Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.
to e-mail us:
support the site
- Return to top of the page -
B+ : good introduction to the figure of Socrates and his philosophy
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
The historical figure of Socrates is likely most familiar from the dialogues of Plato, in which he figures extensively and prominently, but Plato was not the only writer of the times to record and present Socrates' philosophical teachings.
Xenophon -- also a student of Socrates -- also wrote several works featuring the old master, of which the so-called Memorabilia is the most substantial and far-reaching.
I have often wondered by what arguments those who drew up the indictment against Socrates could persuade the Athenians that he deserved to forfeit his life to the state.He offers a rebuttal of what he sees as the flawed charges against Socrates -- not worshipping the right (state) gods as well as corrupting the 'young men' of the state. Xenophon quickly gets out of the way that Socrates might have corrupted the young men in one particular way, presenting him as a model of restraint -- "in control of his lusts and appetite he was the strongest of men" -- and makes the case that, if anything, Socrates always set a good example -- indeed, that he showed the youth of Athens the proper way to live and behave: Socrates as the ultimate role model. In this regard, he emphasizes how Socrates comported himself, rather than his actual teaching -- teaching by example rather than his usual dialogic method:
To be sure he never professed to teach this, but by letting his own light shine, he led his disciples to hope that through imitation of him they would develop likewise.As to the other charge, Xenophon expresses genuine surprise that Socrates might have been considered impious, knowing him to be completely devoted to the gods; indeed, Xenophon's Socrates is a remarkably religious figure, readily deferring to the gods on many matters. He was not just incurious about questions that he felt were the gods' domain but in fact argued strongly against humans even concerning themselves with them. Far from the romanticized philosophical ideal of exploring all the questions in heaven and earth, Socrates is presented as a narrow-minded thinker unwilling to explore beyond a narrow range of issues, closely related to human and social behavior. For a supposedly critical mind, he also was surprisingly quick to yield to deities as authorities -- without ever really questioning the basis for that authority; gods' wills and ways and laws are accepted as unquestionable (and universal and eternal, Socrates never wondering too much as to how they came about, or were transmitted to humankind).
As Xenophon makes clear, Socrates was only interested in 'human matters'. He was a philosopher with a clear conception of what questions men should engage with -- and which they should leave to the gods -- and, for all the wise lessons he may have passed on to his followers, this was something that didn't appear to be open for much debate in his mind. There's no gentle leading of pupils to understanding why they shouldn't bother with certain issues: on some questions -- notably this one -- Socrates didn't brook any counter-argument (much less dissent):
He did not even discuss that topic so favored by other talkers, "the nature of the universe": and avoided speculation on the so-called Cosmos of the sophists, how it works, and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens: indeed he would demonstrate that to trouble one's mind with such problems is sheer folly.Socrates is dismissive of many kinds of speculation:
In general, with regard to the phenomena of the heavens, he deprecated curiosity to learn how the deity contrives them: he held that their secrets could not be discovered by man, and believed that any attempt to search out what the gods had not chosen to reveal must be displeasing to them. He said that he who meddles with these matters runs the risk of losing his sanity as completely as Anaxagoras, who took an insane pride in his explanation of the divine machinery.This seems like a weak (not-even-)argument -- why must it displease the gods ? -- but Socrates clearly felt that man should know his place (a rather limited place, in his understanding), and not venture beyond.
Indeed, if philosophers are meant to be lovers of knowledge, Socrates hardly comes across as an impressive example -- much less teacher: Xenophon recounts that Socrates was fine with the study of geometry -- but only up to a point: "He was against carrying the study of geometry so far as to include the more complicated figures, on the ground that he could not see the use of them". (I'm surprised high school kids bored with math class the world over haven't been citing Socrates to make their case .....).
