St. John’s Review
The St. John’s Review
The St. John’s Review exemplifies, encourages, and enhances the disciplined reflection that is nurtured by the St. John’s Program. It does so both through the character most in common among its contributors—their familiarity with the Program and their respect for it—and through the style and content of their contributions. As it represents the St. John’s Program, The Review espouses no philosophical, religious, or political doctrine beyond a dedication to liberal learning, and its readers may expect to find diversity of thought represented in its pages. (Note: The Dean’s Office oversees this publication.)
Volume 62.1–2 (Fall 2020–Spring 2021)
Contributions to the Fall 2020–Spring 2021 edition of the St. John’s Review can be read online by clicking the titles below.
The PDF version is available at the St. John’s College Digital Archives.
William Darkey (1921–2009) was a tutor at St. John’s College for over six decades. He was a founding member of the Santa Fe campus and also served as its Dean. This reminiscence was discovered among his papers by his stepson, Peter Nabokov, who is a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA.
When I was a child I think I knew that the trees played a very great role in my life, though I could not have reflected much about it. It was simply a fact of my existence among many others. Now, in recollection, I can see it in a different way, can separate out this aspect of my life for examination, can collect my separate memories of the trees and try to compose them as a theme.
As a child I lived among the trees. My earliest memory—of the bedroom in which I was born—contains a tree—a great maple tree just outside the window. It whispered to itself, and I remember the sound. It tossed its branches in the storms. A pair of orioles hung their nest there every spring. The milkman stopped his big bay horse under it in the morning. Its great roots, mysteriously underground, heaved the brick sidewalk where I rode my wagon, and my father, looking at the swell, would say, “I guess that tree’ll have to come down some day. I’ll hate to see it go.” I didn’t quite know what he meant, but it seemed a dreadful prospect. I think that tree must have been my symbolic exit from the house to the world of nature, as it plunged its roots deep into the earth and tossed its head into the sky. And, truly, it did seem to lift itself into the blueness.
I can see in my mind’s eye the rough, giant shagginess of its trunk. And I can still feel that roughness in the palm of my hand, and feel the life of the great trunk, feel the dynamic tension of holding the head up by the grip of the roots. Oh, I knew it was alive, all right. Alive, and other. Not smooth like my skin, not smooth like the walls and floors of the house or the wooden posts of the front porch.
Stronger than anyone I knew. I recognized it as a kind of tutelary presence, living, mighty, sheltering, benign, yet awesomely other. It was the first tree I ever knew, a kind of patriarch. For me, an incarnation, I suspect, of Ygdrasil. It is so deeply rooted in my memory, indeed in my life, that I would not be who I am if it were not there. This is so true that although I know the fancy is false, I cannot help imagining that everyone has some kind of first tree inside him, a personal axis that centers him between earth and sky, and that fixes him all his life for better or for worse to some inner native landscape, consummating a union of person and place.
For me, that tree has no name, no private designation. It has no symbol. It is simply itself. It is possible that that same tree could fulfill the same role for another person, but it seems altogether unlikely that it should be so. It (and the pronoun is wrong, because there are no proper pronouns for trees) and I are a unique pair, or so it seems to me.
Fifteen years ago, returning to Cumberland, I passed that house on Patterson Avenue. The tree had been cut down. I suppose that, as my father had long ago predicted, the roots bad heaved too much of the paving. The house looked shorn, unsheltered and unsheltering, naked to the street, unrelated either to the earth or to the sky. Unrelated to people. It didn’t look like a good place to be born.
I can imagine a sort of fairy tale in which a man is born in relation to a tree, and that when the tree is cut down, the man suffers a kind of death.
Now if all of this seems fanciful or, worse, precious or sentimental, what on earth do we mean by our metaphor when we speak of “roots”?
When I was five years old, we moved to another bouse, not far away from the one I was born in, but at the end of a street on the edge of town and on the edge of a wood. The land there until the turn of the century had been part of a large estate. The section where our house stood had been the middle of an apple orchard. Most of the apple trees bad been cut down or had died, and the land had gone back into second-growth woodland wild cherry, thorn, locust, and ash, with generous quantities of wild honeysuckle vines and poison ivy. Scattered here and there were a few ancient apple stumps and a number of second-growth apple trees mostly untended and wild, though some half dozen in the lot next to our house had been pruned and trained and, along with one lone pear tree, still bore a quantity of reliable fruit for whoever might want it—usually small boys perched aloft who ate the apples green with salt on them, and later with the air of successful primitive gatherers took home bagsful of apples to be made into applesauce.
These apple trees were heavily leaved and well-domed, with branches low to the ground, very convenient for climbing. They taught me that trees are for climbing. At a certain stage of life, climbing is what you do about a tree. And not just to get its fruit. The tree lifts you up into another world, a swaying, creaking, rustling world between earth and sky; a world perfumed by the dry smell of the bark, the green smell of the leaves, and in the spring by the smell of the blossoms; a world shared cautiously with wasps and bees and occasionally, if you are very still, with the robins and catbirds who are the natural denizens of that world.
The tree world is very quiet and private. Generally, other people don’t know you are there, and unless you tell them, they don’t often think of looking for you up there. Such presence with invisibility is an altogether godlike feeling. And like some other kinds of pretensions to divinity, it can get you into trouble when you are found out, by parents who want you for dinner.
Up in a tree is the ideal place in all the world for thinking whatever it is that children think about. Not, it seems to me, as a retreat from the world, or as a refuge, at least in a negative sense. Being in a tree is like paying a call on a wise friend, like conversing, or perhaps sometimes like playing a kind of grave game with the tree. It is quite simply what you do with a tree. And, of course, reciprocally, it is what a tree does with you.
The wild cherry trees always seemed to me to be like girls, small among the other trees, slender, swaying, and in the springtime decked out in lacey tassels. The bark of the young trees is smooth and red. The branches you climb on often become quite polished. One such small tree was a favorite refuge of mine. I recall quite vividly how, when I was told of the death of a favorite cousin, I left the house and climbed up into that tree. I do not yet know why I did that, and I recall that even at the time the impulse seemed to come from outside me; but it seemed clearly the thing to do. After a while my father came and got me. I didn’t know how he knew where I was; maybe he watched me go. I think he understood a child’s grief. Maybe he even understood what the tree had to do with it.
The woods extended along a ridge into the town in a narrow peninsula whose tip was just across the street from our house. After about fifty yards the land fell away very steeply towards the Potomac River. That slope no doubt had been timbered and burned over, but to judge from the growth of the trees on it, it must have been untouched for seventy-five or a hundred years. There were a few large ash trees, but most were tall, spreading white oaks, quite unclimbable by small boys, and therefore rather fierce and forbidding. It was a mysterious region, and I didn’t often venture far down into it.
Several things of great interest, however, were to be found near its border. The first of these were some flowering Judas trees (we called them redbuds), and we took branches of it home to our mothers in the spring. Bloodroot also grew there, and we would dig the roots and paint ourselves with the vermillion juice. And there was sweet anise; we dug the roots and chewed them for “lickerish.” Violets grew there in profusion, and spring beauties. Once on a solitary quest for one or another of these plants, I went a little farther down the slope than usual and saw in the middle distance the trunk of a tree I could not recognize. When I reached it, I found it was well over a foot in diameter, very straight and vertical, and its top had somehow broken off long before about twenty feet above the ground, so that it stood like what seemed to me a mysterious pillar or monument alone in the mysterious oakwood. I thought it a very important thing to have discovered, so I told no one about it for a long time. One day I pulled off some bark and recognized it as a cedar, since it smelled like our cedar chest. After a while, I took my father to see it, and he told me the tree had been struck by lightning. This confirmed my conviction of the tree’s importance; and I tried to imagine the awesomeness of the thunder-stroke. I didn’t entirely know what I meant by my thought, but it seemed mysteriously wonderful and frightening and thrilling to lay my hands on that being that once long ago the lightning had selected.
It is not easy to understand how we come to our understanding of time, of what it means to be very old, older than, for instance, one’s grandmother, who has white hair. That isn’t quite what one means by very old. For me, at least, I think it was the trees that helped me to approach that mystery. Only three trees of my acquaintance ever had proper names. They were, respectively, the Old Apple Tree, the Old Willow, and the Old Oak. The Old Apple Tree grew on our own land and was one of the trees of the original orchard. It was the snag of a stump, good-sized for an apple tree, coming out of the ground at a slant and rising in a flat S-curve until its upper third was almost horizontal. None of its original branches remained at all—I suspect that the storm which blew the top out of the tree broke the trunk off below the branches—but the old tree had put out new stems, one horizontal and one vertical. The latter, as if ignorant of its lower parts, was simply an ordinary ten-foot tree which blossomed and bore fruit, unmindful of its age. But anyone could see that the supporting trunk was not only of another generation but even of another age, so gnarled and twisted was it, so much larger and more powerful, that it had endured. It wasn’t that anyone explained to me what was meant by “old,” but when they called this tree “the Old Apple Tree,” I could see what they meant. I felt something like respect for the tree, and I never walked under the slant of the trunk on the downhill side.
