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 6. Three Problems with Wanting To Be Honored

The love of being honored is the leadership trait in the ancient Greek world that most resembles high-voltage electricity. As we have seen (pp. 76–77), it is a primary source of Cyrus’ energy and enthusiasm for leadership, but it may also interfere with the wellbeing of the followers. There is no shortage of examples of the tragic consequences of loving to be honored, and it is the quality that receives the most explicit criticism from Xenophon and other authors, especially from Plato, who has a lengthy critique of the trait in the Republic. However much a leader who loves to be honored may sound like a good idea, troubling questions abound: what honors should a leader pursue (all of them?), who should serve as the standard of what is honorable (anyone?), how many risks should be taken to win honor and what kinds (all of them?), by what means should the leader pursue them (by any means necessary?)?

Risking It All—Carefully

The leader who is a lover of honor regularly faces a seemingly impossible dilemma. As we have seen in the case of Cyrus’ superlative traits (1.2.1), philotîmia entails “risking it all,” including personal expense, physical health, and mortal safety. It can also entail sacrifices of leisure time and romance. In battle, leaders are often expected to be “first,” to put themselves on the frontlines of danger in order to fill their men with confidence and inspiration. At the same time the leader is supposed to care about and plan for the long-term wellbeing of the followers, to be a philanthrôpos. In short, the ruler must take greater risks than everyone but do so in such a calculated way as to live long enough to continue to lead. Exactly how to do this is a matter of great import. In a letter to Philip II of Macedon, Isocrates warns the king not to risk himself in the frontlines of battle since his own safety is more important: he must be first in affairs of state more than in the battle charge. In his admonition Isocrates contrasts the prudence {107|108} of the Persian king Xerxes, who retreated after losing to the Greeks, with the recklessness of Cyrus (not Xenophon’s Cyrus), who pursued endless conquest. [1] Isocrates advises Philip to honor a form of courage that does not partake of reckless folly and the “unseasonable love of honor.” [2] In the Memorabilia, Socrates cautions Glaucon that his love of being honored may ruin him by causing him to think that he can lead the entire city of Athens without ever knowing how to manage a single household (3.6.16).

Anyone familiar with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey can find instances where a hero places the love of being honored before all else, rushing recklessly into battle or withdrawing out of wounded pride. As the prime example, Achilles withdraws to his tent after Agamemnon deprives him of his war-prize, Briseis, a decision he later regrets because he both fails to help the Achaeans and loses his dearest friend, Patroclus (Iliad 18.101–106). Hector, too, in a moment of overconfidence, disregards Polydamas’ advice to retreat inside the walls of Troy and prefers the reckless course of dueling with Achilles, a mistake he, too, regrets with shame (Iliad 18.285–314, 22.99–110).

In his youth, Xenophon’s Cyrus shows a reckless pursuit of honor both in the hunt and in his first battle with the Assyrians. When he catches sight of his first animal, he chases it “like someone possessed” and twice almost falls from his horse (1.4.8). Against the Assyrians, he rushes into battle with no consideration for the consequences (cf. ἀπρονοήτως, In what we might call a reckless love of victory (philonîkia), he even gloats over the corpses of the men he has killed, to the disappointment of his grandfather (1.4.24). Though he does not later show any other signs of delight in the slaughter, Cyrus does maintain a somewhat reckless impulse to rush into battle: as his comrades prepare to engage the Assyrians, he forgets to march at a walk and takes off on a run, goading the others to join (3.3.62).

In his adulthood, however, Cyrus’ love of honor is generally held in check by a habitual caution and attentiveness. Instead of showing his love of victory in battle, he is a lover of victory in the practice of “attentive care” or therapeia (8.2.14). Per his father’s advice, Cyrus routinely gathers intelligence reports from others and consults the gods before initiating a battle strategy. Nearing the end of his life, he gives thanks to the gods that he always thought “human thoughts” in times of prosperity (8.7.3), a sign that he has learned from the honor-loving folly of his youth.