he strongly deprecated studying astronomy so far as to include the knowledge of bodies revolving in different courses, and of planets and comets, and wearing oneself out with the calculation of their distance from the earth, their periods of revolution and the causes of these. Of such researches again he said that he could not see what useful purpose they served. He had indeed attended lectures on these subjects too; but these again, he said, were enough to occupy a lifetime to the complete exclusion of many useful studies.Helpfully, Xenophon provides an illustration of Socrates making his dismissive case, and the difference to, say, an Anaxagoras -- whom he takes down here -- is illuminating:
For that sage, in declaring the sun to be fire, ignored the facts than men can look at fire without inconvenience, but cannot gaze steadily at the sun; that their skin is blackened by the sun's rays but not by fire. Further, he ignored the fact that sunlight is essential to the health of all vegetation, whereas if anything is heated by fire it withers. Again, when he pronounced the sun to be a red-hot stone, he ignored the fact that a stone in fire neither glows nor can resist it long, whereas the sun shines with unequalled brilliance for ever.Socrates' claims seem to be following scientific method, but, like many modern-day amateur commentators on science, he is too confident in his own observations and experience; to him it's all obvious, and he is unable to (and unwilling to, and not interested in) considering possibilities beyond these. Just like he can't conceive of uses for mathematics beyond taking simple measurements or adding sums. (In the case of these examples it's obvious, seen from a modern perspective, just how wrong Socrates was -- but surely even in his day there were those who -- like Anaxagoras -- were willing to at least consider that things were not entirely as straightforward as personal experience (itself so limited in scale and time, among other things) suggested.) Socrates shows himself to be very cautious in his thinking -- and, above all, to lack imagination. Flights of fancy -- especially in realms cosmological or atomistic -- are of no interest to him.
Xenophon does not fault Socrates for this blind spot -- this lack of interest in what was beyond his immediate experience and understanding -- or his cop-out leave-it-to-the-gods evasion of most anything to do with the subject (which was in any case maybe the smart way to go, seeing as to how foolish he looks with his would-be take-down of Anaxagoras' sun-theory). A soldier and an historian, it's understandable that Xenophon was more interested in philosophy that dealt with everyday tangible human concerns -- as opposed to, say, the metaphysical -- and so Socrates' focus on that held obvious appeal. Arguably, after all, these are the things that matter:
His own conversation was ever of human matters, investigating what is pious, what is impious; 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 -- these and others like them, knowledge of which made a gentleman, in his opinion, while ignorance could fairly be called slavishness.Socrates does seem to have been, in how he handled and presented himself, an admirable person (though, as his fate suggests, even that didn't sit well with some of the locals). Xenophon was certainly convinced of it, gushing:
Socrates was so useful in all circumstances and in all ways that any observer gifted with ordinary perception can see that nothing was more useful than the companionship of Socrates and time spent with him in any place and in any circumstances.Most of the examples in Memorabilia are, however, not simply of how Socrates himself led his life, but his dialogues with others, the back and forth by which he led them to his wisdom, as Xenophon offers a selection of several such encounters, covering a variety of subjects.
As the examples show, sometimes Socrates does take all the steps himself in reaching his conclusions -- as opposed to eliciting them through dialogue -- as when he notes:
I find that human beings naturally differ one from another and greatly improve by application. Hence it is clear that all men, whatever their natural gifts, the talented and the dullards alike, must learn and practice what they want to excel in.This is some of his favorite basic advice -- and is admittedly sensible enough. Dedication and application make for a better citizen -- though it's interesting how he sometimes frames it, as when he says:
No, Critobulus, if you want to be thought good at anything you must try to be so; that is the quickest, the surest, the best way. You will find on reflection that every kind of excellence that people recognize is enhanced by study and practice.Note the phrasing: "be thought good at" and "excellence that people recognize" (as opposed to simply being good at, and excellence per se, regardless of whether or not it is recognized by others); Socrates really seems to have little patience for or interest in the abstract (of truth, justice, and all the other ideals); at heart, he's a real-world kind of guy.
