I decided to collect the remaining three of Xenophon’s Socratic works into a single review, so what follows are reviews for Oeconomicus, Symposium, and Apology.
You’ve probably seen them: how-to books. They’re often almost as bad as self-help books and premature memoirs that bow down library shelves with the weight of their inanities and half-baked silver bullets, because they always just skim the surface of whatever topic they purport to cover. If you really want to learn how to do something, you should find a really thick nonfiction book, or even a textbook, and be prepared to do the exercises to really understand what’s going on, and why you might do a thing. No amount of reading books on how to make homemade chocolate will convince you why you need a melanger or similar refining tool until you understand why that tool grinds particles of sugar down to a scale of fifteen microns, which happens to be small enough to be indiscernible to the human tongue. Then again, I’m biased, because I spend about half of my time trying to convince people to stop relegating “why” to a childhood phase that you’re supposed to grow out of after a year or two.
What does this have to do with Oeconomicus, the second of Xenophon’s Socratic works? It’s essentially the better kind of how-to book, the kind that actually goes into the whys of what it instructs the reader to do, and that actually dives into the gritty detail and answers to questions that might arise in the process of learning how to…run an ancient Greek farmstead. So yes, I have to admit that from a practical perspective, this one probably has little to help the modern reader, who likely is not running an ancient Greek farmstead, and it doesn’t really elucidate far-reaching concepts of philosophy or metaphysics. What use I derived from it was entirely rooted in historical interest, and in writing. How many farm-boys in fantasy novels actually have knowledge of how to run a period-appropriate farm? This could help with that problem.
Both this piece, and Apology, were also written by Plato, but Xenophon’s versions are a little different. Unfortunately, I cannot claim that I enjoyed Symposium, nor did I derive a lot of value from it. This is a vignette in which Socrates and some others go to a dinner party, and make jokes. It feels like a comedic one-act play (which may have been how it was originally implemented). I only didn’t read it for completeness’s sake.
You’ve probably heard of Plato Apology; Xenophon’s tells the same story. It draws heavily from events that were also detailed in Memorabilia, so there is a certain redundancy, but it goes specifically into how Socrates reacted to and approached the accusations against him and his imminent execution. For those who study such things, the minor differences between the versions that exist of this story are fascinating, but I mostly found it interesting to see how much less sympathetic of a character Xenophon paints Socrates to be. He really comes across as somewhat arrogant and prideful in this version of Apology. This is certainly worth reading, though.
Next week’s post will wrap up our reviews of the collected works of Xenophon, so you can soon look forward to relief from weeks of such posts.