Xenophon on the Turn from Presocratic Philosophy: Memorabilia I. 11- 16

 Blog Preface

  At the root of our theoretical attempt to reset the foundation of psychology is the suggestion that we simply follow Socrates in making the turn from pre-Socratic to Socratic philosophy. Our effort is to redirect psychiatry within a new comprehensive context- as distinct from dismissing what has been learned in the attempt to imitate the physical sciences. We assume a narrative: That modernity involved the attempt to turn to nature for an account of the fundamental causes of things, amounting to a Renaissance repetition of the ancient Greek discovery of nature. But the methods and models fail when addressing the human things, demonstrating a fundamental limitation of our science. Regarding man, simply put, our psyche-ology, does not attain knowledge. It addresses accidents and symptoms, while making itself a servant to the baser ends that usually govern mankind. What we say is that the science of the soul is no such slave. The obvious suggestion- if there has been a Renaissance repetition of the ancient Greek discovery of nature- is that we also follow ancient Greece in the emergence of Socratic from pre-Socratic philosophy. The following account of Xenophon allows one the best access to a direct account of the principle shown in the Socratic turn at the root of a psychology that may do more good than harm.

The full original is in the Menu above, accessible by hovering over “Philosophy.”

III. The Second Part of the Answer of Xenophon                        (original, pp. 15-23)

a) On I, i .10 The Impiety of the Other Philosophers in Conversation

b) On I, i .11-15  The Objections of Socrates to the Conversation of the Other                                                 Philosophers

c) On I, i .16 Socratic Conversation

1) The turn of Socrates to the Human Things

2) That Socrates Continued to study the Nature of All Things

3) The “What Is” Questions

4) Conclusion on Socratic Sophia and Phronesis

[From p. 15…

   …In attempting to show that Socrates was rather worthy of great honor from the city, Xenophon distinguishes Socrates from those who study the nature of all things, now called Pre-Socratic. In the second of three sections of the answer of Xenophon to the impiety charge in the indictment, he turns from the lack of impiety in the deeds to the lack of impiety in the speeches of Socrates. The account of the speeches aims to show that the jury “erred in judging what it is not manifest how they knew (I,i, 17).” At least part of the error of the citizens is to suppose that Socrates is the same as others, those who talk about nature. Like the answer of Socrates to the old accusers in Plato’s Apology (18 a-24b), the account of Xenophon here serves to distinguish Socrates from the atheistic tendency  of the natural philosophers. This has been prepared by the discussion of Socrates’ daimon, which surely distinguishes him from the atheistic natural philosophers. It will be our aim here to follow out the theoretical section* of the account of this difference.

   Xenophon begins by saying that Socrates was always in the open, in the gymnasium or marketplace, speaking much to all who would hear, but never was he known to be impious in deeds seen or words heard:

…For he never spoke considering about the nature of all things in the manner of most of the others, as the sophists call the nature of the cosmos and the necessities by which each of the heavenly things comes to be.

                                                                                 (Memorabilia I,i,10)

Those who talk openly about the nature of all things are impious because the discovery of nature at the beginning of philosophy undermines the conventional beliefs in the mythic opinions of the first and most fundamental things, the origin or man and the way of the cosmos. Natural philosophy gives an account of the “necessities by which each thing comes to be” without reference to the gods, in terms of elements and motion. Jaffa gives a good example in his study of Lear: the belief that Zeus will punish human injustice by throwing lightening bolts is undermined by the account of the cause of lightening in terms of electricity. So is the belief that the care of the gods for men ensures that there is no disproportion between one’s just deserts and one’s fortunes (Mem. IV, iii,14; Hesiod, Works and Days, 238-285; Aristophanes, Clouds, 395-97). Men’s sight of the heavens and the earth is purged of the imagination. In the turn from the opinion of the city to natural philosophy, it is found that the gods have fled.

   In Plato’s Apology, Meletus asserts that Socrates believes the sun to be not a god, but a stone (26d). Socrates responds that Meletus has mistaken him for Anaxagoras. The atheism of the pre-Socratic thinkers is much like that of modern scientific “empiricism.” This seems to have emerged through a Renaissance repetition of the ancient Greek discovery of nature. It is the emergence of philosophy as such, rather than Socratic philosophy in particular, that undermines custom and is fundamentally at odds with pious belief. Yet, Socratic philosophy is a kind of philosophy.

