Conversations with Socrates (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Socrates (469-399 BCE) is the first person known to have lived a life fully devoted to thinking. Teeming with exchanges between the revered guru Socrates and various Athenians, Conversations with Socrates shows Socrates as engaging and sagacious. According to his follower Xenophon, Socrates communicates in ways that even the unphilosophical and harried reader will find impressive, memorable, and greatly useful.
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Conversations with Socrates (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Socrates (469-399 BCE) is the first person known to have lived a life fully devoted to thinking. Teeming with exchanges between the revered guru Socrates and various Athenians, Conversations with Socrates shows Socrates as engaging and sagacious. According to his follower Xenophon, Socrates communicates in ways that even the unphilosophical and harried reader will find impressive, memorable, and greatly useful.
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Socrates was not the first philosopher in the Western tradition but he was certainly the first known to have lived a life fully devoted to thinking. Socrates himself did not write anything down. The writings of two of his followers, Plato and Xenophon, have reached posterity and preserved for us a portrait of the great philosopher. While Plato’s depiction of Socrates is refracted through the author’s sophisticated preoccupations and philosophical doctrines, Xenophon’s Socrates is lively and behaves, discourses, admonishes, and counsels in ways in which even the non-specialist reader will find impressive, memorable, and greatly useful. Xenophon’s immediate purpose in this work is to vindicate Socrates and defend his tarnished reputation; but his ultimate purpose arches over the aeons to bring Socrates to us, engaging and irresistible, animated by irrefutable common sense, a sagacious and pragmatic advisor correcting our faltering steps and making life’s ordeals bearable.

Socrates (469–399 BCE) was the obscure son of a statue maker, not destined for greatness in the strictly hierarchical society of Athens.  But his magnetic personality, keen intellect, and devotion to the “examined life” ensured his place in history. Socrates had a mission, not simply a transitory interest in the creative use of the intellect. His mission apparently was to seek the truth about the perennial and most engaging human questions. His method was to ask questions, demand that concepts be clearly defined, and attempt to refute the replies given to him—not in order to embarrass, although he did that too incidentally, but under the assumption that anything that can be refuted cannot be the truth. His impact was mainly negative and critical but it does not follow from this that his mood or views were skeptical. Socrates was informed by a deep and abiding optimism: that ultimate and coherent answers to the deepest questions exist, that truth and moral goodness are related and ensured by the fabric of the universe, and that the morally best and happiest life is the life of philosophical inquiry, even if such inquiry does not reap the rewards of specific and articulate discoveries.

The fame of Socrates owes also a good deal to the manner of his death. Charged with impiety and corruption of the young, he was found guilty of the charges. Rather than accept his wealthy friends’ advice to bribe the guards and secure his escape, he bravely swallowed a poison, hemlock, and died. Plato claims that Socrates was still discoursing and trying to prove the immortality of the soul to his grieving friends on the day of his death. Socrates is also supposed to have discussed and refuted his friends’ suggestion that civil disobedience, and escape from prison and death, were justified under the circumstances. Socrates’ imperturbability and moral mettle are in evidence in the anecdote preserved about the moment of his death: With his last words Socrates asked his friends to give Asclepius, the god of health, a votive offering that he had promised on a previous occasion.

Socrates has had his detractors. His strict rationalism, objectivist position on the problem of truth, and moral certainty have not been in favor among contemporary philosophers like Nietzsche and his various students. By the same token, Socrates offers one of the most potent antidotes for any era to pervasive skepticism, moral relativism, and irrationalist experimentation.

The present volume, rendered as Conversations with Socrates, is a translation of Xenophon’s work Sokratous Apomnemoneumata, which can, and has been, translated also as The Memorabilia of Socrates. Xenophon was motivated by the task of restoring Socrates’ reputation and this might have interfered with his reconstruction of what Socrates said and did not say. It is also arguable that Xenophon might have failed to fully follow Socrates in his more soaring philosophical flights. Nevertheless, we cannot completely rule out the possibility that Socrates might have been more like Xenophon’s down-to-earth advisor rather than Plato’s complex thinker.