The Old Willow was a similar case. It had been an unusually large weeping willow that had been topped perhaps first by a storm and later by pollarding, since it grew on a street corner. Now I knew weeping willows—we had one in the yard, and it tossed its hair in the wind and dropped its leaves in the fall and put forth its little greengold leaflets which in the spring smell like nothing else in the world. This tree was an altogether charming girl. But the Old Willow on the street corner was a frightening travesty of her, with a huge stumpy trunk surmounted by short, thick branches raised at right angles like threatening arms. Grotesquely in the springtime it put forth the same little greengold leaves, shed the same pungent odor, tossed the same tresses. I had the feeling that something lived inside the trunk of that tree, and at night I would pass it on the other side of the street.
The Old Oak was my great friend. He—for he was without any doubt masculine or the equivalent of it in the world of trees—stood on the top of the ridge and on the edge of the slope down to the river. He was taller by far than any other tree around and of greater girth. Anyone could plainly see that he was the king of the woods. Everyone I knew called him The Old Oak, so in a sense that was his proper name; but in another sense, it wasn’t a name at all, and my great friend was as anonymously individual as his whole race and was designated only as the Old one of that race. That was not his real name, but only our name for him. And so we’d say to one another, “I’ll meet you at the Old Oak.” or “Let’s have the Fourth of July picnic under the Old Oak.”
Long before I knew him, someone had built a fire against the base of his trunk, so that there a charred hollow curved into the base of his trunk just above ground level; and the great tree had compensated as it could by putting out a compensatory curve of growth on the opposite side. When I first walked into his shade I was a very small child, and I suspect that I was not aware at all of the oak’s vast upwardness, but saw only the elephantine great gray bole and the first spread of branches. Later, even though I was learning to climb into the kingdom of the trees by way of the lesser and more domesticable apple and cherry, it did not occur to me that one could climb into the Old Oak. From a practical point of view, the trunk was too huge to get any purchase on, and the limbs, even at the first crotch, were far beyond my reach. More importantly, there was a presence about this great being that forbade intrusion into his domain. In due course, however, as we both grew, and I much faster, I discovered certain knots and knobs and stubs that were within my extremest reach, so that with a certain amount of scrambling and what seemed to me death-defying lurches into nothing I managed to attain the first crotch. To get back down from there by the way I had come up was out of the question, and I solved the difficulty by dropping from the lowest branch into a pile of oak leaves. (It may be said in passing that the kingdom of the trees is like fairy land in many ways, and not the least in that it is a realm which, as a rule, one may enter more easily than he can depart, and rash intruders have been known to return crippled or worse.)
For quite a long while, I think, I was content to climb to the first stage and never thought seriously of going higher. Naturally, however, that thought eventually did come. I wondered what it would be like to be in the very top of the tree. How far would I be able to see? I had already known the delight of being in a tree top in a strong wind, and it seemed to me that the Old Oak might sway more widely than any of the dwarfs at his feet.
One evening I had been called in from play, and had washed and changed into clean clothes for supper with unaccustomed dispatch. I found myself with nothing to do and half an hour left till suppertime. I knew at once that this was the time to climb to the top of the Old Oak. The tree was less than a hundred yards from the house, and I was there in a moment. Up into the first crotch. Then a long upward look. The tree forked, and the twin trunks soared upwards almost parallel to one another. The righthand fork looked more promising, and up I went by that way, shinneying, holding on to small shooting branches and then, having accepted their help, I had to overcome the hindrance they presented as I tried to get around them. After some initial success and considerable elation at being already above the common level of the woods and looking down on the other treetops, I found my way blocked by a growth of shoots that I could only have passed by cutting them off.
The other fork was behind me, perhaps three feet away. Manoeuvering desperately and summoning all my courage, I made the leap, clutching the trunk with arms and legs. Safe. I hung on for a while until I recovered my nerve and started up again. And I made it to the very top. The breeze blew; the tree swayed, and I swayed blissfully. I had done it. No other boy I knew had ever done it, not even my cousin George who was three years older and could do everything. Speaking of George, as I looked at his house I could see that I was significantly higher than the attic windows and that I was actually looking down on the slate roof. The thought made a flutter in my stomach, and I gripped the tree more tightly.
Then I heard my mother’s voice calling me for supper. I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought about getting down, and I’d done enough tree-climbing to know instinctively that it was likely to be a problem. I felt foolish. And increasingly scared. So I didn’t answer.
Mother knew I wasn’t far away, so she walked across the street and up the path to the clearing where the oak tree stood, and called again. She looked very small to me down there. I knew she’d be frightened, and I hated to do that to her. She called again, and I knew I had to say something.
“I’m up here,” I said in what must have been a small and sheepish voice.
She looked up, but couldn’t see me in the foliage. “Where?” she said.
“Up here in the Old Oak,” I said.
She moved about until she located me. I saw her turn pale. “How ever did you get up there?” she said. It wasn’t a question. Controlling herself, she said, “Well, you’d better come down right away. Dinner’s ready.”
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “I’ve never done it before.”
“Well, you’ll just have to,” she said. Then, seeing that my fear was increasing, she said, “Come on. You can do it. I know you can. After all, you got up there.”
“It’s a lot harder getting down,” I said.
“Well, you can’t stay there all night,” she said. “Listen. I’ll help you. Tell me just exactly what you did to get up, and then we’ll just do it backwards.”
And it worked. She talked me backwards down out of that tree. Even across from the one fork to the other. She was surely more frightened than I was, but she didn’t let it show in her voice. When I hit the ground she said, “You pick the darnedest times to do things. Look at you. You’re a sight. Go get washed for supper.”
“Gee, thanks, Mother,” I said. “I couldn’t ever have gotten down without you.”
“Sure you could,” she said. “But I’m glad I was here.” Even then I knew what I’d said was pretty inadequate, but I knew she knew I knew, so it didn’t matter too much.
In 1936 we got the edge of an Atlantic hurricane, and the Old Oak went down. In the morning we found it lying headlong down the hill towards the river. It had never occurred to me that a god was mortal. I’ve never forgotten.
Janet Dougherty is a tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Xenophon celebrates the gentlemanliness of Socrates in the Memorabilia. In that work he demonstrates Socrates’s virtue, in particular his justice and beneficence, and shows that he in no way deserved his fate. Xenophon does this by recollecting what he knew and had heard of Socrates, who spoke “always” about the human things and, while he persisted in examining “what each of the beings is” (Memorabilia 4.6.1), knew in particular the things a gentleman must know (1.1.16; 4.7.1). Others came to him for guidance in how to be gentlemanly (1.2.48). In the Oeconomicus Xenophon addresses Socrates’s education in gentlemanliness. Most of the Oeconomicus is devoted to Socrates’s recounting of an earlier conversation he had with Ischomachus, a man reputed to be a gentleman truly deserving of the epithet. Literally the Greek term for gentleman means: “noble (or fine or beautiful) and good” (kalos k’agathos). The gentleman must be a good citizen and he must manage well his household, including his family, servants and slaves. Ischomachus thinks of gentlemanliness primarily as a form of mastery. At the end of the dialogue Ischomachus sums up his standard for judging any master, including the manager of an estate, praising most highly he who rules over willing subjects.
[I]f … he filled each of the workers with spirit, a love of victory vis-à-vis one another, and each with the ambition to be most excellent, then I would assert he has something of a kingly character. And this is the greatest thing … in any work where something is achieved by human beings, in farming as in any other. Yet I do not say, by Zeus, that it’s possible to learn by seeing it or hearing of it once, but I assert that the one who is going to be capable of it needs education, a good nature, and most of all, to become divine. For it seems to me that this good—to rule over willing subjects is not altogether a human thing, but, rather, divine; it is clearly given only to those who have been genuinely initiated into the mysteries of moderation (τοῖς ἀληθινῶς σωφροσύνῃ τετελεσμένοις); but tyrannical rule over unwilling subjects, it seems to me, they give to those whom they believe worthy of living like Tantalus in Hades, who is said to spend unending time in fear of a second death (Oeconomicus 21.12).
Ischomachus is proud of his effective governance over other members of his estate: he is quite prosperous and has a largely favorable reputation. But he cannot be confident he has attained the divine status he describes here. Neither he nor Xenophon’s readers can affirm the willingness of Ischomachus’s subjects to submit to his rule, for most of his servants are slaves. The standard he sets for ruling is inspiring; the likelihood that it describes any gentleman’s household management is small. The pretense, however, is salutary: Ischomachus aims at a benign form of mastery, if only to avoid the fate of Tantalus. He may be able to convince his servants that he deserves his role. Ischomachus is neither an overt tyrant nor divine. But what of Socrates?
