On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Xenophon

Per Diogenes Laertius, Xenophon was an Athenian from the Erchia deme. He was a modest man and reportedly handsome, as well. He was about four decades Socrates’s junior. The two men first met in an alley when Socrates blocked Xenophon’s path. He asked Xenophon if he knew where men can go to become good and honorable. From then on Xenophon became a student of Socrates -he was the first to write down Socrates’s words in the Memorabilia.

Xenophon was rumored to be in love with Clinias, of the family of Pericles and Alcibiades, who also appeared in Plato’s Euthydemus. He became an ally of Cyrus the Younger, prince of Persia who tried to unseat his brother Artaxerxes II with help from a Greek mercenary army led by Xenophon as detailed in his Anabasis of Cyrus. It was the year prior to Socrates’s death. After the end of the expedition he went to King Agesilaus (Agesilaus II, the king of Sparta immediately following the Peloponnesian War) of whom Xenophon wrote a rather flattering biography. Then he ventured onto Scillus not far from Elis where he bought a farming estate with a river called the Selinus which ran through it. Some say the estate was actually a gift from Sparta. From then on Xenophon spent his time hunting, equestrianism, entertaining friends, and writing his histories.

Diogenes claims Xenophon died in 350 BC or the first year of the 105th Olympiad however based on his surviving works Xenophon likely lived for a few additional years. Apparently he popularized the works of Thucydides which were until then mostly unknown, and he had an envious relationship with Plato. He died in Corinth a most accomplished man, an impressive historian, an able military strategist, a rural gentleman farmer.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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