Bertrand Russell wrote in the Chapter on Socrates in his History of Western Philosophy: ‘Let us begin with Xenophon, a military man, not very liberally endowed with brains, and on the whole conventional in his outlook.’ (Routledge Classics, 2004, p. 89)
Pace Russell, Xenophon’s account of Athens in 405-403 B. C. is essential not only for our understanding of Socrates, but for our understanding of Plato as well.
Xenophon went on to say: ‘Now in the beginning (Tô̢ men oun prôtô̢ chronô̢) Critias and Theramenes were agreed in their policy and friendly (ho Kritias tô̢ Thêramenei homognômôn te kai philos ên); but when Critias showed himself eager to put many to death (epei de autos men propetês ên epi to pollous apokteinein), because, for one thing (hate kai), he had been banished by the democracy (phugôn hupo tou dêmou), Theramenes opposed him (ho de Thêramenês antekopte), saying (legôn) that it was not reasonable (hoti ouk eikos eiê) to put a man to death (thanatoun) because he was honoured by the commons (ei tis etimato hupo tou dêmou), provided he was doing no harm to the aristocrats (tous de kalous k’agathous mêden kakon eirgazeto). “For,” said he, “you and I (Epei kai egô, ephê, kai su) also have said and done many things for the sake of winning the favour of the city (polla dê tou areskein heneka tê̢ polei kai eipomen kai epraxamen).”’ (Hellenica II.iii.15, tr. Brownson)
Theramenes is showing here a degree of self-reflection and self-criticism. Did he take to heart the Delphic ‘Know thyself’? In Aristophanes’ Birds, before the ‘Cuckoo-land’ was built in the Clouds, ‘all men in Athens socratized’ (hapantes anthrôpoi esôkratoun, 1281-2). In his opposition to Critias Theramenes appears to be one of them. Did he take heed of what Socrates said about the Thirty?
Xenophon narrates in his Memorabilia: ‘When the Thirty (epei gar hoi triakonta) were putting to death many citizens of the highest respectability (pollous tôn politôn kai ou tous cheiristous apekteinon) and were encouraging many in crime (pollous te protreponto adikein), Socrates had remarked (eipe pou ho Sôkratês): “It seems strange enough to me (hoti thaumaston hoi dokoiê einai) that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad (ei tis genomenos boôn agelês nomeus, kai tas bous elattous te kai cheirous poiôn) should not admit (mê homologoiê) that he is a poor cowherd (kakos boukolos einai); but stranger still (eti de thaumastoteron) that a statesman (ei tis prostatês genomenos poleôs) when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad (kai poiôn tous politas elattous te kai cheirous), should feel no shame (mê aischunetai) and think himself a poor statesman (mêd’ oietai kakos einai prostatês tês poleôs).”’ (I.ii.32, tr. E. C. Marchant)
Xenophon continues: ‘Then Critias (ho de), for he still treated Theramenes as a friend (eti gar oikeiôs echrêto tô̢ Thêramenei), replied (antelegen) that it was impossible (hoti ouk enchôroiê) for people who wanted to gain power (tois pleonektein boulomenois) not to put out of the way (mê ouk ek podôn poieisthai) those who were best able to thwart them (tous hikanôtatous diakôluein). “But if (Ei de),” he said, “merely because we are thirty (hoti triakonta esmen) and not one (kai ouch heis), you imagine that it is any the less necessary for us to keep a close watch over this government, just as one would if it were an absolute monarchy (hêtton ti oiei hôsper turannidos tautês tês archês chrênai epimeleisthai), you are foolish (euêthês ei).” (II.iii.16, tr. Brownson)
