Xenophon on Liberality and Freedom: Ancient Aristocratic Values and Contemporary Inequalities

Carol Atack

  Atack, Carol. "Xenophon on Liberality and Freedom: Ancient Aristocratic Values and Contemporary Inequalities." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:AtackC.Xenophon_on_Liberality_and_Freedom.2020.



Abstract

Xenophon’s use of slavery as an analogy for political unfreedom permeates his writings, including those revered by the country’s Founding Fathers, the Cyropaedia and the Memorabilia. Xenophon identifies the virtuous leading citizen and ruler through the absence of qualities described as andrapodes (‘of a man-footed beast’, perhaps ancient Greek’s most dehumanising term for the enslaved) and aneleutheron (‘unfree’). The restatement of the link between freedom and unfreedom as character traits in Memorabilia book 4, in which Xenophon sets out a Socratic syllabus for the personal development of the young Athenian citizen Euthydemus, emphasises that the goal of Socratic education is to eliminate qualities associated with the enslaved and unfree from the aspiring leader. In the Cyropaedia, Cyrus’ greatness is demonstrated through his possession of virtues associated with greatness and plenty. Yet in reading this positive description of the great ruler, we should not neglect the enslaved and dehumanised other developed in Xenophon’s analogies of political and personal freedom and slavery; if we want to treat Xenophon’s work as contributing to the study of leadership, we should also pay attention to his treatment of the subjugated.


During my stay at the Center in February 2020 I was able to make significant progress on my work on Xenophon’s political thought. I developed my thinking on the problematic intertwining of character virtue and political status in his hierarchical and almost aristocratic political thought, focused on his treatment of freedom and slavery as political statuses and simultaneously character virtues and vices. Subsequent political events across the USA, particularly the #BlackLivesMatter protests across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, have made me more aware of the significance of addressing the topic of Xenophon’s influence in the political culture of the United States. Xenophon’s use of slavery as an analogy for political unfreedom permeates his writings, including those revered by the country’s Founding Fathers, the Cyropaedia and the Memorabilia. While my original plans had focused on Xenophon’s treatment of freedom, it cannot be disentangled from his treatment of slavery. As Xenophon’s model of the free citizen rests on the presence of the enslaved other, freedom and slavery should not be treated separately.

Alcibiade recevant les leçons de Socrate (1776), by François-André Vincent (1746-1816), Musée Fabre, Montpellier; one of many neo-classical paintings to illustrate the Socratic education of elite youth.

Ancient thought on slavery is rendered even more problematic in the context of the present-day United States, through its historical incorporation into the new nation’s racialised political culture at an early point in its development. Aristotle’s analysis of slavery is well known to have both influenced and to have been cited by slave-holding Americans (Monoson 2011). The extent of Aristotle’s influence in the nascent political culture of the United States, and even in the construction of its republican politeia, has been much explored and debated, often in comparison with the influence of the Roman Republic (Pocock 2016; Rahe 1992). In comparison, the role of Xenophon’s work in the construction of American political identities has been neglected, with some exceptions (such as Rood 2010 on the Anabasis and settler colonialism); in part, this is because Xenophon is rarely cited in the political writings of the Founding Fathers, even though they express enthusiasm for him in their correspondence and personal writing. John Adams, for example, rarely draws on Xenophon in his theoretical work (Defence of the Constitutions, Adams 1850, Vols 4-5), but does evoke his withdrawal from the life of the polis, in a 1763 article:

If engagements to a party, are necessary to make a fortune, I had rather make none at all, and spend the remainder of my days like my favourite author, that ancient and immortal husbandman, philosopher, politician and general, Xenophon, in his retreat; considering kings and princes as shepherds, and their people and subjects like flocks and herds, or as mere objects of contemplation and parts of a curious machine in which I had no interest; than to wound my own mind by engaging in any party, and spreading prejudices, vices or follies.

(‘U’, Boston Gazette, 29 August 1763)

By reading Xenophon’s work, in which the virtuous leading citizen and ruler is defined by the absence of qualities described as andrapodes (‘of a man-footed beast’, perhaps ancient Greek’s most dehumanising term for the enslaved) and aneleutheron (‘unfree’), the elite of the early United States absorbed dangerous lessons, when this division was mapped on to the racialized hierarchy of early American society. The restatement of the link between freedom and unfreedom as character traits in Memorabilia book 4, in which Xenophon sets out a Socratic syllabus for the personal development of the young citizen Euthydemus, emphasises that the goal of Socratic education is to eliminate qualities associated with the enslaved and unfree from the aspiring leader. The centrality of slavery as both a practice and analogy, in texts identified by as central to elite education, should perhaps raise question about the negative impact of the classical on America. It should be noted, however, that such texts were not only used by the settler/colonial elite; Black Americans also used and benefitted from classical texts and models (Malamud 2011).

Freedom, for that small proportion of the residents of the Greek polis entitled by age, sex, ancestry and property to participate in the political life of their city, to rule their fellow inhabitants and consent to being ruled in turn by their peers, is opposed to both the external domination of other states (such as the threat from the Persian empire) and to internal threats from powerful individuals who deprive citizens of their participation in ruling (such as the Thirty did). Classical Athenian discussion of freedom during the fourth century BCE develops into an interplay between the aristocratic character virtue of liberality (eleutheriotēs) and the political and economic status of freedom (eleutheria). Any citizen was eleutheros but only an elite citizen could be considered eleutherios, a distinction that Kurt Raaflaub suggests emerged at the time that Xenophon was writing (Raaflaub 2004). As well as the theoretical analysis of freedom as a concept, I’m interested in Xenophon’s understanding of freedom as a character quality embodied in performance in political and social spaces, and its development as part of a political aesthetics. That understanding, I believe, contributed more significantly to Aristotle’s conceptual mapping of values in his ethical and political writings than has been appreciated.