The mature Socrates did not rule others, but he set a standard for those who attended to him (Memorabilia 1.2.18). He willingly offered counsel. A few of his followers—Critias and Alcibiades are named—turned dramatically away from him and became arrogant, but when they were associating with Socrates they were better behaved—more moderate, Xenophon says (1.2.25–26). He records a wide array of examples from Socrates’s life of his beneficial guidance of many and various human beings, including those who sought high political positions. His continence with respect to physical pleasures was legendary, and he encouraged it in others. Continence is not yet virtue, although Xenophon’s Socrates insists that it is a necessary condition. It seems closest to the virtue of moderation. Xenophon’s praise for Socrates implies that if anyone is moderate, it is he. Moderation, like all virtue, for Socrates, is wisdom (3.9.4–5). He seems never to have misjudged an individual, or to have pursued any good to the neglect of another of higher rank (4.8.11). Is this the height of moderation that Ischomachus refers to in his final speech?
Socrates reports the conversation with Ischomachus, which occurred at an unspecified time in the past, to Crito’s son Critobolus who urgently needs instruction in the art of managing a household. He seems to have come to Socrates, thinking that he might have the necessary understanding, maybe even the skill, though he has no estate. The recounted conversation serves as a substitute for instruction in the art that Socrates has never practiced. Just before he relates the conversation to Critobolus, Xenophon has Socrates refer briefly to an important transition in his life—indeed, the inception of political philosophy. He sought to understand gentlemanliness, the ‘noble-and-good’ and looked first toward the most handsome (kalos) men he encountered. Presumably he considered the kalos part of the compound ‘beauty-and-goodness’ to be visible to the eye. That effort proved disastrous, for he found that these men had depraved (mochtherous) souls (Oeconomicus 6.16). No longer trusting in his ability to see the thing itself he turned to the use of the term in speech. Everyone, he seems to say, referred to Ischomachus as a gentleman. Socrates not only attended to what he heard from others about this reputedly most gentlemanly man; he also conversed as soon as he was able with the man himself. He presented himself to Ischomachus as an aspirant to gentlemanly virtue in need of instruction.
By chance, presumably, Socrates came across Ischomachus in the marketplace, waiting for foreigners who never turned up. Already frustrated in his effort to understand gentlemanliness, Socrates engaged the gentleman in a lengthy conversation. Ischomachus willingly reported on the art of household management as he practiced it and, when Socrates pressed him, on the details both of how he governed servants and of the art of farming. Despite his own reputation as an idle chatterer, Socrates knew that he was capable of learning and said so to his instructor. But he was an odd sort of pupil: he owned no land or slaves over whom he could exercise the proper sort of mastery, nor did he have any prospect of acquiring these things. In Xenophon’s dialogue Socrates does not say whether he was convinced that Ischomachus deserved his reputation, and he does not claim to have developed all the same virtues. What could he have hoped to learn from Ischomachus? What did he learn?
Plato’s depiction of Socrates in the Phaedo and Socrates’s account of his “turn” in that work (99e–100a) is rather different from Xenophon’s, but the two are compatible, just as Socrates’s beneficence toward others is compatible with the generosity he shows his followers in Plato’s account of his last day alive. In the Phaedo Socrates acknowledges that in his earlier days he sought direct knowledge of the beings. He thought at first he would find support in his quest for such knowledge from authors such as Anaxagoras, but he was sorely disappointed. His response was to turn away from the study of the beings themselves for fear that his studies would, as it were, lead him to blind himself as men do who look directly at the sun during an eclipse. He maintained the hope of understanding the beings in general but he redirected his inquiry, taking as hypotheses what seemed to be “most compelling” (ἐρρωμενέστατον). He devoted his attention primarily to the speeches of human beings. Their speeches, he notes, include words like ‘justice’ and ‘good’ and acknowledge that these things motivate actions. His own account of his unwillingness to escape Athenian justice exemplifies the tendency. To explain his mature approach more fully to his companions he announces that he assumes there is something good or beautiful simply and reasons from these beings to prove the immortality of the soul.
Xenophon discusses neither the young Socrates’s efforts nor his dying days, and he says nothing about immortality, but the conversation with Ischomachus that he has Socrates recount in the Oeconomicus illuminates the same change in Socrates’s habits. The Clouds is part of the almost explicit background of Socrates’s conversation with Ischomachus, who complains to him that he does not know how to “make the weaker argument the stronger.” Aristophanes depicts Socrates in The Clouds as continent, indeed ascetic, with respect to physical pleasures, but immoderate in his offer of education to those least suited to benefit from it, and indifferent to justice. His effect on his pupils, Strepsiades and Pheidippides, is to erode their self-restraint. In the conversation with Ischomachus Socrates refers to his own bad reputation, an effect of Aristophanes’s play; he doubts that he can advise Ischomachus given his infamy (Oeconomicus11.3). But Xenophon’s Socrates shows that he has already learned the error of the ways Aristophanes attributes to him: he does not offer to teach Ischomachus, responding instead that maybe he is unable “to make the untrue true.” On this occasion, Socrates is not only more cautious than in The Clouds. He is also inclined to defend himself from thoughtless criticism: his nature is good, he asserts, and his poverty does not detract from his ability to pursue virtue (11.4–5). He repudiates the attack on his reputation while acknowledging his lack of the virtue Ischomachus displays. He seeks to acquire it, starting “tomorrow,” he says (11. 5).
The Memorabilia presents us with a pious, law-abiding Socrates whose life was wholly respectful of the ways of the city. His indictment and execution appear simply unjust; his thought is unwaveringly benign towards the city and its citizens. Since this was not always Socrates’s reputation either earlier reports were false or they were reports of the immature character of the thinker. If Socrates’s encounter with Ischomachus was the turning point in his development of gentlemanliness, the Oeconomicus must be examined with care. While addressing the question what Socrates learned from Ischomachus we must consider others: Does Socrates learn by imitating Ischomachus, or in some other way? What part does moderation play in Socratic gentlemanliness? I will conclude by considering how Socrates’s report of his conversation with Ischomachus may facilitate the education of Critobolus.
* * * * *
There are three parts to Ischomachus’s account of his way of life. The first focuses on his education of his wife; the second on his manner of ruling subordinates; and the third on the details of farming. Each points to a striking contrast between Socrates and his instructor: Socrates clearly does not educate Xanthippe as Ischomachus does his (nameless) wife; he is master of no one; and he never owns land enough to farm. If learning requires practice, Socrates cannot learn the arts of the gentleman, for he apparently has no occasion to practice those arts. In the conversation with Critobolus that occupies the first six chapters of the book Socrates acknowledges both that he knows something of the art of household management and that because of his lack of experience he could easily destroy rather than enhance Critobolus’s wealth should he take charge. He compares household management to flute playing: it is not enough to learn about it; one must possess a flute and play. The implication is that if there are some arts that are exhausted by knowing, and whose practice requires no prior acquisitions—mathematics is an obvious example—managing is not among them. No instruments other than natural possessions are needed for one to practice the arts of rhetoric and dialectic. The corresponding virtues do not require wealth in the ordinary sense, nor do they produce marketable goods. These are the sort of virtues Socrates exhibits in his interactions with others. But wealth, as Critobolus and Socrates agree, lies not merely in material possessions. It may include friends and even enemies, anything and anyone which one can use to one’s benefit (1.5–7). The mature Socrates not only finds ways to live comfortably but shares good things with others, according to Xenophon. He practices a kind of economic art and manages his companions. Still, he will not manage Critobolus’s estate.
The household, as Ischomachus presents it, aims at maintaining and producing material possessions, things that satisfy needs and produce a surplus as well. He describes the household itself as a harmonious blend of nature and convention. The gentleman’s wife, according to Ischomachus, is by nature suited to preside over the activities that occur within the house just as the man is by nature suited to outside activities. If her education is successful, she will accept her permanent confinement to an inside life and commit herself entirely to the prosperity of the household. Her lack of individuality is so complete that Ischomachus never mentions her name. Lacking earlier education—her mother apparently told her only to be moderate—Ischomachus’s wife is dependent on her husband for guidance in all her daily tasks. She must first learn to put all their possessions in order according to the frequency and kind of their use. This requires that she recognize both the character of each object and the customs and conventions as well as the natural needs it serves. Ischomachus, confident in his knowledge of all these things, instructs her. The wife must rule over a hierarchy of subordinates, including those who have authority over the lowliest inside workers. She must know each of their tasks and how to accomplish it. She is, according to her husband, like a queen bee, but he also compares her to a general. If the latter comparison is meant as flattery, it suggests that she would prefer to be recognized for manly virtues than for simply natural ones. The queen bee is a natural ruler; she needs no education. The general, by contrast, is elected to his office and must please the populace, just as Ischomachus’s wife is obliged to please him. He must impose order on his soldiers to make them parts of an unnatural but effective whole that can be victorious in conflicts. The use of the general as an analogy with the woman of the house implies that she is responsible for the defense of the wealth of the household against its potential destroyers. It also implies that she must rule as human beings rule over others. Her role may be in accord with nature but it requires a good deal of conventional support.