Brownson’s ‘for people who wanted to gain power’ for Critias’ tois pleonektein boulomenois impoverishes the meaning of what Critias is saying. The term pleonektein ‘having more’, ‘desiring more’, ‘acquiring more’ is discussed in Plato’s Gorgias. Callicles in the dialogue characterizes it in the way that corresponds to Critias’ understanding of it: ‘In my view (oimai) those who lay down the rules (hoi tithemenoi tous nomous) are the weak men (hoi astheneis anthrôpoi eisin), the many (kai hoi polloi). And so they lay down the rules and assign their praise and blame with the eye on themselves and their own advantage (pros hautous oun kai to hautois sumpheron tous te nomous tithentai kai tous epainous epainousin kai tous psogous psegousin). They terrorize (ekphobountes) the stronger men (tous errômenesterous tôn anthrôpôn) capable (kai dunatous ontas) of having more (pleon echein); and to prevent these men from having more than themselves (hina mê autôn pleon echôsin) they say (legousin) that taking more is shameful and unjust (hôs aischron kai adikon to pleonektein), and that doing injustice is this (kai touto estin to adikein), seeking to have more than other people (to pleon tôn allôn zêtein echein); they are satisfied (agapôsi gar), I take it (oimai), if they themselves have an equal share (autoi an to ison echôsin) when they’re inferior (phauloteroi ontes). That’s why (dia tauta dê) by rule (nomô̢ men) this is said to be unjust and shameful (touto adikon kai aischron legetai), to seek to have more (to pleon zêtein echein) than the many (tôn pollôn), and they call that doing injustice (kai adikon auto kalousin). But I think nature itself shows this (hê de ge oimai phusis autê apophainei auto), that it is just (hoti dikaion estin) for the better man (ton ameinô) to have more than the worse (tou cheironos pleon echein), and the more powerful (kai ton dunatôteron) than the less powerful (tou adunatôterou).’ (483b4-d2, tr. T. Irwin)
Callicles’ disdain for the laws, which is intimately linked to his encomium on pleonektein, is worth comparing with Xenophon’s account of the appointment of the Thirty as legislators: ‘Now at Athens the Thirty had been chosen (Hoi de triakonta hê̢rethêsan men) … for the purpose (eph’ hô̢te) of framing a constitution (sungrapsai nomous) under which (kath’ houstinas) to conduct the government (politeusointo), they continually delayed framing and publishing this constitution (toutous men aei emellon sungraphein te kai apodeiknunai), but they appointed a Senate and the other magistrates (boulên te kai tas allas archas katestêsan) as they saw fit (hôs edokei autois). (Hellenica II.iii.11)
Irwin’s ‘rules’ for Callicles’ nomous [‘laws’] and Brownson’s ‘constitution’ for Xenophon’s nomous [‘laws’] obfuscates the correspondence between the two.
Xenophon continues: ‘But when (epei de), on account of the great numbers continually – and unjustly – put to death (apothnê̢skontôn pollôn kai adikôs), it was evident that many (polloi dêloi êsan) were banding together (sunistamenoi te) and wondering (kai thaumazontes) what the state was coming to (ti esoito hê politeia), Theramenes spoke again (palin elegen ho Thêramenês), saying that unless they admitted an adequate number of citizens into partnership with them in the management of affairs (hoti ei mê tis koinônous hikanous lêpsoito tôn pragmatôn), it would be impossible for the oligarchy to endure (adunaton esoito tên oligarchian diamenein). Accordingly Critias (ek toutou men ho Kritias) and the rest of the Thirty (kai hoi alloi triakonta), who were by this time alarmed and feared above all that citizens would flock to the support of Theramenes (êdê phoboumenoi kai ouch hêkista ton Thêramenên, mê surriêsan pros auton hoi politai), enrolled a body of three thousand (katalegousi trischilious), who were to share (tous methexontas), as they said (dê), in the government (tôn pragmatôn). Theramenes, however (ho d’ au Thêramenês), objected to this move also, saying that (kai pros tauta elegen), in the first place, it seemed to him absurd that, when they wanted to make the best of the citizens their associates, they should limit themselves to three