An Introduction to Xenophon of Athens and Elsewhere

George Anastaplo


            A teacher of mine –an exceptional Classical scholar – was inclined to dismiss Xenophon as “not of the first rank”. But he could acknowledge, upon further thought, that Xenophon did know horses. These assessments may have reflected what this scholar himself knew, or perhaps did not know, both about horses and about other subjects that Xenophon ventured to write about.

Among Xenophon’s subjects was that found in his treatise, The Cavalry Commander. In it he provides his fellow Athenians guidance for the development and maintenance of their polis’ cavalry. The experience that Xenophon drew upon in this treatise included the remarkable exploits in Persia that are recalled in his Anabasis.

We need not concern ourselves on this occasion with what is said in The Cavalry Commander about horses and horsemanship. The lessons offered by Xenophon are not limited to such matters. Indeed, must he not have known that his most thoughtful readers would not be thus limited either?


            Another teacher of mine (a student of political philosophy) could insist upon the remarkable range of Xenophon’s interests and competence. Among the texts requiring considerable attention, he explained in some detail, is Xenophon’s dialogue, Hiero. It provides an account of a conversation, in the court of a Syracusan tyrant, between a visiting poet of distinction (Simonides) and an accomplished tyrant (Hiero) who evidently wanted to attract and impress foreign intellectuals as guests.

This scholar was intrigued by how Simonides conducted himself in their conversation. The limitations of tyranny are noticed, particularly by this very ruler. The visiting poet retains the respect of his host by recognizing what a tyrant “has” to do once he secures the power he seeks.

Thus, it is recognized by the poet that worldly success has its liabilities as well as its obvious rewards. This particular tyrant also seems to recognize the risks and liabilities of his circumstances. But both he and the poet are “realistic” enough to recognize that a tyrant should not expect ever to return to the safety and relaxed satisfactions of a comfortable private life.


            It can be suspected that Xenophon was at least as astute as the Simonides he presents in the Hiero. An aspect of the astuteness of Xenophon himself is that he can seem to many (perhaps to most) scholars today as rather unsophisticated. Related to the general impression he could create as a goodnatured country gentlemen is the fact that he (an Athenian known to have associated with Socrates) could enjoy, evidently for decades, the patronage of Sparta (after he was obliged to leave his native Athens).

And yet we should be challenged upon noticing (as one of my teachers has done) the uses made of Xenophon by Niccolo Machiavelli. Thus it has been pointed out (at p. 291 in a book on the remarkably cagey Florentine),

For him the representative par excellence of classical political philosophy is Xenophon, whose writings [Machiavelli] mentions more frequently than those of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero taken together or those of any other writer with the exception of Livy.

It is then noticed that “Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus is for [Machiavelli] the classic presentation of the imagined prince.”

It is also noticed that “while Machiavelli is greatly concerned with [Xenophon’s] Cyrus he forgets [Xenophon’s] Socrates”. We should be challenged to wonder what “forgets” could mean here. Similarly “forgotten” by the remarkably free-thinking Machiavelli may have been what the determinedly-pious Xenophon repeatedly does with the religion of his day.


Consider, for example, how Xenophon opens his seemingly-prosaic treatise on military horsemanship, The Cavalry Commander. His ambitious reader is told (as provided in the Loeb Classical Library translation), “The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends and your city [polis] to the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage.”  Only then does the author  “get down to business,” so to speak, going on to say,

Having gained the goodwill of the gods, you have then to recruit a sufficient number of mounted men that you may bring the number up to the total required by the law [of Athens], and also may prevent any decrease in the cavalry establishment.

Thus, before the commander recruits the horsemen required for him to do his duty, he must recruit the relevant divinities. An institutional piety is returned to after various preliminaries are adequately provided in the treatise for the proper development of the polis’s cavalry. “Now,” Xenophon announces, “we come to duties that the cavalry commander must perform himself” (III. 2 sq.):

First, he must sacrifice to propitiate the gods on behalf of the cavalry; secondly, he must make the processions during the festivals worth seeing … As for the processions, I think they would be most acceptable to the gods and the spectators if they included a gala ride in the market place. The starting point would be the Herms; and the cavalry would ride round saluting the gods at their shrines and statues. So at the Great Dionysia the dance of the choruses forms part of the homage offered to the Twelve and to other gods.

Conspicuous in this passage are the sacred Herms, who are mentioned again shortly thereafter (III, 2). We can wonder whether Xenophon intends his readers to recall the considerable difficulties that Alcibiades, another prominent former student of Socrates, had had in that he had been accused of desecrating some Herms. That is, Xenophon is repeatedly on display as someone who takes his bearings by the divinities taken seriously in Athens.


            Xenophon, in concluding his account in The Cavalry Commander on how to make the polis’s cavalry most effective, observes (IX, 759):

All these things are feasible provided the gods give their consent. If anyone is surprised at my frequent repetition of the exhortation to work with God, I can assure him that his surprise will diminish, if he is often in peril, and if he considers that in time of war foemen plot and counterplot, but seldom know what will come of their plots. Therefore there is none other that can give counsel in such a case but the gods. They know all things, and warn whomsoever they will in sacrifices, in omens, in voices, and in dreams. And we may suppose that they are more ready to counsel those who not only ask what they ought to do in the hour of need, but also serve the gods in the days of their prosperity with all their might.

