Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations of Leadership in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus

  Sandridge, Norman B. 2012. Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations of Leadership in Xenophon's Education of Cyrus. Hellenic Studies Series 55. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_SandridgeN.Loving_Humanity_Learning_and_Being_Honored.2012.

Chapter 5. Five Problems with Loving to Learn

Prima facie the love of learning should be the least problematic of any leadership trait. Obviously all leaders need to know things and pay attention to things in order to help their followers, but this is not all that a love of learning in the context of leadership entails. A love of learning can be distracting: fascinating subjects unrelated to ethics and politics might cause the leader to lose interest in the mundane affairs of state. The leader might be so learned as to become clever, manipulative, or revolutionary. Intelligence might make the leader unintelligible to the followers. Finally, all the time spent in the library and away from the gymnasium might render the leader physically weak, cowardly, or contemptuous of the “less-sophisticated” followers.

Studying what Matters

Many problems for leaders who “love to learn” are illustrated by Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in the Clouds (c. 416 B.C.E.). In the play, Socrates heads the “Thinkery” (Phrontisterion), an institution bearing a rough resemblance to a modern university. As the “headmaster,” Socrates has been invested with most of the trappings of a fifth-century sophist, “a man, usually a foreigner, who possessed arcane knowledge and had untraditional, often counter-intuitive ideas, and who offered to teach these to anyone who could afford the high tuition fees.” [1] He has been tasked by Strepsiades, an Athenian farmer, to help him use clever language to escape his creditors at court. As soon as he arrives at the Thinkery, Strepsiades learns that its members are not very interested in issues relevant to the lives of the average citizen. Instead they study trivial things like {97|98} the distance a flea can hop or the nominal forms of the male and female duck. [2] The problem from a leadership perspective is that Socrates and his associates are not interested in the knowledge of leadership, namely, politics and ethics. [3] The historical Socrates himself seems to have been done in by the perception that he was interested more in astronomy, cosmology, or metaphysics. [4]

No doubt with Socrates in mind, Plato notes that even the leader’s apparent fascination with irrelevant subjects could be a liability. In his famous ship-of-state allegory in the Republic, he explains that the would-be captain, who understands how astronomy may be used properly to guide the ship, will be misunderstood and criticized as a “star-gazer” by the ignorant crew (488b–e).

The study of irrelevant subjects was characteristic of actual political leaders as well. Plutarch recounts an anecdote from the life of Pericles, in which the Athenian statesman and his sophist friends spend an evening debating the exact cause of death of a man who had accidentally been hit with a javelin. They wonder whether it was the thrower of the javelin, the javelin itself, or the men who had instituted such games (Life of Pericles 36). Their concern is less with the fact that an innocent person has died than with an academic question of causality.

Learning as a Means to an End

It is not enough for a statesman to study subjects relating to leadership. The leader must also be willing to apply this knowledge to acts of governance; that is to say, the knowledge of leadership must be a means to an end. Plato intends for the Philosopher King to receive an education that includes both practical knowledge, for example, of warfare, and that is conducive to understanding the Forms of things. The study of mathematics serves both ends (Republic 525b). Additionally, the Philosopher King is naturally interested in justice and other virtues because they are a means to understanding the nature of the Good. Yet, as Socrates readily admits, such an interest would not make the Philosopher King want to carry out the daily routines of political life. Even the courageous ruler who is deeply curious about the nature of the polis may not want to return to “Plato’s cave,” as it were, and submit to the labor of command. Only by compulsion or out of gratitude will the Philosopher King actually engage in leading (519c–521a). The true lover of wisdom would not be willing to become sullied by the practice of mundane politics, as he is not a lover of ruling nor a lover of honor. Such a leader would disdain the effort either of fending off those devoted to falsehood (sophists) or of persuading followers with noble lies.

Again, because Cyrus takes pleasure in winning honor and helping others, he is keen to apply his knowledge of leadership to these ends without any societal pressure. And, for another reason we will see below (p. 104), Cyrus does not face the obstacles to governance that the Philosopher King would. {99|100}

Teaching over Manipulation

Cyrus is also not guilty of what many sophists of the late fifth- and early fourth-century were accused of, namely, using their esoteric learning to manipulate their fellow citizens and subvert conventional morality. This problem appears in the Clouds when Strepsiades sends his more educable son, Pheidippides, to the Thinkery, where they teach pupils to win arguments by speaking justly and unjustly (98–99). There, Pheidippides learns how to make the good argument sound bad and the bad argument good (112–118). With the confidence that he can behave as he wishes, he denies the existence and authority of Zeus, beats his father, and then sets out to beat his mother (1321–1442).