Pursuing the Right Honors

In Book Five of the Republic, Socrates argues that someone who is truly a lover of something loves every aspect of that thing. The most obvious example is that of the lover for his beloved: the lover will consider every feature of the beloved as beautiful, warts and all, despite others who may see imperfection and ugliness (474c). Accordingly, the lover of honor (philotîmos) will pursue any honor available, high or low. He will settle for being a captain if he cannot be a general. If he cannot be honored by the great and important, he will settle for the small and insignificant. [12] Later, Socrates describes the hierarchy and degeneration of governments, proceeding from aristocracy to timocracy to oligarchy to democracy and then to tyranny. He explains that a timocracy is largely ruled by those whose spirited part of the soul dominates. The spirited part receives guidance from both the rational and the appetitive parts, but over which the rational part does not retain sole dominion. Accordingly, the spirited part of the soul prefers military affairs to dialectic, philosophy, music, and poetry because the love of honor and the love of victory (philonîkia) are more important (547–548c; cf. 581a). In a description reminiscent of Xenophon’s Cyrus and his interest in the speeches of the sophistically-trained Tigranes, Socrates says that the lover of honor in such a government will love to listen to speeches and argument. Such a leader will base his claim to rule on his physical training, love of hunting, and exploits in war (548e–549a). This person is not bad by nature but highly susceptible to the influence of bad men (550b).

Xenophon describes a similar relationship between the philosopher and politician. As part of his defense of Socrates, he says that Alcibiades and Critias (both pupils of Socrates) surpassed “all Athenians in their love of being honored,” which was the ultimate cause of their downfall (cf. φιλοτιμοτάτω πάντων Ἀθηναίων, Memorabilia 1.2.12–16). Only in Socrates’ company did they show self-restraint (1.2.18), but Xenophon believes that they had the ulterior motive of learning the art of disputation so that they could get the best of their political rivals. They thus abandoned Socrates when they achieved this preeminence.

The fundamentality of the love of honor is even more nuanced than this. While Xenophon says that Cyrus’ love of being honored causes him to take risks and toil (1.2.1), such a course of action itself also seems contingent upon a community that values these qualities. When Cyrus proposes that the Persians divide their spoils according to merit, he challenges them to question whether “the man who is willing to undergo the most toil and the most danger is going to meet also with the greatest honor, or do we think that it makes no difference that a man is a coward? For all will meet with equal honors” (2.3.4).

Clearly, philotîmia in a leader is not enough to produce virtuous behavior. Successful philotîmia requires both a community that bestows the right honors and (somewhat paradoxically) a leader with enough intelligence (or philomatheia) to recognize such a community as well as enough of a concern for the community (philanthrôpia) to pursue honors that are beneficial to it. When we say that philotîmia is fundamental to Xenophon’s Theory of Leadership, we should really {112|113} say that it is a necessary but insufficient part of the foundation, just as sodium is part of the foundation of salt, but by itself does not make food taste better.

Xenophon treats the challenges posed by a flattering community in the example of Croesus, who shows vulnerability akin to Alcibiades’. Croesus allows those around him to convince him that he will become the most renowned general by attacking Cyrus (Cyropaedia 7.2.23). He, too, fails to know himself. Cyrus by contrast is very careful in determining which honors to pursue and accept. Ironically, he often wins greater honor by denying initial honors. For example, he does not accept the privilege of making the first spear-cast when he hunts with his Medan age-mates, but wins the admiration of his grandfather (1.4.14). When he departs Media, his kinsmen try to return the presents he had given them, but he declines (1.4.26). When the Armenian king tries to give him more wealth than he had requested, he also refuses. At the height of his power, Gobryas offers Cyrus his kingdom, but Cyrus, refusing this honor, too, finds a way to honor himself even more:

In turning over to me your fortified walls, manifold wealth, your forces, and your precious daughter, you have made it possible for me to show to all humanity that I am unwilling to be impious or unjust for the sake of gain nor would I willingly violate an agreement.

Cyropaedia 5.2.10

In effect, Cyrus construes the act of receiving material honors (e.g. prizes, wealth, property) as a love of gain. By refusing them, he is able to achieve an even higher (mental) honor in the form of the esteem and gratitude of his followers. This principle is also captured well by the Sacian soldier who wins at the horserace in Babylon but will not take a kingdom for his horse; rather he would like the opportunity to “invest in the gratitude (charis) of a good man” (8.3.26).

