Xenophon, The Cyropaedia: The Inauguraral Discussion

 

Anabasis_bigXenophon, 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.

There are 13 comments.

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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    FYI: Here’s the link to the Gutenberg.org version:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2085

    • #1
  2. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    May I extend thanks to my editor–my notes of a sudden are transformed, the rough sketch concealed behind the fully ornamented building, the foundation under the completed structure? My friends here know that the beauty is not my own, but I hope that if they are careful, they will find something to compensate their time-

    • #2
  3. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Hello, Ricochet, there are a few introductory notes in the discussion announcing the series.

    Briefly, this book is unparalleled. The only attempt I know to overcome it is Machiavelli’s Prince, which humorously quotes it & Xenophon more than any other author. I do not share Machiavelli’s ambitions–I will only try to do justice to the things it shows. This Education of Cyrus is the first time, perhaps the only time a man who was taught by Socrates talked at length about the politics in political life.

    There are many things to count & keep track of in this book–perhaps it is easier if we do it together–& I will try to show them to you, but I hope others pick up what I miss. Xenophon is most famous for another book about another Cyrus–English boys in the 19th century, raised to Victorian empire, learned from that book how a gentleman goes to war. That book is the autobiography of Xenophon & it is written in the third person. That is the kind of writing Xenophon does–he says both what he says & what he does not say & he puts the two together in a way very few writers are able, while telling a terrific tale.

    So I try to show how he suggests you should think about politics in order to learn things. All the calculation is done behind the curtains–you have to put things together with difficulty, he only tells you what to pay attention to-

    • #3
  4. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Titus Techera:May I extend thanks to my editor–my notes of a sudden are transformed, the rough sketch concealed behind the fully ornamented building, the foundation under the completed structure? My friends here know that the beauty is not my own, but I hope that if they are careful, they will find something to compensate their time-

    Oh, you don’t have to thank me–or flatter me. All of this is yours, I just replaced ampersands with spelled-out “ands” and standardized the spelling a bit. I do have a question about the translation, though. I don’t read Greek, alas, so I can’t really assess the full meaning of the original word, which I assume is δεσπότης, is that right? And it seems that could have all the meanings you see in the translation–master, lord, ruler, despot, owner. Or does he actually use τύραννος, which from what I can tell really only means that?

    • #4
  5. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Claire Berlinski:

    Oh, you don’t have to thank me–or flatter me. All of this is yours, I just replaced ampersands with spelled-out “ands” and standardized the spelling a bit. I do have a question about the translation, though. I don’t read Greek, alas, so I can’t really assess the full meaning of the original word, which I assume is δεσπότης, is that right? And it seems that could have all the meanings you see in the translation–master, lord, ruler, despot, owner. Or does he actually use τύραννος, which from what I can tell really only means that?

    The tyrants are called tyrants. Despot is used of the master of the home. Tyrants are said to try to establish rule; by force, it is implied. Other regimes are already there–force is not required. That distinguishes legitimate & illegitimate forms of the rule. Another word choice–the use of the word bring down for democracy & tyrant rule, but not for the overthrow of oligarchy & monarchy.

    Machiavelli refuses to use the words tyrant in the Prince. With these educated modern translators, no one would know… One needs to look for the kind of simple natures who can read a word & translate it without giving us benefit of their education.

    Whoever has time to waste on reading about these matters, I’ve written about the use of these words in political talk, tyrant, dictator, despot. In the ugliest times, dictator overtook tyrant for the first time in the English language.

    • #5
  6. Nick Stuart Member
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    Very erudite. Very Classy. HT to TT for putting a lot of work in on it.

    It belongs on the main feed why exactly?

    • #6
  7. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Nick Stuart:Very erudite. Very Classy. HT to TT for putting a lot of work in on it.

    It belongs on the main feed why exactly?

    Thanks for the kind words & let me say I share your concern. This is going to be a long series, perhaps it is meant to attract attention at the inauguration for anyone who might be interested. I do not worry anyone will see it again. It’s going to be around for a long time–a series on classical texts for anyone who might like this sort of thing. I have another worry–it will hurt people who see the tag cloud!

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Nick Stuart:Very erudite. Very Classy. HT to TT for putting a lot of work in on it.

    It belongs on the main feed why exactly?

    I put it on the Main Feed because we’ve had a lot of requests for doing something a bit different on weekends–discussing art, history, literature, music, philosophy–and I thought this post fit the bill perfectly. Also, it’s a fascinating subject and well-written. And clearly relevant to conservative political thought. So why not?

    • #8
  9. user_740328 Member
    user_740328
    @SEnkey

    Nick Stuart:Very erudite. Very Classy. HT to TT for putting a lot of work in on it.

    It belongs on the main feed why exactly?

    Hillary Clinton as Cyrus? I’m just stating a very fuzzy modern connection. Hillary seems to be running on the idea that we owe her the presidency. Due to her sex, her time in office, and sticking with her husband despite his sex, we owe her a coronation. The Clinton dynasty rules with fear, but can also be benevolent to those who prove themselves loyal – to the dynasty, of course, not the country.

    There is a lot we can apply today from studying classical political theory. What can we apply from The Cyropaedia for success over the next year and a half?

    • #9
  10. user_740328 Member
    user_740328
    @SEnkey

    It could also be that we are showing non-members that the really high brow stuff is on the member’s feed.

    That being said, I really enjoyed the post and look forward to more!

    • #10
  11. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    SEnkey:

    Nick Stuart:Very erudite. Very Classy. HT to TT for putting a lot of work in on it.

    It belongs on the main feed why exactly?

    Hillary Clinton as Cyrus? I’m just stating a very fuzzy modern connection. Hillary seems to be running on the idea that we owe her the presidency. Due to her sex, her time in office, and sticking with her husband despite his sex, we owe her a coronation. The Clinton dynasty rules with fear, but can also be benevolent to those who prove themselves loyal – to the dynasty, of course, not the country.

    There is a lot we can apply today from studying classical political theory. What can we apply from The Cyropaedia for success over the next year and a half?

    Machiavelli learned everything he learned from Xenophon, so it’s not really hard to find stuff. It’s there throughout the book, unfortunately for the activists & the practical, busy people. The lessons about how successful ruthlessness can be in politics & what it means to appear just & reasonable are timeless. Of course, everyone who takes the Clintons seriously as power-grabbers should learn everything they can & no one taught more or better than Xenophon. These Clintons are too often dismissed precisely because we would rather not follow through on what is scary & impressive about them–that takes a kind of tough-mindedness & patience to investigate. It also reveals our weaknesses, which they exploit so well, & therefore could teach us-

    • #11
  12. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Ladies, gents, here is the next discussion. It is necessarily briefer, as it deals with the portrait of the perfect man.

    • #12
  13. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    & the next discussion, to do with the laws of the perfect city

    • #13

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