequent references to other scholars indicate thorough study. It is relevant to view social criticism as an important part of Xenophon’s work. Likewise, is is tempting to try to find and use one key to all his diversified writings. Unfortunately, the result has several flaws, caused by Too’s very broad definition of irony, her narrow definition of the purpose of literature and her picture of Xenophon as a quiet elitist.

To begin with the last point, I find that the picture painted of Xenophon as a conservative quietist is biased and given without proper argumentation. We know very little of Xenophon’s life before he—against Socrates’ warning—accepts Proxenus’ invitation and joins the younger Cyrus, a daring and not very quiet way of acting. Even if it is true that he and his family must have been wealthy, it is Too’s opinion to say that he preferred to live away from public speech. Belonging to the wealthy elite does not necessarily make a person an elitist. Xenophon’s personal destiny and life after the expedition to Persia, i..e. his exile, is curiously underplayed throughout the book. It is described as an episode (p. 148), and in the Anabasis passage (p. 201) it is taken to be the basis for his wish to found a city-state away from Greece, although it is unclear when exactly his banishment occurred. In Too’s Conclusion though, the exile is use to explain his use of irony as a means of self-preservation that allowed him to exist in different surroundings (p. 211).

As for the use of irony, I agree in Too’s critique of the Staussian use of contemporary ideology. However, Too herself is doing the same when she sees Xenophon as an exponent of elitism.

An even more serious misuse of contemporary ideology occurs in Too’s analysis of the Anabasis where she introduces race and sees race as the underlying problematic. Too concludes the chapter (p. 205): “Going home is not about changing geographical position; rather going home is finding unity and peace with one’s own race.“ It is true that the Persian world in the Anabasis is presented as divided, but to interpret the fact that the Greeks come from different states as evidence of the unity of the race, is an undocumented assumption (p. 204).

The treatment of the Anabasis illustrates in many ways the weakness of using a very broad definition of irony, and shows the author’s tendency to over-interpretation. What is the meaning, for instance, of saying (p. 205) that one example of irony comes early in book I with the death of Cyrus, who is subtly critiqued, and the growing presence of Xenophon? Further, the obvious fact that the Anabasis after the battle of Cunaxa focuses on the Greeks and their fight to survive is taken to suggest that Xenophon’s view of the world is one in which the Persians pass into inconsequence while the Greeks assume dominance (p. 205). In the same passage, Too overplays the fact that Xenophon is an Athenian when she says: “He casts himself as an Athenian and this suggests the supremacy of Athens in the Greek world.”

To discuss the equine works together seems reasonable, but the analysis takes an absurd turn when Too suggests that what appears to be a didactic text may be a ridiculous parody. Her argumentation is built on a narrow understanding of pedagogy, which she claims is meant to reinforce and reconstitute the structure of society so that the educated individual could find his position in society. Based on that definition, Too postulates that the instructions should ideally be only for the leading young men of the state and not include the grooms and the horses who have no role in political leadership. But didactic texts can also deal with technical matters and Xenophon knew from experience how crucial a good horse is for a rider. In the treatment of On the Cavalry Commander, Too interprets the stress on the importance of piety and religious observance as a plea for help made by Xenophon in desperation (p. 100). That Xenophon should address a problem of his times and propose an earnest solution, is inconceivable for Too and must therefore be proof of irony. Therefore,Too also must reject Ways and Means as a serious attempt to remedy the finances of Athens. To Too it is a ”strongly class-inflected work”(p.114) with a perverse logic. Assuming Xenophon’s quietist nature as a fact, he cannot be in earnest proposing reforms. As a member of his class, he seeks the status quo, which is best preserved through the quiet life (p. 115).

Lastly, even if it is correct that genre, as we understand it, is a modern conception, it is strange not to mention or speculate on the diversity and variety in Xenophon’s writings in contrast to Plato, Isocrates and Greek authors in general. Moreover, this could purposefully have been discussed in connection with the problem of Xenophon’s intended readers. In the Introduction Too states that the majority was illiterate (p.4). Nevertheless, Too later talks about a readership divided in mass and educated or divided between readers who were ”in,” i.e., who would grasp the second voice and the irony and others who would not. It is a difficult problem but essential to the question of irony and to the possible existence of another voice.

Too’s book would have benefitted from stronger editing. There are numerous repetitions, errors and misunderstandings, too many to mention.[4]


[1] ”The Economies of Pedagogy in the Oeconomicus: Xenophon’s Wifely Didactics” (chapter 4 of Part One) was previously published in Cambridge Philological Society 47 (2001), 65-80 and the chapter “Xenophon’s Cyropaedia:Disfiguring the Pedagogical State,” (chapter 1 of Part Four) is an updated version of “Pedagogical State and the Disfigurement of Power in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia,” which appeared in Pedagogy and Power: Rhetorics of Classical Learning, eds. Too and Livingston, Cambridge (1998) 282-302.

[2] V. J. Gray, Xenophon’s mirror of princes, Oxford 2011 is mentioned, but not discussed.

[3] The seven books of the Hellenica are meticulously paraphrased pp. 153-163 and the Memorabilia pp. 30-39

[4] To mention only a few: in the reference to the Cyropaedia 4,3,15ff. it is Chrysanthas, not Cyrus who introduces the Centaur theme (p.102). Discussing the Agesilaus, it is not Sparta, but Agesilaus’ camp in Ephesus which is a factory of war (p. 138). Discussing the parallel passage in Hellenica 3,3,1ff. the same description is used to conclude that Xenophon is implicitly criticizing “Agesilaus’ workshop of war” as a nihilistic community because there is no mentioning of crops, market, art or culture (p. 157). Αgain discussing the description of the camp, Agesilaus is called the Persian leader (p. 202). Discussing Cyrus’ death in the Anabasis, Too gives an incomplete and unintelligible quotation in greek: παρ’ ἐκείνῳ γὰρ ἦν Κῦρος δὲ αὐτός τε ἁπέθανε (p. 191). Ιn the same passage Xenophon is called a leader of the Athenian men, and his dedication in Delphi with his inclusion of his friend Proxenus, is misunderstood as meaning patron or guardian (p. 198).