In the Cyropaedia, after Cyrus overtakes the Armenians and puts their king on trial, he then assumes the role of both the prosecutor and judge. Tigranes, educated by a sophist, plays the role of the defendant. Instead of being manipulated, Cyrus, who is trained in matters of justice, listens to Tigranes’ points and asks questions along the way. In the end, he does not execute the king but forges a lasting alliance with the Armenians.

We should pause here and note that Xenophon seems naïve in advancing this view. At the very least, he has idealized the society in which Cyrus operates. Cyrus’ Persian peers share his training in matters of justice and thus should be able to detect a specious argument and hold a manipulative leader in check. Are all communities so effective at ferreting out an imposter? Xenophon’s Socrates seems to think so: he gives Critobulus the same advice that Cambyses gives Cyrus, that the quickest path to seeming good at something is to be good at it and that it is hard to pretend a reputation for being, say, parsimonious or cautious (Memorabilia 2.6.39). {100|101}

Loving Learning without Softness

As we have already seen (p. 32), Xenophon addresses the temptations to luxury and softness from Cyrus’ early youth. Cyrus is offered sumptuous meats at his grandfather’s Medan table, but passes them up, having been trained in self-mastery (enkrateia) in the Persian agôgê. The young Cyrus also shows a “killer instinct” both in the hunt and on the battlefield. His curiosity does not lead him down a path of cowardice or physical weakness. Even during symposia and dinner parties, which are the best occasions to indulge in food and pleasure (and to entertain philosophical questions of no practical significance), Cyrus makes sure that his comrades engage in discussion that is both whimsical and serious but always edifying (cf. καὶ γελοῖα καὶ σπουδαῖα, Xenophon says that Cyrus always makes sure that the topics are delightful and conducive to something good (

Enriching the Monarchy with Democratic Learning

One point that Plato makes explicitly and implicitly in his writing on leadership is that it requires knowledge and superior intelligence that are not possessed by many members of the community. In the Statesman, the Young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger acknowledge this rarity:

Stranger: Do you think that any considerable number of men in a particular city will be capable of acquiring the art of Statesmanship?

Young Socrates: That is quite out of the question. {101|102}

Stranger: In a city with a population of a thousand, could a hundred, say, acquire it satisfactorily—or could fifty, perhaps?

Young Socrates: Statesmanship would be the easiest of the arts if so many could acquire it. We know quite well that there would never be fifty first-class draughts players among a thousand inhabitants—that is, not if they were judged by proper inter-Hellenic standards. How much less can you expect to find fifty kings! For according to our former argument it is only the man possessed of the art of kingship who must be called a king, though he is just as much a king when he is not in power as when he is.

Stranger: You have very rightly recalled that point. I think it follows that if the art of government is to be found in this world at all in its pure form, it will be found in possession of one or two, or at most, of a select few.

Statesman 292e–293a, translation Skemp

It is clear from the surrounding discussion that this “art” of statesmanship consists of a kind of knowledge, like that of a physician or a weaver, of coalescing various members of the state into harmony and friendship (Statesman 258b, 311c). Such a statesman, the Stranger explains, can even transcend the law, so long as he acts for the good of the city:

The constitution par excellence, the only constitution worthy of the name, must be the one in which the rulers are not men making a show of political cleverness but men really possessed of scientific understanding of the art of government. Then we must not take into consideration on any sound principle of judgment whether their rule be by laws or without them over willing or unwilling subjects or whether they themselves be rich or poor men.

Statesman 293c, translation Skemp

All of these assumptions about the leader’s knowledge and understanding lie at the heart of the justification for monarchical and aristocratic forms of government. Thucydides seems to think it was a positive condition for his city-state that Athens was in name a democracy but in fact ruled by its brilliant first citizen, Pericles (Histories 2.65.9). In the famous constitutional debate in Herodotus, seven Persians who have just revolted to reclaim the Persian throne from the Medan imposter discuss the relative merits of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. One speaker, Megabyzus, argues against democracy:

Whatever a tyrant does, he does knowingly, but the masses do not know one thing. For how can they know, they who have never been taught nor observed a noble thing for themselves, but rush headlong into their affairs without sense like a river in winter?