In presenting Cyrus as keeping his own standards of what is honorable, Xenophon draws a strong contrast with the portrayal of Cyrus in Ctesias. Whereas his Cyrus craves approval but also must “approve of the approvers,” in Ctesias, Cyrus’s ambitions to revolt from Media are continually stoked by his ruthless advisor Oebaras. Challenging Cyrus’ self-image, Oebaras says, “there is not a man alive these days who is spirited and noble-minded enough to resolve to overthrow these Medes, who think themselves worthy to rule their betters” and then more forcefully, “perhaps there is someone—only he suffers from a good deal of base cowardice and for this reason does nothing, although he could” (F8d*15). At this point, Ctesias’ Cyrus begins plotting his rebellion and relying on Oebaras as a close confidant. Xenophon’s Cyrus, however, relies on his own judgment and his knowledge of himself. He is the longed-for marriage {113|114} between wisdom and power, or between the ambition of an Alcibiades and the sobriety of a Socrates.

Competing Constructively

Perhaps no aspect of philotîmia is more problematic than the fact that it can cause leaders to cheat or kill their rivals. Tyrants seldom find ways to stay in power without committing manifold acts of hubris. For example, Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, once received cryptic instruction from the Lesbian tyrant, Thrasybulus. When Periander asked how to deal with unrest in his city, Thrasybulus wandered through the fields of grain, cutting down the tallest stalks, a message to Periander to eliminate his most prominent citizens (Herodotus Histories 5.92.ζ). In the famous Constitutional Debate among the Persian conspirators, Otanes disqualifies monarchy from consideration on the grounds that the monarch will always commit acts of outrage out of envy for his peers (Herodotus Histories 3.80). As well, Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis from Achilles is as much about having a prize as it is about putting Achilles in his place. The leader of the Achaeans says of his challenger, “he wants to be over all of us, to rule all, to lord over all, to give orders to all, but someone I suspect will not obey him” (Iliad 1.287–289). We have already noted how Cyaxares is routinely upstaged by Cyrus to his great envy (Chapter Three, pp. 68–69).

Xenophon does not challenge his portrait of Cyrus in every way he might have, though. While it is fair to say that Cyrus is able to compete fairly because of his gentleness and prudence, it is also true that he happens to be the best at everything he attempts. He rides a horse better than all the Medes; he wins a horserace against fellow Persians. He hunts better than everyone both inside his grandfather’s wildlife preserve and in the wild. And he fights better in war. He even invites competition among his closest followers in the practice of therapeia—and he wins at that, too. Yet Xenophon does not explain how a leader {114|115} should behave when it becomes apparent that one of the followers happens to excel at something. What if a Mede were a better horseman, or a Sacian a better strategist, but did not happen to surpass Cyrus in all categories? It is not clear that Cyrus would or should relinquish power. The closest example of a less competent ruler “stepping aside” is that of Cyaxares, but we have seen the convenience with which Xenophon treats the situation by having Cyaxares show favor to Cyrus since he has no male heirs (8.5.19). Perhaps Xenophon is suggesting that leadership like Cyrus’ is so rare in part because it requires a leader to excel in so many different areas. Otherwise, a competitive temperament may ruin the leader and the community of followers. We might even wonder whether Cyrus’ successes are possible only when the leader excels at all things. [18]

Xenophon does deal with this epistemological problem in the Anabasis, however, where it is clear that Darius favors his eldest son Artaxerxes II as king, but his queen Parysatis favors Cyrus the Younger (1.1–4). Xenophon himself favors the character of the latter, but in Plutarch it is Artaxerxes II who is seen as the gentle and magnanimous leader struggling to resist his incompetent and treacherous younger brother.

