And the greatest adventurer of all time is....
June 10, 2011 10:17 PM   Subscribe

Xenophon is called the original horse whisperer. He wrote one of the earliest works on hunting, and training dogs. He helped lead ten thousand Greek warriors and their camp followers out of Persia back to the Black Sea; his account, Anabasis, inspired The Warriors and countless other creative works. He is one of only two sources of information about the most famous philosopher of all time. He inspired Machiavelli. Xenophon at wikipedia, wikisource, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Project Gutenberg, famous quotes, In Our Time.
posted by bq (34 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have over two hundred books on training horses on my shelf--not one of them contains any more than Xenophon wrote.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:37 PM on June 10, 2011


It should also be noted that he wrote the book on economics; Oeconomicus. Probably the first book on this topic. Trace the concept of 'household management' or 'home knowing' through the ages and you have a map to the beautiful unfolding of our human awareness of our planet.
posted by astrobiophysican at 11:01 PM on June 10, 2011


"Our age boasts of being more open to everything human than any earlier age; it is surely blind to the greatness of Xenophon. Without intending it, one might make some discoveries about our age by reading and rereading Xenophon." - Leo Strauss
posted by koeselitz at 11:05 PM on June 10, 2011


Xenophon wrote the oldest known For Dummies, Egyptian Hieroglyphics for Dummies, but it was lost.
posted by stbalbach at 11:07 PM on June 10, 2011


astrobiophysican: “It should also be noted that he wrote the book on economics; Oeconomicus. Probably the first book on this topic. Trace the concept of 'household management' or 'home knowing' through the ages and you have a map to the beautiful unfolding of our human awareness of our planet.”

Have you read it? It's about that, but about much, much more. Moreover, in some ways it is not really about household management at all. It's hard to pin down, but it's certainly not simply a text about economics, nor is it in any way part of that tradition so far as I can tell.

It's a book that's dear to my heart. It begins with a discussion of what wealth is which (I'm simplifying) culminates in the consideration that wealth is not wealth if we do not know how to use it as such. It then turns to a reflection on how this is true of friends, as well: friends are actually enemies if we misuse them – and in a certain way enemies are our friends if we know how to give them their proper place.

This is a typical Xenophonian observation. It's very simple, it seems almost obvious in fact, and yet it carries within it a deep well of thoughtfulness.
posted by koeselitz at 11:09 PM on June 10, 2011 [6 favorites]


Koeselitz: I was making a focused point. Not meant as a summary of the work.
posted by astrobiophysican at 11:35 PM on June 10, 2011


Heh, yeah. Sorry. Not being combative, just effusive. I just love the book.
posted by koeselitz at 11:38 PM on June 10, 2011


Great post bq.
posted by arcticseal at 1:20 AM on June 11, 2011


I barely knew Xenophon's name prior to looking over the links for this post.

I was astounded to read that The Warriors, which I saw during its extremely brief theatrical release before it was pulled from distribution because of all the gang violence it set off in city after city, was ultimately inspired by Xenophon's Anabasis:

Themes from the Anabasis were used in Sol Yurick's novel The Warriors, which was later adapted into a 1979 cult movie of the same name, and finally a Rockstar Games video game in 2005. Each re-imagining relocates Xenophon's narrative to the gang scene of New York.
posted by jamjam at 1:50 AM on June 11, 2011


I enjoyed Anabsis but found Hellenica excruciating since it followed Thucydides' work, History of the Peloponessian War. I slogged it through the Cyropaedia.
posted by jadepearl at 5:09 AM on June 11, 2011


bq, this is a totally awesome post (and I have never used the word 'awesome' on MeFi before). Tell me that you also enjoy Mary Renault's fiction, and I think we need to be spoused.
posted by likeso at 5:20 AM on June 11, 2011


yes, i agree with likeso, thank you very much for this posting
posted by past at 5:23 AM on June 11, 2011


He is one of only two sources of information about the most famous philosopher of all time.

Not including Aristophanes...
posted by goethean at 5:24 AM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I do enjoy Mary Renault, and Xenophon was a character in one of her books!