Socrates betrays a very specific idea of society and roles -- and his own limited personal experience, one suspects -- at times, such as when he gives advice to one Aristarchus, who complains about the many mouths he has to feed:
Which makes men more prudent, idleness or useful employment ? Which makes men more just, work or idle discussions about supplies ? Besides, at present, I imagine, you don't like these women and they don't like you: you think they're a drain on you and they see that you consider them a burden. And the danger in this situation is that dislike may grow and their former gratitude might fade away; but if you exert your authority and make them work, you will like them when you find that they are profitable to you, and they will be fond of you when they feel that you are pleased with them. Both you and they will like to recall past kindnesses and will strengthen the feeling of gratitude that these engender; thus you will be better friends and feel more at home.(Aristarchus likes the sound of that: "'Well I swear, Socrates,' said Aristarchus, 'your advice seems so good that I think I'll up and borrow capital to make a start in business.'" But it's hard to ignore that Xenophon does not report or explore how the women might have reacted .....)
A long section covers Socrates' conversion of Euthydemus, 'the handsome one', who: "had formed a large collection of the works of celebrated poets and thinkers and therefore supposed himself to be a prodigy of wisdom for his age and was confident of surpassing all competitors in power of speech and action", where his back-and-forth method easily deflates Euthydemus' delusional exaggerated view of himself and his wisdom. These teaching moments are often also quite entertaining, because Xenophon shows Socrates' sense of humor -- gentle enough that no one takes offense (Glaucon is the rare student who even just goes so far as to acknowledge it: "You're teasing me", he points out at one point), Of course, it's generally amusing to see those who are full of themselves taken down a few notches -- and among Socrates' most astute observations is certainly that:
Isn't it clear too that through self-knowledge men come to much good, and through self-deception to much harm ? For those who know themselves, know what things are expedient for themselves and discern their own powers and limitations.So also his sensible advice:
My good man, don't be ignorant of yourself: don't fall into the common error. For so many are in such a hurry to pry into other people's business that they never turn aside to examine themselves. Don't refuse to face this duty then: strive more earnestly to pay heed to yourself; and don't neglect public affairs, if you have the power to improve them.The famous Socratic method is meant to lead those Socrates is in dialogue with to come to the right conclusions and understanding by themselves. Xenophon is clearly a firm believer in this method, and offers many examples throughout Memorabilia of Socrates nudging the misguided and wayward to the 'proper' conclusions -- but it's not entirely convincing. Socrates' questions almost invariably only have one answer; there is no room allowed for debate. Many of the question are very obviously leading ones; perhaps/arguably it is to move things along more quickly, to get to the essence, but the lack of counter-examples, or even any push-back, is troubling. Not everyone is as obsequious as Critobolus who, when Socrates challenges him: "If you have anything to say against it, tell me", can only respond: "I should be ashamed to contradict you, for I should be saying what is neither honourable nor true", but really, no one seems to dare really challenge Socrates -- who of course is also always allowed the final word(s of wisdom).
Even without actual push-back -- real debate -- from those he is in conversation with this method has weaknesses, beginning with the assumptions and propositions Socrates presents as given. Arguably, some of this is shorthand, the would-be proof or supporting evidence or definitions covered elsewhere, but far too many assumptions would seem to be debatable; Socrates presenting them as (essentially rhetorical) questions -- as when he *asks*: "Which makes men more prudent, idleness or useful employment ? Which makes men more just, work or idle discussions about supplies ?" -- makes a mockery of the concept of debate.
(Among the amusing exchanges is also one between Hippias of Elis, who observes how Socrates is: "still voicing the same old views [...] that I heard from you so long ago"; Socrates of course takes pride in this steadfastness -- and counters: "You are so learned that I daresay you never express the same views on the same subjects." Socrates' certainty -- his belief in absolutes -- of course has some appeal -- shouldn't truth or justice be absolute ? -- but also prove limiting; it's disappointing that he is not challenged on his views more frequently (and competently -- Xenophon's examples are all rigged games, too, made to show off Socrates' superiority).)
