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Xenophon, a well-born Athenian, spent most of his political life in Sparta. He understood his duties as a citizen thus: in battle, he fought for Sparta against Athens; at least one of his sons fought for Athens and died in battle.
Xenophon lived from about 430 to 355 BCE, making him a contemporary of Plato. The Cyropaedia, or the Education of Cyrus, is his biography of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire. Machiavelli loved this work of theory, which was written in seven books.
The title is typical of Xenophon. Most of the Cyropaedia treats the speeches and acts of the adult Cyrus; only a part of the first book concerns his education. Perhaps Xenophon means to suggest the disproportionate importance of education–the child is father to the man. But the use of the genitive construction is ambiguous; he might mean the education Cyrus received, but he might also mean the education Cyrus offers us (as a founder of an empire, one assumes).
You can find the text here, on Perseus; or here on Gutenberg, both translated by Henry Graham Dakyns. Today we’ll read Chapter 1 of Book 1. It is divided into six parts, treating the changeable nature of political things, human rule over animals, the problem of rule over humans, the solution to that problem, the extent of Cyrus’s empire, the nature of his rule by fear, and his significance to us.
i.1.1. Xenophon opens by specifying his audience and his intention:
We have had occasion before now to reflect how often democracies have been overthrown by the desire for some other type of government, how often monarchies and oligarchies have been swept away by movements of the people, how often would-be despots have fallen in their turn, some at the outset by one stroke, while whose who have maintained their rule for ever so brief a season are looked upon with wonder as marvels of sagacity and success.
Who are “we?” The pronoun would seem to refer to men who are interested in politics. The words “before now” suggest that many have thought about these problems well before Xenophon and his contemporaries; Xenophon is telling us that he is aware of their thought.
He begins with political regimes and their propensity to rapid change. There are democracies, then monarchies and oligarchies, then tyrants. His list of regime types hints at the distinction between the many and the few (the one and the few are put together, for some reason); and the difference between legitimate and illegitimate rule. Only the despot (better translated as “tyrant”) is a man, as opposed to a form of rule; only he is aspirational (“would-be.”) Xenophon’s is a classic view of politics. (The translator, who couldn’t bring himself to translate “tyrant” properly, is a modern fellow, half-immoral at best.)
He then considers the problem of establishing rule or authority over private households. (Again, the original word is best translated as “despotism,” not “rule,” but the translator is effete.) As in political life, rulers of households find it difficult to make themselves obeyed. His would seem to be the Socratic view that economics (household rule) and politics are the same problems, on different scales.
But why should establishing authority be so difficult? Xenophon is an educated man. He entertains the skeptical view, that there is no knowledge to be had about human things. The stars in the sky will always be there to study; but if you take up astronomy as a hobby, there’s no telling how many regime changes you might miss. Human affairs change so frequently that perhaps we can learn nothing from observing them: they amount to nothing more than chaotic motion. For us to understand something, it has to be some kind of thing–an unchanging being, or a changing being with an unchanging principle. We can recognize the stars; likewise we can recognize that women get pregnant by men and give birth to children; then the children grow into adults. By observing these motions and changes together, we may understand what it is to be a human being.
But political theory is in crisis at its origin, he holds, because there seems to be no similar way to understand the most significant of human associations, and thus the greatest human endeavors and achievements. We have to examine this chaos and try to make sense of it. His sketch of the various political regime forms is a part of this effort, and teaches us the work of theorizing by example. He starts from a detached and neutral position, favoring none of them; his concern seems to be with the durability of these forms of rule: Could any be be more like the stars, and less like the clouds?
i.1.2. He then considers nature more broadly. Humans can rule quite a number of animals without difficulty. This is key, because it establishes a natural distinction between humans and other animals. Horses and cattle allow themselves to be used by humans for the advantage of humans; they don’t conspire against their masters, although they might unite against foreigners. They are obedient, and they fear strangers. Unlike animals, humans are reluctant to be ruled and desirous of it at the same time. This suggests that the solution to the problem of politics is the rule of gods over men.
i.1.3. Man may despair of a solution, but the example of Cyrus rescues us from despair. Behold the man who acquired so many people, cities, and nations. Cyrus had it all. He persuaded even people who had not and would never see him to obey him. His rule somehow surpassed natural limits of distance: Cities are concentrated, but nations are dispersed; people heard about things they had not seen, and obeyed. In some sense, rule was effectuated by opinion or belief.
Then, more Socratic teachings emerge: Some kings acquire kingdoms, others inherit them. Next there is a startling Socratic statement: Knowledge is required for rule. There is, then, a political art; and the master of that art is Cyrus.
i.1.4. Now we learn the vast scope of the nations Cyrus ruled. Some are said to have agreed to be ruled; the others, by implication, were enslaved. It seems Cyrus conquered and united Asia. Freedom is now only known in Europe.
i.1.5. Now we learn the principle of rule: fear. This does not undermine the legitimacy of rule. Xenophon talks about the king’s palace in the center of the empire. For all his conquests, Cyrus is no tyrant. Cyrus may be a god who rules many peoples. They may speak many different languages, fear him, and desire to gratify him. Like a god, he expects to be gratified before he does good things for people. We mere mortals must first do good, then expect or ask for gratitude. Cyrus instills a kind of fear in people that they understand as generosity. Because he is fearsome by nature, mere peace is a gift from Cyrus, and his refraining from war is a kindness.
i.1.6 This is maybe the most curious thing about the introduction: There is talk of birth, nature, and education; and these are different things, but they come together in the man Cyrus. To be born to be king means being born in a king’s family. That may be taken to mean chance. Then there is the nature of a king. Finally, there is a human power: an art, the art of education. Nature, chance, and art are the way we understand the way things happen in the world, the whole of which we are part. It is worth knowing these things, because he was the best ruler. Unless human beings can live isolated from each other, such excellence is never fully replaceable. Perhaps the greatest enterprise of which human beings are capable is politics.
The second chapter starts with the genealogy of Cyrus. That will be our next discussion.