Thanks for the encouragement. This is my second FPP. I listened to the In Our Time episode last week and thought, hey, this guy was special. I really recommend that link because they convey a great sense of his personality. They didn't mention The Warriors, though, which may be the awesomest part.
posted by bq at 5:53 AM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The funny thing about Xenophon is that there's a group of classicists out there that completely revile him. I was talking to someone in a Greek class once about some anonymous text that was originally attributed to Xenophon and he basically said that people stopped thinking it was Xenophon because it was good and well-written and we all know that Xenophon was too stupid to pull that off. Between that and potshots at his Greek from my professors, I've always felt bad for poor Xenophon whose only crime was not being Thycydides or Plato.

That said, every time I catch a glance of the unread copy of the Landmark Hellenica mocking me from my bookshelf, I feel a little less bad for the guy. Just pipe down and I'll get to you eventually, buddy.
posted by Copronymus at 5:54 AM on June 11, 2011


I saw the post and thought "Xenophon? why does that name ring a bell? Oh, right, the latest In Our Time. Hey, I'd better add that link. Oh, already there."

And now I see that's what prompted you. bq. Thanks for finding all these great links. If only my reading lists wasn't so over-subscribed.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:01 AM on June 11, 2011


Xenophon was (and took) a trip. A great podcast over on the beeb (BBC webpages) of an In Our Time podcast about him. If you google "in our time xenophon" it comes up.
posted by sensi63 at 7:31 AM on June 11, 2011


Xenophon and Thucydides both did something remarkable. These are the two earliest surviving histories. Herodotus is older, but his history is more like a travelogue that collected urban legends.

Before these two, it was just story-telling. Then they come along and - bam - history as a rational science exists. It's not just history, but the other Western sciences had the same thing going on the earliest surviving written works show knowledge completely developed and organized. It appears to have happened very quickly, in historical terms.

This is very different from the evolutionary history of modern science. For instance, the evolution from alchemy to chemistry has a history of about two hundred years (roughly from Newton to Lavoisier) of the slow evolution of a theory of matter from Aristotelian elements (essences) to discrete atomic elements.

Some argue that the classical sciences also went through a slow evolutionary period and that the earlier works are simply lost to time. That stance pretty much relies on assuming the conclusion, whereas people like George Sarton, (the founder of the modern history of science) held that the written record showed a sudden emergence.

It is possible that the cultural pattern of writing down knowledge was what happened suddenly, not the organization of knowledge. But what remains is the startling fact that the Greeks (and many of them Athenians) produced a very large body of scientific literature in a very short period of time.
posted by warbaby at 7:33 AM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Xenophon also lists the proper names for hounds: Psyche, Pluck, Buckler, Spigot, Lance, Lurcher, Watch, Keeper, Brigade, Fencer, Butcher, Blazer, Prowess, Craftsman, Forester, Counsellor, Spoiler, Hurry, Fury, Growler, Riot, Bloomer, Rome, Blossom, Hebe, Hilary, Jolity, Gazer, Eyebright, Much, Force, Trooper, Bustle, Bubbler, Rockdove, Stubborn, Yelp, Killer, Pele-mele, Strongboy, Sky, Sunbeam, Bodkin, Wistful, Gnome, Tracks, Dash. Each of the names are short so they can be said easily.

Have these ever been worked into a story? Reminds me of the borohydrate chemist who named his puppies closo, nido and arachno.
posted by 445supermag at 8:07 AM on June 11, 2011


This is such a cool post. I only knew about him from the horse world.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:54 AM on June 11, 2011


Little known fact: I worked with Terence Michos about 15 years ago when I was an ENG cameraman for a cable company. He played Vermin, a kind of background member of The Warriors gang. He's the one wearing the leather vest. This makes me want to read Anabasis so I can imagine him as a Greek warrior. He was a raging fundie Christian by the time I knew him so should be a fun exercise
posted by spicynuts at 11:13 AM on June 11, 2011


This makes me want to read Anabasis so I can imagine him as a Greek warrior. He was a raging fundie Christian by the time I knew him so should be a fun exercise

Not likely to be a futile exercise either, considering that, as one of bq's links points out, the assassinated gang leader in The Warriors was named Cyrus in the movie instead of Ismael as in the novel, and that Cyrus is the name of the Persian prince who hired Xenophon and the other Greek mercenaries to help him take the Peacock Throne (possible anachronism here) from his brother Anaxerxes, implying that the Anabasis inspired the movie partly independently of the novel.
posted by jamjam at 12:16 PM on June 11, 2011


...there's a group of classicists out there that completely revile him.