   Upon the discovery of nature, it appears that justice or right is not natural, but exists only by human convention and agreement. Justice seems to be without trans-political support in the more general cosmos. Hence, Plato’s Republic. In his description of the discovery of nature at the origin of philosophy, Leo Strauss states:

   It is not surprising that philosophers should first have inclined toward conventionalism. Right presents itself, to begin with, as identical with law or custom or as a character of it.; and custom or convention comes to sight, with the emergence of philosophy, as that which hides nature.

                                                                           Natural Right and History, p. 93)

   According to Xenophon, Socrates, for three reasons, held that even to give thought to such things as the nature of all things, is madness. These reasons are two practical considerations surrounding a central theoretical objection. First, Socrates considered whether such thinkers came to give thought to such things upon believing themselves to see the human things sufficiently, or whether they were “roused from the human things to consider the divine things (ta daimonia) as leading them to what is fitting to do.”

   The question of what is fitting to do is more urgent for men than the question of the nature of all things. Do these thinkers then know this- what is fitting to do- sufficiently from the human things, or do they turn to the divine things in order to learn this? Natural philosophy is criticized for being useless, and for not seeking a good that is human (as is theoretical wisdom, Aristotle, Ethics, vi, 1141b 2-8). The natural philosophers  disregard the human things, which lead to a knowledge of what is fitting to do, knowledge of right action. It is possible that the natural things are called divine in accordance with the beliefs of the city. But again, one wonders if there is not some kind of contemplation of the nature of things that is not useless but leads to what is fitting to do.

   Secondly, Socrates wondered that “it was not manifest to them that human beings were not empowered to discover these things.” (I,i, 13). The evidence of this limitation of humans is that even the “greatest thinking” [Note 11] or hubristic, of these talkers did not agree with one another, but took extreme opposite positions on questions of the nature of all things. In this, they behaved madmen. For as madmen exhibit extremes regarding fear, shame and worship (some even worshiping wood (hule), so these talkers exhibit extreme opinions. Worrying about the nature of all things caused…

…some to believe being to be one, others, infinitely many, and some (to believe) all always to move, others never to move and some (to believe) that all comes to be and passes away, others that nothing ever comes to be and passes away.

                                                                                              I,i, 14

   The extremes of the madman regarding piety are analogous to the extremes in thought of those who give thought to the nature of all things. Aspects of the regard of humans toward the gods are thus set in analogy with thought, corresponding to the distinction between characters of the passions and reason. This pattern of the presentation of the central objection of Socrates points to the question of whether or not the mean regarding piety is likewise analogous to the mean in thought regarding the first principles.

   The third objection of Socrates is, like the first, a practical objection. Socrates considered whether as those learning about the human things hope they are led by what they learn to do what they choose for themselves and others, those who pry into the divine things (ta thea) think that when they know the necessities by which each comes to be, that they will make wind (Aristophanes, Clouds, 385-395; Hippocrates, lost fragment), water seasons and other things when they need these things? Or are they satisfied only to know how each of these things comes to be (I,i, 15)? Do the natural scientists seek to apply their knowledge of the causes to produce the effects of these causes according to need, mastering fortune and the elements as one obeyed by wind and sea? Or are they satisfied with knowledge for its own sake? Is the contemplation of these material and efficient causes, the theoretical wisdom of an Anaxagoras or Thales (Aristotle, Ethics, VI, 7, 1141 b 4-5), the same as that self-sufficient and thus satisfying activity which is the health of the best part of reason (Ibid., 1141 a 4)?

   Socrates own conversation was rather of the human things (I, i, 16). Through this kind of conversation one hopes to learn both what is fitting to do (.12) and to be able to do what one chooses for oneself and others (.15). “Xenophon in the Memorabilia (I,i, 16) links this knowledge to being kaloi te k’agathoi,” noble (beautiful) and good. Xenophon presents the difference of Socrates as that of one who is concerned with an entirely different subject matter than that of the natural philosophers. Xenophon is silent, though, regarding the commonality of Socrates with the other natural philosophers as philosophers. It will be helpful to follow the account of Leo Strauss in attempting to follow the account of Xenophon of the revolution or “turn” by which Socrates was different and yet similar, or the same in part, to those who converse about the nature of all things.

