A Walk on the Slippery Rocks

Memoirs of Socrates & The Symposium
Xenophon (trans. by Hugh Tredennick)

xenophonI feel sorry for philosophy majors.

Because somehow, somewhere along the line, philosophers came to be the whipping boys and girls of higher education. Who’d have thought it would ever come to that?

Quite some time ago, as a freshman, I had to take a year-long class, loosely modeled on Columbia University‘s great books course.  Entitled Revolutions in Western Thought, it was heavy on the dead white guys whose work is now deemed inconsequential to both preparation for life in a modern economy and the politics of identity. Most of them were described as philosophers.

I will fess up to being as fearful of the subject as anyone. Have you ever tried to read these guys, let alone a textbook that strives to make their ideas accessible? It’s dense stuff requiring a lot of concentration. Half the published versions have seemingly been designed or laid out by someone who majored in sadistic typography. The rest are published in series whose uniform cladding fills me with trepidation in the way no group of Spheniscidae should. I didn’t exactly rush to embrace the discipline.

Xenophon c. 430 BCE - 354 BCE General, historian, writer

c. 430 BCE – 354 BCE
General, historian, writer

And that’s a pity because as with immersing yourself in the primary historical record there’s much to be gained from spending time with the originals before listening to those who would dismiss them. It’s arguable that Socrates , the major philosopher who failed to leave a written record, lies at the root of the Western intellectual tradition.

Argue, I’d argue, is the proper word to use in relation to the great Greek. After all,  what he left us with is the Socratic method, and that form of dialog underpins our legal system along with a good deal of scholarship. It’s probably fitting that its key insight–the power of the question–is best demonstrated when encountered in person rather than on the page.

But beware. The first time you tree an opponent through adroit questioning built upon his own words you’ll feel like you belled the cat. It’s more important to pay attention to the opponent you bested. Their emotional reaction is liable to be anything but positive. It’s particularly dangerous to engage in this sort of thing in a business setting where agreement is often prized above all else. Best leave ticking people off to the lawyers. Tend to the human in front of you.

Prof. Arthur Miller of the NYU Law School Master demonstrator of the Socratic method. Click on the photo for an example worth watching.

Prof. Arthur Miller of the NYU Law School
Master demonstrator of the Socratic method. Click on the photo for an example worth watching.

It also strikes me as fitting that an oral method left its record in the work of others. We know of Socrates because of his students, Plato first among them. But if others, including Xenophon, hadn’t captured similar moments we’d be forgiven for thinking Plato was just self-effacing and hiding behind a character. Our hero, though, most probably did exist and imparted an outsize effect on his students and the civilization that followed.

So what of this memoir and dinner party? First, tread lightly on the meaning of both words. ‘Memoirs’, in this instance, is closer in meaning to ‘sketches from the life of Socrates.’ And ‘Symposium’ is typically translated as ‘The Dinner Party.’ I’m sure there are graduate students and conference-goers around the globe wondering what happened to the food, wine and entertainment.

The ‘Memoirs’ are the longer work, divided into four books. The first defends Socrates, now dead, from the charges against him. (Socrates was executed by the government of Athens for, among other things, heresy and polluting the minds of youth. As the French say, plus ça change...) The second speaks to conduct in personal relationships, the third mostly to military matters, and the last with yet another defense of the departed.

Plato's Symposium Anselm Feuerbach, 1869 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Plato’s Symposium
Anselm Feuerbach, 1869
It’s safe to believe Socrates’ resembled
his student’s.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In each section you’ll get a healthy exposure to the Socratic method. What you won’t get, to quote the Pythons, is anything like an argument that “…the reality is an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics.”

Instead, you’ll wander through, to give just one example, a chapter on friendship. And over the course of it you’ll go through an economic argument, an exploration of the power of blandishments and other gift-giving, and then, eventually, we’ll get to the meat that needs to be chewed on: “Which do you think would be a better way of helping you, Cristobalus, by praising you falsely or by persuading you to try to be a good person?” (p. 103, ii, 6, 36-38)

For me, that exemplifies the amazing power of this work.  You might, at first blush, note the parallels with the objectives of some religious teachings.  The difference is that often, perhaps too often, the religious impulse leads to prescription. There’s no stepwise program or set of rules, limited or comprehensive, anywhere in these pages. Just a way of thinking about things.

The lineup from the world's most philosophical soccer match. As I recall, Socrates scores.

The lineup from the world’s most philosophical soccer match. As I recall, Socrates scores.

If that’s the sort of thing that appeals to you, you may as well start here. I know I should revere Plato, but something slightly sanctimonious has always lurked behind what I’ve read of his. Xenophon is more approachable and, not being Plato, has been more roundly questioned through the years.

Our translator does an admirable job of establishing context. Names alone can be an impediment to understanding these works so the glossary is a helpful tool. As important are the introductory notes to each Book of the Memoirs, the footnotes throughout–which are not copious but seem to be strangely attuned to when my confusion called for one–and the opening essay. More and more I understand the value editors and translators add.

There are longer and shorter works of philosophy. There are more opaque works. There are more practical works. There are also less enjoyable works so why take the chance. Spend a few hours with Xenophon, Socrates and the dinner guests.

It will uplift you.




2 thoughts on “A Walk on the Slippery Rocks

  1. Pingback: Losing My Religion | An Honest Con

  2. Pingback: You Don’t Know What Love is | An Honest Con

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