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The Joy of Living

By: Keith Whitaker
August 28, 2018

homas Pangle’s new interpretation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia immediately invites—how could it do otherwise?—comparison with his teacher, Leo Strauss’, late work, Xenophon’s Socrates. Pangle cites many points of agreement, and difference too. But one massive difference strikes the reader from the first page to the last: the stunning depth and breadth of scholarship that surrounds and supports Pangle’s work—extending to his own reexamination of the manuscripts. If Strauss’ book was dismissed (by some) as unscholarly, Pangle’s never can be.

Pangle, the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, does not marshal this scholarship to show off. The Socratic Way of Life reveals an author in complete command of his material, deploying it with confidence to his desired end.

What is that end? As the title indicates, to depict the Socratic way of life. Not so much the life of the “historical” Socrates, but the life of the philosopher. Not this or that “philosophy” (Cynic or Stoic or modern or post-modern), but the life of philosophy per se. This task entails asking, What is this life? What are its ambitions? And is it, as so many of its defenders claim, truly the best life for a human being?

Pangle shows that Xenophon is a particularly helpful guide in tackling these questions, especially the question of the goodness of this life. Consider the difference between Xenophon’s treatment of Socrates and Plato’s. Pangle makes a convincing case that Xenophon read Plato’s work before writing his Memorabilia: “his oeuvre as a whole presupposes, and complements, the Platonic oeuvre.” In this way, Pangle sets up a crucial point of difference between the two authors: “Xenophon left it to Plato to construct a poetically sublime and even quasi-religious version of the more scientific and ‘metaphysical’ dimensions of Socratic thought and life” [emphasis added]. Why is this so important? First, it underscores the different reader Xenophon was seeking: not someone who is looking for a hero or idol. It would be pretty tough (to say the least) to assimilate his Socrates to the likes of Jesus or Martin Luther King. Second, it points to a vastly different effect. By saying nothing about the forms or ideas or “the Cave,” Xenophon’s Socrates does not accentuate the distance between the philosopher and the rest of mankind. To exaggerate the point, Xenophon does not diminish humanity by setting up the philosopher as a god.

Xenophon’s corpus underscores this point: the Memorabilia and the three other Socratic dialogues form a large part of this corpus, but they are not the whole. Socrates contends for the mantle of the best life most notably with Cyrus the Great, but also with, among others, the poet Simonides and “the orator,” Xenophon himself. In his Socratic dialogues, Xenophon shows himself having only one conversation with his teacher—and in that conversation he disagrees with Socrates about no small matter (love). In contrast, while Plato’s dialogues include other impressive characters (e.g., the Eleatic Stranger, Timaeus, the old Parmenides), they have only one hero. And Plato never shows himself in conversation with, much less contradicting, his master.

While distinguishing Xenophon from Plato in this and other ways, Pangle prepares another surprise, which also bears on the question of the aims and goodness of the philosophic life: the deep connection between Xenophon and the comic poet Aristophanes. True, Plato’s Socrates said that Aristophanes’ Clouds cemented the “old prejudice” against him as a natural scientist—that is, an unbeliever. But one might call it the special mission of Pangle’s interpretation to draw attention to the deeply comic nature of Xenophon’s work. He repeatedly refers to Xenophon or his writing as “comic,” “playful,” “ironic,” “impish,” “puckish,” even “jocoserious.” He argues that at places Xenophon is “pulling our leg” or speaking “tongue in cheek,” “lightheartedly” presenting his Socrates as “roguishly tricky.”

The “humorless” 19th century classicists, the “tight-laced Kierkegaard,” and many others since then would draw up their eyebrows in surprise. In response, here’s an example of Xenophon’s playful-serious art. It’s a small one, but concerns a tall order: to prove that Socrates did more than just “turn” people towards virtue (from which they might then easily “turn” away). To prove this point, Xenophon shows Socrates reproving his follower Aristodemus for his apparent impious neglect of worshipping the gods. Socrates gets Aristodemus to acknowledge that his apparent impiety rests in a “transcivic,” even “cosmic” piety, a belief in rational gods that, however, are so far above us that they pay no attention to human needs or prayers. That’s something. But, compared to the goal Xenophon set, Socrates’ attempt seems to have come up short. Pangle calls Xenophon’s attempt “puckishly” tentative. He adds, “having been nicknamed ‘Shorty,’ as Xenophon tells us, Aristodemus evidently has found no sign in his own life of being cared for by divinity!” No doubt Xenophon chose this anecdote with care, and a smile.

Pangle doesn’t simply connect Xenophon with Aristophanes because both are funny. The two actually share a serious message. What Aristophanes’ serious message is, is a large question, which Pangle alludes to by directing readers to Strauss’ work, Socrates and Aristophanes. Pangle helps us see that Xenophon, as a thinker and author, stands at some critical distance from Socrates’ “officious” sermons on austerity, calisthenics, or not kissing beautiful boys. To be sure, Xenophon does not paint Socrates as a prude: part of his comedy involves giving stage-time to Socrates’s chumming around with the charming playboy Critobulus. At the same time, Xenophon says enough to raise questions: In its austerity, its mistrust of the wiles of eros, in its independence, does the philosophical life miss some substantial enjoyment of food and drink, love, and laughter? Does it, perhaps unthinkingly, pretend to a quasi-divinity? Is Aristophanes right: was Socrates a boaster?

