Leah Kronenberg- Plato & Xenophon: A Socratic Defense Of Philosophical Life

Mosaïque de l’Académie de Platon. Mosaïque romaine du 1er siècle avant J.-C. (provenance : Pompéi). Emplacement actuel : Museo Nazionale Archologico, Naples


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Leah Kronenberg’s book, ‘Allegories of farming from Greece and Rome; philosophical satire in Xenophon, Varro, and Virgil’, end of chapter 2. from pages 66 to 72. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

The lesson of the Republic seems to be that true politics, just like true oikonomia, can only exist in the context of philosophy and philosophical community. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, far from being a polemical response to the Republic, presents a similar critique of political life and a corresponding defense of the life of philosophy.


Roscalla (1990) has called the Oeconomicus a polemical response to Plato’s Republic , and from antiquity till today, it has been assumed that Xenophon and Plato were rivals in their differing presentations of Socratic philosophy and in their attitudes towards politics and economics. I hope to have shown that Xenophon’s Socrates has much in common with Plato’s in his “anti-economic” stance, and that Xenophon’s Oeconomicus is not a standard tract on ancient household management. Instead, through the metaphorical employment of oikonomia, Xenophon examines the ethics and politics of Athens (and beyond) to show that Socrates was the only true teacher of virtue and to cast doubt on the virtue of conventional political life, whether in city-states like Athens or in empires like Persia. In addition, I would suggest that Xenophon’s Oeconomicus is not a polemical response to the Republic of Plato but instead a complementary work that emphasizes many of the same themes and that ultimately questions the possibility of finding justice in political regimes. I will briefly lay out some of the similarities I see between the two works in order to provide further potential evidence for common ground between Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socratic teachings.

Like the Oeconomicus, the Republic is a bifurcated work: it begins with a familiar type of Socratic dialogue on the nature of justice (book 1), which, just like the opening dialogue of the Oeconomicus, some schol- ars have argued was composed separately (and earlier). This introduction (357a) is then followed by an unfamiliar type of Socratic exposition, often called “middle Plato” in its philosophical style, in which Socrates seems to set forth concrete suggestions for an ideal state (kallipolis). Also like the Oeconomicus, the Republic has been interpreted in drastically different ways depending on how literally the “second” part is read. The traditional approach has been to read books 2–10 as if Socrates is putting forth seriously intended, positive doctrine, just as the orthodox approach to the Oeconomicus has been to take Socrates-as-Ischomachus at his word. I find more persuasive those readings of the Republic which treat it as a philosophical drama, whose teaching resides less in how the ideal city is put together, than in how it eventually falls apart.

On this reading, the Socrates of the second part of the Republic essentially takes on the dual role of Socrates and Ischomachus and puts forth positive doctrine that collapses upon itself. Just as Socrates in the Oeconomicus lets Critobulus’ misguided ambitions shape their dialogue and teaches Critobulus what not to value by creating an extreme image, in the figure of Ischomachus, of Critobulus’ mistaken ideals, so in the Republic, Socrates is guided by the faulty ambitions of Plato’s brothers, Adeimantus and, particularly, Glaucon. Like Critobulus, they are trapped in the material world of conventional values, and they readily agree to Socrates’ suggestion that justice might be more clearly understood if they examine a “big” version of it in the city and then apply their findings to the soul (368e– 369b). Thus, they assent to a proposal that treats justice as if it were a physical quality that can be magnified and reduced, but whether this is the appropriate method for seeking justice is left in doubt.

Socrates first discusses the origin of the city (369b–372c) in a way that is reminiscent of Ischomachus’ discussion of the origin of the household (Oec. 7.17–28). Just as Ischomachus’ household was organized by a division of labor to compensate for the fact that every individual is not self-sufficient, so the origin of the city is based on physical need and a lack of self- sufficiency; thus, a division of labor develops to meet these needs (369b). Like Ischomachus’ ideal oikos, this first city, which Socrates calls the “true” and “healthy” city (372e), is essentially like a beehive in its careful organization and economic structure. Glaucon, however, calls it a city of pigs and rejects it because it does not cater to the human desires for luxurious living (372d–e). Because of Glaucon’s objection, the “luxurious city” 372e, is born, and, with it, the need for war to fight with neighbors for resources (373d–e). This is the city that becomes Kallipolis (named in 527c); thus, as Clay has noted, “Kallipolis has its foundation in an act of injustice. It is this act of aggrandizement and the warfare it provokes that makes the guardian caste necessary to Socrates’ fully evolved city, and it is with this caste that Kallipolis is so naturally identified.” Just as farming was closely linked to war in the Oeconomicus, so is the “ideal” city of the Republic. Indeed, the entire structure of the city is generated by the need to control the desires for material gain and pleasure unleashed by Glaucon and to get back to the “healthy” equilibrium of the city of pigs. Kallipolis’ ideal is Ischomachus’, namely perfect physical order, and the language of morality is applied to whatever is conducive to this order.

Socrates’ definition of justice, which is the purpose of this whole exercise in founding a city, comes as something of an anti-climax:

For what we were legislating from the beginning about what always must be done, when we were founding the city, this, it seems to me, or some form of this, is justice. Surely we were laying down and often said, if you remember, that it is necessary for each individual to take care of one of the needs of the city, whatever his nature was most suited to do.

Yes, we said that.