   By the turning from the divine or natural things to the human things, Socrates is said to have been the founder of political philosophy (Leo Strauss, NRH, p. 120, HPP, p. 4). [Note 12] Socrates is said to have been the first who called philosophy down from heaven and forced it to make inquiries about life and manners and good and bad things” NRH, p. 120). According to the most ancient reports, Socrates, after this turning, “directed his inquiry entirely into the human things” (HPP, p. 4). It seems that Socrates was induced to turn away from the study of the divine or natural things by his piety (HPP, p. 4). The account of Xenophon here (I,i,10-16) of the founding of political philosophy appears to agree with these ancient reports in ascribing the complete rejection of natural philosophy to the origin of Socratic or political philosophy.

   But Strauss emphasizes that Socrates continued the study of the nature of all things, even if he did not do this openly. While Socrates was always in the open, Socratic natural philosophy may yet be hidden, even in or through this open conversation. It is not itself open or apparent to all. Strauss reveals an excellent example of this character of Socratic conversation when, in interpreting the central objection of Socrates to the natural philosophers, he finds a piece of Socratic cosmology. Strauss writes that the list of the opinions of the natural philosophers would seem to imply…

That according to the sane Socrates, the beings are numerable or surveyable; those beings are unchangeable while the other things change, and those beings do not come into being or perish, while the other things come into being and perish.

                                                                Xenophon’s Socrates, p. 7

The Socratic cosmology is presented as the silent mean between immoderate extremes, analogous to the mean regarding fear, shame and worship neglected by the madman. Strauss states that “Socrates seems to have regarded the change which he brought about as a return to sobriety and moderation from the madness of his predecessors (NRH, p. 123). “Socrates did worry about the nature of all things, and to that extent, he too was mad; but his madness was at the same time sobriety: he did not separate wisdom (sophia) from moderation” (Xenophon’s Socrates, p. 7; Memorabilia III. 94). The cause of the turn of Socrates to the human things may have been his pursuit of wisdom rather than his piety.

   In describing Socratic conversation, Xenophon presents a list of questions which Socrates would consider. Xenophon, famously, writes:

   His own conversation was always considering the things of humans, what is pious and what impious, what is noble and what is base, what is just and what unjust, what is moderation and what madness, what is courage and what cowardice, what is a city and what a statesman, what is the rule of humans and what is a ruler of humans and what is a ruler of humans, and others, of which knowing would lead one to be noble and good, but ignorance (of which) is justly called slavery.

                                                                                 (Memorabilia, I,i, 16

   The “What is” question points toward the form or idea (eidos) of a thing and identifies this with its nature. Contrary to both custom and pre-Socratic natural philosophy, the nature of a thing is shown not in that out of which a thing has come into being (Memorabilia I,i, 12) but by the end which determines the process of its coming to be (NRH p. 123). Particular examples at their completion are those which most fully show the nature or class character of a thing. Because the kinds or classes are parts of a whole, the whole has a natural articulation, the natural logos. [Note 13] An example of a point of this natural articulation is the fundamental twofold division between the “beings” and the “things” in the conjecture of Strauss of the silent Socratic cosmology presented above. In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, there are two kings, one the king of the intelligible and another king of the visible.

   Through the human things, Socrates discovered a new kind of natural philosophy and a new kind of being. It is due fundamentally to this difference in object that Socratic philosophy differs from pre-Socratic philosophy, and from our natural history and science. Strauss states:

Socrates, it seems, took the primary meaning of the word “nature” more seriously than did his predecessors; he realized that “nature” is primarily form or “idea.” If this is true, he did not simply turn away from the study of natural things, but originated a new kind of the study in which, for example the nature of the human soul or man is more important than, for example, the nature of the sun (HPP, p. 5). Contrary to appearances , Socrates’ turn to the study of the human things was based, not upon disregard of the divine or natural things, but upon a new approach to the study of all things.

                                                                             (NRH, p. 122)

[In Plato’s Apology, Socrates distinguishes between divine wisdom, which belongs not to men but to “the God,” and his own human wisdom, which consists in part in knowing he does not have divine wisdom. There too, though, he claims not to know how to cultivate the human as well. It is strange that we should know the human without knowing the divine, but this is true in one sense, that the human is accessible, or, “first for us”.]