But superlative philotîmia, as Xenophon presents it in the Cyropaedia, cannot easily be ascribed to a leader who might not happen to be best at everything or who at least might not happen to be obviously best. A few observations about the differences between the competitive situations in Iliad 1 and 23 will make these limits even clearer. When Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel over Briseis, there are not enough honor-prizes for Agamemnon to be compensated for the loss of Chryseis because, as Achilles points out, they have already been distributed {115|116} (1.125–129). Nor is it obvious who deserves the greater honor or who is in fact the “best of the Achaeans”: Agamemnon commands more men, but Achilles is the mightier warrior (1.280–281). When the Achaeans compete in the Funeral Games for Patroclus, however, straightforward contests are set up to see who is best, with the gods often taking a hand. When there are disputes, it turns out that either the disputes are more easily resolved, as with Antilochus and Menelaus (23.596–613); or there are so many prizes to go around that it does not matter much. Nestor even receives a prize without having to compete (23.618–623).


In the foregoing survey of fourteen problems surrounding Cyrus’ superlative character traits I have attempted to assess the comprehensiveness of what we have been calling the fundamental traits of Xenophon’s Theory of Leadership (philanthrôpia, philomatheia, philotîmia). This is not to say that these traits are all-encompassing. We have seen cases where Xenophon did not apply his theory to every conceivable circumstance. He does not give much guidance, for example, on how an ambitious leader like Cyrus might “philanthropically” supplant a leader who is not wicked per se but is yet unwilling to relinquish authority. Nor does he address competitive situations where the aspiring leader is not superior {116|117} in all respects, or where his superiority may reasonably be called into question. Nor does he entertain the possibility that a leader might need to be significantly (and permanently) more intelligent or better-informed than his followers. He offers no advice for a leader whose credibility is called into question by a demagogue who professes a more “common sense” solution. This latter issue is obviously addressed with greater care by Plato, whose Socrates advocates the noble lie to combat just this problem.

Xenophon seems to sidestep certain problems by casting Cyrus in a world that is not perfect, but somewhat idealized or romanticized. The members of his Persian community are largely virtuous or at the very least well meaning, as are many of the leaders he encounters on his adventures. They take the same common-sense (“farmer’s”) approach to knowledge that Cyrus does. His adversaries are either easily overcome and repentant (the Armenian king, Cyaxares, Araspas, Croesus) or irredeemably wicked, like the Assyrian king, and thus deserving of severe punishment. The conflicts that Cyrus faces in the story are consequently of a much more personal sort: will Cyrus exhibit the proper character to overcome each challenge? Xenophon creates a world in which some trait seems to be successful in any given situation.

To say that Xenophon’s Theory of Leadership, as it is presented through Cyrus, is not all-encompassing is not to fault him as a thinker inferior to Plato. In some ways his Theory of Leadership is superior: his leader actually wants to lead and takes delight in the success of his followers. The tensions that exist between the two thinkers may be timeless and unresolvable; leadership is an art, not a science, after all. Their theories are better thought of as guideposts for thinking about leadership rather than competing approaches to an absolute or universal notion of ideal leadership. If Xenophon’s goal was to tell an entertaining story and to empower would-be rulers to think more carefully about their own leadership, he succeeds quite well.

Finally, the foregoing treatment of these fourteen problems is itself not all-encompassing. Some may find that the problems with Cyrus’ superlative traits are more nuanced than I have suggested. Some may find that Xenophon does not solve them as thoroughly as I have claimed. Still others may find additional problems with these traits that are worthy of treatment (there is nothing magical about the number fourteen). What I hope to have set up is a framework and a methodology for understanding Xenophon as a leadership theorist, in such a way that both Classicists and others interested in leadership theory can approach an understanding of a leader’s core traits, namely by gauging their fundamentality and comprehensiveness, features that any good theory ought to have. {117|}


[ back ] 1. In Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus Cyrus dies after recklessly attempting to expand his empire.

[ back ] 2. Cf. φιλοτιμίας ἀκαίρου, To Philip 9.1–2. Isocrates makes a similar criticism of the love of being honored in the Spartan king Agesilaus (To Philip 86–87). Pindar also criticizes “excessive” philotîmia as dangerous to the city (Fragment 210). Fourth-century honorific decrees limited the personal benefits of the love of honor by citing the particular beneficiary of the citizen’s philotîmia, whether it was the city, the tribe, or family (cf. Whitehead 1983:63).

