I finally finished reading the collected works of Xenophon! It's true I don't use very many exclamation points, but considering that the first time I picked this up was more than five years ago, and finally sitting down and reading it took me almost a whole month, I think I'm allowed to make an exception to my own rule. Since I've already subjected you to a month and a half worth of Xenophon book reviews, I'm not going to include another overall review; that content will be included in this post, along with my reviews for the various minor treatises included in the Complete Works.
★★★★ 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. Oeconomicus 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 … Continue reading More Socratic Works Review
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.
Continuing on through the collected works of Xenophon, we next have Hellenica, which much like Herodotus's Histories is intended as a historical narrative. This time, it picks up the account in 411 BCE, and covers about fifty years, to 362 BCE, which is apparently the year of the Battle of Mantineia. Apparently, it picks up the narrative thread of the Peloponnesian War immediately where Thucydides' history abruptly ends (which is also on my reading list, and I only know this because the information was conveniently included in the front of my translation of Hellenica), and may have been written just for his friends as a sort of historical "vanity" publication. Like The Ten Thousand, this is covering a topic to which Xenophon was a contemporary, so it is considered an important primary source, and hopefully has a bit more historical veracity than his not-really biographical treatment of King Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire.
I've actually read this part before, but decided to re-read it in light of my recent reading of Herodotus's Histories, which covered the period about a hundred years or so before the events in The Ten Thousand, and provided a lot of valuable context for understanding what was happening in Xenophon's story. Unlike Herodotus, Xenophon is not writing about history in The Ten Thousand; he is writing a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to him and his companions during a campaign as mercenaries in a decidedly short-lived Persian civil war. Like Caesar in his Commentaries, Xenophon refers to himself in the third person, and the result is perhaps the most story-like and modern-seeming of all the ancient works that I've been reading recently. In fact, Conn Iggulden wrote a historical fiction novella primarily based upon the events in The Ten Thousand, and it was a very interesting experience to read that having already read its primary source.
Traditionally, morality and the question of right and wrong have been the province of religion. More and more people do not identify as religious or follow a particular religious teaching. Useful for consideration: Aristotle's Virtue Ethics, Moral Relativism, Abraham Lincoln's essay on the importance of upholding the law, Martin Luther King's Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Utilitarianism, Deontology, Kant's universal law.
Don't worry: despite the title, this is not going to be a post of me complaining about something, or at least that's not how I would construe it (but then I wouldn't, would I?). Instead, I would like to begin with an observation, that observation being that humans are fundamentally lazy. Or, for those who prefer a positive spin to things (so many possible particle physics jokes there), humans are fundamentally efficient. Like nature, we are generally inclined to take the short term path of least resistance.
These arguments look at the published statistics, showing that the virus is apparently under control in Eastern nations, and isn't in Western nations, and suggest that perhaps the supposedly example-setting Western democracies need to take a lesson from these Eastern countries. I have even seen some essays suggesting that the progress of the pandemic in the East and the West demonstrates that the time for Western-style democracy has passed. What is left unspoken in all of these arguments is that these discussions are assuming the primacy of utilitarian morality.
In philosophy, there is a concept called moral relativism. It was particularly popular in the mid-twentieth century, but has fallen out of favor in many circles today. Aristotle's famous question - "is conduct right because the gods demand it, or do the gods demand it because it is right" - is answered in moral relativism with a resounding no, to both alternatives. Instead, moral relativism asserts that conduct is right so long as it is in keeping with the conventions of the culture within that conduct takes place, and conduct should only be judged within that context.
Ayn Rand suggests that we are fundamentally selfish creatures, and that such selfishness is not a bad thing (we touched briefly on this in our Pride post). Her philosophy of objectivism argues that even an act of apparent charity is at its core a selfish act, a moral transaction of sorts - the recompense you receive for your "selfless" act on another's behalf is the sense of satisfaction or boost in reputation which you experience as a result.