Herodotus Histories 3.81


Cyrus’ philomatheia is generally not a problem for him in the ways that it was for other learned leaders of Xenophon’s time, whether real or hypothetical. The love of learning for Cyrus is focused on politics and ethics; it is practical, sincere, physically healthy, and fairly democratic. To say that Xenophon portrays Cyrus as “democratic” in his approach to learning is not to say that he completely solves all the problems of the leader’s thirst for knowledge in relation to the followers, however. The question of leadership style boils down to the following question: is the knowledge of leadership more like the understanding of multi-variable calculus (as in Plato’s ideal city-state) or the skill of planting a healthy crop of grain (as in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus)? In other words, is the leader’s {104|105} knowledge academic or agrarian? If the leader and the follower cannot agree on what knowledge of leading looks like, then it would seem that the ruler is perhaps forced to trade in trust (i.e. his reputation, honor, sincerity) or manipulative story-telling. {105|}


[ back ] 1. Henderson 1988:155. Although this description of the sophist is a conventional one, recent work by Tell and others has demonstrated that the meaning of the term is one fashioned by Plato largely to discredit many contemporaries and predecessors for whom no blanket term was apt or consistent. Tell 2011:19 notes several scholars who have argued that in the fifth century the Athenian public did not distinguish sophists from philosophers. As I discuss below, Xenophon uses the term “sophist” in both a positive and negative way. As many have noted, Tigranes’ sophist in the Cyropaedia is very much a (philosophical) Socratic figure.

[ back ] 2. Clouds 142–147, 558–697. Plato, too, observes that there are those who love to learn about certain things (like sights and sounds) who are not possessed of true wisdom or knowledge of the Good (Republic 475d).

[ back ] 3. At most they are interested in the political advancement of their pupils (cf. 431–432, 876).

[ back ] 4. At the outset of the Memorabilia Xenophon defends Socrates against these charges (1.1.11–16).

[ back ] 5. Cf. Isocrates’ speech Against the Sophists.

[ back ] 6. That Xenophon could hold a negative view of sophists is clear from his remarks at On Hunting 13.8. In the Cyropaedia, Araspas blames Eros, the “unjust sophist,” for causing him to fall in love with Pantheia, presumably because Eros had given him the tools to rationalize the apparent limitations of his self-control (6.1.41).

[ back ] 7. There is a textual ambiguity here: it is not clear whether the sophist is assuring Tigranes (1) that his father bears Tigranes no ill will (kakonoia) or (2) that his father does not possess ill-will at all because he is acting out of ignorance in believing that the sophist poses a threat to the father. In either case, his “Socratean” serenity is apparent.

[ back ] 8. Breebaart 1983:120–121 argues that Cyrus’ manipulation of his followers in creating a palace for himself in Babylon arises from a monarchical necessity—not from Cyrus’ own tyrannical impulse.

[ back ] 9. Clouds 103. Henderson 1988 on this scene notes that Chaerophon was nicknamed “The Bat” for his slender body and pale complexion.

[ back ] 10. In the Protagoras , Plato has Protagoras make the opposite argument that political questions may be decided democratically because all human beings have been invested with a sense of shame (aidôs) and right (dikê) by Zeus (322c–323c).

[ back ] 11. Cf. Reeve 1988:183.

[ back ] 12. Oedipus the King 390–403. Oedipus’ privileged understanding of the gods is emphasized by the Chorus Leader (Oedipus the King 31–57).

[ back ] 13. Cf. πολλὴν ὑπεροψίαν … καὶ περιφρόνησιν τῶν ἄλλων, Life of Pericles 5.3. Stadter 1991a challenges the assumption that Pericles was more affiliated with sophistic teachers than other leaders in his day. He proposes the alternative that Pericles gained a reputation for being something of a “Philosopher King” in the wake of Plato’s work.

[ back ] 14. Clouds 219ff. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates regrets that Aristophanes’ portrayal gave him such a bad reputation (19b–d).

[ back ] 15. For further aspects of Cyrus as dêmotikos, see p. 35n39.