Book Club: Xenophon's Memorabilia, part III, Socrates gives advice about politics

Xenophon's Memorabilia is a crucial ancient text for anyone interested in understanding Socrates, the main subject of the book. And also because it is the piece of writing that spurred Zeno of Citium -- the founder of Stoicism -- to study philosophy. In part I we have seen Xenophon's defense of Socrates from the charges that eventually led to his death sentence in the year 399 BCE. Part II discussed an amusing, and philosophically telling, anecdote in which Socrates chastises his son, Lamprocles, for being disrespectful of his mother (and Socrates' wife) Xanthippe. In this third (and next to the last) installment we'll take a look at two instances, from book III of Memorabilia, where Socrates gives opposite advice about whether to pursue a career in politics, strongly discouraging the enthusiastic Glaucon while eagerly pushing forward the reluctant Charmides.

Glaucon was the older brother of Plato. He appears in a major role in the Republic, where he asks Socrates why we shouldn't do whatever pleases us if we could get away with it. At the time of the dialogue reported by Xenophon, Glaucon was only twenty years old, and was bent on a career as orator and politician. Indeed, he wanted to become head of the Athenian state. Socrates comments that this is a fine aspiration indeed, which will make Glaucon's father proud and will make Glaucon himself well known throughout Greece and possibly beyond. However:

"Socrates asked, 'Well, Glaucon, as you want to win honor, is it not obvious that you must benefit your city?' 'Most certainly.' 'Pray don't be reticent, then; but tell us how you propose to begin your services to the state.' ... Glaucon remained dumb, apparently considering for the first time how to begin." (III.6.3-4)

This is, obviously, not a good start. Socrates then probes Glaucon on a series of policy issues, asking him, for instance, if he is acquainted with the sources and amounts of the city's revenues. Glaucon admits ignorance, but suggests that it isn't that important of a subject, since one can make the city's enemies pay for its expenses. But Socrates isn't persuaded:

"'In order to advise her whom to fight, it is necessary to know the strength of the city and of the enemy, so that, if the city be stronger, one may recommend her to go to war, but if weaker than the enemy, may persuade her to beware.' 'You are right.' 'First, then, tell us the naval and military strength of our city, and then that of her enemies.' 'No, of course I can't tell you out of my head.' (III.6.8)

Socrates then inquires about Glaucon's plans for the various Athenian garrisons scattered throughout the territory controlled by the city, suggesting that he may want to optimize their distribution, as some are well placed but others are not. Glaucon gets into further trouble here, saying that he wants to eliminate all garrisons, as they are a waste of money. To which Socrates replies:

"'But if you do away with the garrisons, don't you think that anyone will be at liberty to rob us openly? However, have you been on a tour of inspection, or how do you know that they are badly maintained?' 'By guess-work.' 'Then shall we wait to offer advice on this question too until we really know, instead of merely guessing?' 'Perhaps it would be better.' (III.6.11)

Socrates continues by bring up the issue of the silver mines, a major source of wealth for Athens at the time. Of course, Glaucon had not bothered to visit them, so he knows nothing about the subject. Next Socrates asks if Glaucon has a good estimate of how long the grain reserves will last, as those are crucial to feed the city. The response is that that is too overwhelming of a task, and he didn't feel like carrying it out.

Socrates chides Glaucon, reminding him that if one wishes to take charge of a household one needs to bother with exactly the sort of details that Glaucon has so far neglected when it comes to affairs of state. Perhaps, Socrates suggests, Glaucon could begin instead by taking care of his uncle's house, which clearly needs work, and only later on contemplate the possibility of taking care of all the households in the city.

"'Well, I could do something for uncle's household if only he would listen to me.' 'What? You can't persuade your uncle, and yet you suppose you will be able to persuade all the Athenians, including your uncle, to listen to you? Pray take care, Glaucon, that your daring ambition doesn't lead to a fall! Don't you see how risky it is to say or do what you don't understand?'" (III.6.15-16)

That, apparently, did the trick, and Glaucon postponed his dream of becoming head of state. Indeed, he never became one. Instead, he fought valiantly at the battle of Megara, at the height of the Peloponnesian War in 424 BCE (the year after the above conversation took place). He later became a competent musician, as Socrates attests in the Republic.

If only modern politicians had someone like Socrates to point out how ridiculously unprepared they are for their chosen career, the world would be a far better place than it is. However, contrast the above episode with the next one, concerning Charmides, who happened to be Glaucon's son (which means that this second dialogue took place significantly later). Here Socrates does the opposite of what he did with Glaucon, positively encouraging a recalcitrant but obviously virtuous individual to enter public life.

"Seeing that Glaucon's son, Charmides, was a respectable man and far more capable than the politicians of the day, and nevertheless shrank from speaking in the assembly and taking a part in politics, [Socrates] said: 'Tell me, Charmides, what would you think of a man who was capable of gaining a victory in the great games and consequently of winning honor for himself and adding to his country's fame in the Greek world, and yet refused to compete?' 'I should think him a poltroon and a coward, of course.' (III.7.1)

When Charmides realizes that Socrates is talking about him, he asks what makes Socrates think that he, Charmides, would be good in public speech. Socrates replies that he has seen how powerful men listen to Charmides' advice, when given in private.

"'A private conversation is a very different thing from a crowded debate, Socrates.' 'But, you know, a man who is good at figures counts as well in a crowd as in solitude; and those who play the harp best in private excel no less in a crowd.' (III.7.4)

Good point. And Socrates ends the encounter with a heartfelt exhortation to Charmides to join the ranks of the city's decision makers:

"Don't refuse to face this duty then: strive more earnestly to pay heed to yourself; and don't neglect public affairs, if you have the power to improve them. If they go well, not only the people, but your friends and you yourself at least as much as they will profit." (III.7.9)

Charmides did go into politics, though he had the bad lack of serving under the infamous Thirty Tyrants, as Socrates himself did, after the end of the Peloponnesian War. He died in battle, at Munichia, in 403 BCE.

The point that interests me particularly about these two episodes is the relationship between philosophy and politics. Plato, of course, argued in the Republic that a just state can only be achieved once philosophers are in charge -- though by philosophers he certainly didn't mean academicians like myself, but rather people who practiced philosophy as "the art of living."

Short of that, philosophers should mentor and advice politicians. To his credit, Plato attempted to practiced what he preached, and almost lost his life at the order of the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius II. Aristotle fared a bit better with Alexander, in that he was not banished by the latter. But the historical record doesn't indicate that Alexander ("the Great") learned much in the ways of wisdom. In contrast, Marcus Aurelius certainly did learn from his Stoic teachers, particularly Quintus Junius Rusticus, and tried his best to implement such teachings throughout his reign.

I am actually working on a book on this very topic, focused mostly on the complex relationship between Socrates and his student, friend, and wannabe lover, Alcibiades. The latter was a fascinating character who managed multiple times to achieve the highest honors and to fall in disgrace, switching allegiance from Athens to Sparta, back to Athens, and then eventually even to the declared enemy of all Greek cities, Persia. He was arguably at least partly responsible for the decision by Athens to invade Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, a decision that ended in an immediate disaster, and probably permanently crippled Athens' power, leading to her ultimate defeat by Sparta.

There is a fascinating bit of dialogue between Socrates and a young Alcibiades, reported by Plato in the dialogue known as the Alcibiades Major. It is indicative of the whole problematic relationship between wisdom and politics, and between philosophers and politicians:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

That vilest kind of stupidity is amathia, which best translates to unwisdom. A serious malady that affects many politicians even today, and that has been the primary cause of so much suffering throughout humanity's recorded history.

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