Conversations with Socrates is presented as a most detailed defense of Socrates. Like Plato, Xenophon also wrote a Speech of Defense echoing the presumably impromptu oration that Socrates had delivered in front of an Athenian jury in the famous trial that sealed the philosopher’s fate and inflicted enduring shame on Athenian democracy. Unlike Plato, whom he accused of making Socrates sound too arrogant in his defense, Xenophon went on to elaborate further on the rebuttal of the charges against Socrates. Conversations with Socrates is meant as this elaboration. This is not a longer speech but a reflection of Socrates’ life—the true and most irrefutable defense. Since conversations with others were the essential, most cherished, and defining elements of Socrates’ life, Xenophon’s book teems with exchanges between the revered guru Socrates and various Athenians. Unlike Plato’s Socrates, Xenophon’s Socrates addresses both famous and obscure citizens and offers advice that ranges from persuasive marshaling of arguments to practical how-to, nuts-and-bolts instructions. This suggests that Socrates was not an anti-democratic elitist after all, in spite of what the average Athenian might have gathered from seeing Socrates whispering impressively over admiring aristocratic youths, many of whom went on to pursue demagogic careers and cast blight and ruin on Athens. It must be pointed out, however, that even Xenophon, who will not heap Plato’s invectives on democracy, tends to avoid this subject and simply rests content with presenting a non-condescending Socrates, friend to every man—a Socrates, moreover, who once stood up to tyrants fearlessly and castigated them for their violent desires and pathological injustice.

The book is framed soberly, often tenderly, with Xenophon’s persistent pleading: Socrates was innocent of the malicious charges of which he was, alas, eventually found guilty. Xenophon insists, and seeks to prove beyond doubt, that Socrates was pious and a sturdy moral teacher who benefited his associates with both his words and his example. This book might be the first biography in the Western tradition. Interestingly enough, this first biography has the twin purposes of showing a just man for who he truly was, and of setting the record straight by deploying a whole lifetime of conversations and ideas that go beyond the narrow confines of the due process that proved ruinous for Socrates. The first biography was intended as a record of a hidden truth, not a self-deconstructing or free-flowing exercise in creativity.

Since the objective of the work is to vindicate Socrates’ memory, it is reasonable to wonder whether it speaks the truth. We cannot give a definitive answer to this question. We can refer to Xenophon’s credentials, recorded life experiences, and apparent features of character. The reader may make up his or her own mind. To be fair, passing judgment on Xenophon is not an easy task as there are both appealing and disagreeable aspects to what we know about him. Xenophon (444–c. 357 BCE) was apparently a good soldier, even elected to the rank of general, an adventurer in the style of later self-aggrandizing conquerors of faraway lands. He recorded his exploits but did so with a view to addressing the broader contours of historical events and his capacities in this respect are not altogether meager: though not a profound thinker, Xenophon clearly possessed ample common sense, political shrewdness, practical acumen, a quick intelligence, a pleasant urbanity, and a capacity to pay attention to details that are consistent with his narrative. His temperament was conservative and indeed pro-Spartan: he preferred the militaristic, disciplined, culturally backward, deliberately anti-intellectualist, and anti-progressive Spartan regime to Athenian openness, progressive eclecticism, and cultural experimentation. His writing, however, is not boorish, propagandistic, polemical, or predictable. Students of applied disciplines might actually find him a good deal more relevant than Plato. Most cursory readers would take him to be objective. His preferences peep through occasionally, as, for instance, when he has Socrates frequently lament the present state of “decadent” Athens and express a decided preference for Spartan institutions, way of life, and even specific military tactics.

