On the Socrates of Xenophon and of Plato

George Anastaplo


            Xenophon’s various accounts of Socrates (an older fellow Athenian) are bound to be compared by us with Plato’s. It can be wondered (without much help available from scholars) what each of these two authors knew of the other’s career and writings. We do know that the work of Xenophon was once much better regarded in Europe than it is now (with an author such as Niccolo Machiavelli making more use of him than of any other author from antiquity except for Livy).

Particularly challenging for us are Xenophon’s accounts (in his Memorabilia of Socrates and in his Apology of Socrates) of the trial of Socrates in Athens for impiety. The obviously authoritative account of that trial, for almost two and a half millennia now, has been Plato’s Apology of Socrates. That account, unlike Xenophon’s account, is by someone who had even been present for the trial. Indeed, Plato identifies himself as one of those prepared to contribute to a monetary fine if that should have been decided to be the penalty levied against Socrates upon having been convicted.

Plato also identifies the elderly Crito (a man of wealth) as one of those prepared to finance an escape by Socrates from his impending execution. I have long been confident, on the other hand, that a formidable Xenophon (if he had been in Athens at the time) would have been able to “persuade” Socrates’ would-be accusers that it could not be in their personal interest to proceed with a prosecution. Those men would have thus been encouraged to recognize that their own lives would be put at risk if an obviously dangerous Xenophon “took an interest” in them.


            Xenophon’s Socrates is obviously much more of a busybody than is Plato’s. This is evident throughout the Memorabilia where Socrates takes the initiative on various subjects with a number of acquaintances, challenging some of their attitudes and practices. Was this, we can wonder, a form of low-level political activity on his part?

Thus, he can question a son’s unwillingness to accommodate himself to a difficult mother. Thus, also, he can move to reconcile quarreling brothers. It is hard to imagine Plato’s Socrates involving himself to this extent in such everyday affairs.

It does seem that Xenophon very much wants to display Socrates as someone who cares continually about the routine concerns of human beings, especially among the Athenians. This would tend to question any allegations that Socrates is disposed to harm his fellow citizens. But, on the other hand, we can wonder whether anyone with the busybodyish tendencies that Xenophon insists on displaying in Socrates could personally develop and sustain a significant career of philosophical inquiry into the enduring questions.


            We can also wonder, of course, why Xenophon’s Socrates could ever have been officially condemned for his religious opinions. Xenophon’s determined (if not even ostentatious) piety is evident throughout his own career. We can recall, for example, how much the youthful Xenophon in Persia is displayed throughout the Anabasis as respectful of conventional religious beliefs, omens, and rituals.

Indeed, one can even be startled by the frequency in the Memorabilia of oaths and allusions to the gods, reminding us of what one routinely encounters in the Greek tragedies. A reflection of this frequency in Xenophon is provided (somewhat perversely) by the Loeb Classical Library translation of this Xenophonic text. It can seem that hardly a page in the Memorabilia goes by without some recognition of the divinities routinely drawn on by the Athenians, something that this sophisticated English translation “religiously” avoids recording.

It can be instructive as well to notice how the Socratic daimonic thing is recalled both by Plato and by Xenophon. The Platonic account has the daimonion doing no more than stopping Socrates on rare occasions from doing what he is about to do, something that would be harmful to him. Xenophon has the daimonion providing much more direction as to what Socrates should do, testifying in still another way how conventionally pious Xenophon’s Socrates was in appearance, so pious indeed that he is rarely if ever explicitly shown as doing what Plato’s Socrates does when he questions (as in Plato’s Republic) some of the stories about the gods related by the poets.


            The leading accuser of Socrates was probably Anytus, a prominent democratic politician in Athens. Xenophon seems to attribute Anytus’ deadly hatred of Socrates to the warning that Socrates had given Anytus about the career he planned for his son. That is, the father was told that he did not recognize how corrupting the family business would be for this young man (who, it seems, did go bad).

The counterpart to the Anytus element in Xenophon can be said to have been anticipated in Plato’s Meno. It is there that Socrates emphasized the inability of Athenians of recognized virtue to train properly their own sons. Although nothing is said explicitly of Anytus’ son on that occasion, Anytus is offended by what he considers Socrates’ improper disparagement again and again of the Athenian way of life.

Elsewhere, however, Xenophon shows Socrates in an amiable conversation with Pericles. This is particularly significant since there was in Pericles the greatest of the Athenian democrats that Anytus would have been obliged to defer to (Pericles, an Athenian leader, by the way, who [we shall see] respected the scientific work of Anaxagoras). Elsewhere Xenophon shows how disdainful Pericles’ nephew, Alcibiades, had been in “cross-examining” Pericles (a nephew who would have been rebuked by Xenophon’s Socrates for the way he “disrespected” his distinguished uncle).


            We have seen that one may be helped in assessing Xenophon’s Socrates by recalling what Plato does with him. One can much more readily see from Plato’s account of the Trial why Socrates was in trouble. That is, it is not hard to figure out why the Platonic Socrates would have had difficulties with both oligarchic and democratic regimes in Athens.

Symptomatic of the difficulties Plato’s Socrates “naturally” encountered is the deliberateness (the somewhat provocative deliberateness) of the nomenclature used by him in addressing the five hundred Athenians commissioned to pass judgment on him in his trial for impiety. He (unlike one of his accusers, Meletus) addresses them familiarly as “men” and as “men of Athens,” not deferentially as “judges.” Before he is done (that is, after his conviction and sentence) he makes explicit what had been evident throughout his trial – his belief that only those should ever be regarded as “judges” who rule correctly.

Socrates’ provocative nomenclature with respect to his would-be judges must have been apparent to those who resented what he recalled about his having tested over the years all those in Athens who had ever been publicly considered “wise.” This had been (he explained) part of his effort to understand what the Delphic Oracle had said in revealing that no man was wiser than Socrates. Again and again, that is, Plato’s Socrates is displayed as far less “politic” than Xenophon’s.


            On the other hand, Xenophon’s Socrates is displayed as far more overtly “suicidal” than Plato’s. Indeed, much more is made by the Xenophonic Socrates of the deterioration encountered in old age. It is almost as if he is courting death at this time.

Plato’s Socrates, on the other hand, is shown with undiminished powers. This is evident in the Apology, but even more perhaps in Plato’s Phaedo (the account of the day of Socrates’ death). A further decade of undiminished intellectual powers seems to be available to the Platonic Socrates.

We are left to wonder about what Socrates should have done if he had faced, a generation earlier, trial on a capital offense. We are told that Aristotle fled Athens when it seemed he might suffer the fate of Socrates. I have already suggested that Xenophon (if in Athens at the time) would have intervened to save the life of even the elderly Socrates, no matter what his teacher’s principles seemed to require.


            To what extent did chance differences in temperament (as well as in circumstances) between Plato and Xenophon determine how Socrates appeared to each author? And, even more intriguing perhaps, how did they (Plato and Xenophon) regard each other’s work? Our questions here are complicated by our uncertainty (already noticed) as to what each did know about the other.

Xenophon offered, in his account of a conversation in Sicily between a wise Simonides and a local ruler, Hiero, how a distinguished visitor dealt (quite adroitly) with a local tyrant. We can wonder to what extent this encounter was intended by Xenophon, at least in part, as a commentary on the unsuccessful efforts with a local ruler that Plato himself had made upon going to Sicily. May there have been a suggestion made here that Plato had not really known what he was doing in his Sicilian ventures (something that can even remind the reader of the disastrous venture Athens had earlier made in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War)?

We should notice that the injustice done to the Homeric-era Palamedes is noticed by the Socrates of both Plato and Xenophon. But only in Xenophon’s account is it recalled that the injustice had been perpetrated by Odysseus. Plato’s silence here seems to be consistent with what he was to do in The Republic, where Odysseus is said to have chosen, for his supposed reincarnation, a private life (that is, a life consistent with that of Socrates).


            Both Plato and Xenophon recall the role played by Chaerephon in the career of Socrates. Both have Chaerephon going to Delphi with questions about Socrates. Xenophon has Chaerephon learning from the Oracle that no human being was more free, more just, or more temperate than Socrates.