Ischomachus doesn’t insist that all the members of the household are by nature suited to their positions, although he does distinguish among them. He works with his wife, for example, to select an appropriate housekeeper, someone who is continent, uses forethought and desires to please (9.11). In the larger world, Ischomachus acknowledges to Socrates, human beings cannot always be found in their places: the foreigners whom Ischomachus intended to meet never arrived. It is this accident of misplacement that enables Socrates to converse with him at such length. But the proper places for individuals even within the household may not be obvious, and therefore it requires significant exertion for the mistress to maintain order. For example, barriers must be placed between the men’s and the women’s quarters so that the slaves will not produce children unwanted by the mistress and master. The workers, mostly if not exclusively slaves, must be kept at work. It would be very difficult to maintain that this is ruling over willing subjects, and it is certainly not rule for the sake of the ruled. At best, the members of the household accept that they can do no better than to work well and win the rewards with which they are encouraged, even if these are meagre—better clothing and shoes. But Ischomachus’s wife is quite willing to tend the sick among them for she hopes thereby to win their affection. She understands at least that they are beings capable of love and hate, loyalty and the opposite, and that she must strive to win the responses she prefers (7. 37–38).
Socrates raises no objections to Ischomachus’s account of his education of his wife, and he may hope that Critobolus will attend to its details. Critobolus clearly has done nothing to educate his own wife and is nonetheless inclined to blame her for bad management (3. 10–15). Socrates’s relationship with Xanthippe, we learn from Xenophon’s Symposium, is utterly different from Ischomachus’s with his wife. Whatever the truth about Socrates’s marriage, it seems true that Socrates wanted to be able to deal with human beings as they are. If he learned from Ischomachus’s account that he must attend to human needs and differences, he surely noticed that the order of the gentleman’s household conceals as well as reflects natural aspects of human beings. The Socrates of The Clouds made a consistent effort to understand the objects of his studies on their own terms. In Aristophanes’s play he seems to break from the human scale to understand nature and not to return to it. Fleas, for example, jump some number of flea feet, but Socrates’s companions are pale and emaciated. He accepts as students those who have no commitment to truth, and he teaches them to disdain the customary understanding of what is good and bad, beautiful and repulsive, without concern for practical consequences. Socrates must learn to see and accept human beings as they are.
Human beings “as they are,” with rare exceptions, are not independent of groupings that incorporate conventional standards. Aristophanes’s Socrates’s failing is that he gives no thought to what enables citizens to thrive together in a family or a city. When Strepsiades takes revenge on Socrates for his son’s corruption, he displays his intolerance for the destruction of the family, which concerns him even more than his debts. The Socrates of The Clouds attends to the needs of human beings so little that he causes if not his own demise, the destruction of his school, his followers, and his place in the city. The Socrates of the Memorabilia is different, and it seems likely that Ischomachus’s instruction has helped to alert him to the surface of human life. He has moderated his drive to unearth truths that are hidden with the understanding that humans seek, as individuals and in common, both what is good and the beautiful. Ischomachus believes the inside space of his home reflects the cosmic order that accommodates human needs and provides advantages for human life. It is orderly and functional, and it supports the variety of human activities, both essential and choice worthy. The gentlemanly Socrates respects the assurance of Ischomachus that the gentlemen’s rule gracefully blends convention with nature. As Xenophon presents him in the Memorabilia, Socrates obeys the Athenian laws and upholds the standards of justice and piety they embody. He examines without violating the things gentlemen like Ischomachus believe they know: piety, nobility, justice moderation and courage, and more (Memorabilia 1.1.16). Like the people with whom he converses, Socrates strives to live well within the larger whole of the city. Like the household manager, he is thoroughly devoted to the human good; in his case, his interlocutors’ good as well as his own. To reconcile the goods of individual and community is a noble as well as a moderate goal. Socrates combines this goal with thoroughgoing awareness of discord.
The household order is impermanent and must be maintained with continuous labor. Ischomachus and his wife know this but reflect little on the limits to their ability to reform natural beings they possess. In general, Ischomachus lacks Socrates’s distinguishing characteristic: the awareness of his limitations. Socrates sends his companions to learn from others when he cannot instruct them (Memorabilia, 4.7.1); there is no evidence that Ischomachus seeks another’s aid except when he hints Socrates might help him to defeat his accusers (Oeconomicus, 11.25). He acknowledges no faults, nor any uncertainties. He appears to understand everything he knows exclusively in relation to its utility for satisfying needs or procuring wealth. If he misses essential characteristics, he will not notice, unless they impact the usefulness of an object. Ischomachus’s belief that the order he imposes reflects the larger order of the cosmos seems willfully naïve (7. 16–34). Yet if there is no such order, if things are not organized according to kinds that have definite relations to one another in a larger whole, they may not be knowable at all. Ischomachus’s well-ordered household provides an image of order that contrasts with Aristophanes’s Socrates’s badly managed household, the Thinkery, where beings must be encountered one at a time. The permutations of language alert him to the suspect character of the distinctions by kinds in speech just as the clouds reflect not the truth but the characters and imaginings of those who perceive them. But Socrates’s clever insights preoccupy and distract him from both the good and the noble. The gentlemanly method of ordering household possessions requires that their uses and their beauty be taken into account. Socrates learns to take seriously these criteria, and to consider to what extent knowledge of any being requires understanding its place in relation to others. Xenophon recollects Socrates as an exemplar of self-knowledge who sees other humans truly, as they are immersed in the life they share within the city. His self-knowledge includes knowledge of needs, desires and aspirations, some of which he shares with other human beings and some of which distinguish him. He avoids the danger that one who lacks such knowledge imposes one’s wishes and fears on other beings or fails to recognize theirs. Socrates learns better how to investigate the beings from attending to Ischomachus’s account of the flawed education of his wife.
* * * * *
After recounting his education of his wife, Ischomachus goes on, with a bit of prodding from Socrates, to talk about his day to day outside activities. He gives Socrates a list of what he prays for as well as a description of the way he spends most of his days (11.8–18). Much of his activity is devoted to preparing his skills and his body for war, should he ever have to defend his land and his city. He must leave his estate fairly frequently and go into town to attend to his citizen duties. The labor that makes the farm productive is done by subordinates, mostly slaves. Just as Ischomachus is confident that he can leave the inside tasks entirely to his now educated wife, he is equally confident that his stewards and other servants will in his absence manage his affairs just as he would himself. He is so certain of this that when he talks with Socrates he is in no rush at all to get home. Socrates presses him for an account of how he makes his subordinates both diligent and loyal. Both parts of this task are difficult. But Ischomachus makes an even greater claim: he makes some of his servants gentleman, he says, and he treats them as such (14.9). He fails to mention whether he arms them.
Ischomachus admits that not all his servants can be made diligent. He supplements nature by punishing those who do not follow orders and rewarding those who do. He imitates, he says, both Athenian and Persian law: he doles out both punishments and rewards. The method of reward works with those who love gain and have the foresight to work for their advantage. He distinguishes those “who are induced to be just, not only through having more than others as a result of their justice, but also through desiring my praise” (14.9). The only praise they are likely to earn is his, so they strive to demonstrate what he perceives as loyalty. Ischomachus claims that he educates his stewards to rule (13.4), and that he treats some of them “as free men, not only enriching them but honoring them as gentlemen” (14.9). But especially if they are slaves, even the “gentlemanly” servants, are compelled to accept Ischomachus’s authority because it has the backing of the laws of the city. Still, he is no doubt correct in noting that some men are motivated only by the satisfactions of needs and gain in general, while others crave honor too.
In the Memorabilia Socrates converses with and benefits both types. Those who desire honor, the lovers of nobility, believe that holding high public office establishes their worth. In pursuit of noble ends even the best of these at times forget to secure their own good. Socrates educates them in the political things, things they need to know in order to manage whoever they aspire to govern, whether it be the cavalry, the entire army, or the city as a whole (Memorabilia, 3.1–7). He helps them to know better both the demands of the office and their own natures. Socrates evidently learns not from Ischomachus’s virtues alone but also from his defects. While Ischomachus exploits his servants’ dependence, Socrates helps some of his interlocutors to see the tension between what benefits them and what is honored in the city (3.5.28; 3.7.9). Since he is not moved to seek honor for himself, he does not rule them but rather gives them the means to rule themselves. The well managed household helps to illuminate the problematic character of the pursuit of nobility generally: in the household one man determines who is honored; in the city presumably all citizens must share in the appreciation of noble acts, which aim to secure the safety and well-being of the city as a whole. When the gentleman prospers, he has the wherewithal to reward his servants; when the city prospers its defenders flourish and their reputations soar. In both cases, the individuals who win their master’s praise may sacrifice much for little prosperity of their own. Still, the standard for success in ruling the city seems less arbitrary. The difference is not insignificant; the similarities point to the fact that the city may require its most distinguished citizens to sacrifice their own good for the questionable good of the whole.