Xenophon liked to write and his writing is lucid, informative, alive with practical intelligence, and surprisingly vibrant with between-the-lines meanings. He is not disingenuous or unctuous in his praise of, and claims to, certain virtues; at the same time, his career demonstrated a lack of a virtue such as patriotism, which one would have demanded of someone of his ilk and ideology. This is not necessarily an instance of contradiction or hypocrisy. Like Machiavelli—who may have patterned his Prince consciously in relation to certain Xenophontic mirrors or princes—Xenophon might have appreciated the inexorable operation of higher-level moral dilemmas which greatly complicate theories of goodness. Like Machiavelli, Xenophon eschews philosophical speculation, and his shrewd astuteness can be discerned only when the reader is willing to take the author seriously. It is therefore intriguing that such a writer would have set himself the goal of saving Socrates’ reputation. Xenophon’s fondness for Socrates appears to be sincere and unadorned. His indignation over the fate of Socrates is genuine. Xenophon might have taken the condemnation of Socrates as one more sign of Athenian degeneration. And, it seems, Xenophon found in Socrates something precious and meaning-bestowing—a common reaction, apparently, for all those who met and came under the spell of Socrates.

In Conversations with Socrates, Xenophon operates like a skilled attorney or a specialist hired to clear one’s reputation by means of a carefully coordinated media campaign. Xenophon’s Socrates does not speak from above nor reduce his interlocutors to numbness and confusion, as Plato’s Socrates so often does. Xenophon’s Socrates cannot be taken for a fearsome personality—not even for an enigmatic one. In writing about Socrates, Xenophon is a sincere, earnest, skilled, pragmatic campaigner who works hard to persuade without violating truth impermissibly and without stooping to popular imbecility. He does not compromise his moral convictions which, moreover, he might genuinely believe to be consistent with those of Socrates himself.

While the more profound Plato’s moral indignation stems partly from a pessimistic, even misanthropic, assessment of human nature, the more pedestrian and optimistic Xenophon trusts the average person’s good faith, common sense, and ultimate susceptibility to proof and reasoning. Conversations with Socrates is based on this premise. Plato would not have thought it sensible, or even potentially effective, to write a defense of Socrates along the lines pursued by Xenophon. But even Plato, at least in what are presumed to be his earlier works, goes through the motions of using Socratic conversations to refute vulgar misperceptions and malicious rumors about the historical Socrates. Of course, Xenophon can never be confused with Plato in a most important respect: unlike Plato, Xenophon is immune to the seduction of philosophical speculation. Even so, Xenophon succeeds in attributing to Socrates a remarkably coherent viewpoint, which remains consistent and is argued throughout the work. Xenophon himself seems to subscribe to this viewpoint wholeheartedly. This Socratic viewpoint is unexpectedly pragmatic, concrete, and prudential. It is not unexpected that Socrates would be cautioning and exhorting to self-control, moderation in public affairs, and related virtues. What is surprising is that Xenophon’s Socrates places prudence above even the search for truth—or ,at least, so it seems. Of course, there might be a deeper meaning: that one must appear quiescent to preserve one’s life; and, certainly, one must remain alive if one wishes to continue to philosophize—although the more mystically inclined Plato would doubt this.

Those who are familiar with Plato’s Socrates might find the Socrates of the Conversations to be rather unphilosophical. If Plato’s Socrates sounds like one of those professors whose class you failed in college, Xenophon’s Socrates is the next-door neighbor whose advice you always avidly seek out—from how to make and keep friends, treat your teenage children, survive in times of economic downturn, to how to be in good standing with the local sheriff and handle unruly, pestering relatives. This homespun aspect of Socrates is not altogether missing from Plato’s writings, but in Xenophon it seems to have absorbed almost everything else. A theory is presented, mantra-like: be smart enough to understand that doing the right thing will keep you out of trouble and might even yield benefits.

The shock of discovering a discrepancy between the Platonic and the Xenophontic Socrates is mitigated somewhat when we look more closely at Xenophon’s work. Then we can detect many a Socratic preoccupation with which we are familiar from Plato’s works: the famous question-answer-refutation-reformulation method, hostility to empty rhetoric, emphasis on moral subjects, rejection of natural philosophy, insistence that terms be defined clearly and thoughtfully, and reasoned support for moralizing conclusions. We also detect the Platonic view that moral exhortation is the prime task of a thinker, confidence that reason is the authority in moral deliberation, promotion of temperance in relation to bodily desires, withering criticisms of irrational popular opinions, ample use of analogies from especially the practices of menial vocations and the skills needed for navigation, a healthy appetite for puns and jokes, and Socrates’ celebrated fearlessness in the presence of powerful people and even in response to menacing bullying.

