Xenophon wrote the first military memoir in the history of Western literature, as well as portraits of leaders, practical treatises on horse training, hunting and running a household, among other things. An enduring theme that runs through much of his writing is that of leadership.
What makes a good leader? What kind of leader can induce humans to endure hardships and expend effort toward a common goal? What exemplary traits mark out a leader and allow him or her to execute the requisite tasks with skill, induce a harmonious fellowship among those for whom he is responsible, maintain loyalty and mission clarity among the ‘troops’, whomever they might be?
Xenophon also wrote down his remembrances of a local philosopher named Socrates. Those who know Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato – Xenophon’s near-exact contemporary – will find Xenophon’s Socrates something of a surprise. Plato’s Socrates claims to know nothing, and flamboyantly refutes the knowledge claims of others.
Socrates’ conversation, according to Xenophon, ‘was ever of human things’. This engaged, intensely practical, human Socrates can be refreshing to encounter. Anyone who has felt discomfort at how the opponents of Plato’s Socrates suffer relentless public refutations and reductions to absurdity can take some comfort in Xenophon’s Socrates who ‘tries to cure the perplexities of his friends’.
For instance, what could be more enchanting than a Socrates who solo-dances for joy and exercise, so unlike the Socrates we know from Plato? In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates asks the Phoenician dance-master to show him some dance moves. Everyone laughs: what will you do with dance moves, Socrates? He replies: ‘I’ll dance, by God!’ A friend of Socrates then tells the group that he had stopped by his house early in the morning, and found him dancing alone. When questioned about it, Socrates happily confesses to solo-dancing often. It’s great exercise, it moves the body in symmetry, it can be done indoors or outdoors with no equipment, and it freshens the appetite.
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