In the Memorabilia, Socrates obscures the differences between the household and the city. For example, in his conversation with Nicomachides, a soldier who hoped to be elected general, he praises the virtues of the householder as preparation for rule in the city. He goes so far as to claim that the wealthy man with no experience of war who has been elected general is a good choice. Nicomachides is, not surprisingly, astonished. Although his indignation is probably justified, his claim to the office he coveted is not. His experience in facing danger is insufficient to prepare him to lead others. The elected general, Antisthenes, has been successful in other endeavors—he has, for example, led a chorus—and has shown his ability to delegate authority to men who have the necessary understanding and skill. What he supplies is money and the determination to win. Antisthenes is more of a businessman than a genuinely noble man of distinction. He wishes to be superior to other men but he does not care to cultivate the virtues for which men are justly praised. That the citizens have elected him is likely a sign that they are less impressed by individual virtue than by success. Socrates’s defense of the choice seems to have similar grounds: the virtues of the household or business manager develop out of a straightforward pursuit of goods humans seek. In this case neither candidate for general seems to consider the good of the city his own good. Young Pericles, a general and the son of the renowned leader of Athens, provides a different example. Socrates encourages and instructs him, for his devotion to the city is genuine and his understanding is strong. Socrates also warns Pericles that his efforts may fail to secure the good of the city; even so he will be noble (kalos). Pericles died unjustly at the hands of the city’s leaders after the successful battle at Arginusae.
Aware of its dangers, Socrates takes nobility seriously. The aspiration to the most splendid (kalos) deeds, including those deeds possible only for those who hold high public office, indicates nobility of character. As they protect the city men like young Pericles exhibit the ability to devote themselves to a good greater than their own. Socrates teaches thoughtless and ambitious men what noble action would require (3.3 and 3.6). Good and noble things become visible in the shared life of members of the household and the city, but they are not exhausted in these environments. Perhaps because he sees the disparity between worth and honor, Socrates does not share the aspiration to do great deeds. Perhaps too he lacks means. It seems most likely, however, that the pursuit of friendship with the best men he can find to associate with supplants public recognition. Socrates encourages friendship both with and among his companions. Those who aspire to be the best men they can be are most attractive as friends (2.6.28).
The friendship between carefully selected friends is more moderate and no less admirable than public service: it is directed to the common good of the friends and less subject to the whims of public caprice. Socrates shared with his friends the good things they found in books and in conversation. Xenophon quotes Socrates’s description:
[R]eading collectively with my friends, I go through the treasures of the wise men of old which they wrote and left behind in their books; and if we see something good, we pick it out; and we hold that it is a great gain if we become friends with one another.” (1.6.14)
Such good things are of a more reliable and enduring sort.
* * * * *
Ischomachus’s household, in contrast with Socrates’s companions, enjoy in common many goods that satisfy human needs and provide comfort. The prosperity of Ischomachus’s household benefits the owner most, but especially if Ischomachus rewards his servants as generously as he indicates, it benefits all its members. But he aims at creating a surplus. Ischomachus’s praise is manipulative: he gives it, no doubt, to those who best serve his interests, not out of love of nobility. The steward’s love of praise enables the master to train him; the steward in turn must recognize and exploit the differences among lower servants, mostly laborers, with respect to the power of gain and of praise. He must be sure to benefit and to praise those who serve the advantage of the master. No doubt a steward intelligent enough to apply these lessons would be intelligent enough to see that the master is applying the same understanding to himself. The skills Ischomachus’s stewards exercise in directing the laborers who improve the land and make the farm productive are useful. Within their smaller domain under Ischomachus’s rule, they rule also, and all prosper if they rule well. Socrates focuses Ischomachus’s attention on the difficulty that a capable steward would want to serve primarily (if not exclusively) himself. Even if Ischomachus treats some of his subordinates as gentlemen, he cannot treat them as equals. And even if they are his superiors in merit and ability, Ischomachus must treat them as inferiors who ought to be satisfied with his praise. The city resembles the household in that its members strive to please those who wield power: the powerful in turn sometimes strive to serve the city. Convention obscures as well as reveals what is best in human beings.
In practice the art of household management cannot avoid imposing conventional distinctions and thereby obscuring natural similarities and differences among men. If justice requires that each individual be given a place in the whole that corresponds to his abilities and merit, the household, like the city, is never perfectly just. If moderation implies ruling without exploitation, Ischomachus is not altogether moderate. The renowned gentleman doesn’t seem to notice the difficulty, and it would be unhelpful if he did. He is very fortunate if his stewards and ambitious servants are similarly obtuse. Ischomachus instructs Socrates in moderation, in part by falling short of his own articulated standard. Socrates voices no objections, but he displays greater virtues: He always had advice to offer those who sought it, Xenophon reports, and he never misled anyone. He encouraged those who came to him to govern themselves. He had over others a natural superiority that was evident to most. They offered their gratitude and companionship. Socrates and his companions as Xenophon represents them in the Memorabilia could be likened to a household—some followed Socrates assiduously over a long time—but their relations are based almost entirely on their natural characteristics, and no competition arises over the goods they share. Only a few could have been fellow inquirers into the natures of the beings; many more must have appreciated the “good things” Socrates delighted in sharing with them. Socrates’s friendships were gentlemanly associations; his guidance was truly moderate rule. Xenophon calls him “blessed” (makarios) (1.6.14).
The common good Socrates shared with the men who sought him out was not wealth but friendship, or something akin to it. Socrates humbled those who pretended to know more than they did and then guided them toward what he thought best for each. Since he did not always know the things he thought each one must learn, he directed some of his followers to appropriate teachers. But it was Socrates to whom men came for counsel in gentlemanliness when their fellow citizens and the laws were inadequate teachers. He knew the things a gentleman must know, and his knowledge went beyond the conventional understanding. Socrates’s manner of instructing Critobolus in the Oeconomicus is an example of his disinterested and generous pedagogy. It is up to the young man to choose how much he will follow Ischomachus’s example in order to maintain and even increase the worth of his estate. Socrates gives him an opportunity to compare the way of life of the successful gentleman with Socrates’s truth-loving pursuit of the good life. The contrast Xenophon draws between the philosopher and Ischomachus is unmistakable. Ischomachus relies on observation: he expects the truth about the beings to be visible to the eye. If his slaves are docile, their docility is treated as willingness to serve. Socrates’s discussion with Critobolus of what constitutes wealth demonstrates that while he attends to appearances, he does not limit his examinations of the beings, or their uses, to their visible surfaces.
In the earlier conversation with Socrates Ischomachus distinguished farming from other arts as the most generous and open to observers. It has no secrets; its well-bred practitioners do all that they do unconcealed from others and happy to share what they know. When a farmer is unsure what to plant, he observes his neighbors’ crops and even nearby uncultivated lands. Farming requires careful observation: plants show what is best for their growth in their natural tendencies, and the farmer must imitate these. Still, Ischomachus insists, because nature shows itself to the careful observer no particular virtues apart from diligence are necessary to farm successfully. According to him his father’s (and implicitly his own) love of labor explain his success. But Ischomachus cannot deny that to practice the art of farming one needs land. He fails to mention the good fortune of his inheritance of substantial landed wealth. Ischomachus’s insistence on the democratic character of farming has the rhetorical advantage of deflecting envy, but he surely exaggerates. He persuades Socrates that he, the philosopher, possesses the art of farming because he can answer questions like how deep to plant seed, how many crops to plant in a season and when, and his answers accord with Ischomachus’s views. He denies that Socrates could similarly be persuaded that he knows, for example, flute playing, the art to which Socrates compares household management when he converses with Critobolus (Oeconomicus 1.12).
Socrates does not quarrel with his instructor about the accessibility of the art of farming—after all, he has indeed observed a great deal without making a formal study of local crops, and he may wish to encourage Critobolus to make similar progress. He does challenge Ischomachus’s claim that his father was a lover of labor and of farming. Since Ischomachus’s father repeatedly bought uncultivated land and sold it for a profit once it was cultivated, Socrates compares him with a merchant: he was less a lover of art or of labor, Socrates avers, than a lover of gain. Socrates generalizes: men often claim that they love things that they believe benefit them. The true good for human beings is not always evident. For anyone who is listening with care Socrates clearly points to the question, what is truly good. Socrates observes other beings just as he observes humans, with no inclination to exploit or manipulate them. The good and the noble, and much else that matters to human beings, are not immediately apparent to the observer. Socrates does not merely observe: he inquires into what each of the beings is.
Socrates shows great respect for the renowned gentleman throughout their conversation but he has no intention of emulating his way of living. The art of economics as Ischomachus practices it is finally devoted to acquiring means without any limit or end. Still, Ischomachus’s household is ordered in a way that reflects natural as well as conventional differences. The master of the household knows that it is best to rule over willing subordinates who each pursue their own good, understood as gain and in some cases honor. The highest honor belongs to the one who rules them successfully and in doing so, increases his wealth. In his closing speech Ischomachus affirms that the art of ruling is unlike the art of farming: it requires “education, a good nature, and most of all, to become divine” (21.12). Ischomachus’s rule depends upon the laws and conventions of the city; his household reflects the order of the city and helps support it. It indicates to Socrates and any serious observer the needs that compel human beings to order themselves into some kind of whole. All this testifies to Ischomachus’s and in general to gentlemanly moderation. At the same time it points to the question whether the fulfillment of the needs the household addresses adequately represents the good of the human beings so ordered. The household and the city that provides for its stability provide a context for Socrates’s friendships and his inquiries, including the inquiry into what is truly good. Socrates’s appreciation of that context links him to the conventional gentleman and is at the heart of his moderation. He does not claim to possess the ruling art but his nature, and his education, are exemplary.
