Book Club: Xenophon's Memorabilia, part IV, Socrates teaches a lesson in statesmanship

(The theater and temple of Apollo at Delphi, photo by the Author)

Xenophon's Memorabilia is one of the classics of antiquity, and a frank and refreshing look at the figure of Socrates, of whom Xenophon was an admirer, student, and friend. It is also the book that got Stoicism started, since Zeno of Citium -- the founder of Stoicism -- was inspired to turn to philosophy after his shipwreck when he read the second volume of the Memorabilia.

In part I of this series we have examined Xenophon's defense of Socrates after his trial; in part II we have seen Socrates teaching a lesson to his son Lamprocles, about respecting his mother, Xanthippe; and in part III we have looked at Socrates giving lessons about political involvement to two fellow citizens, one of whom he discouraged, the other encouraged, to take part in the public thing, as the Romans used to call it (res publica). In this last installment we focus on one of a number of dialogues Socrates has with the Sophist Euthydemus (Plato wrote an important one by that title, which happens to also be crucial for the development of Stoic philosophy), where the subject is statesmanship. I wish this dialogue were mandatory reading for any politician of the modern era. They (and us) could benefit from it immensely.

The episode begins with a portrait of Euthydemus as rather full of himself:

"He was informed that Euthydemus, the handsome, had formed a large collection of the works of celebrated poets and professors, and therefore supposed himself to be a prodigy of wisdom for his age, and was confident of surpassing all competitors in power of speech and action." (IV.2.1)

Having heard of this, Socrates goes to see the young Euthydemus to jump start the latter's critical thinking, as we would say today. So he approaches the fellow and says:

"If in the minor arts great achievement is impossible without competent masters, surely it is absurd to imagine that the art of statesmanship, the greatest of all accomplishments, comes to a man of its own accord." (IV.2.2)

Apparently, this first encounter did not move Euthydemus from his arrogant position, that he was worthy of leading the state just because he had amassed a collection of writings by others. So a bit later the two meet again and this time Socrates openly mocks Euthydemus by imagining what speech he would give in front of the Athenian Assembly in order to convince them to take his advice seriously. Parts of the mock speech include a series of analogies between statesmanship and other professions, in which Socrates imagines how Euthydemus would make his case in front of an audience. For instance, if the Sophist wished to be appointed doctor, Socrates says, he would go about it like this:

"Men of Athens, I have never yet studied medicine, nor sought to find a teacher among our physicians; for I have constantly avoided learning anything from the physicians, and even the appearance of having studied their art. Nevertheless I ask you to appoint me to the office of a physician, and I will endeavour to learn by experimenting on you." (IV.2.5)

Obviously, nobody would trust such a doctor. Then again, we often hear something very much like this from politicians, especially those who actually brag of not having government experience. And yet we vote them anyway. Often with disastrous results -- see very recent events, worldwide.

Just in case his mockery had been too subtle, Socrates makes it plain:

"'How strange it is,' he said, 'that those who want to play the harp or the flute, or to ride or to get skill in any similar accomplishment, work hard at the art they mean to master, and not by themselves but under the tuition of the most eminent professors, doing and bearing anything in their anxiety to do nothing without their teachers' guidance, just because that is the only way to become proficient: and yet, among those who want to shine as speakers in the Assembly and as statesmen, there are some who think that they will be able to do so on a sudden, by instinct, without training or study.'" (IV.2.6)

Sounds familiar? It should. Now, throughout all of this Euthydemus avoided actually engaging Socrates, remaining silent and apart from the company. But evidently at some point he had enough and finally entered in dialogue (IV.2.11-12):

[Socrates] "Surely, Euthydemus, you don't covet the kind of excellence that makes good statesmen and managers, competent rulers and benefactors of themselves and mankind in general?" 

[Euthydemus] "Yes, I do, Socrates. That kind of excellence I greatly desire." 

[Socrates] "Why, it is the noblest kind of excellence, the greatest of arts that you covet, for it belongs to kings and is dubbed 'kingly.' However, have you reflected whether it be possible to excel in these matters without being a just man?" 

[Euthydemus] "Yes, certainly; and it is, in fact, impossible to be a good citizen without justice." 

[Socrates] "Then tell me, have you got that?" 

[Euthydemus] "Yes, Socrates, I think I can show myself to be as just as any man."

Oh boy. Euthydemus right away fell into Socrates' standard trap: he agreed that in order to pursue his goal of statesmanship he has to have a particular character trait, and now he is asked to provide a compelling definition of such trait, in order to show that he knows what he is talking about.

That part of the dialogue -- between IV.2.12 and IV.2.19 -- is worth reading in full as a classic example of the famous elenchus, the Socratic method of rapid question and answer aimed at showing the other party that he knows or understands far less than he at first thought. Suffice to say that Socrates compels Euthydemus to admit that the very same thing can be termed just or unjust depending on the circumstances. For instance, deceiving a friend is normally unjust. Unless it is for his own benefit -- as in the case discussed by Socrates -- of making sure that said friend does not commit suicide, as he was preparing to do.

By the end of this bit Euthydemus is properly confused about the subject matter, and admits his confusion -- which of course is the beginning of wisdom:

"Nay, Socrates, I have lost all confidence in my answers; for all the opinions that I expressed before seem now to have taken an entirely different form." (IV.2.19)

Socrates then apparently changes subject, even though he is simply shifting to a different angle in his intent to humble Euthydemus and show him that he has a lot more work to do than he thinks before he can embark on a political career (IV.2.24):

[Socrates] "Tell me, Euthydemus, have you ever been to Delphi?" 