Still, even E.C.Marchant and O.J.Todd in the original 1923 edition of the text saw fit to at one point add a snarky footnote regarding Xenophon's presentation of the material; Jeffrey Henderson's slight updating leaves the essence unchanged:
Xenophon's Archedemus surpasses even his Socrates in the art of dressing up the obvious in the guise of a conundrum.Xenophon does select quite a nice variety, however, of Socrates covering a lot of different ground, which makes Memorabilia quite entertaining, too, and if those he is in dialogue with generally aren't allowed to give too much contra, they are at least often introduced as intriguing characters, whether Euthydemus, Hippias, or, for example, Epigenes:
He noticed that Epigenes, one of his companions, was in poor shape for a young man, and said: "You take amateurish care of your physique, Epigenes."(This is one of the bits of text that Henderson revised considerably in his 2013 updating of the Marchant/Todd translation (who have Epigenes' response as: "'Well,' he replied, 'I'm not an athlete, Socrates.'"); Henderson's is more accurate, if perhaps not entirely obviously so -- the Greek has Epigenes admit to being an ἰδιώτης (echoing Socrates' accusation of his being ἰδιωτικῶς, which was completely lost in the earlier Marchant/Todd version ("You look as if you need exercise"), but of course 'ἰδιώτης' isn't quite the same as the modern-day understanding of 'amateur', especially in this context. Regardless, despite Epigenes' smart answer, he's in for a lecture on the subject and gets quite an earful; Socrates was a big proponent of mens sana in corpore sano.)
There is a lot of sound judgment on Socrates' part -- obvious though much of it also is. Still, much would seem to bear repeating even in our day and age, as when he makes the case for people actually being qualified for the positions they seek to take; the lack of competence of so many present-day elected officials at actually carrying out their duties can make one wish Socrates were better heeded:
Therefore anyone who exerts himself to gain the votes, but neglects to learn the business, deserves punishment.One can see the appeal of the Xenophontic Socrates -- especially the one presented in Memorabilia -- to (neo-)conservatives -- Leo Strauss was a big fan ... --, with the Memorabilia presenting much of Socrates' philosophy and beliefs (which are indeed, in many ways, deeply conservative -- not least in his unwillingness to change his mind about anything: he is willing to learn, but none of his (carefully selected) learning shakes his foundations). Others might find this Socrates a more unimpressive thinker -- not so much for being set in his ways but for his lack of curiosity about so many philosophical questions, and his deference to the gods. As to his method -- students/followers/acolytes led to (supposedly) discover the *right* answer by answering Socrates' questions -- it is as unconvincing in Xenophon's presentation as everywhere else, superficially appealing but not withstanding any real scrutiny.
There is considerable fun to be had with many of these dialogues -- skipping from subject to subject in short examples, Memorabilia is a good sampler (as opposed to, say, Oeconomicus, a more detailed dialogue on more limited subject-matter), and Xenophon does present Socrates as someone with at least a bit of a sense of humor, and many of the issues are of interest. Memorabilia does complement the Platonic Socrates, offering an interesting additional perspective, and is certainly worth engaging with -- though it probably shouldn't be taken overly seriously either (as these sorts of things too often are).
Jeffrey Henderson shows a very light touch in his touching up of the original 1923 translation, mainly simply smoothing out some of what now appear to be archaic-rough edges, and making for a text that reads well and fluidly. Only occasionally does the modern substitution feel a bit odd, such as when Socrates lists how masters handle their servants, including: "Don't they discipline their randiness by starving them ?" (Marchant/Todd had: "Do they not starve them to keep them from immorality"). (The Greek is λαγνείαν; earlier Henderson had opted less jarringly for 'lustfulness' (which was certainly an improvement on Marchant/Todd's 'incontinence' at that point).)
The Loeb edition, which includes Xenophon's three other Socratic works, remains an ideal version of the Memorabilia, including as it does the Greek original, as well as a brief introduction to the work, and a solid translation that reads very well. Occasionally feeling a bit cobbled together, the Memorabilia is nevertheless well done -- a very accessible classical work -- and remains a good introductory overview to Socrates and his thinking.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 April 2020
- Return to top of the page -
- Return to top of the page -
Historian and philosopher Xenophon (Ξενοφῶν) lived ca. 430 to 354 B.C.E.
- Return to top of the page -