The mature Socrates Xenophon presents to us in the Memorabilia neither seeks office nor governs the members of a household. He responds to the requests made of him by a wide array of interlocutors and seeks out some to educate. Those who follow him willingly and become continuous companions may be said to be willingly governed. Even so, Socrates tries to educate them for their own good alone. To that end, he promotes first of all continence, and then self-knowledge, the knowledge in particular of what sort of pursuits are appropriate for each individual. Only some are suited to the pursuit of high office; more are suited to the gentlemanly management of their households. Very few are suited to the deepest sort of inquiry into “what each of the beings is.” Socrates does not try to make them into what they are not.
The Socrates of the Memorabilia is unambiguously a citizen, a member of the largely conventional ordered whole that is the polis. He is not just an observer of the cosmos set by accident into the city and looking down on human beings from on high. If Aristophanes’s Socrates is not a simple fabrication, the excesses of Aristophanes’s character must reflect Socrates’s youthful, immoderate pursuit of truth at the expense of the human good. His education in gentlemanliness is the source of his moderation; it explains the transformation from his depiction in The Clouds to the Memorabilia. Socrates’s first serious interest in gentlemanliness, as Xenophon presents it, parallels his turn to focus on the speeches of human beings as Plato’s Socrates represents it in the Phaedo. As in the Phaedo, Xenophon’s Socrates’s turn enables him to examine nobility and goodness without undermining their pursuit. The conversation with Ischomachus gives Socrates an understanding of the life of the Athenian gentleman and the good that such a life serves, as well as its defects. Ischomachus’s instruction helps Socrates to find his place in the polis, and to reconcile his unwavering pursuit of the truth with the necessarily conventional character of the city and in general of human life. For the truth is consistently the goal of Socrates’s inquiries, whether in Aristophanes’s presentation or in Plato’s or Xenophon’s. Ischomachus does not know the difference between making the untrue true and making the weaker argument prevail.
The good and the noble, and the pursuit of both together, manifest themselves in the city, and are hard if not impossible to discern apart from it. Friendship too thrives within the city where there is a common understanding of good and noble pursuits. Nonetheless the city has a limited horizon: what is sought and honored is not necessarily truly noble or good. Socrates’s place in the city is that of the gentlemanly philosopher, who discerns shortcomings as he seeks to understand what the city points to but no set of citizens grasps.
Xenophon celebrates the reconciliation, however tense and impermanent, between Socratic inquiry and the city, and downplays Socrates’s role as a critic. In the Memorabilia Xenophon calls him not only good or beneficent but also noble, kalos k’agathos, for neither relying on the conventions for instruction nor disdaining them, he knows the things a gentleman must know. Socrates displays the gentlemanly virtues, but without the usual apparatus. He consistently practices justice, understood primarily as obedience to the laws of the city, and he is as thoroughly moderate as any human can be. Insofar as it is possible, he cultivates the human good.
Xenophon’s overriding goal seems to be not merely to defend Socrates but to establish the recollection of his way of life as the foundation of a tradition. That tradition entails the pursuit of the good and the noble independent of opinion and convention, for these things are central to understanding the peculiar beings known as humans. More generally, it is a tradition of philosophic inquiry moderated by understanding of the political things.
Where does this leave Critobolus, who loves comedies more than labor and who will no doubt suffer if he loses his material wealth? Socrates cannot decide for him how he is to proceed. He is not likely to abandon his land to imitate fully Socrates’s way of life. Will he give up his passion for comedies? Socrates, it would seem, does not object to Critobolus’s laughing at Aristophanes’s Socrates or at the pretenses of other gentlemen, but he must begin to take responsibility for the pursuit of his good. Critobolus must learn to practice moderation or suffer the loss of his wealth. He may be inspired by Ischomachus’s praise of moderate, gentlemanly, rule. He would improve his holdings in the city if he imitated the sober gentleman. Farming would serve Crito’s son well, for it provides goods without which life is impossible, while it never loses touch with living beings as they are. An exemplary managed household provides a context in which the human good and the passion for distinction become visible. Gentlemanliness requires that Critobolus not devote himself exclusively to the most noble pursuits. Socrates’s instruction is not as transparent as the art of farming (see 21.12). Socrates learned moderation from Ischomachus, but he practices it differently, by eschewing mastery for the sake of an understanding of the good. Socratic moderation is more perfect. His gentlemanliness is the foundation of political philosophy.
. References to the Memorabilia may be found in Xenophon, Memorabilia, tr. Amy L. Bonnette (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).
. Carnes Lord’s translation in Robert Bartlett, Xenophon: The Shorter Socratic Writings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
. See Xenophon’s Hiero on the possibility of benign tyranny.
. Plato, Symposium 216d–219d and Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.3.5–15.
. Leo Strauss, Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), 147–150.
. Plato, Phaedo, 99d–e.
. Aristophanes, Clouds, 888–1104.
. Plato, Apology, 19c–d.
. See Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.2.19 on the need for practice to develop virtues.
. Although Ischomachus convinces Socrates through questioning that he knows the art of farming, he denies that Socrates can learn the art of flute-playing through questioning. The less “philanthropic” arts conceal themselves. But farming, too requires practice. (Compare 2.12–13 and 19.14–19).
. Plato, Meno, 82b and 85e.
. Memorabilia, 1.6.14.
. See Thomas Pangle, “The Socratic Founding of Economic Science,” Interpretation 45:3 (2020).
. It is an accident from Socrates’s point of view.
. See Xenophon’s Symposium 2.10 on the benefit to Socrates from Xanthippe’s unruliness, in Robert C. Bartlett, ed. and tr., Xenophon: The Shorter Socratic Writings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
. Aristotle, Politics, 1.2.12–14.
. Thomas L. Pangle, Socrates Founding Political Philosophy in Xenophon’s Economist, Symposium and Apology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 95–96. Ischomachus improves upon the conventions; his regime might even accommodate the philosopher.
. The Socrates of Aristophanes’s Clouds treats matters of human concern like justice and injustice as matters of indifference: the unjust speech wins simply because most people are already corrupt. See lines 1088–1104.
. Ischomachus’s education of his wife is also an education of Socrates, who was concerned not only with the order of things that pertain to gentlemanly life, but also with the cosmic order. See Strauss, Discourse, 147–150.
. See Strauss, Discourse, 157–158 for speculation on Ischomachus’s wife’s later activities.
. Socrates obscures the difference between household and city especially in Mem.3.4.12. But see Strauss, Xenophon’s Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 63.
. In Memorabilia, the most prominent example is young Pericles. See especially 3.5.28.
. Thomas Pangle, The Socratic Way of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 125.
. Debra Nails, The People of Plato (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), 228; Xenophon, Hellenica 1.6–7.
. See Socrates’s treatment of Euthydemus in Memorabilia, 4.2.40; also 4.7.1.
. See Wayne Ambler, “On the Oeconomicus” in Xenophon: The Shorter Socratic Writings, ed. Robert C. Bartlett (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 106 and 109. In the conversation with Critobolus, Socrates emphasizes benefit over acquisition. Socratic economics differ from Ischomachus’s understanding both in emphasizing the goodness of the soul and in eschewing the restrictions imposed by justice and nobility. The latter point is elaborated in Pangle, “Economic Science,” 392–3.
. Memorabilia, 1.2.48; 4.2.40.
. Pierre Manent, The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, tr. Marc LePain, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 18: “We could say that the things in themselves are the political things.”
. See Strauss, Discourse, 129.
Jason Menzin has a BA from Columbia University, an MA from St. John’s College (Annapolis), taught philosophy at Boston College, and is completing a PhD in English at University College London.
The infernal poetics of the first canticle of Dante’s Commedia center on Geryon, the monster of fraud at the middle of Inferno. Through Geryon, an imagine of unnatural poetry, Dante prompts the reader to consider the damning potential of human poeisis, calling into question the truth of his own poetic endeavor. Over the course of the Commedia, however, Dante purges and finally spiritualizes his self-conscious act of world-making. He recasts the character of his poem and the sense of a center.
Geryon, a multi-formed figure of fraud, appears to Virgil and the pilgrim Dante at the structural mid-point of Inferno:
[H]e came on, that filthy effigy [imagine]
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent. (Inf. 17.7–12)
This composite creature bears the face of “a just man,” as if wearing a piece of woven cloth that belies the monster beneath. He is a fusion of characters from Genesis, of Adam and the serpent—part rational, part bestial—and so a figure for the Fall. He is the deception that works against the goodness and truth of the Creator and creation. Geryon is the lie that looks like the truth—dangerous, unconstrained, destructive, repulsive—as Virgil declares in the opening lines of Canto 17:
Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world! (Inf. 17.1–3)
Like an infernal parody of the God-man who saves the world, Geryon, dwelling in the middle of Inferno, is the man-beast whose rot fills the earth.