This repeated emphasis on the usefulness of conventional piety can strike the modern reader as curiously unsophisticated. Others, however, might even regard Xenophon as somewhat hypocritical.

But it is evident, as in Xenophon’s Memorabilia [of Socrates] and elsewhere, that he regards prudence as the ultimate guide for the human being in the affairs of the world. Although we can recall a famous observation by Edmund Burke, that prudence is “the god of this lower world,” should we not suspect that Xenophon would wonder whether Burke was too much moved by his passions to be truly prudent? Would Xenophon wonder as well about the prudence of any counsel against the ostentatious display of one’s piety?

Should we not suspect that Xenophon’s remarkably ostentatious piety has something to do with his recollection of the dreadful condemnation of Socrates for impiety? Indeed, much is made, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, of the conventional piety of Socrates himself. One may even wonder, upon reading Xenophon’s account, whether anyone else in Athens was as conventionally pious as Socrates.


            The Anabasis is perhaps Xenophon’s best known work in our time, the account of how thousands of Greek mercenaries in Persia somehow rescued themselves after their grand enterprise collapsed. We are intended by Xenophon to recognize his own remarkable exploits as the emerging leader who rose as a youngster to the dreadful challenges that those Greeks confronted. Did his evident (indeed ostentatious) piety on that occasion make him seem older and hence more reliable than his years (or lack of them) would suggest?

Again and again Xenophon displays himself as very respectful of the religious opinions and practices of his people. There is considerable reliance by him on signs, sacrifices and inspired opinions. At times, the inaction that is required until such readings are just right can seem foolish, if not even suicidal.

Are we intended by Xenophon to wonder what he could have known to warrant a determined reliance on what we would be inclined to dismiss as mere superstition? Is he, here and elsewhere, more calculating than the periodically impassioned Edmund Burke was inclined to be? Would he even be obliged to suggest, ever so discreetly, that he did succeed (and thus managed to be remembered) when many others failed?


            Thus Xenophon would counsel his more thoughtful readers to take seriously the “religion” of their time and place. Chance, he might point out, can very much determine the received religion that one must somehow deal with. It may also determine the distinctive features of this or that religion.

How, we might even wonder, would Xenophon have dealt with such a dreadful practice as the large-scale human sacrifices once routinely “required” among the Aztecs and Mayans of “Central America”? What “understanding” of the universe were they trapped by? It might even be wondered who “really” benefitted from that ferocious arrangement –and how might they have been induced to reconsider the opinions and evidence relied upon.

I have long believed that if Xenophon had been in Athens at the time that any indictment of Socrates for impiety was contemplated, he would have managed (“Godfather”-like) to “explain” to his teacher’s would-be accusers that they were embarking on a course that would be personally dangerous for them. He might even have provided some “signs” to reinforce his warning. What, we can again wonder, did the sacrifices-minded priests of “Central America” need to hear?


            Xenophon and Burke, I have on occasion suggested, can be considered particularly eloquent conservative spokesmen of their respective periods. But Xenophon, I have also suggested, is the more ostentatiously pious of the two. And yet is he not the more calculating, the less passionate?

What, we must wonder, was the Socrates that Xenophon recollects “really” like? What was there evident in him that could inspire lifelong respect in so “worldly” a man of action as Xenophon? Indeed, we can also wonder what Socrates saw in Xenophon that could impress Xenophon himself with Socrates’ perceptivity.

Perhaps even more of a challenge is an inquiry as to what Plato and Xenophon, probably the most prolific authors personally associated with Socrates, might have thought of each other. If these men were indeed as astute as we routinely take them to have been, would not they themselves have seen in each other at least what we can see? We are then left to wonder where in the respective works of each is “the other” recognized and, if need be, challenged and corrected.


            Certainly, we venture to suggest, the modern Platonist could recognize Xenophon as perhaps the most philosophical of the great warriors in the history of the West. His rivals here could include Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. Of these, only Caesar left texts that are still read with profit.

Perhaps related to these men are leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Charles de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill. Edmund Burke, as a would-be leader, evidently aspired to such distinction. But what was there about his temperament, we can wonder, that limited significantly how far he could go in the exercise of political power?

Should the Platonists, ancient as well as modern, recognize that Xenophon may have been equipped, by his considerable experience as a military man, to “appreciate” better some aspects of the life of action than can philosophers such as Plato and his most remarkable student, Aristotle? But, on the other hand, what should Xenophon have recognized that he himself sacrificed (with respect to a philosophical understanding of things) because of what he had had to do in order to succeed in his calling as a man of action? Indeed, we can wonder, what did he (like, say, Machiavelli after him) have to be that might have limited what he could truly know?

The Works of the Mind Lecture Series
The University of Chicago
February 17, 2013

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2 Responses to An Introduction to Xenophon of Athens and Elsewhere

  1. Pingback: Introductions to Xenophon and to Edmund Burke: An Unexpected Controversy | George Anastaplo’s Blog

  2. Robert McClellan says:

    Hey George, see my youtube video: Robert McClellan The Plato – Xenophon Dynamic

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