Initial Thoughts on Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

In Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (or Cyropaedia – the latinized version of the Greek Kúrou paideía meaning “the education of Cyrus”) we receive a modified account of Cyrus’s nature and upbringing. It is a conscious narrative text in Xenophon’s own words, not a dramatic or performed account. Like a Platonic dialogue, we see Cyrus engaged in dialogue and inquiry with friends and family. The distinction is that in Plato’s dialogues, he offers one whole and complete moment of dialogue, while Xenophon offers a series of reflections (certain aspects of the Cyropaedia are reminiscent of Herodotus’s logoi). Both Plato and Xenophon disguise themselves in their writing, but only Xenophon had the courage to hide himself under the guise of a fool. In the text, Persia is described in an a-historical context, and the regime detailed by Xenophon better reflects the character of Sparta. The text almost reads like a novel about Cyrus, the ruler who was praised by both Greeks and Israelites alike. Cyrus was the greatest emperor prior to the rise of Alexander the Great. In classical antiquity, the Cyropeadia was considered the great military text par excellence by the likes of Scipio, and Machiavelli also drew upon Xenophon for his masterful work, The Prince.

At the outset, Xenophon offers an introduction, or a “reflection.” As he looks around the world, he sees political instability everywhere. Here, the “people” overthrow their rulers, and there a tyrant claims power. Even animals in herds obey shepherds better than humans obey their rulers. How can a regime endure? How does a leader succeed?

“Now when we considered these things, we inclined to this judgment about them: It is easier, given his nature, for a human being to rule all other kinds of animals than to rule human beings. But when we reflected that there was Cyrus, a Persian, who acquired very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all obedient to himself, we were thus compelled to change our mind to the view that ruling human beings does not belong to those tasks that are impossible, or even among those that are difficult, if one does it with knowledge” (1.3).

Cyrus was able to extend fear of himself all over the world, so much so, that many people never expected to see him in their lifetime, but nevertheless submitted to his authority. He is surely a leader worthy of “wonder.”

The title of the text is unusual, since it points us only to the contents of Book I which deals with Cyrus’s education. It draws our attention to Cyrus’s unique education which became the catalyst for his political career. The rest of the text focuses on Cyrus’s superb military conquests, and the text finally closes with the decline of the Persian empire.

Cyrus’s Birth (Book I)
Cyrus is said to be the son of Cambyses (Herodotus) who descends from the Perseidae, so-named after Perseus. Everyone accepts that his mother descends from the Medes. He is remembered as beautiful, benevolent, most eager to learn, and ambitious. He was educated in the Persian laws, which look to the common good (a clear allusion to Spartan rule). For example Xenophon refers to schools of justice wherein young Persian boys go to learn the nature justice. Cyrus learned both the “equal” way of doing things in Persia, as well as the “kingly” way of ruling among the Medes from his mother’s father, Astyages.

Cyrus’s Growth (Books II-VII)
Cyrus learns that to be an excellent leader, he must have stronger endurance than those he rules, as well as the ability to be a wily cheat in doing harm to his enemies. The rule of advantage is better against enemies. It is just to defend yourself, and come to the aid of friends. Cyrus proves himself to be an able tactician, anticipating the fears and faults and weaknesses of his opponents, such as the Median-Persian defense against the enemy Assyrian army (Babylon). Yet, Cyrus represents the perfect polarity between generalship (the direction to kill) and philanthropy (the love of human beings). The character of Cyrus’s rule comes to light as imperial, the rule of all men. Cyrus conquers the world but loses his soul, so his empty shell of a kingdom collapses.

There is a fascinating part in the text wherein the love between spouses is transformed under the rule of Cyrus. The ultimate self-sacrifice for love becomes the submission to the tyrant, Cyrus. Cyrus is the perfect ruler for the Persians because he makes all of his citizens happy, however this comes at the expense of others.

The End of Cyrus (Book VIII)
The Cyropeadia shows the inevitable defect of the rule of one wise man, because he may not necessarily be succeeded by another wise man. The last Book of the text reveals the ultimate failure of Cyrus and the demise of his kingdom. The collapse of Cyrus’s rule returns us to the political instability described by Xenophon at the beginning.

Cyrus represents the polar opposite of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, though he is not the embodiment of a Platonic philosopher king. The Education of Cyrus comes to like as a praise of the rule of Cyrus. But upon close reading, we see this praise is qualified. The text corresponds to Plato in its search for the best regime, or perhaps its discussion of the perfect ruler, his virtues and vices, and how the problems associated with the rule of one man. There is a certain impossibility and untruth to the rule of Cyrus, as evidenced in Xenophon’s deliberately inaccurate portrayal of Cyrus, and in that way the impossibility of Cyrus shares a kinship with the impossibility of the “city in speech” in Plato’s Republic. They both agree, tacitly, with Aristotle’s claim that a human being is fit for live in a city, or polis, a political life. However, political life has certain limitations, and the limitations of the city point beyond themselves to something higher. This leads those who transcend the city’s essential limits (a la Aristotle’s life of “pure contemplation”) to search for an impossibility: a perfect polis or politeia. However, this regime is impossible in practice, but nevertheless crucial to the telos of the city.

In contrast to Cyrus, Socrates lived a most happy and just life (as detailed by Xenophon in his Memorabilia) despite also living through great war and political strife. Philosophy shows us an example of how we a) might rule in this situation, or b) might live a happy life amidst the chaos.

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