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Topic #B19

Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates 2.4, 2.5, 2.6

 

22 October 2001
Scribes:  Kevan Copeland, Evelyn Kam, and Barton Wong

 

These minutes were spoken on 26 October.

 

 

Professor Hutchinson began his lecture formally by asking and answering the question of what particular authorial voice was used by Xenophon in his Memorabilia and giving us a little biographical sketch of this author. Xenophon was older than Plato and was a military general responsible for the lives of groups of men. Professor Hutchinson emphasized that people would not entrust the lives of their sons to just anyone— trustworthiness, credibility, tactical and strategic skill and even common sense must be possessed by someone in such a position. Thus, it can be said that Xenophon must have carried the weight of his convictions.

 

With regard to style, Xenophon’s plain, blunt, and simple style has been compared badly to Plato’s dazzling poetic style. Because of this, it has always been assumed from late antiquity onwards that Plato was a more authoritative source for the "real" Socrates than Xenophon. But there is now a minority viewpoint, a viewpoint shared by Professor Hutchinson, that because his style is so simple and plain in comparison with Plato’s, Xenophon invented far less and remained truer to words of the real, historical Socrates than his great rival. However, as Professor Hutchinson noted, Xenophon was not above some creative embellishments. Some of his work may contain at times conversations that were never recorded. Therefore, Professor Hutchinson suggested that Xenophon’s work is to be regarded as a kind of "historical fiction".

 

Xenophon offered an interpretive portrayal of Socrates—one that Professor Hutchinson found to be a ridiculously positive spin, despite being respected. It can be said that he advanced the historical memory of Socrates. Xenophon portrayed Socrates as a provocative philosopher. He always made Socrates the winner of any given argument. On the most part, Xenophon was in agreement with Plato with regards to his portrayal of Socrates. However, Xenophon focused on a narrower section whereas Plato’s version of Socrates discussed a wide variety of topics that were of an abstract and philosophical nature. Xenophon showed Socrates in philosophical consultations with friends whereas Plato showed him creatively pursuing lines of argument. Professor Hutchinson cited three passages. In 2.5, Socrates is involved in a pithy conversation with a young man named Antisthenes. In 2.4, there is simply a summary of views. Finally, 2.6 is a dialogue or digest of a certain line of thought.

 

Professor Hutchinson then read the pithy, overheard conversation with Antisthenes whose topic was a shocking one indeed. In the dialogue, Socrates compared friends to slaves and said that like slaves, you can put a price on your friends in terms of currency. Professor Hutchinson then asked somewhat rhetorically what kind of conversation that was and a student replied that it sounded as artificial and staged as a 1950s-quiz show. What was the purpose of such an indirect and manipulated conversation? Obviously, even though none of us have ever owned slaves, comparing a slave relationship to a friend relationship is deliberately provocative and offensive. Professor Hutchinson then recounted how he mentioned the topic of discussion to his wife, where upon mentioning "trying to find the right price for your friend", his wife responded that she found such an idea to be "horrible". Professor Hutchinson then recalled that there was a tradition in the classical world called "parasia," which said that philosophers had the privilege and duty to "tell it like it is".

 

Professor Hutchinson then asked the class why they thought Socrates would want to put a price on friendship. He answered the question by saying that if he were to ask us to think of five friends and then choose two to put a price on, most of us would probably be able to produce some idea of what we are willing to give or give up for each. One student said that she thought of this kind of dilemma in this way-- "What would I potentially lose for a particular friend?". The student offered this scenario: she is offered a job in Los Angeles and is faced with the prospect of losing a friend. The "value" of the friend is determined by whether she is willing to give up the job for her friend. There is no market value for friends but there are sacrifices we may or may not be willing to make and goods that we may or may not prefer over a friend. It is an unavoidable fact that there are some friends whom we will value more than others-- those that deserve our patience for a late night phone call and those we "call back".

 

In 2.4, Socrates posits that friends should be counted like we count our assets for inventory purposes. In this way, we will know how much we have and how much we need. This suggestion is not merely meant to offend. Instead, Socrates is compelling us to make ourselves more valuable to our friends in order for them to be valuable to us. It reinforces the idea that the focus is on what the individual needs to do in order to be a good friend. Professor Hutchinson said that this is a worthwhile meditation from the age of five. He says that most of us have been thinking of our friends in a philosophical or abstract way for a very long time. The meditation is meant to help us improve our relationships with our friends. He said that this kind of meditation is particularly true for teenagers since friendships are dominant parts of their lives

 

Professor Hutchinson then discussed section 2.6 in the readings. Critobulus from the dialogues is the son of Crito, who was the executor following Socrates’ death. Crito came to Socrates hoping to get advice regarding his irresponsible son. It seems Socrates was a supervisor of sorts of Critobulus, and was in this position when he passed away at the age of 70. Socrates was paid for his services with things such as grain and health as opposed to money. Critobulus was a troubled youngster, and helping him was emblematic of how Socrates transmitted thoughts on friendship.

 

The focus then turned to what kinds of obstacles were present when people attempt to form friendships. Greed, loans, grudges, troublemakers, and ungraciousness were among these obstacles, and these qualities within a person must be rooted out for a friendship to be successful. When we find a friend, we must find people who have made other friends, which shows they are capable of forming friendships. The end goal is to find someone suitable and to get the relationship going.

 

Socrates concludes that after we cure various gross errors in our behaviour we must try to maintain our friendships. His first advice is that we must pray to the gods. This was not odd in Socrates’ time because things were believed to be in the laps of the gods and so, as Professor Hutchinson put it, "might as well put in a good word". After praying to the gods, we must then proceed to appeal to the other person’s positive self-image, but at the same time making sure we do not stoop to base flattery or outright lies, but instead praising the good qualities your potential friend does have, if any. This is potentially therapeutic for your self-esteem since your new best friend is apt to return the compliment.

 

Finally, Professor Hutchinson quotes Socrates advising Critobulus saying, "…try to make yourself a good man, and when you have succeeded, you can set about hunting for truly good people" (Memoirs of Socrates, 2.6, pg. 124). This would appear to be the case since for Socrates, true and perfect friendship is exceptionally rare. A more optimistic and perhaps more realistic view is that of Aristotle, who defines three types of friendship: 1. A friendship based on pleasure of one’s company and no other deep bond. 2. A business friendship. 3. The truest friendship of all, the so-called "friendship of the good," which is based on mutual respect. For Aristotle, such friendships are fairly common and it is pointed out that most of us still have good, lasting friendships with imperfect people. This theme of friendship will be picked and elaborated upon later in the course when we discuss Cicero’s dialogue Laelius or On Friendship.

 

Socrates concludes that if we want to make and keep friends, we must never, ever touch or lay a hand on any potential friend and we must never, ever trap them, either physically or physiologically, since freedom is the true essence of friendship. Sound advice, perhaps one day I will force myself to take it.