Plato’s Chaerephon had been the inquirer who had learned from the Oracle that no one was wiser than Socrates. We have recalled that, according to Plato’s Socrates, his testing of that remarkable pronouncement had led to his vulnerability in Athens. It can be wondered by some of us, of course, how prudent Socrates had really been in testing the Oracle as he had.

But, it seems, few scholars have ever wondered what Socrates had long been doing in Athens which had led to Chaerephon’s going to the considerable trouble he did in consulting the Oracle about the stature of Socrates with respect to wisdom. We might even venture to wonder whether any of those passing judgment on Socrates recognized that his deadly provocativeness in Athens did not necessarily begin with Chaerephon’s somewhat presumptuous question (as to whether anyone was wiser than Socrates). When, for example, did Aristophanes begin to take that notice of Socrates which led to his comedy, The Clouds, in which Socrates is shown both challenging conventional stories about the gods and as disturbing traditional family relations?


            Differences between the two accounts of Socrates that we have been examining may reflect critical differences between the personal circumstances of Plato and of Xenophon. After all, Plato was a descendant of one of the great Athenian families. Xenophon, on the other hand, had to establish, and then to re-establish, his standing in the Greek world, having to rely for much of his life (although himself a cultivated Athenian) on the good will of Sparta (Athens’ longtime rival), that good will manifested during the Persian adventure recalled in the Anabasis (of Xenophon) and thereafter (when he was obliged to leave Athens) during decades of generous patronage by the Spartans in the Peloponnesus.

The talents of Xenophon are amply testified to by Niccolo Machiavelli (in the Sixteenth Century) and by Leo Strauss (in the Twentieth Century). Even so, should we not expect someone of Xenophon’s temperament and general understanding of things to question the determined public assaults by Machiavelli upon the long-received religion of his day? On the other hand, uncertainties about how Xenophon himself should be regarded are indicated by the virtual silence of Aristotle about Xenophon, in contrast to the considerable use made by him of Plato.

Plutarch, another distinguished Greek author, does make more use of Xenophon than of Plato. Even so, Plutarch can include, in his Life of Nicias (Nicias being an Athenian leader who, because of his ignorance of the natural sciences [e.g., with respect to lunar eclipses], was ultimately responsible for a significant military disaster for Athens in Sicily) – Plutarch can include, in his Life of Nicias, a remarkable tribute to Plato:

For he who the first, and most plainly of any, and with the greatest assurance committed to writing how the moon is enlightened and overshadowed, was Anaxagoras; but he was as yet but recent, nor was his argument much known, but was rather kept secret, passing only amongst a few, under some kind of caution and confidence. People would not then tolerate natural philosophers, and theorists, as they then called them, about things above; as lessening the divine power, by explaining away its agency into the operation of irrational causes and senseless forces acting by necessity, without anything of Providence or a free agent. Hence it was that Protagoras was banished, and Anaxagoras cast in prison, so that Pericles had much difficulty to procure his liberty; and Socrates, although he had no concern whatever with this sort of learning, yet was put to death for philosophy. It was only afterwards that the reputation of Plato, shining forth by his life, and because he subjected natural necessity to divine and more excellent principles, took away the obloquy and scandal that had attached to such contemplations, and obtained these studies currency among all people.

Are we not obliged to suspect that anyone as astute as Xenophon must have recognized that the Plato (who, we know, could eventually be made so much of by authors as diverse as Aristotle and Plutarch) must himself have seen in Socrates an influence that has made all the difference in the world both for serious inquiries not only into how one should live (which can often seem Xenophon’s primary if not crucial concern) but also into what is (perhaps the ultimate human concern to which cosmic investigators such as Anaxagoras have made profoundly challenging contributions in the pursuit of an enduring wisdom grounded in a reliable sense of the cosmic ordering of things).

These remarks (prepared for a University of Chicago seminar) should be included in Volume VIII (Reflections on Crime, Character, and the Constitution) in my projected ten-volume Reflections series (the fifth volume of which was published in 2013).

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s