But in Dante’s telling, Geryon is also much more than that. The figure of fraud bears a striking resemblance to the artifice of poetry, to the product of the act of poeisis:
he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs. (Inf. 17.13–18)
Geryon is “adorned,” and not merely with the face of a just man. The monster has been made beautiful to our material eyes, bearing “twining knots and circlets,” more “colorful” that any Turkish fabric “ever fashioned,” more well “loomed” than any web of Arachne. In other words, the monster at the middle of Inferno is a poem, an infernal poem, compelling and treacherous. Geryon is woven, even as Dante’s poem is woven, even as the world of Dante’s poem is woven. Knots and circlets; canticles and cantos and terza rima; realms and circles and rings.
Having just encountered the sinful poesis of the sodomite-poets in the second ring of the seventh circle, how ought the reader understand the poet Dante’s emphatic placement of this well-woven fraud in the eighth, at the midpoint of his text? If Geryon stands as a figure for both poetry and human deceit, how ought the reader weigh the truth or fraudulence of Dante’s own poetic world-making?
Just before the encounter with Geryon, who ultimately conveys pilgrim and teacher into the sphere of liars and lies, Dante the poet-narrator prompts the reader to question the veracity of his own poem:
Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
should always close his lips as long as he can—
to tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless;
but here I can’t be still; and by the lines
of this my Comedy, reader, I swear—
and may my verse find favor for long years—
that through the dense and darkened air I saw
a figure swimming, rising up. (Inf. 16.124–31)
Dante acknowledges that his account of Geryon seems beyond belief, but then at once swears to its truth, swearing (perhaps ironically, certainly self-referentially) to the truth of his poetic account by swearing upon “the lines / of this my Comedy” and upon any future “favor” they may find. Assuming the posture of a worldly and rational sophisticate, the poet suggests that a wise man ought to keep his mouth closed about something that seems false. He says not to speak the truth that seems a lie, but then proceeds to speak it. And that truth? A lie that seems like truth.
But why? Why does Dante-poet make so acute the question of the truth of his journey and of his poem? Why place a woven monster at the middle of a woven poem about a woven cosmos and, by swearing to the truth of his account, call that very account into question? It is possible that the reappearance of Geryon later in the Commedia suggests a path to respond to these questions.
Geryon—effigy of the sickness of the world and figure for the dangers of fallen poesis—returns to the Commedia in Purgatorio, not in body, as in Inferno, but upon the lips of Virgil moments before Dante enters the refining fires:
My son, though there may be
suffering here, there is no death. Remember,
remember! If I guided you to safety
even upon the back of Geryon,
then now, closer to God, what shall I do? (Purg. 27.20–24)
Of the many terrifying figures of Inferno—Cerberus, the fallen angels, the Malebranche, Lucifer himself—why should the poet of Purgatorio bring back this monster at the critical moment of Dante-pilgrim’s purification? Perhaps because Geryon—the possibility of infernal poetry, the seeming fraud at the middle of the first canticle, the false face of fallen poetics—perhaps because that monster must be purged from Dante’s own art in order for his poem to ascend higher. Perhaps this is how Dante-poet enacts in his poem the spiritual transformation from “worm” to the possibility of “angelic butterfly”—by letting go of poetry as fraud, as unnatural creation, artful, seductive, destructive, dangerous (Purg. 10.124–125). In the mere span of eight lines, Dante-pilgrim endures excruciating pain in the mountain’s fire and emerges to a new life even as the sun sets, feeling “the force / within” his “wings … growing for the flight” (Purg. 27.49–57, 27.122–123). And just so, one form of poetry falls away, as a new form readies itself to soar.
Purgatorio is rich in inversions and images of transformation. Early in the journey through Purgatory and only moments after Virgil laments the limits of his human reason, Dante comes to tell the older poet what to do:
While he, his eyes upon the ground, consulted
his mind, considering what road to take,
and I looked up around the wall of rock,
along the left a band of souls appeared
to me to be approaching us—but so
unhurriedly, their movements did not show.
“Lift up your eyes,” I told my master. (Purg. 3.55–61)
Virgil, “eyes upon the ground,” works alone within “his mind,” whereas Dante, in a gesture of faith and spiritual curiosity, looks beyond himself, “up around the wall of rock.” The gazes of the two poets literally and figuratively form together a coupled-contrary: downward and inward, upward and out. In Dante-poet’s remembering, this moment subordinates earth-bound, rational mediations to the possibility of something more; it prefigures in small the conclusions of Purgatorio and the trajectory of Paradiso. And in an instance of inversion here before the mount of purgation, the place of hope, student temporarily becomes teacher, guided becomes guide, when Dante instructs Virgil to “Lift up your eyes.”
Just so, Dante recognizes the mount as a place of celestial inversions, when he again looks upward:
My eyes were first set on the shores below,
and then I raised them toward the sun; I was
amazed to find it fall upon our left. (Purg. 4.55–57)
To Dante’s amazement, here sunlight falls upon the land from another part of the sky. In Purgatory, souls purge themselves of sin and learn to let go; the habits of mortal life are loosened and then left behind, ushering in a better kind of experience. And as Virgil explains, the mount itself reveals the shape of that better possibility, in another inversion of what Dante (and we) have so far known:
This mountain’s of such sort
that climbing it is hardest at the start;
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind. (Purg. 4.88–90)
Eventually, “this slope” will seem
that climbing farther up will be as restful
as traveling downstream by boat. (Purg. 4.91–93)
In a reversal of earthly experience, an ascent of this mount moves toward sabbatical “rest,” the “climbing” a figure of spiritual growth. And whereas late in Canto 20 Dante “feel[s] the mountain tremble like / a falling thing,” he comes to learn from Statius in Canto 21 that “it only trembles […] / when some soul feels it’s cleansed, so that it rises / or stirs to climb on high” (Purg. 20.127–128; 21.58–60). What feels, in other words, like “a falling thing”—a reminder of the Fall and of the fact of death—reveals itself to be a soul as it rises, an inversion that points to the central Christian paradox (Purg. 21.59–60). We must lose our life in order to gain it, must seem to fall in order actually to rise. We are doubtless “worms,” but we are also “born / to form the angelic butterfly that soars” (Purg. 10.124–5). Through the second canticle, Christians (including Christian poets and their poems) who are “arrogant, exhausted, wretched,” with “intellects” that are “sick and cannot see,” may learn to fly (Purg. 10.121–123).
In Purgatorio, Dante moves to purge the infernal poetics of Inferno, hopes to make his “poem”—this poem and the poem to follow—“rise again from Hell’s dead realm” (Purg. 1.8). He is, in other words, attempting to enact an artistic resurrection. For example, where Dante, poet of Inferno, characterizes Geryon as the “gross effigy of fraud” (sozza imagine di froda), Dante poet of Purgatorio re-imagines the imagine, recasts the word in order to save it and the poem. Near the “bordering bank” of the First Terrace in Purgatory, Dante-pilgrim experiences God’s art in the image of Gabriel announcing the moment of divine condescension, the pattern of all humility.
The angel … after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision—
he did not seem to be a silent image [imagine]. (Purg. 10.34–39)
Dante sees in Gabriel “the effigy [imaginata] / of one who turned the key that had unlocked / the highest love” (Purg. 10.34–43). In God’s better art, marble images seem to speak and move. What feels impossible becomes wondrously possible. The monstrous imagine of Inferno yields to the better imagine and imaginata of Purgatorio. Here silence speaks, and it says neither “death” nor “pride” nor “fraud,” but “peace,” “new life,” and “love” (Purg. 10.34–43). The “effigy” of Gabriel’s Ave to the Virgin supplants in the reader’s experience the destructive “effigy” of Geryon’s wholly earthly, fallen, and unnatural art. Acts of artistry in the new poem purge the old, enabling the poetic resurrection. Other “effigies of true humility” (l’imagini di tante umilitadi)—including David and Trajan—appear too, offering better art, “because He was their maker” (Purg. 10.98–99). No unnatural poeisis, no usury, no alchemy, only God’s art, where there is no fraudulence, no deception, no false faces, only things as they are and should be: “The dead seemed dead and the alive, alive” (Purg. 12.67).
Near the end of Purgatorio, Dante enables his reader to sense the shift into paradisal poetics, to feel the purged poem in a place where sin is impossible. He enters a garden where the wind gently blows life into the trees, stimulating
the little birds upon
the branches in the practice of their arts;
for to the leaves, with song, birds welcomed those
first hours of the morning joyously,
and leaves supplied the burden to their rhymes. (Purg. 28.14–18)
This is poetry in the region that never fell, where morning bird-song “rhymes” and the natural singers’ art receives its musical “burden” in the repeating sounds of leaves on wind-moved “trembling boughs” (Purg. 28.10). Like Dante-pilgrim’s rectified will—“free, erect, and whole”—the birds of the earthly paradise sing the poem of nature healed in a place of purity and claritas (Purg. 27.140, 28.28–30).