And furthermore that to do one’s own work and to not be a busybody is justice, and this we have heard from many other people and we ourselves have often said.

Yes, we have said that.

This, therefore, I said, dear friend, is probably justice, when it exists in a certain way, to do one’s own work.”

Socrates’ proposed definition, when interpreted literally and in the con- text of the city he has just described, is thoroughly Ischomachean and conventional, a fact that is underscored by his admission that this definition has been “heard from many other people.” Yet, as always, Socrates adds further possible dimensions to his words via qualifications of his definition (e.g. “it seems to me, or some form of this,” 433a) and the use of vague words that can be interpreted in vastly different ways. For now, however, he sticks with the conventional understanding of this definition and represents it with an image of the three classes of their proposed city, namely the money-making, warrior, and guardian class, each doing its job (434c).

Socrates increases the strangeness of equating justice with this mundane description of doing one’s own job by now trying to apply that model to the soul. The city-soul analogy in book 4 is notorious for its difficulties, which have been pointed out even by those who read Plato doctrinally. More importantly, however, they are pointed out by Socrates himself when he says it is unlikely they will understand the makeup of the soul with these methods and that there is another longer road to understanding the soul (435d). Glaucon, however, is quite content to continue with the present methods, and so Socrates carries on to give an account of the tripartite soul, with justice consisting of each part of the soul, i.e. the calculating, spirited, and desiring part, performing its own task (435e–443b). Without giving an exhaustive list of the noted problems with the city-soul analogy, I will mention some of the main problematic implications of the tripartite scheme, as summarized by Roochnik (2003): “Either there are totally irrational, and hence nonhuman, beings in the city and a totally irrational or nonhuman part in the soul, as well . . . or the scheme suffers Bobonich’s ‘deep problem’ and Williams’s ‘absurdity’ that is, it generates an infinite expansion of ‘parts’ within the soul”.

In addition, Roochnik notes the further correlation that “if reason and desire are counted as distinct parts, then it becomes impossible to account for the passionate desire for wisdom – that is, for philosophy itself ”.

As if to acknowledge these flaws, Socrates finishes his discussion of the tripartite city and soul by calling it a “dream”, 443b and “an image of justice”, 443c. Real justice is still not in their grasp, and the quarry they thought they had trapped has escaped.

It seems, then, that justice is not as simple a matter as physical harmony, and, even if it were, physical order is always liable to degeneration, a point which the Republic also underscores. For instance, despite all of the city’s extreme legislation that is designed to prevent factionalism and increase stability, including the infamous “noble lie,” rigid education programs, the complete restructuring of family life, and the institution of philosopher- kings, Socrates indicates the extreme fragility of this political order when he attributes its demise to a small mistake in the calculation of the proper season for breeding (546a–d). He puts this collapse in the context of the natural order: everything that comes to be also passes way (546a), and Kallipolis will be no different, no matter how hard it struggles to control eros. This was also the lesson that Xenophon taught in his studies of the eventual declines of Persia, Sparta, and the Persian-Spartan household of Ischomachus.

More important than the physical flaws in Kallipolis are the moral ones. Already in books 2–4, the citizens of Kallipolis have been reduced to animals. As Saxonhouse (1978) notes, “Socrates’ city parallels comedy as it transforms the members of its guardian class from individuals with the potential for private virtue into the inhabitants of a barnyard” (888); “within the educational scheme proper, the guardians are trained like animals and encouraged to become animals” (895). Book 5 increases this animalization of the city by basing the entire defense of the equal treatment of men and women, the abolition of family life, and the institution of eugenic breeding on the model of animals. Socrates thus creates his own version of the Birds and the Ecclesiazusae in Kallipolis, but with ultimately serious intent. I would argue that that intent is not to seriously advocate these proposals as either a practicable or ideal model, as many scholars have assumed, but to undermine them and to point to the inevitable dehumanization of human beings in political life. Kallipolis, even if ruled by philosopher-kings, is ruled by physical needs and desires, and so everyone is enslaved. True philosophers would never willingly enter into a contract with such a city, and Socrates drives this point home by telling Glaucon that the philosopher-kings will have to be forced to be the king bees of this hive. He further explains that the law is concerned only with the harmonious condition of the whole city and not with the individual well- being of each part. Thus, compulsion and persuasion must be utilized to bind the citizens together and force them to benefit each other (519e– 520a). Again, there are strong echoes of Ischomachus’ binding together of his household through persuasion and compulsion for the supposed common good of them all.

The lesson of the Republic seems to be that true politics, just like true oikonomia, can only exist in the context of philosophy and philosophical community. Thus, Socrates’ ideal city might really be constituted by the dialogue itself – not by the specific content of books 2–10, but by the com- munity of speakers in book 1 who help Socrates construct a city in speech. This city of participants in dialogue is a city in which free expression of opinion and conflicting views are valued over repression, poetry is utilized as a learning tool, and eros is allowed to roam free. It is, thus, the exact opposite of the repressive, Sparta-like regime that is supposedly idealized in the rest of the work. It is appropriate, then, that the Republic ends with the Myth of Er, which culminates in the decision of Odysseus to choose the life of the “private, apolitical man”, 620c, over any other kind of life (620c–d). Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, far from being a polemical response to the Republic, presents a similar critique of political life and a corresponding defense of the life of philosophy.


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