[Euthydemus] "Yes, certainly; twice." 

[Socrates] "Then did you notice somewhere on the temple the inscription 'Know thyself'?" 

[Euthydemus] "I did." 

[Socrates] "And did you pay no heed to the inscription, or did you attend to it and try to consider who you were?" 

[Euthydemus] "Indeed I did not; because I felt sure that I knew that already; for I could hardly know anything else if I did not even know myself."

But of course it turns out that Euthydemus did not really know himself at all, not in the manner that counts if the goal is to improve his character and wisely assess which career he should pursue. Many of us make the same mistake today: just because we are acquainted with ourselves, because we have access to our inner thoughts, and we have lived with ourselves all our lives, we think we have a pretty good working knowledge of who we are. But such working knowledge is rather superficial. If we truly wish to know ourselves we need to engage in critical self reflection, ideally aided by friends or others who want to help but are not shy about pointing out our rationalizations and excuses. We all need our inner Socrates, as well as outer ones, if we can find them.

Why would the sort of self-knowledge advised by the Oracle at Delphi be a good thing? Socrates explains:

"Is it not clear too that through self-knowledge men come to much good, and through self-deception to much harm?" (IV.2.26)

Again, think of the case of current President of the United States to drive the point home. Socrates continues his explanation:

"Those who do not know and are deceived in their estimate of their own powers, are in the like condition with regard to other men and other human affairs. They know neither what they want, nor what they do, nor those with whom they have intercourse; but mistaken in all these respects, they miss the good and stumble into the bad." (IV.2.27)

There is a whiff, here, of the Socratic (and Stoic) notion that no one does evil on purpose, but only through ignorance. By ignorance, however, I don't mean that people without a college degree are bad and those who graduate with honors are good. Ignorance, in this context, is understood to mean lack of wisdom. The very same lack of wisdom that affects people like Euthydemus, or many modern politicians, who don't see the point of following the Delphic injunction.

Socrates then engages in another instance of the elenchus, to show Euthydemus that he really doesn't have a clear idea of what is good and what is evil (IV.2.31-32):

[Socrates] "Well, I may assume, I take it, that you know what things are good and what are evil?" 

[Euthydemus] "Of course, for if I don't know so much as that, I must be worse than a slave." 

[Socrates] "Come then, state them for my benefit." 

[Euthydemus] "Well, that's a simple matter. First health in itself is, I suppose, a good, sickness an evil. Next the various causes of these two conditions — meat, drink, habits — are good or evil according as they promote health or sickness." 

[Socrates] "Then health and sickness too must be good when their effect is good, and evil when it is evil." 

[Euthydemus] "But when can health possibly be the cause of evil, or sickness of good?" 

[Socrates] "Why, in many cases; for instance, a disastrous campaign or a fatal voyage: the able-bodied who go are lost, the weaklings who stay behind are saved."

[Euthydemus] "True; but you see, in the successful adventures too the able-bodied take part, the weaklings are left behind." 

[Socrates] "Then since these bodily conditions sometimes lead to profit, and sometimes to loss, are they any more good than evil?"

Again, another fundamental point the Stoics get from Socrates: what we so unreflectively think of good (or evil), like health, wealth, fame (or, conversely, sickness, poverty, anonymity) are actually morally neutral. What makes them into something to be preferred (or dispreferred) is how one handles them. That is why the only true good is wisdom and the only true evil lack thereof. Because it is wisdom that allows us to make good use of "externals" such as health, wealth, fame, and so forth.

Not even happiness -- which is often presented even in modern times as an intrinsic good -- qualifies for Socrates, because it depends on what it is made of (IV.2.34-35):

[Euthydemus] "Happiness seems to be unquestionably a good, Socrates." 

[Socrates] "It would be so, Euthydemus, were it not made up of goods that are questionable." 

[Euthydemus] "But what element in happiness can be called in question?" 

[Socrates] "None, provided we don't include in it beauty or strength or wealth or glory or anything of the sort." 

[Euthydemus] "But of course we shall do that. For how can anyone be happy without them?"

[Socrates] "Then of course we shall include the sources of much trouble to mankind. For many are ruined by admirers whose heads are turned at the sight of a pretty face; many are led by their strength to attempt tasks too heavy for them, and meet with serious evils: many by their wealth are corrupted, and fall victims to conspiracies; many through glory and political power have suffered great evils."

Again, then, the point is that what superficially, unreflectively, appears to be "obvious" goods, turn out to be anything but. Happiness -- in Greek, of course, the word is eudaimonia -- does not consist in possessing such goods, but in using well whatever goods Fortune allows us.

For once, the story has a happy ending. Xenophon concludes:

"Now many of those who were brought to this pass by Socrates, never went near him again and were regarded by him as mere blockheads. But Euthydemus guessed that he would never be of much account unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates. Henceforward, unless obliged to absent himself, he never left him, and even began to adopt some of his practices. Socrates, for his part, seeing how it was with him, avoided worrying him, and began to expound very plainly and clearly the knowledge that he thought most needful and the practices that he held to be most excellent." (IV.2.40)


Next up in our book club: Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Society and Culture, by John Haldane, Imprint Academic, 2012. In this wide ranging volume of philosophical essays John Haldane explores some central areas of social life and issues of intense academic and public debate. These include the question of ethical relativism, fundamental issues in bioethics, the nature of individuals in relation to society, the common good, public judgement of prominent individuals, the nature and aims of education, cultural theory and the relation of philosophy to art and architecture. John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy, Head of the School of Philosophical and Anthropological Studies at the University of St. Andrews, and Fellow of the royal Society of Arts. He is an editor of the International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Routledge).

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