Good grief, no! Guess I was fortunate that my professors held him in esteem--as well they should.

...potshots at his Greek from my professors...

Really? He was a military man, which may have some bearing on his speech/writing. He LIVED in Athens, what? about 400 BC IIR, and these hinks know better how Greek should have been written? Or are they just proscriptivist about a language that isn't even theirs.


Psyche, Pluck, Buckler, Spigot, Lance, Lurcher, Watch, Keeper, Brigade, Fencer, Butcher, Blazer, Prowess...

Oh, yes. His On Hunting with Dogs is a good read for a dog person! The names are wonderful, very evocative of the dog's personalities.

I must remember to post these for the next WhattonamemypuppyFilter question.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:20 PM on June 11, 2011


As I struggled awake this morning, it crossed my mind that there is a striking resemblance between TE Lawrence and Xenophon, both in their personalities and careers, and that turns out to be anything but a coincidence.
posted by jamjam at 12:32 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always felt bad for poor Xenophon whose only crime was not being Thycydides or Plato.

Hard to read = great, Easier to read = contemptible.

Which may help explain a lot of academic prose....
posted by IndigoJones at 3:21 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's certainly true that Xenophon wrote remarkably clear Greek, especially compared to someone like Thucydides who is often simultaneously (and infuriatingly) both elliptical and pedantically precise. However, I suspect the revulsion many classicists have for him is chiefly because of the contrast between his version of Socrates and Plato's. Plato's Socrates is poetic, enigmatic, fascinating, unforgettable. Xenophon's Socrates is a very sensible guy who is good at finding creative solutions to problems: for example, when his friend comes to him complaining that his wife's poor female relations have descended on the house and are eating him out of house and home, Xenophon's Socrates suggests that he give them some spinning to do to earn their keep. At best, he is practical and affable; at worst, he is smug and crashingly dull. If Socrates was as Xenophon describes him, there is no way at all that he deserves his current place in the history of philosophy. If you want to keep Socrates in the canon, Xenophon's presentation has to be explained away. A popular explanation is that Xenophon was just completely incapable of appreciating Socrates, that almost everything about him went over his head and that he completely missed the irony in many of Socrates' pronouncements (did I mention that Xenophon's Socrates is almost always earnestly literal?). Another is that Xenophon deliberately and misleadingly used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his oligarchic views and shoehorned in some dull advice he wanted to have popularised. Xenophon doesn't come well out of either explanation. But if you want to keep Plato's as the close-to-canonical version, Xenophon has to be not just wrong, but dead wrong, and it's hard to argue this without having him be either very stupid or very untruthful.

I guess another explanation for why Xenophon is so disliked is that in a lot of ways he resembles the great Roman prose stylists: clear, literal, didactic, and heterosexual. Basically what a lot of people turn to Hellenism to escape. But I think that the Socrates thing explains more of it.
posted by Acheman at 3:57 PM on June 11, 2011 [10 favorites]


This is now my favorite thread.