   Socratic philosophy presupposes and emerges out of pre-Socratic natural philosophy. Before turning to the human things, Socrates himself studied natural philosophy (Phaedo 99) Socratic philosophy emerges when the appeal from custom to nature regarding the causes is transferred from the direct inquiries of the natural philosopher into the divine or natural things, to be combined with the political concerns of man with right or justice. Socratic philosophy appeals from customary beliefs to nature in asking the “What is” questions, which are parts of the question of the nature of man and how men should live. [Note 14] The asking of the what is questions implies the attempt to ascend from opinion to knowledge regarding the nature of man. By asking what is the best life for man, Socrates discovered natural; right, and in this founded political philosophy. Strauss writes that ” the distinction between nature and convention which marks the emergence of natural philosophy retains its full significance for Socrates and for classical natural right in general” NRH, p. 121).

   From the inhuman madness of natural philosophy, not unlike the attempt to know “Being” directly in metaphysics since Aristotle, Socrates returns to begin from the things that are first for us” NRH, p. 123-4), from opinion, (NRH, p. 124), from [page 22] the visible looks eidos), or from common sense (NRH, p. 123). Socratic philosophy begins from custom or from the beliefs of the city (Mem. IIV, iv, 30-31; Aristotle, Ethics, 1096 b1-12), regarding the way of the cosmos and the things good and bad for man. This teaching of custom is embodied in “visible” poetic images for apprehension by the human imagination. Conversation regarding the most important things ascends from opinion because opinion proves to point toward knowledge and truth as an artifact points toward its original. Strauss states:

   The opinions prove to be solicited by the self subsisting truth, and the ascent to the truth proves to be guided by the self subsistent truth which all men always divine.                                                                                        (NRH, 124).

   But upon returning to the human things, Socrates does not hold conventional beliefs conventionally, as axioms taken as known from which to reason downward toward a conclusion. For example, he does not begin as do his accusers by assuming that they know what piety is and what Socrates thought, and conclude from this that Socrates is guilty of impiety for not believing in the gods of the city. Believing in the gods in which the city believes may not be the whole of piety. Socratic philosophy rather turns the opinions into “steppingstones and springboards to reach what is free of hypothesis at the beginning of the whole” (Republic 511 b5). Trust in the visible things is transformed into dialectical insight. [Note 15] Socrates cannot believe the conventional opinions as these are conventionally held any more than one could believe the shadows of visible artifacts to be real things (Ibid, 514 b5).

   Strauss writes: We have learned from Socrates that the political things are the key to the understanding of all things” (Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 19. Also, Xenophon’s Socrates, p. 8). Socratic philosophy replaces the activity of the poet of making myths with the construction in speech of the best regime. On the principle that the political things are the key to the understanding of all things, the most thorough account of the good life and of the highest beings is presented by Socrates not in a dialogue on questions of metaphysics or epistemology, but rather, as in Plato’s Republic, in a dialogue on the regime (politea) which asks the question “What is justice,” and is answered by the theme of the best regime. The just and unjust are the central pair above which the good form has a what and an opposite. The Socratic cosmology is seen reflected in the nature of the soul, which is in turn reflected in the political things, and especially the articulation of the best regime. (501 b1-7; also 506 e1-507 a3, 490 b4-5; 484 c2-d6,540 a8-b1; 368c6-369 a1).


 Socrates held that seeing the things of which the what is question is asked would lead one to be “noble and good (I,i .16). Socratic phronesis and sophia are joined in this activity. In the Socratic work of unfolding and going through the treasures which the ancient wise men have left written in books, Socrates seemed to Xenophon to lead those hearing into the noble and good (I, vi .14). Socrates is one who by his thought is the cause or source of eupraxa, well-doing or right action (Aristotle Politics VII.iii; Memorabilia I, iv .15). By Socrates’ contemplation, he is enriched with virtue (IV, ii. 9), which is wisdom (III, ix, 5), and thus blessed. By the activity of his well ordered soul among his companions (Strauss, XS, p. 116-117), they are led into the virtues, or into the noble and good (NRH p. 128, Aristotle, Ethics, 1144b12, 1145 a1-2).