[ back ] 3. The “leader as healer” is a metaphor used for both Cyrus (Cyropaedia 5.4.10) and Alexander (cf. Plutarch Life of Alexander 8.1).

[ back ] 4. Odyssey 9.105–535. On the importance of philotîmia in this scene, cf. Friedrich 1991:22.

[ back ] 5. On the sources for Alcibiades’ life and their reliability, cf. Rhodes 2011:1–4, 24–25.

[ back ] 6. Life of Alcibiades 14.1–9. Cf. Rhodes 2001:39–54, 39–54.

[ back ] 7. By contrast, Isocrates gives Evagoras greater (though still cursory) prominence in the battle when he takes back the throne of Cyprus, perhaps because Isocrates is attempting to mimic poetic conventions of praise (cf. Evagoras 30–32).

[ back ] 8. Delebecque 1978:36, Gera 238–239. On the question of whether the Panthea-Abradatas tale was invented by Xenophon, cf. Perry 1967:169and Gera 1993:245.

[ back ] 9. Grea 1993:237.

[ back ] 10. Cf. Tatum 1989:181–182 and Gera 1993:240–241 on the similarity between Abradatas’ tragic and heroic death and that of Xenophon’s Cyrus the Younger in the Anabasis.

[ back ] 11. ἀνθρώπινον τὸ γεγενημένον· τὸ γὰρ ἁμαρτάνειν ἀνθρώπους ὄντας οὐδὲν οἴομαι θαυμαστόν, 5.4.17. Cyrus’ “human” understanding is a theme in the Cyropaedia. Cf. his injunction to Tigranes to forgive his father for killing the sophist on the grounds that his mistake was “human” (ἀνθρώπινά μοι δοκεῖς ἁμαρτεῖν, 3.1.40); and Cyrus’ address to Croesus emphasizing that they are both human (ἐπείπερ ἄνθρωποί γέ ἐσμεν ἀμφότεροι, 7.2.5). Cyrus even acknowledges that he is endowed with a lust for wealth, as all humans are (8.2.20).

[ back ] 12. Republic 475b. Plato knows of exceptions to this rule, such as a person who might crave honor and yet be able to distinguish between good and bad dispensers of honor. He has Agathon in the Symposium explain that a speaker is more intimidated at the sight of a few sensible speakers than in the company of many fools (194b). Agathon, who has just won first prize for a tragedy from the Athenians, implies that he would take more pleasure in impressing the wise than the masses.

[ back ] 13. Xenophon paints a similar, though less sympathetic, picture of Alcibiades (Memorabilia 1.2.23).

[ back ] 14. Life of Alcibiades 4.1–4, 6.1–4. See Whitehead 1983:57–58 on the problems of philotîmia in fifth-century Athenian society, particularly as illustrated in Thucydides’ analysis of the Peloponnesian War.

[ back ] 15. We recall that Ischomachus teaches epimeleia to the overseers of his estate by rewarding them for it (Oeconomicus 12.16).

[ back ] 16. On the historicity of Alcibiades’ reputation as a lavish and promiscuous, see Littman 1970.

[ back ] 17. Cyropaedia 1.6.22. One place where we might doubt Cyrus’ ability to excel others by being who he truly is is in his decision to adopt the Medan style of clothing in Babylon, so that it will “charm” his followers (8.1.40–41). Breebaart 1983 argues that the adoption of the Medan style “has nothing to do with the overweening pride of the oriental monarch, it is only the last link in a chain of measures to heighten the status of the aristocracy.” For further treatment of Cyrus’ adoption of the Medan style, consistent with Breebaart, cf. Azoulay 2004a.

[ back ] 18. We should also leave open the possibility that Xenophon has given his narrative a fairy tale flavor that is meant to delight his audience more than to instruct them on every challenge of leadership.

[ back ] 19. Gera 1993:283–284.

[ back ] 20. Cyropaedia 8.1.35, 39; 3.3.10, 59. Farber 505.

[ back ] 21. Cf. Breebaart 1983:128.