The force of God’s better art, as of the unfallen creation, recurs in Purgatorio during a moment of poetic elevation in Canto 28, when Dante-poet translates an instance (and perhaps too the entire genre) of bawdy pastoral into paradisal terms. The transformation begins as Dante-pilgrim meets Matilda, the “solitary woman moving, / singing, … gathering up flower on flower” within the earthly paradise (Purg. 28.40–41). In the passage’s brief colloquy, the tantalizing motions and sounds, the glances, the garden—in all of it, Dante’s contemporary readers would hear echoes of Cavalcanti and poets like him. The reader would expect to find a “little shepherdess” with “light-blond, curly hair / And eyes full of love,” ready to consummate the amorosa voglia at the heart of “In un boschetto trova pasturella.” Having established those connections in the first moments of the pilgrim’s encounter with Matilda, Dante-poet exploits them to profound spiritual effect. Over the course of the Canto, he refines the motifs and figures of the pastoral love song into something holy. In purgatorial translation, the Cavalcanti-esque scene becomes a moment of chastity, of “chaste eyes,” “intelligible” sounds, and “light” (Purg. 28.57–60, 28.80). The maiden’s song proves not lustful but psalmic. The pilgrim finds satisfaction with hearing and seeing and with questions answered. In this place of virgin-flowering, of a seedless “engender[ing]” that is more than natural poeisis, Matilda—la “donna innamorata”—does not sing the sexual line from Cavalcanti, but “Delectasti” and “Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata” (Purg. 28.67–69, 28.81, 29.1–3). She sings thanksgiving to God and for the blessings of sin forgiven. Poem and poetess are startlingly pure. Purged. They signal Dante’s new poetics, spiritual poetry elevated through the mountain’s fire.
In Paradiso Dante approaches the point beyond space and time—“there / where in one point, all whens and ubis end”—re-centering the center of all things and recasting the character of his poem (Par. 29.11–12). Beatrice provides the terms for this better understanding, extending the proleptic inversions of Purgatorio to their more than natural conclusions. Through a vision of the cosmos and divinity, Dante’s paradisal guide clarifies the final sense of material distance and structure through their subordination to the higher claims of spiritual insight. It is an ultimate inversion, foreshadowed not only through the translations and elevations of Purgatorio, but also perhaps by the literal peripeteia of the pilgrim and Virgil at the dead middle of the cosmos, upon the body of Lucifer at the bottom of Hell (Inf. 34.76–81).
Late in Paradiso (and appearing in her own beauty beyond all “nature or art”), Beatrice observes the supernatural sense of heaven, of the whole creation’s dependence on a more than material, more than rational foundation (Par. 27.91). She describes a divinely intellectual reality beyond the here and now, the “heaven” that “has no other where than this: / the mind of God” (Par. 27.109–110). It is, as Dante-poet comes to reflect, a “truth that is unlike / [our] present life” (Par. 28.2–3). Ready to see more, in Canto 28 Dante has a vision of “a point” of blazing light, surrounded by nine concentric rings of fire, each rotating around the center (Par. 28.16–34). The rings circle in descending order of speed and in a descending sequence of purity from the center, from smallest to largest (Par. 28.34–39). The fastest, most ardent, most pure, is nearest the central point of light (Par. 28.41–45). And as Beatrice begins to teach Dante the mystery, to characterize the non-material shape of spiritual reality, she frames the impetus behind the moving world:
On that Point
depend the heavens and the whole of nature.
Look at the circle that is nearest It,
and know: its revolutions are so swift
because of burning love that urges it. (Par. 28.41–45)
Dante-pilgrim is coming to see, with better eyes, the basis of the world. He “look[s]” in order to “know” the burning love behind “the heavens and the whole of nature.” He now sees in order to understand. But as Dante observes, the common sense, sensible framework of the cosmos (and the path too of his journey in Paradise, of the ordering in Paradiso from the moon to the stars) fails to correspond to Beatrice’s descriptions. The material world, in fact, is a complete inversion of what he now hears:
in the world of sense, what one can see
are spheres becoming ever more divine
as they are set more distant from the center. (Par. 28.49–51)
Beatrice’s spiritual sense of things turns the world inside out. The sizes of the material spheres in the sky prove merely signs of their spiritual significance:
The size of spheres of matter—large or small—
depends upon the power—more and less—
that spreads throughout their parts. More excellence
yields greater blessedness; more blessedness
must comprehend a greater body when
that body’s parts are equally complete. (Par. 28.64–69)
In Beatrice’s spiritual decoding of cosmic structure, the most distant sphere from the material center of things is the actual center of reality, the innermost material point, the most distant spiritual sphere.
Reading these ideas backwards into Inferno suggests that although Geryon swims at the material center of the first canticle and Lucifer freezes at the material center of the earth and Dante’s cosmos, it is the Trinity that dwells, despite appearances, at the spiritual center of the poem and creation. In other words, seen through spiritual eyes, the material center is merely the periphery (the most distant point from God), while the most remote sphere of Paradiso is the eternal center, “no other where than … / the mind of God” (Par. 27.109–10). The end of the poem is the heart of the whole. If so, then perhaps an act of spiritual poeisis (such as “this sacred poem”) may seem like fraud to those who read with wholly material eyes, may feel like complete fiction to those who have “lost,” as Virgil suggests of the shades in Inferno, “the good of the intellect” (Par. 25.1; Inf. 3.18). And if this is so, then (despite his infernal playfulness) perhaps Dante does “swear” genuinely upon the truth of his poetic account, affirming finally not the material and literal meaning of his journey and re-telling, but its imaginative and spiritual sense.
In this context at the close of Paradiso, the monster Geryon returns for a third and final time in the Commedia, not in body (as in Inferno), nor in speech (as in Purgatorio), but in artistic form, in the elevation of spiritual word-play. Geryon, infernal poem in the midst of Inferno, returns at the conclusion of Paradiso, in the midst of spiritual truth, as “one single volume,” the spiritual book of making in which is “ingathered / and bound by love … what, in the universe, seems separate” (Par. 33.85–87). The artful “twining knots” adorning the monster in Inferno (le coste / dipinti avea di nodi) return in Paradiso as the knot of eternity (La forma universal di questo nodo), “the universal shape / which that knot takes” (Inf. 17.14–15; Par. 33.91–92). The gross effigy of fraud (sozza imagine di froda) returns as our image (nostra effige), the more than human mystery of how “our human effigy / suited the circle” (l’imago al cerchio) of the second person of the Trinity (Par. 33.137–138). The monstrous poem is replaced imaginatively, spiritually, with the eternal book, the knots (nodi) of fallen artistry with the knot (nodo) of all reality, the image (imagine) of fraud with the image (imago) of Christ. Fraud yields to the absence of sin, and the absence of sin yields to a final, affirmative, and mystical goodness. Worm to butterfly.
Perhaps all of this points to the final recognitions, the final inversions of our habitual human responses in the here and now. If God is no “where,” then the center of Inferno, the center of Hell, the center of the physical cosmos, all of it must give way before the heart that is not in any place or moment, the spiritual center that is everywhere and always. The risk of unnatural poeisis must yield before the activity of the supernatural Maker. If so, then our journey, the reader’s journey, like Dante’s own, occurs not finally in space and time, but in and through the poet’s imagination, enacting in imitation the creative act of divinity from eternity. No material poem in the end then, only spiritual, or only a material poem spiritualized, raised: when la scritta morta (dead writing) ascends to become lo sacrato poema (the sacred poem), itself ultimately only a shadow of God’s greater Commedia (Inf. 8.127; Par. 23.62).
. Note the difference between the world imagined and the poem of that imagining—that is, the difference between the spatial midpoint of hell (at the fifth of nine circles, demarcated ultimately by the gate of Dis in Cantos 8 and 9) and the structural midpoint of the Inferno canticle (Canto 17, if Canto 1 is treated as a proem to the entire Comedy). Note too that Dante devotes one half of the material text of Inferno to various formulations of fraud (in Cantos 17 through 34), filling circles eight and nine of hell. Translations are by Allan Mandelbaum from The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (New York: Bantam Books, 1980, 1982, and 1984).
. Cf. other double-sided figures in Inferno: the Minotaur of Canto 12, the Ovidian moments of human-serpent and serpent-human transmu-tation in Cantos 25 and 26. Contrast the divine nobility of the Griffin in Canto 31 of Purgatorio.
. Cf. Genesis 1:4: “it was good,” and 1:31: “it was very good.” And John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
. Cf. Lucifer with his three faces woven into a single head, an infernal parody of the Holy Trinity at the spiritual center of Inferno in Canto 34, the bottom of the pit and the material center of creation.
. As Matilda comes to explain, the “wind” in this place is not what we understand as wind, not the result of weather, certainly not the result of Lucifer’s freezing wingbeats, but an echoing effect of celestial mechanics. What moves the boughs moving the leaves accompanying the rhyming birds is better weather, sublime wind (Purg. 28.97–108).
. Guido Cavalcanti. “In un boschetto trova pasturella” in Introduction to Italian Poetry. Edited by Luciano Rebay. (New York: Dover Publications, 1991) 18–19.
. Clive Stapleton Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 58, 116.
. What is more, the “circlets” (rotelle) of Geryon at Inf. 17.15 return elevated through paradisal word-play in the divine “circles” and “circle” (cerchio) of Par. 33.115, 138. The adornment of the monster (with flanks dipinti) at Inf. 17.15 appears revivified in the final adornment of the begotten circle, “painted with our effigy” (pinta de la nostra effige) in Par. 33.131.