A few months back I talked up Herodotus; on today’s Classic Authors Hit Parade is Xenophon, whose Conversations of Socrates carried me most of the long way from Vancouver to Heathrow today (these new Powerbooks get two hours max, four if you turn the screen off and use it as a music box). The Socrates is a bit of a plodder, but herewith an unabashed rave over his Anabasis, a totally unbelievable true story well-told, and some general remarks as to why you might want to read these long-dead writers.
Why Read Classics? · The Socrates I’m now reading was written 2,350 years ago, more or less. If anything written today is still available at the bookshops (or whatever they have then) in the year 4353, chances are it will be worth reading. Now in fact not all this long-lived stuff is good, but most of it is, assuming of course a basic level of interest in the original roots of the culture we all live in. Even without such interest, in some cases the stories stand on their own. For example...
Anabasis! · This is the book that made Xenophon famous. What happened was, as a young man, member of a good Athenian family and apparently bored, in B.C.E. 401 he decided to join a band of Athenian mercenaries who accepted employment with Cyrus prince of Persia, brother of Emperor Artaxerxes. He was not a soldier or an officer, this was what I guess we’d today call “adventure tourism.”
Xenophon was a bit nervous about the fact that the mercenaries’ mission was ambiguous, and with good reason, as Cyrus immediately launched a civil war against Artaxerxes. Early on in the book, the revolt is decisively crushed, and the Greek ten thousand found themselves marooned at the gates of Babylon, in the heart of the Persian empire, with their officers mostly dead or discredited.
What happened is still amazing a couple of millennia later; they elected new officers (including Xenophon), fought their way North through the Empire to the Black Sea, then East eventually back to Greek territory. Xenophon is not that great a writer, but he gets out of the way and lets the story tell itself, which is more than enough in this case.
Anabasis is sometimes sold with title untranslated, sometimes as The March Upcountry or The Persian Expedition; don’t miss it.
Socrates · At the beginning of Anabasis, Xenophon is wondering whether he should join the expedition. He asks Socrates for advice on the matter (yes, that Socrates); the story of how he dodges around the advice, and how Socrates reacts, is a spoiler too juicy to give away here. Still, I wish I had Socrates around to go ask for advice on my problems.
Xenophon was still a young man when Socrates was put to death by the Athenian state, as memorably written up by Plato. Xenophon’s coverage of the events is quite a bit less memorable; his lengthy portrayal of Socrates’ many virtues can drag a little, here and there. In Xenophon, Socrates’ doctrine is almost purely Buddhist: Unhappiness is a function of desire, or of attachment to the desired; virtue and happiness and wisdom grow from self-discipline.
Alcibiades and Pericles · Early in the Socrates, Xenophon presents this dialogue between the very young Alcibiades, famed for his beauty, who went on to a violently controversial career in politics and war, and Pericles, already at this time Athens’ chief statesman. I think it’s worth reproducing:
”Tell me Pericles,” he said, “could you explain to me what law is?”
“Most certainly,” said Pericles.
“Then please do so,” said Alcibiades. “I hear people being praised for being law-abiding, and I presume that nobody can rightly win this praise if he does not know what law is.”
“Well,” said Pericles, “It’s not at all a difficult object that you’re seeking, Alcibiades, if you want to find out what law is. When the people, meeting together, approve and enact a proposal stating what should or should not be done, that is a law.”
“On the assumption that good actions should be done, or bad ones?”
“Good ones, of course, my boy, not bad ones.”
“Supposing that instead of the whole people a small section of it (as happens when there is an oligarchy) meets and enacts what ought to be done — what is that?”
“Everything that the powers that be in the State enact, after deliberating what should be done, is called a law.”
“Then supposing a despot, being in power in the State, enacts what the citizens are to do, is that a law too?”
“Yes, even the enactments of a despot are called laws.”
“And what is violence and lawlessness, Pericles? Isn’t it when the stronger party compels the weaker to do what he wants by using force instead of persuasion?”
“So I believe,” said Pericles.
“Then everything that a despot enacts and compels the citizens to do instead of persuading them is an example of lawlessness?”
“I suppose so,” said Pericles. “I retract the statement that what a despot enacts otherwise than by persuasion is law.”
“And if the minority enacts something not by persuading the majority but by dominating it, should we call this violence or not?”
“It seems to me,” said Pericles, “that if one party, instead of persuading another, compels him to do something, whether by enactment or not, this is always violence rather than law.”
“Then if the people as a whole uses not persuasion but its superior power to enact measures against the propertied classes, will that be violence rather than law?”
“You know, Alcibiades,” said Pericles, “when I was your age I was very clever too at this sort of thing; I used to practice just the same sort of ingenuity that I think you practise now.”
Xenophon · His lifespan was c. 428 B.C.E. - c. 354. Shortly after the death of Socrates, he was exiled from Athens, the events may well have been related. But Xenophon was apparently an admirer of Athens’ deadly enemy Sparta, and he spent much of his exile there as a gentleman and soldier; his exile was revoked in 383 and he returned to Athens in 365.