   Because Socrates goes beyond the beliefs of the city regarding the highest beings, we find again that he is in a way guilty as charged, and that Xenophon hides his account by hiding the wisdom of Socrates. Xenophon hides the wisdom of Socrates because the city cannot judge correctly regarding the whole of wisdom from the appearances which can be made visible to all. The citizens cannot see the difference between Socrates and the natural philosophers which makes his similarity with them an aspect of his virtue. Socrates brings conventional piety to its completion in his contemplation of the beings, his moderate cosmology, just as Socratic foresight is the fulfillment of conventional divination. The attempt to reconcile the city to philosophy is limited to opinion. The philosopher can be reconciled to this limitation. After the ascent from opinion or law to nature, “It appears more clearly than ever before that opinion, or law, contains truth…” (Strauss, HPP, p. 4) It is possible for Xenophon to veil his account of the philosophic activity of Socrates in an account given in terms of opinion because of the analogous relation of opinion to knowledge, or because the many opinions point toward the philosophic life.

Postscript on Modern Psychology

   “What is sanity and what madness” is one of the Socratic questions, showing the place of psychology within Socratic political philosophy. Psychology as a separate science was just emerging, as in the direct essay of Aristotle of the title Psyche, a study of dreams, and of course his Ethics, his “structure and dynamics” of the soul. He follows the fundamental division of the two parts of the soul, distinguishing “ethical” from intellectual virtue so well that it must be argued that the Good is still king of the intelligible, and that there is par excellence good and evil regarding intellectual virtue. The intellectual virtues are the measure of the practical and theoretical faculties disturbed in madness, not so that all the imprudent and unwise might be quickly drugged for the great benefit of the whole, but so that we have any scientific measure at all. The neurons and chemicals cannot provide this. The right functioning of these faculties is not the normal, though the symptoms, say, of what is called “schizophrenia,” or the symbols mis-produced in “psychoses,” cannot be understood without reference to the right functioning, and indeed, we say, the knowledge within. In addition to ethical vice, there is intellectual vice, understood in the collective shadow figures of literature and history. But that Justice is the good of the soul, and either is or is necessary to human happiness, while the unjust soul is in faction with its own true nature and within and with the outside world- this ground is shown most clearly through the best regime beginning from the three part soul, before moving to the two and the transcendent one. The three part city and soul: where three elements appear in a type represented by Monarchy, Aristocracy and Polity, seeking reason, honor and pleasures or compassion- is the basis in thought of the common model or archetype that connects political science and psychology. These arise in each city due to the dominance of the elements of the spirited pursuit of honor and beauty, the wisdom of its assembly, and the baser concerns of the many, as written by Plato at the opening of Book VIII of his Republic.

   Our psychology and psychiatry must now follow the Socratic turn, or the destruction of our civilization is likely. The very science that unleashed these powers has hitherto made it impossible for us to inquire into how these powers might be used well, even telling us that it is impossible to know anything about these matters most important to man, while profiting by the sophistic spread of drugs and first principles hardly better than what is available to the common man. By showing us the Socratic turn to follow the Renaissance repetition of the discovery of nature, Xenophon’s Socrates shows a way to subordinate the new technologies within a genuinely scientific pursuit that is appropriate to the faculties of man, rather than the instruments of science extending the bodily senses.

P. S.: The whole of the paper from which this blog is derived may be typed out from the original printed copy in the Philosophy section, available in the menu above.

Notes [to III, a] pp. 15-

Note 11: Under custom, it is impiety to think big or great thoughts, a hubris the opposite of moderation, punishable by the gods. But Socratic philosophy seems to follow a path that is both great thinking and yet not immoderate toward the gods in the way that the sophists or natural philosophers are, because Socrates did not separate wisdom from moderation (III, ix, 4-6).

Note 12 NRH will be used to refer to Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, HPP to The History of Political Philosophy.

Note 13: There is a similarity between the Socratic turn toward the eidai and the statement of John 1: 1 that the word (logos) was in the beginning.

*Taken from a 1985 paper for the class of Wayne Ambler on Xenophon, at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. The Socratic turn has also been described in “Philosophic Psychology” and the Introduction to Philosophy essays in the menu at the top of the page.

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