Pangle also suggests a way in which Xenophon may have outdone the master comic. One thing Aristophanes could not do in his Clouds was dramatize Socrates’ charm. A smelly, shoeless scientist is funny; a charming apologist for beating your father is not. And so, Socrates’ most decisive instruction of his pupils takes place offstage. In contrast, Xenophon uses irony, exaggeration, and various other comic means to allure his reader, to lead one to a playfully serious consideration of the Socratic life.

Pangle demonstrates Xenophon’s artfulness in the place where Aristophanes makes Socrates look ugliest: the gods. Pangle notes that Xenophon’s emphasis, at the beginning and end of the Memorabilia, on Socrates’ piety is comically exaggerated. Yes, Socrates worshipped the city’s gods in the conventional, legally-required ways. He counseled his companions to be “moderate” regarding the gods. He presented himself in such a way as to attract companions who were “seriously perplexed” about divine revelation—not outright atheists. Still, Xenophon supplies plenty of evidence that Socrates’ beliefs were hardly conventional. What allowed him to hold those beliefs—and live the way he did—without apparent concern that he was thereby bringing down the gods’ extreme and eternal displeasure on his head?

Pangle asks us to consider the following: does Xenophon show that Socrates found his interlocutors’ attempts to puzzle out what they mean by “noble” reveal some part, some excess, some “good” that exceeds the “useful” or “pleasant”—and, further, quite unprompted by Socrates, that the interlocutors’ impassioned attachment to this excess brings with it a host of beliefs regarding prayer, the nature of the divine, virtue, honor, and “immortal blessedness”? “Does Socrates confirm, through observing the spiritual evolution that his admirers who are ‘best for him’ undergo, as a consequence of following and truly ‘drinking in’ his analysis of the kalon, the validity of his own, earlier, spiritual-religious ‘conversion’” [emphasis in original]?

Alas, I fear this brief summary does violence to Pangle’s presentation by making Socrates’ discoveries appear preordained and conclusive. Rather, Pangle stresses the importance of repeated confirmation, and he does so by repeatedly posing the reader questions. What is the noble? Does, say, a soldier understand his noble deed (his self-sacrifice) as bad for himself (though good for the city)? Or does he see it as best for himself, the summit of his flourishing? Does ruling in a noble, virtuous fashion enact the ruler’s own greatest good? Does Virtue-personified turn to the gods because She, on her own, cannot make the life of self-sacrifice choiceworthy? “Is this not something of the greatest importance that we desperately need to sort out if we are to know what we live (and die) for, at our best?”

This is, by the way, the proper place to acknowledge that my misunderstanding of Pangle’s approach led me to misrepresent his book on Genesis in these very pages (CRB Winter 2003). There I asserted that by examining similar puzzles in the Biblical presentation of justice Pangle invited the conclusion, “No justice, no God.” This is wrong; Pangle did not make or “invite” any such conclusion. A contradiction (if that is what we find there) does not invalidate the contradictory terms, only their conjunction. It raises questions rather than lays down conclusions. Such questioning is the heart of Socratic dialectic. To claim that, in this case, the result is “No justice”—much less, “No God”—would render attention to natural right and the question, “Quid sit deus?” absurd. I apologize to Pangle for mischaracterizing his earlier work.

But while speaking of sacrifice, let me share one other surprise Pangle has in store for readers in the final pages of his interpretation of the Memorabilia. One of the great questions of the work—a question Xenophon himself raises—is, How could Socrates have let himself be executed? After all, does not Xenophon say that Socrates could “do whatever he liked” with others in dialogue? Or if perhaps he couldn’t (and Xenophon also impishly shows many examples in this book where he couldn’t), didn’t he have his daimonion, which would ward off harm? Why, then, did he obviously inflame the jury against himself? Did he know his own intellectual resources were failing? Was this a case of judicially-assisted suicide? That would seem most unfair to the jury. Alternatively, if he was not failing but possibly had years more of delightful progress in understanding left, why cut short his own life? Did Socrates sacrifice himself, “martyr” himself, “for philosophy”? Was this the culmination of his own noble “project”?

The short answer is, No. The full answer requires some niceness of judgment, and, again, comic sympathies. Pangle hypothesizes that Socrates himself knew of Xenophon’s (and others’) literary efforts to depict his life. Further, he hypothesizes that this knowledge, combined with the awareness that his powers would likely fade soon—perhaps without his awareness of their fading—led Socrates to sacrifice his remaining life to provide the capstone to his students’ efforts. In other words, Socrates, who never wrote a word, composed the dramatic ending to his own “story.” I would add, based on the evidence Pangle adduces (though he himself does not say this), that if Socrates were indicted ten or 15 years earlier, the story would perhaps have had a very different ending.