(bq, I have updated our link to 'spouse'. I did warn you.)
posted by likeso at 5:51 PM on June 11, 2011


This is going to be difficult to explain to my husband.
posted by bq at 11:06 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, mine said: "Well, I hope you'll be very happy together. What's for dinner?"
posted by likeso at 1:55 AM on June 12, 2011


Acheman: “However, I suspect the revulsion many classicists have for him is chiefly because of the contrast between his version of Socrates and Plato's. Plato's Socrates is poetic, enigmatic, fascinating, unforgettable. Xenophon's Socrates is a very sensible guy who is good at finding creative solutions to problems: for example, when his friend comes to him complaining that his wife's poor female relations have descended on the house and are eating him out of house and home, Xenophon's Socrates suggests that he give them some spinning to do to earn their keep. At best, he is practical and affable; at worst, he is smug and crashingly dull. If Socrates was as Xenophon describes him, there is no way at all that he deserves his current place in the history of philosophy. If you want to keep Socrates in the canon, Xenophon's presentation has to be explained away. A popular explanation is that Xenophon was just completely incapable of appreciating Socrates, that almost everything about him went over his head and that he completely missed the irony in many of Socrates' pronouncements (did I mention that Xenophon's Socrates is almost always earnestly literal?). Another is that Xenophon deliberately and misleadingly used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his oligarchic views and shoehorned in some dull advice he wanted to have popularised. Xenophon doesn't come well out of either explanation. But if you want to keep Plato's as the close-to-canonical version, Xenophon has to be not just wrong, but dead wrong, and it's hard to argue this without having him be either very stupid or very untruthful.”

Plato's presentation of Socrates is identical to Xenophon's in almost every detail to the careful reader. The trouble with Xenophon is merely that hundreds of years of bias, combined with an era of remarkably sloppy readership, have made him almost inaccessible to readers today. (And, if I may say so, I get the feeling you haven't read Xenophon very closely, either.)

The heart of Plato's presentation of Socrates was the decisive turn; the decisive turn came when Socrates chose to turn away (in part apparently based on the suggestion by the oracle at Delphi) from the study of the heavens and look to "human things," i.e. the political. All of Plato's work present's Socrates turning in this way. So does the work of Xenophon. The texts at the heart of Xenophon's teaching center around the possibility of the human good just as much as the important Platonic texts – chiefly his central work, the Laws. And the focus is the teaching Socrates had to impart on the matter.

When Xenophon has Socrates speak of spinning to earn one's keep, he's indicating larger things about the relationships between human beings. When he has Socrates converse (for instance in the Oeconomicus) about the necessity to think about when one's best chances to plant crops are, he's indicating the nature of providence and the possibility that a theocratic view of the world is correct. These wrinkles of meaning are almost invisible in Xenophon when we moderns read him; we see talk of seeds and planting crops, and we dismiss this as provincial technical muddles not worthy of a philosopher. We see discussion of marital disputes and we dismiss this stuff as boring and unimportant. We read Plato and, right there on the page, we see sex and death and intrigue – these things are easy for us to latch on to, so we get very excited about Plato.

Xenophon, however, is above us.

“I guess another explanation for why Xenophon is so disliked is that in a lot of ways he resembles the great Roman prose stylists: clear, literal, didactic, and heterosexual. Basically what a lot of people turn to Hellenism to escape. But I think that the Socrates thing explains more of it.”

If you think Xenophon is literal or "heterosexual," you haven't read him very carefully. The fact is that Xenophon hardly ever talks about his own beliefs. He's like other circumspect Greeks in this; Aristotle and Thucydides suffer the same fate at the hands of modern readers, although they have the benefit of better reputations. They simply aren't writers that speak much about their own opinions; and we're used to writers who speak about nothing else. So we say that Aristotle knows nothing about physics, or that Thucydides admires Pericles. Again, these writers are above us, so it's easy to see why reading them correctly is not a task that interests many.
posted by koeselitz at 2:10 AM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Anabasis remains my favorite story of what people can do when everything around them goes down the toilet if they just keep their heads together.

Thank you for posting this.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 5:14 PM on June 12, 2011


I've never read any Xenophon, but The Anabasis has been on my "long list of books to read someday" for a while. With this thread's prompting, I thought I'd check Amazon. Now, I don't have a Kindle, and I don't particularly want a Kindle, but if I had a Kindle, I could get The Anabasis for free. Did everybody else already know that?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:42 AM on June 13, 2011


I could get The Anabasis for free.

Project Gutenberg.
posted by sfenders at 12:34 PM on June 13, 2011


D'oh. Blinded by technology. And me a amateur Luddite.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:22 PM on June 13, 2011


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