Several features and habits of the Platonic Socrates, however, are missing from Xenophon’s narration: Xenophon’s Socrates is not as irksomely ironic as Plato’s; he does not reduce his fellow discussants—especially the self-important ones—to shambles; he does not vaunt his rhetorical prowess; he is not interested in philosophizing for the sake of philosophizing or in abstract and speculative questions about the nature of things; he is not interested in the magical, potentially dangerous, seductive potency of Eros (Xenophon’s Socrates is not an erotic mystery, at once both ugly and alluring, as Plato’s is, but he is instead an old man who, literally, offers to serve as procurer for a concubine rather than have youths fall in love with him.) Xenophon’s Socrates treats argument, dialectic, as he treats rhetoric itself, as mere instruments for the promotion of objectives that are healthy and good in themselves. He does not use philosophy as an end in itself and does not regard philosophizing as the authoritative eye that can peer into the nature of reality. Perhaps Xenophon’s hint is that Socrates courted danger by gaining the reputation of one who lived and cherished the philosophic life. Of course, Plato is not at all embarrassed by this reputation of Socrates and elevated the martyred thinker onto a pedestal on which posterity has taken stock of him. Xenophon’s Socrates is more of an unassuming and helpful wise old neighbor and occasionally brave citizen; he is not a controversial icon or martyr.

It is reasonable that Xenophon might have omitted aspects of Socrates that could attract bad publicity: Socrates’ formidable intellectualism, his erotic magnetism, his puzzling speculative tangents—these were mesmerizing facets of the Socrates legend which backfired and cost Socrates his life. Charismatic demagogues, like Alcibiades, were attracted to Socrates; later, they won elections and led Athens to catastrophe. Xenophon handles this subject by claiming that such types had behaved well, under the influence of Socrates’ speeches and moral example, for as long as they were his followers. They deteriorated and turned calamitous after they were no longer with Socrates.

Xenophon asks the philosophically interesting question as to whether moral impressions can indeed prove ephemeral–which is not necessarily consistent with the Socratic dictum, known to Xenophon, that moral excellence is identical with knowledge. It is unlikely that one would have forgotten the old teacher’s words and example so easily. Characteristically, Xenophon does not pursue the philosophical question but does something that is both prudent and pragmatic at the same time: he adds another dimension to the moral equation. Perhaps people like Alcibiades are incorrigible after all; this is evidenced by the fact that Alcibiades persisted for a while in following Socrates for the wrong reasons: to learn how to be a self-promoting, formidable orator. Apparently, Alcibiades did not learn, and continued to pay attention to the form rather than the content of Socrates’ teachings. This, however, can also redound against Socrates,  and Xenophon knows it. Indeed, if there is something dangerous about the form or rhetoric of Socratic persuasion, this might be a sufficient reason to consider Socrates an unwelcome member of a community. Xenophon parries this challenge with characteristic dexterity—a skill that the casual reader can easily miss. According to Xenophon, when Alcibiades was still under the spell of Socrates, he did occasionally check and question the hypocrisy of authority. Alcibiades’ uncle and legal guardian was none other than the legendary statesman Pericles himself. In a brief conversation – the only one without Socrates as a participant—Alcibiades exposes Pericles as a hypocrite, in a subtle way. Perhaps even the very method and technique of Socratic cross-examination suffices to spread a healthy message about justice and good morals.

If there is one inexpugnable irritating facet of this book it must be this: Most of the arguments presented by Socrates return to a basic formula, which we can call a prudential argument. Here is what a prudential argument looks like, to put it simply: you should certainly do X if it is true that doing X will allow you to reap benefits for yourself, at comparatively low cost, now or in the future. Xenophon’s Socrates is fond of this line of thinking. This is different from claiming that a side effect of doing the right thing may be personal benefit. In prudential reasoning, the expected benefit to oneself is claimed as the main and relevant ethical motivator. Sometimes the confusion behind this has to do with the dual meaning of words like “should” and “ought,” which can be rendered both as “you should morally do X” and “if you want to achieve Y, you should instrumentally do X.” This was true of Xenophon’s Greek as it is of our language.

