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‘Kalos Kagathos’ or Xenophon’s Socratic Definition of Philosophy

‘Socrates discussing at the Agora in Athens’, by Harry bates


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Olivier Sedeyn’s foreword to his French translation of Leo Strauss’s works, ‘Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse’ and ‘Xenophon’s Socrates’-here gathered in one volume-, Editions de l’Eclat, Polemos series, 1992. Our translation from the original French.


Plato and Xenophon’s Socrates, distinct from Aristophanes’s caricature, is a ‘perfect noble man’ (Greek: Kalos Kagathos). What does it mean? That he is perfectly amicable and respectful of social manners, without contempt for any of them, full of attention and kindness in his relationships with his interlocutors. Aristophanes’s Socrates is quite different: He watches with obvious contempt the ‘ephemerals’ who come to see him to seek his teaching, he is eager to transmit, even if the aim they pursue isn’t quite honest; for instance, like Strepsiades plotting to con his creditors. We translate (from Leo Strauss’ original English) by ‘perfect noble man’ the well-known Greek expression, ‘Kalos Kagathos’, handsome and good man; the many different translations available implicitly express their discomfort before this notion. One of the consequences of modernity’s development was the progressive, but not full, disappearance of the social category of the ‘perfect noble man’ that had some echoes in other European languages. Only, the English ‘gentleman’ has kept up, but with great losses to the original meaning. The handsome and good man, is the noble man, who accomplishes beautiful and good deeds; he regards himself like on a uplifting duty, who passes before any selfish interest the fulfilment of his duty towards his city-state (‘city’ in the classical meaning).

It is essentially the man of honor; without the heroism we have a tendency to add to it; one must not see in him a ‘moral’ man in the sense of a strict individual moral or Kantian. The ‘Kalos Kagathos’ wasn’t exceptional, even if he never was a majority in the Athenian city-state. He is the moral man engaged towards his political community, eager for the common good more than his own, but also a man that wasn’t not always living ‘tragically’ the conflicts between his material interests and the general interest. We can see that the analysis of the content of the notion ‘kalos kagathos’ could be pursued further on. It is, in a certain manner, the analysis that is carried out in Xenophon’s ‘Oeconomicus’. But also, this analysis is made in silence, or ‘in actions’ by Socrates. Some speeches are greater than actions while a single speech could eminently be an action.

Socrates is the perfect noble man and he was allowing those who were following him to progress on the path leading to the ‘perfect noble man’. But Socrates is not the ‘perfect noble man’ in the sense Ischomachos, ambiguous character, allowed him to understand what this notion meant-Ischomachos who is his interlocutor in the greatest part of the dialog. There is the ‘perfect noble man’ who is not a philosopher, and in the greater sense a ‘political’ philosopher. And there is Socrates, the ultimate ‘perfect noble man’. Socrates is the ultimate ‘perfect noble man’ because he is a political philosopher; the philosopher that does not look with contempt the human affairs. This philosopher looks at the political questions and the opinions that express the trends and tensions of the city-state as a steppingstone he did not chose but was given to him and he must accept if he wants to be a political philosopher, that is if he wants to understand human affairs. The difference is invisible, or rather strangely visible. Without any doubts, a character like Ischomachos would not look at Socrates who became the ‘perfect noble man’ (because in the Oeconomicus, he has not yet reached this status; or, that’s what he pretends). He would rather see him as a parasite, a beggar, like a man intrinsically unjust. On the other hand, though, some non-philosophers who are not his companions, and who are not of the greatest minds, may look at him, for a brief moment it is true, as a ‘perfect noble man’.

The problem of the ‘perfect noble man’ nature of Socrates is then the specificity of Socrates’s philosophical activity, that is the specificity of political philosophy itself. But this theme, and Xenophon’s Socratic writings in particular allows us to apprehend it in an appropriate manner, being also the place of moral in the Socratic teaching. Often, too often, out of a modern moral that expresses an easy and not so well thought of intellectual conformism, we speak of Socrates like the person who introduced rationality in moral. Nothing is more certain. First of all, it is not certain at all that there is always rationality in moral. On the other hand, it is not certain at all also that the philosopher’s moral can be put on the same level of the non-philosophers’. There is a contemporary trend to trivialize philosophy, or reversely to valorize popular opinions that does not do justice to neither philosophy nor the ‘common natural’ sense. Socrates’ moral is not a philosophical moral, that maybe does not exist, as much as it is necessary to establish philosophically moral. The need to ground moral within philosophy (like in particular with Kant) appears precisely in the frame of a philosophy who broke away with the Socratic frame. Modern philosophy cut itself of classical philosophy, that is claims to have outweighed. On the other hand, our discontent before the results of modern philosophy can lead us to look classical philosophy with less contempt, better, to ask us if we did look up to now upon classical philosophy as utterly outweighed only because we looked at it with the eyes modern philosophy induces us. In this perspective, we see it again, historical studies are a liberation path of present-day opinions.

Political common sense, the ‘moral’ intrinsic to political life, does not need philosophy, let it be Socratic, to dispense great and noble actions. Classical political philosophy, precisely the one Socrates was the inventor, the initiator, does not brake away from common senses, in the manner that modern philosophy will do, it fits the movement of political life and it pursues it in such a way that it seems that this very movement leads to the philosophical questions: ‘What is?’, the questions typically Socratic.

Classical political philosophy tries to arbitrate the inner tensions intrinsic to all political life. The ‘perfect noble man’ stays prisoner of the political life of his city-state; Socrates rises to the question of the nature of political things, which allows him to relativize all the positions regarding a good that overweigh any relative position, to ponder in such manner upon ‘a better political order’. This is more Plato’s making than Xenophon’s. All is happening like Xenophon, alike Thucydides-but in a different manner-stays within a horizon defined by the point of view of natural common sense regarding political things. We can also say that Xenophon is holding a middle position between Plato and Thucydides-Plato obviously trespassing the horizon of political life in order to ask the question of the better political regime, everywhere and always, Thucydides staying himself at the level of political life without never  rising above towards the universal, but having us feel the universal in particular actions, and Xenophon shows us what are justice, speech, Socrates’ actions and silent considerations in his common and concrete conversations with his friends, his companions, his associates and his ‘true friends’. Xenophon therefore is here closer to natural common sense that Plato, seemingly being more prisoner of it. All his writing skills holds in this appearance. But Strauss shows us that Xenophon’s ‘naïve’ appearance is only an facade, behind or in which modern commentators do not trouble themselves to seek more, making them look upon him with clear contempt.

Xenophon is more interesting than what is said today, richer and the contemporary reader could discover many important things useful for our time by reading Xenophon. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the proper Socratic questions were asked only because Socrates was conscious of his ignorance. Socrates’ wisdom, purely human wisdom, in opposition to the more than human wisdom of those, sophists or common citizens, pretend knowing what is just and pious without ever having examined them, starts and finishes with the ‘I know that I don’t know’, by a zetetic skepticism. Socrates’ philosophy is in no way dogmatic, it is the attitude of the seeker who never stops seeking.

Leo Strauss, picture copyrighted by the New York Times.
Olivier Sedeyn
More about Leo Strauss: / More about Oliver Sedeyn:
‘Kalos Kagathos’ or Xenophon’s Socratic Definition of Philosophy

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