Note: I’ve officially decided to remove the spoiler warning from the top of my book reviews. Since I almost never include spoilers, and at least half of the books I review can’t really be “spoiled,” anyway, it seemed superfluous, and possibly was discouraging people from reading my reviews.
We wrapped up the last of Xenophon’s historical works last week; this week we get to move into his Socratic works, the first of which is Memorabilia. Xenophon wrote this piece as a posthumous defense of his mentor and friend, to exculpate him of the crimes of which he was accused, and to generally exhibit his good character. While Plato’s Dialogues get the most attention, Socrates had many other students and inspired many others, including Xenophon, to record vignettes and other writings pertaining to him, and I actually find Xenophon’s Socratic writings preferable to the more famous Plato’s.
As you might expect from the title, Memorabilia is wide-ranging, with no single topic or philosophy espoused; it covers everything from how to better oneself, to a statement that sounds a lot like the Aristotelian concept of “virtue is the mean between two vices,” and even more prescriptive accounts by Socrates of the best ways to live. It’s written in the dialogue style, with small framing narrations from Xenophon to orient the reader before plunging them into a vignette in which Socrates has a conversation with someone, usually to show that someone how they are incapable of thinking as clearly as Socrates.
I’ve always found Socrates to be such an interesting historical case. Officially, he was put to death on charges of heresy and corrupting the youth (although in Memorabilia you will find one of the best defenses of and arguments for religion that I have ever read), but I’ve always suspected that it was more a matter of how much he annoyed people that didn’t want their flaws pointed out to everyone. His incisive methods, in which he generally refuses to make plain statements, but instead asks leading questions to force his subject along a chain of logic, are fantastically effective, and also have the potential to be fantastically irritating (and in fact there are several recorded instances where the person with whom he is talking will confront him, throw up their hands, and say something to the effect of “will you just say what you want to say already?”). I was talking with my wife about this, and she aptly pointed out that I tend to do the same thing to people…which is definitely true. So I guess I better watch out for hemlock trees.
What makes Xenophon’s Socratic works different from the more well-known Plato, and why I would especially recommend them, is their clarity and directness. I find Plato’s Dialogues to be awkward and difficult to read, and while they are valuable, and more complete than Xenophon’s works, where they overlap Xenophon’s presentation the latter is always more straightforward and immediate. There’s never a question of who is actually doing the talking, and a brief, concise summary of the context of each encounter is included to frame the event. So if you’ve been thinking about going back and tackling Plato again, because you read him years ago because you thought it sounded erudite and then found it opaque and confusing, consider reading Xenophon, instead.