Xenophon’s prudential formula is even more surprising, and possibly a blunder, because the Athenians knew this as a Sophist argument. The Sophists were itinerant teachers of rhetoric and persuasion who catered to the needs of wealthy and ambitious boys. As evidenced by his disastrous trial, Socrates was considered a Sophist by the Athenian public. Plato spent considerable effort in showing that this was a tragic mistake: in fact, Socrates had been arguing against the Sophists and was at cross purposes with them on the account of his elevated unselfish moral teachings. Xenophon would hardly have wished to create the impression that Socrates is a sophistic teacher.

One possible explanation for Xenophon’s predilection for attributing a ubiquitous prudential formula to Socrates is this: Xenophon might be trying to have Socrates clinching his moral exhortations with an appeal to personal interest. Xenophon is eager to show not only that Socrates offered the right kind of advice but that Socrates was highly practical and effective. Xenophon may have thought that most people are likely to be persuaded in moral matters only when they come to believe that it is in their interest to do or not to do something.

The reader would certainly want to know if Xenophon succeeds in rebutting the charges against Socrates. But this is something the reader will have to decide. There were, as we recall, two charges against Socrates, and Xenophon attempts to respond to both. Xenophon replies to the charges in the opening of the book and appends, as it were, the anecdotes and conversations with Socrates to reinforce the case he made in the beginning in support of Socrates. Critical readers may discover interesting silences, telltale repetitions, and allusive references throughout the book. For instance, Xenophon does not discuss whether Socrates sacrificed to the gods not only in public but also in private. Xenophon presents Socrates castigating those who seek divination about natural matters but Socrates himself also forbids rational investigation into the nature of things. Xenophon also equivocates as to whether Socrates had any positive teachings or simply taught by example of good character and by addressing specific everyday problems. These and other subtleties can occupy inquisitive readers but it is also the case that the line of reasoning Xenophon deploys is explicitly straightforward and tight.

Regarding the impiety charges, Xenophon insists that Socrates never omitted any practices and rituals that were expected of a good Athenian; Socrates performed ritual services in full view of everyone and in public; Socrates believed in his own personal demon, which indicates that Socrates believed in the existence of demons and, therefore, in the existence of gods who are demons’ parents; Socrates even offered advice based on his own divine voice (in Plato, Socrates’ voice only causes him to refrain from doing something, never urges him to undertake an initiative); Socrates also taught people to fear the gods because he remonstrated with them to the effect that the gods know even secret and hidden thoughts; Socrates was interested in defining piety with a view to cultivating the virtue of piety; Socrates even went as far as to delineate the specific areas on which divination is or is not to be sought; Socrates always chastised the impious and urged everyone to respect the gods.

Regarding the corruption charge: Socrates always admonished sternly against lack of self-control and extolled the benefits of moderation; he set a wonderful example by shunning excesses in all matters pertaining to bodily desires and in cultivating the pure pleasures of the mind; as someone who was a good and just man himself, he could not have led others to injustice or wickedness; he did not profess to teach anything, and therefore he did not allure litigious and demagogic characters but he taught rather through his good-natured openness and the example he set; he corrected every type of deviant behavior imaginable (and Xenophon is nothing if not detailed in recounting conversations in which Socrates addresses and seeks to rectify nearly every imaginable problem facing people of various stations in life, professions, and characters); Socrates’ legendary fearlessness and endurance were an inspiration to all; he never charged money but made his advice available to all those who solicited it, having nothing to hide or hold back.

         

Xenophon joins the other companions of Socrates who apparently mourned the teacher’s death. Xenophon was not in Athens at the time of Socrates’ trial and death but this hardly mitigated the passion with which he must have reacted to the ill tidings—the most just man who ever lived had been found guilty of unspeakable, unjust charges and sentenced to death.

Odysseus Makridis received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Madison, New Jersey.

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