Xenophon contra Plato: Citizen Motivation and Socratic Biography

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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Xenophon’s Cyropaedia should be considered a classic text of political theory. It inaugurated the political biography and is one of the most extensive classical Greek works on political leadership. It has, however, been neglected or, when studied, misunderstood as a cautionary tale of political corruption. I argue that Xenophon’s method in the Cyropaedia is illustrative of Socratic biography and focused on three problems: why leaders emerge, what motivates them, and how their character is constituted. Xenophon responds to these questions by modelling a spirited character type, a person uniquely motivated by philotimia, the desire for political status and honour, and thus uniquely suited for development into a political leader. Furthermore, Xenophon is in theoretic dialogue with Plato over the concepts which comprise this model and a proper understanding of their dialogue impacts interpretations of the Cyropaedia as a whole, Xenophon’s intervention in Greek political discourse, and Plato’s influence on contemporaries.




Ramsay MacMullen, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. To A.D. 284 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 125, who argues philotimia, is the most significant motivation of persons pursuing political office in the ancient world. MacMullen’s view, particularly regarding scholarly neglect of philotimia, is discussed and supported by Peter Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 31.


Vivienne J. Gray, Xenophon’s Mirror of Princes: Reading the Reflections (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 1, 55-69, and passim. Examples of this interpretation adduced by Gray, to take only the most prominent, begin with Leo Strauss, ‘The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon’, Social Research, 6 (1939), pp. 502-36, and continue through Leo Strauss, Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the Oeconomicus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970) and Leo Strauss, Xenophon’s Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972) while being developed by Christopher Bruell, ‘Xenophon’, in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 90-117, W. E. Higgins, Xenophon the Athenian: The Problem of the Individual and the Society of the Polis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), and W. R. Newell, ‘Machiavelli and Xenophon on Princely Rule: A Double-Edged Encounter’, The Journal of Politics, 50 (1988), pp. 108-30. To these can be added most of the contributions to the 2009 special issue of Polis, edited by Wayne Ambler and Dustin Gish, devoted to Xenophon’s political thought.


By, for example, Arthur M. Melzer, ‘Esotericism and the Critique of Historicism’, American Political Science Review, 100.2 (2006), pp. 279-95, p. 287, who describes Xenophon as ‘a writer who, since the end of the eighteenth century, had been dismissed as philosophically superficial for the good reason that if one does not see the esoteric depths of his Socratic writings one sees only the sometimes charming, sometimes boring recollections of a retired general’.


Nadon, ‘Republic to Empire’, p. 373, a claim repeated in Nadon, Xenophon’s Prince, p. 178. Equally implausible, on my view, is Nadon’s declaration that Xenophon prophetically ‘foresees the passing away of the polis and its distinctive way of life and explores the consequences of the almost inevitable emergence of empire on the Asiatic level’ and intentionally ‘mutes his criticisms of empire so as to increase the likelihood that his works will be preserved in the coming political order, while still providing some antidote against its worst excesses’ (pp. 163-4).


See Gray, Xenophon’s Mirror of Princes, pp. 6-7, and passim, on ‘horizon of expectations’, a concept drawn from literary theory. Deborah Levine Gera, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia: Style, Genre, and Literary Technique (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 2, in different terms, summarizes the scholarly consensus that the Cyropaedia is a kind of ‘vehicle’ or ‘peg’ for Xenophon to reiterate favoured concerns and themes which appear across his corpus.


Danielle Allen, Why Plato Wrote (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 19.


For discussion see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 302.


Due, The Cyropaedia, p. 149, argues that genea should be considered ‘the hereditary factor’ of Cyrus’ nature and emphasizes that Cyrus is here presented as heir in an hereditary monarchy. Due neglects to note, however, that contrary to Xenophon’s depiction there was no Persian throne at the time of the historical Cyrus’ birth.


Due, The Cyropaedia, pp. 147-56, discusses Xenophon’s innovation in focusing on the childhood and youth of his subject.


Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography, p. 46.


Translation following Lane, ‘Virtue as the Love of Knowledge’, p. 50.


Due, The Cyropaedia, pp. 94-7, discusses occurrences of philoponein in the Cyropaedia, including in this passage, but fails to note that the quality is not presented by Xenophon as a stand-alone component of Cyrus’ character but a consequence of his being a philotimos (as such, he is desirous of praise for labour).


Ralph Mark Rosen and Ineke Sluiter, Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003), p. 2.


Lane, ‘Virtue as the Love of Knowledge’, 59-60.


Gera, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, p. 158.


C. Strang, ‘Tripartite Souls, Ancient and Modern: Plato and Sheldon’, Apeiron, 16.1 (1982), pp. 1-11, esp. p. 5, gives a straightforward account of the psychological motivations common to these activities with useful comparisons to contemporary psychological concepts and research. The Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws (VII.823b ff.) gives detailed recommendations on how hunting practices should be regulated for the production of qualities needed in a good citizen, especially courage (824a), which closely tracks Xenophon’s description (discussed below) of Cyrus’ progression through forms of hunting towards those most similar to warfare against human beings. It’s likely that Plato is here writing with reference to the Cyropaedia, as he had at III.694a ff.


W. Robert Connor, ‘History without Heroes: Theopompus’ Treatment of Philip of Macedon’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 8.2 (1967), pp. 133-54, p. 152, describing what he saw as Theopompus’ innovation in focusing on aspects of personality previous historians had neglected, expressed surprise that ‘even in Xenophon, relatively little is heard of the sexual conduct, the use or abuse of food and wine, the frugality or extravagance of the major figures’. In light of the present argument, however, this absence is not due to neglect on Xenophon’s part when describing Cyrus the Great but is a necessary consequence of Cyrus’ natural virtues and character which, as spirited, are not drawn to such concerns.


Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), pp. 43-4, took this passage as evidence that ‘to care for oneself, heautou epimeleisthai’, was a ‘widespread imperative’ among of the Greeks: ‘At the end of his conquests, Xenophon’s idealized Cyrus still does not consider his existence to be complete. It remains for him – and this he values above all else – to attend to himself.’


W. R. Connor, ‘Historical Writing in the Fourth Century B.C. and in the Hellenistic Period’, in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, ed. P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 458-71, p. 459, observes that some of the most positive features of Xenophon’s Hellenica are its ‘flashes of psychological perception’ and describes the Hiero as a consideration of ‘the moral and psychological implications of tyranny’ (p. 460).


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