thousand (hoti atopon dokoiê heautô̢ ge einai to prôton men boulomenous tous beltistous tôn politôn koinônous poiêsasthai trischilious), as though this number (hôsper ton arithmon touton) must somehow be good men and true (echonta tina anankên kalous kai agathous einai) and there could neither be excellent men outside this body nor rascals within it (kai out’ exô toutôn spoudaious out’ entos toutôn ponêrous hoion te eiê genesthai). “Besides (Epeita d’),” he said (ephê), “we are undertaking, in my opinion, two absolutely inconsistent things (horô egôge duo hêmas ta enantiôtata prattontas), – to rig up our government on the basis of force and at the same time to make it weaker than its subjects (biaian te tên archên kai hêttona tôn archomenôn kataskeuazomenous).” This was what Theramenes said (Ho men taut’ elegen).’ (II.iii.17-19, tr. Brownson)
At paragraph 15 Brownson translates Theramenes’ kalous k’agathous as ‘aristocrats’, at paragraph 19 as ‘good men and true’. The term literally means ‘beautiful and good’, and the shift Brownson perceived between Theramenes’ use of it in par. 15 and 19 is the tension of meaning within the term that corresponded to the tension that existed between the term appropriated by the rich and powerful families boasting of long ancestry lineage, and the term appropriated by Socrates and his followers to denote intellectual and moral excellence.
In Aristophanes’ Clouds a rustic Strepsiades wants to send his son Pheidippides to ‘the Thinkery of wise souls (psuchôn sophôn phrontistêrion, 94) to learn the art of persuasive speaking. His son, who inherited from his mother strong aristocratic tastes and leanings, asks ‘Who are they (eisin de tines;)?’ Strepsiades answers: ‘I don’t know their name, exactly (ouk oid’ akribôs t’ounoma), they are wise men preoccupied with thinking (merimnosophistai), beautiful and good (kaloi te k’agathoi).’ The moment Strepsiades describes them as kaloi te k’agathoi, Pheidippides knows: ‘Faugh (aiboi), they are wretches (ponêroi g’), I know (oida). You mean those braggarts, pale, bare-footed (tous alazonas tous ôchriôntas tous anupodêtous legeis), of whom is the miserable Socrates and Chaerephon (hôn ho kakodaimôn Sôkrates kai Chairephôn) (100-104).
I translated Aristophanes’ alazonas as ‘braggarts’. Dover in his ‘Commentary’ on the Clouds notes ad loc. that Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics ‘defines alazôn as a man who claims a respect which he does not deserve’. At 1127a20-22 Aristotle says: ‘The boastful man, then, is thought (dokei dê ho men alazôn) to be apt to claim the things that bring glory (prospoiêtikos tôn endoxôn einai), when he has not got them (kai mê huparchontôn), or to claim more of them (kai meizonôn) than he has (ê huparchei).’ (Translation W. D. Ross)
***The insistence on the moral and intellectual excellence of the kaloi te k’agathoi was as characteristic of Socrates as his being bare-footed. When Socrates in the Phaedrus suggests to Phaedrus that they walk along the river Ilissus, the latter says: ‘It’s convenient (Eis kairon), isn’t it (hôs eoiken), that I chance to be bare-footed (anupodêtos ôn etuchon); you of course are always so (su men gar dê aei, 229a3-4).’ In the Phaedran Palinode Socrates depicts the soul’s likeness: ‘Let it be likened (eoiketô dê) to the union of powers (sumphutô̢ dunamei) in a team of winged steeds (hupopterou zeugous te) and their winged charioteer (kai hêniochou) … With us men, in the first place (kai prôton men hêmôn), it is a pair of steeds that the charioteer controls (ho archôn sunôridos hêniochei); moreover (eita) one of them is noble and good (tôn hippôn ho men autô̢ kalos te kai agathos), and of good stock (kai ek toioutôn), while the other has the opposite character, and his stock is opposite (ho d’ ex enantiôn kai enantios).’ (246a6-b3, tr. Hackforth)