Monday, September 27, 2010

Spirited/Reasoning: Questions about Plato and Xenephon

I am taking a brief respite from the conference write-up in order to rest my brain from this horrible day. I spent today proctoring an exam in 96 degree heat. While I was proctoring the exam, I read about the first third of the heavily-prefaced version of Xenephon's Socratic dialogues in Conversations of Socrates.
Conversations of Socrates (Penguin Classics) 
There are many interesting things both about Xenephon and what Robin Waterfield has to say about Xenephon. One of the most fascinating is Waterfield's claim that Socrates was guilty of violating the state religion. I will leave this spicy debate for another time.

My focus today is going to be this: why was Xenephon kicked out of Athens while Plato was not? (I would love to hear what people think if anyone wants to comment or email me at

This was a question that never occurred to me until today, mostly because I had no idea that Xenephon was actually exiled from Athens. I knew that Xenephon left Athens in 401 to live in Sparta (Waterfield 7) and that his children were educated there, but I was unaware that this exile was formalized. Apparently he returned to Althens in 365 after his formal exile was rescinded in 368 (Waterfield 7). According to Waterfield (who uses Diogenes Laertius, 2.51 as his source), Xenephon was charged on suspicion of pro-Spartan and pro-Oligartich tendencies (Waterfield 7), which must have been a pretty poisonous charge after the bloody reign of the Thirty Tyrants.

What is more striking is that this criticism of Xenephon, according to Waterfield, extended to all of Socrates' students. He states: "Not only were several members of Socrates' circle overt [1] or covert oligrarchs [2], but they were all, without exception, members of the upper classes" (Waterfield 6). Plato, too, is accused by modern scholars of being at least in favor of the Spartan form of government, both in the Republic and in the Laws [3]. So what made Plato so different than Xenephon? He was closely tied to Socrates, he was wealthy and from a eupatrid family, there were disernable pro-oligarchic and perhaps pro-Spartan tendencies in his writing, and he may have been (not sure of the historical source on this) asked to be one of the Thirty Tyrants.

This is obviously puzzling. My answer, which at the moment is not very well-developed, is that the "discernable" pro-oligarchic and pro-Spartan tendencies in Plato are not his views, but rather a philosophical means of imparting information. Furthermore, I would argue that Plato's intellectual and rhetorical flair in his writing probably made him a popular figure, dispite his associations. This is a benefit Xenephon did not have. Finally, if the rumors that Plato did refuse an oligarchic position are true, than it is possible this differentiated him in the mind of the populace from the problems of Socrates' students. I don't have a solid answer yet.

  1. Critias and Charmides were both members of Socrates' circle (Waterfield 38). See Plato's Charmides for a fascinating portrayal (this is one of my favorite Platonic dialogues, but I will have to leave discussion of it for another blogpost).
  2. I don't know if Alcibiades was particularly covert, but he was not explicitly oligarchic so far as I know (I am happy to be corrected-- I am not much of an Alcibiades scholar) (Waterfield 38).
  3. I had a long debate with a friend in the classics lounge at school about this, which I probably lost. For reference, I was trying to portray Plato as hinting at, but not explicitly condoning the Spartan governmental system. Hopefully, there will be more on this in future posts as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment