On Xenophon’s Account of Socrates in the Memorabilia

Xenophon’s Memorabilia, or “recollections” is a treatise written for the greatest number of people. It is the longest and most beautiful of Xenophon’s Socratic works. It is manifestly distinct from the Oeconomicus, which is Xenophon’s natural response to Aristophanes’s caricature of Socrates in The CloudsMemorabilia is Xenophon’s public apologia for Socrates. The text is written directly from Xenophon’s first-person perspective, a narrative we never receive from Plato (though the Republic is arguably Socrates’s first-person defense of himself).

The first words of Xenophon’s Memorabilia are “many times” or sometimes translated as “often” as Xenophon finds himself in “wonder” at the speeches of those who indicted Socrates and persuaded the Athenians to put Socrates to death (note: Xenophon wonders at the “speeches” used to persuade). He slightly reformulates the charges against Socrates from the Platonic account: ‘Socrates has committed an injustice by 1) not believing in the gods in which the city believes and 2) by bringing in new and different divine things (daimonia); he also commits an injustice by corrupting the young.’

The first part of the book is a defense against these charges. How does Xenophon defend Socrates?

First, the question of Socrates’s belief in the gods. Socrates was known to make sacrifices at home and in public. The main reason he is charged is because of his “divine thing” to which he frequently refers. In this way he is no different than divination practicers. In addition he held that this sign must have come to him from a god, so how could he not believe in the gods? No one saw him commit impiety or speak in an unholy way.

In addition to the questions of Socrates and the gods, he addresses the question of Socrates corrupting the youth, Socrates was extremely continent with regard to matters of sex and appetite, and he had great endurance. Instead he re-oriented many people toward desiring virtue. He was a lover of persuasion, not of violence, and he can hardly be blamed for the unjust actions of his followers, Alcibiades, the arrogant man of the democracy, and Critias, the violent man of the oligarchy. Socrates presented himself as a gentleman, but not all of his followers pursued a noble path. They were ignoble to begin with, according to Xenophon (see Alcibiades’s notable exchange with Pericles regarding a dialectic on the question of law, its distinction from coercion and violence, in which Pericles ultimately blames Alcibiades’s youth and sophisms for his arguments Book I, Chapter 2 40-46). Socrates only wanted things that were advantageous (such as by removing limbs or hair if they become disadvantageous for a man -recall Jesus’s similar proposition in the Gospels).

Socrates is defended as just in the Memorabilia for the ways in which he deals with friend, less so for his law-abidingness. The justice of the Memorabilia is beneficial, philanthropic, and causing the least harm (Book IV, Chapter 8 11). Socrates is shown to be a giver, a teacher of justice and not necessarily law-abidingness. Xenophon writes the text exoterically to the greatest multitude of people, to persuade them of Socrates’s goodness.

The Memorabilia is unique for its structure: it is bookended in Books I and IV by an awareness of loopholes in Socrates’s innocence, and a large middle section of the book is devoted to Socrates’s beneficence. Xenophon humbly presents himself as an opinion-maker who honors his teacher, Socrates, though clearly allowing for complex gaps to arise in his defense. He mimics several accusers of Socrates throughout the text, and sometimes provides a direct Xenophontic response, and other times an example of Socrates in dialogue, such as with Aristodemus and the sophist Antiphon, Euthydemus, Hippias and others. Xenophon’s work is rarefied by the fact that he is discounted by modern academia as less of a teacher, less philosophic than his more notable counterpart, Plato. His writings are greatly overshadowed. The Memorabilia, a text intended to be read by the masses, is neglected and read by only a few. Thus, perhaps there is an even greater need to pay attention to the esoteric considerations in his works.

As Xenophon opens the text in “wonder” at the speeches which persuaded the multitude of Socrates’s guilt, the entirety of the Memorabilia can be read as the culmination of Xenophon’s teaching on how to persuade the demosIn the text, he makes note that ‘the people’ generally favor and are persuaded by people they believe to be beneficial. So he recasts Socrates as an ordinary guy (a dubious caricature) who helps his friends and brings goodness wherever he goes. However, the philosophic life is examined in the text, as well. Socrates, the philosopher, is at best a gadfly or a leech on the city, and at worst a tyrant of the worst kind. Xenophon, not a man who necessarily lived the philosophic life, recasts the philosopher as a noble teacher, a benefactor, a philanthropist.

Xenophon, it is said, is a rural gentleman and he is concerned with speaking to the rural gentlemen of Greece. His works carry less weight than Plato’s, though he is concerned with the way to live a good and happy life, but he is not necessarily convinced of the Socratic, or philosophic life. He contrasts his portrayal of Socrates in the Memorabilia, with his portrayal of Cyrus of Persia, the royal ruler par excellence, in the Cyropaedia. Both men represent the polarities of human life, the philosopher and the king, the extremes of being, while in the middle perhaps we may find the citizen gentleman (a la Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus).

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s Shorter Socratic Writings as translated by Amy L. Bonnette.

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