It is not only in Athens that political concepts and value judgements are entwined. The idea of the eleutherios seeps into modern political thought. Did the idealisation of Xenophon’s gentleman farmers by the American founding fathers participate in a similar aesthetic economy? In contemporary political debate, ‘liberal’ can mean both a positive and negative set of character qualities, depending on the political perspective of the person deploying it. The adjective ‘free’ when applied to political acts and speech may also bring along overtones of eleutherios; is there, for example, a classicising aesthetics of free speech?

Ancient sources provide an exemplar of an aestheticised discourse of freedom. The ethical and political insights of Xenophon’s fictionalised depictions of powerful political leaders such as Cyrus the Great (Cyropaedia) and Agesilaus (Agesilaus, Hellenica) can contribute to our understanding of freedom as a concept evoked by the powerful as well as the powerless. We can see that Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ empire with its hierarchical political and social arrangements illustrates character virtues outlined in Aristotle’s ethical writings, particularly those associated with ‘greatness’: liberality, magnificence and greatness of soul (Aristotle Eudemian Ethics 3.4-6, Nicomachean Ethics 4.1-2, and Rhetoric 1.9, especially 1366b1-22). While there is much excellent and helpful scholarship on Aristotle’s account of these virtues, they tend not to consider the intellectual context and the contributions of other thinkers, or make significant connections to Xenophon’s work (Curzer 2012; Hare 1988; Russell 2012). However, reading Xenophon with their analyses in mind has proved valuable.

This approach illuminates Xenophon’s account of Cyrus as king, which provides an illustration and analysis of the virtues associated with greatness. They are assessed in his speech, such as his discussion with Croesus (Cyropaedia 8.2) and embodied in his actions, from the hierarchy of his court to the ritual display of his procession, and particularly in his exploitation of customs of friendship and reciprocity through gift-giving (Cyropaedia 8.4). I hope to show that a closer reading of Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ actions can be used to explain some of the puzzles in Aristotle’s models of the virtues of greatness. While there were different readings of the ancients as well as approaches to slavery among the Founders themselves, the presence of slavery throughout a body of work treated as central to education and to the formation of elite values served to normalise the practice.

Studying Xenophon’s political thought in the context of the physical location of the CHS and in the political culture of Washington DC was revelatory, as I enjoyed hearing patriotic songs each morning at 8am blasted from loudspeakers at the nearby Naval Observatory, residence of the vice-president. I had long had a hunch that there was an aesthetic and performative element in contemporary American ideas about freedom. Visiting the monuments of Washington DC – from Roosevelt’s memorial with its commitment to the ‘Four Freedoms’, to the National Archives with their display of the founding documents of the United States – helped me to understand better the centrality of freedom to American political culture. I was honoured to be invited to discuss Xenophon’s thought with the Ancient Leadership reading group at the Cosmos Club.

During my stay at CHS I was able to immerse myself in previous scholarship on the Founding Fathers’ use of classical texts, and on the reception of Greek political thought in American political culture. But I was also able to see how classicists in the USA are using the texts of classical antiquity for more positive work. I was particularly struck by the presentations by Emily Allen-Hornblower and Marquis McCray at the CHS event Rediscovering our Humanity: Reading the Classics Behind Bars and Beyond held at Howard University. I gained some insights into how the characters of classical myth and tragedy, in the extreme circumstances they endured, spoke so clearly to the incarcerated and especially to those unjustly denied their freedom; I enjoyed further discussion over lunch at the Center. After coming to a better understanding of how classical texts have helped to frame the discourse of oppression, this event provided a counter-balance, as did the Center’s display introducing the work of Black Classicists of the nineteenth century.

The global pandemic meant that the conference for this paper was prepared has been delayed for a year; I was also unable to visit New York, although a visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Xenophon scholar Emily Baragwanath was (I hope mutually) productive. I also now have far more material than comfortably fits in a single paper, and am contemplating further ways of disseminating it. This research will also feed into two book projects, Memories of Socrates, for which I’m writing the introduction and notes to new translations of Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology by Martin Hammond (under contract with Oxford University Press for the Oxford World’s Classics series), and a short book on Xenophon for the series Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics.

Select biliography

Adams, J. 1850. The works of John Adams, second President of the United States: with a life of the author, notes and illustrations. Boston.

Curzer, H.J. 2012. Aristotle and the Virtues. Oxford.

Hare, J. 1988. “Έλευθεριότης in Aristotle’s Ethics.” Ancient Philosophy 8:19-32.

Malamud, M. 2011. “The Auctoritas of Antiquity: Debating Slavery through Classical Exempla in the Antebellum USA.” In Ancient Slavery and Abolition: from Hobbes to Hollywood, ed. E. Hall, R. Alston, and J. McConnell, 279-318. Oxford.

Monoson, S.S. 2011. “Recollecting Aristotle: Pro-Slavery Thought in Antebellum America and the Argument of Politics Book I.” In Ancient Slavery and Abolition: from Hobbes to Hollywood, ed. E. Hall, R. Alston and J. McConnell, 247-278. Oxford.

Pocock, J.G.A. 2016. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton.

Raaflaub, K. A. 2004. The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece. Chicago.

Rahe, P.A. 1992. Republics Ancient and Modern: classical republicanism and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill.

Rood, T. 2010. American Anabasis: Xenophon and the idea of America from the Mexican War to Iraq. London.

Russell, D.C. 2012. “Aristotle’s Virtues of Greatness.” In Virtue and Happiness: Essays in Honour of Julia Annas, ed. R. Kamtekar, 115-47. Oxford.




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