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Topic #B21

Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates 3.3, 3.4, 3.6, 3.7


26 October 2001

Scribes: Oksana Werbowy and Gwendolyn Bradford


These minutes were spoken on 29 October; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



         The topic in Book 3 of Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates concerns the skills needed to contribute to large scale bureaucratic enterprises, such as a country, business or charity.  Any organisation can be considered a network of individuals working according to specific functions.  Plato tends to be more interested in the abstract issues, whereas Xenophon has a natural interest in this topic, since he was involved in military and leadership positions himself.


         In 3.6 Socrates tries to dissuade Glaucon from entering the political arena.  Conversely, in 3.7, Socrates urges the reluctant Charmides to pursue a political career.  This choice of interlocutors is particularly interesting, since Glaucon is Plato's brother and Charmides is their uncle, and the only mention of Plato by Xenophon is in this passage.  The discussion with Glaucon begins with flattering comments, but Socrates shows that Glaucon is full of empty ambition:  When Socrates asks how he would benefit his country, Glaucon doesn't know, and confesses ignorance to the rest of Socrates' questions.  This combination of flattery and subsequent deflation of confidence is similar to the approach taken in the Alcibiades dialogue.


         In his line of questioning, Socrates highlights the following necessary responsibilities of heads of State.  First, the leader must generate and preserve material prosperity for the people and country (3.6.7).  Glaucon's only response is "to enrich one's country from the resources of its enemies" (3.6.7) -- become a "national pirate".  Second, a competent leader must know the strength of his country's military and economic capabilities.  A good leader will not benefit his country unless he knows the details of the state of its resources, strengths and weaknesses.  Glaucon seems to believe that instead of guarding borders, garrisons would be put to better use if they were defending crops against theft (3.6.9).


         It seems Socrates' attempts to dissuade Glaucon from entering politics succeed, since not much is heard about Glaucon after this discussion, with the exception of his feature in Plato's Republic.  Plato portrays his brother as a serious-minded intellectual with common views -- not the most enthusiastic representation.  However, the appearance of Glaucon and Plato’s other brothers in the Republic is thought by some scholars to serve a particular function.  When Glaucon and his brothers take over from Thracymachus in Book II, this marks a transition from a skeptical, combative approach, to a discussion of justice that is collective and cooperative.  It is thought that Plato uses his brothers to represent himself and his own views.  Plato never represented himself directly in his dialogues, with the famous exception in the Phaedo, which is only to account for his absence at the execution of Socrates (59 b).


         Charmides of 3.7 is an older fellow from a distinguished family in Athens -- the same Charmides as in Plato's dialogue, concerning the issue of self-control, a virtue lacked by both Charmides and a connected political figure, Critias.  Charmides and Critias were the two most powerful members of an anti-democratic faction installed in Athens in 404 B.C.E., after its defeat by Sparta, to administer conquered territories.  This administration abused its power, employing such dubious practices as "disappearing" dissidents.  In the Apology, we learn this proxy government tried to get Socrates to carry out some of their "dirty work", but he refused (32c-d).  A civil war ensued, both Charmides and Critias were killed, and their names went down in infamy.  As a relative, Plato's reputation was tarnished by "the disgrace of his junta autocrat family", barring him from a political career.


         Although Xenophon, for the most part, tries to exonerate Socrates from responsibility for the mistakes of pupils, this passage is unusual because Xenophon unabashedly shows that Socrates did play a role in encouraging this hailed tyrant. Prof. Hutchinson's goal this week has been to demonstrate how the hatred of Socrates was roused  -- the connection between Socrates and certain pupils who later became notorious is one of the factors that led to the prejudices adopted by the Athenian public.


         In the discussion with Socrates, Charmides offers reasonable criticisms, contrasting Glaucon’s ignorance in 3.6.  When Socrates suggests that Charmides should "enter public life" (3.7.2), Charmides responds that it is not the same "to talk to a person privately and to debate in public" (3.7.4).  Socrates replies "a man who can count counts just as well in public as by himself", suggesting that skills demonstrated in private are equally demonstrable in public (3.7.4).  Charmides offers a good rejoinder:  "humility and fear are part of human nature, and… they come out much more in public" (3.7.5).  This observation is exemplified in this class -- we have the option of being a silent scribe.  Socrates counters Charmides' argument by insisting that withholding from a public role is not justified since the forum is largely comprised of workers and tradesmen -- those beneath Charmides.  Charmides offers no real reply to this point, leaving the suggestion that he ought to pursue a political career hanging.


         It is evident from this passage that Socrates classifies people in terms of occupation.   Xenophon is not reluctant to show that Socrates has contempt for people by virtue of their profession; evidently, Xenophon shares Socrates' oligarchic view. 


         A student asked if it was this class that made the decision at Socrates' trial, and indeed it was.  Athens was a direct democracy with a plenary council that included the working class as well as wealthy citizens who had leisure to attend. Underprivileged citizens were paid to sit on the Assembly to ensure their participation, thus mitigating the problem of representation.  Hence, Socrates was tried and convicted by a large jury, representing various economic and social strata.  When Socrates fails to defend himself in the Apology, it is in front of a huge crowd of people with sensibilities Socrates did not respect -- he has to ask for silence several times in his speech because of the cries of outrage.


         Socrates did not lack respect for these people because they were born to the wrong fathers; rather, it was because people with private means were most capable of acquiring the skills that would allow them to function well in political decision-making.  If one has not developed these skills, Socrates believed, one should not exercise leadership over others.  Ironically, the people deemed less qualified to make political decisions were the ones that sent Socrates to his death.  Socrates' view was meritocratic:  The people with the most merit should be in power. 


         The merit relevant to political enterprise is difficult to specify, but 3.3 and 3.4 deal with this topic in the context of the position of General.  Athens had a 1-year elected post -- in war or peace -- to run the military and command resources.  This system avoids takeover of power from civil authority by ensuring that the Generals could be trusted to represent the views of the people and not subvert the constitution.  


         In 3.4, Nicomachides has just run for General and lost.  He is disgusted by the winner, Antisthenes, because he feels that his victorious opponent only knows how to make money and, unlike himself, knows nothing about infantry or cavalry.                   In the past, Antisthenes financed a winning chorus in a festival of plays.  However, Nicomachides thinks leading a chorus is a far cry from running an army.  Socrates disagrees:  Although Antisthenes had no experience in running a chorus, he still “succeeded in finding the best people for his purpose” (3.4.5).  This an important fact to dwell upon, because this skill that is required of any leader. 


One who heads an organisation delegates functions to others, but does little of the detailed work himself.  Leaders who thrive are good at sizing up the quality of other people, and Antisthenes has this skill.   Other than delegating responsibility well, efficient leaders must also be proficient at “personnel management” -- ensuring loyalty in subordinates, compliance to goals, and rewarding good performance. 


         In this section, it is as if Socrates is giving a seminar for the Harvard Business School.  This topic is broached in a recent paper from a Florence business school, “Was Socrates a Harvard Man?”.  Socrates’ analyses of management theory are indicative of the endurance of his thought. 


         In 3.3, Socrates talks to an unnamed, recently elected cavalry commander, who, like Glaucon, lacks substance in his responses to Socrates’ questions.  Socrates asks his interlocutor if he wanted to be a cavalry officer to gain recognition.  Socrates  proceeds to demonstrate that recognition as such is an irrational desire, since “even lunatics are recognised by everybody” (3.3.2).