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Xenophon’s Socratic Cameos-About Imposture in Politics

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey – Cult of Kosmos still.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is our continuations of Xenophon posts, with here an excerpt again from his ‘Memorabilia’, Book 1, chapter 6 and 7. Translated by Otis Johnson Todd (1883-1952), Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. 1923, digitization by the Perseus Project funded by The Annenberg/CPB Project, public under a Creative Commons Attribution.

Are our political leaders legitimate? Are they qualified for service? Are their virtues the reasons why we chose them to govern upon us? Here Xenophon offers one of his great cameos about Socrates on this subject. Enjoy!


§ 1.6.15  ‘On yet another occasion Antiphon asked him: How can you suppose that you make politicians of others, when you yourself avoid politics even if you understand them?

How now, Antiphon? he retorted, should I play a more important part in politics by engaging in them alone or by taking pains to turn out as many competent politicians as possible?

§ 1.7.1  Let us next consider whether by discouraging imposture he encouraged his companions to cultivate virtue. For he always said that the best road to glory is the way that makes a man as good as he wishes to be thought. And this was how he demonstrated the truth of this saying:

§ 1.7.2  Suppose a bad flute-player wants to be thought a good one, let us note what he must do. Must he not imitate good players in the accessories of the art? First, as they wear fine clothes and travel with many attendants, he must do the same. Further, seeing that they win the applause of crowds, he must provide himself with a large claque. But, of course, he must never accept an engagement, or he will promptly expose himself to ridicule as an incompetent player and an impostor to boot. And so, what with incurring heavy expense and gaining nothing, and bringing disgrace on himself as well, he will make his life burdensome, unprofitable and ridiculous.

§ 1.7.3  So too if a man who is not a general or a pilot wanted to be thought a good one, let us imagine what would happen to him. If his efforts to seem proficient in these duties failed to carry conviction, would not his failure be galling to him? if they succeeded, would not his success be still more disastrous? for it is certain that if a man who knew nothing about piloting a ship or commanding an army were appointed to such work, he would lose those whom he least wanted to lose and would bring ruin and disgrace on himself.

§ 1.7.4  By similar reasoning he would show how unprofitable is a reputation for wealth or courage or strength when it is undeserved. Tasks beyond their powers, he would say, are laid on the incompetent, and no mercy is shown to them when they disappoint the expectation formed of their capability.

§ 1.7.5  The man who persuades you to lend him money or goods and then keeps them is without doubt a rogue; but much the greatest rogue of all is the man who has gulled his city into the belief that he is fit to direct it.

For my part I thought that such talks did discourage imposture among his companions.’

Pericles speaking on the Pnyx; wall painting by Philipp von Foltz (1860).


Xenophon’s Socratic Cameos-About Imposture in Politics

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