Xenophon. The Memorabilia

Translation by H. G. Dakyns

Xenophon the Athenian was born 431 B.C. He was a pupil of Socrates. He marched with the Spartans, and was exiled from Athens. Sparta gave him land and property in Scillus, where he lived for many years before having to move once more, to settle in Corinth. He died in 354 B.C. The Memorabilia is a recollection of Socrates in word and deed, to show his character as the best and happiest of men. THE MEMORABILIA or Recollections of Socrates



I have often wondered by what arguments those who indicted[1] Socrates could have persuaded the Athenians that his life was justly forfeit to the state. The indictment was to this effect: 'Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.'

[1] {oi grapsamenoi} = Meletus (below, IV. iv. 4, viii. 4; 'Apol.' 11, 19), Anytus ('Apol.' 29), and Lycon. See Plat. 'Apol.' II. v. 18; Diog. Laert. II. v. (Socr.); M. Schanz, 'Plat. Apol. mit deutschen Kemmentar, Einleitung,' S. 5 foll.

In the first place, what evidence did they produce that Socrates refused to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state? Was it that he did not sacrifice? or that he dispensed with divination? On the contrary, he was often to be seen engaged in sacrifice, at home or at the common altars of the state. Nor was his dependence on divination less manifest. Indeed that saying of his, 'A divinity[2] gives me a sign,' was on everybody's lips. So much so that, if I am not mistaken, it lay at the root of the imputation that he imported novel divinities; though there was no greater novelty in his case than in that of other believers in oracular help, who commonly rely on omens of all sorts: the flight or cry of birds, the utterances of man, chance meetings,[3] or a victim's entrails. Even according to the popular conception, it is not the mere fowl, it is not the chance individual one meets, who knows what things are profitable for a man, but it is the gods who vouchsafe by such instruments to signify the same. This was also the tenet of Socrates. Only, whereas men ordinarily speak of being turned aside, or urged onwards by birds, or other creatures encountered on the path, Socrates suited his language to his conviction. 'The divinity,' said he, 'gives me a sign.' Further, he would constantly advise his associates to do this, or beware of doing that, upon the authority of this same divine voice; and, as a matter of fact, those who listened to his warnings prospered, whilst he who turned a deaf ear to them repented afterwards.[4] Yet, it will be readily conceded, he would hardly desire to present himself to his everyday companions in the character of either knave or fool. Whereas he would have appeared to be both, supposing[5] the God-given revelations had but revealed his own proneness to deception. It is plain he would not have ventured on forecast at all, but for his belief that the words he spoke would in fact be verified. Then on whom, or what, was the assurance rooted, if not upon God? And if he had faith in the gods, how could he fail to recognise them?

[2] Or, 'A divine something.' See 'Encyc. Brit.' 'Socrates.' Dr. H. Jackason; 'The Daemon of Socrates,' F. W. H. Myers; K. Joel, 'Der echte und der Xenophontische Sokrates,' i. p. 70 foll.; cf. Aristot. 'M. M.' 1182 a 10.

[3] See Aesch. 'P. V.' 487, {enodious te sombolous}, 'and pathway tokens,' L. Campbell; Arist. 'Birds,' 721, {sombolon ornin}: 'Frogs,' 196, {to sometukhon exion}; 'Eccl.' 792; Hor. 'Od.' iii. 27, 1-7.

[4] See 'Anab.' III. i. 4; 'Symp.' iv. 48.

[5] Or, 'if his vaunted manifestations from heaven had but manifested the falsity of his judgment.'

But his mode of dealing with his intimates has another aspect. As regards the ordinary necessities of life,[6] his advice was, 'Act as you believe[7] these things may best be done.' But in the case of those darker problems, the issues of which are incalculable, he directed his friends to consult the oracle, whether the business should be undertaken or not. 'No one,' he would say, 'who wishes to manage a house or city with success: no one aspiring to guide the helm of state aright, can afford to dipense with aid from above. Doubtless, skill in carpentering, building, smithying, farming, of the art of governing men, together with the theory of these processes, and the sciences of arithmetic, economy, strategy, are affairs of study, and within the grasp of human intelligence. Yet there is a side even of these, and that not the least important, which the gods reserve to themselves, the bearing of which is hidden from mortal vision. Thus, let a man sow a field or plant a farm never so well, yet he cannot foretell who will gather in the fruits: another may build him a house of fairest proportion, yet he knows not who will inhabit it. Neither can a general foresee whether it will profit him to conduct a campaign, nor a politician be certain whether his leadership will turn to evil or good. Nor can the man who weds a fair wife, looking forward to joy, know whether through her he shall not reap sorrow. Neither can he who has built up a powerful connection in the state know whether he shall not by means of it be cast out of his city. To suppose that all these matters lay within the scope of human judgment, to the exclusion of the preternatural, was preternatural folly. Nor was it less extravagant to go and consult the will of Heaven on any questions which it is given to us to decide by dint of learning. As though a man should inquire, 'Am I to choose an expert driver as my coachman, or one who has never handled the reins?' 'Shall I appoint a mariner to be skipper of my vessel, or a landsman?' And so with respect to all we may know by numbering, weighing, and measuring. To seek advice from Heaven on such points was a sort of profanity. 'Our duty is plain,' he would observe; 'where we are permitted to work through our natural faculties, there let us by all means apply them. But in things which are hidden, let us seek to gain knowledge from above, by divination; for the gods,' he added, 'grant signs to those to whom they will be gracious.'

[6] Or, 'in the sphere of the determined,' {ta anagkaia} = certa, quorum eventus est necessarius; 'things positive, the law-ordained department of life,' as we might say. See Grote, 'H. G.' i. ch. xvi. 500 and passim.

[7] Reading {os nomizoien}, or if {os enomizen}, translate 'As to things with certain results, he advised them to do them in the way in which he believed they would be done best'; i.e. he did not say, 'follow your conscience,' but, 'this course seems best to me under the circumstances.'

Again, Socrates ever lived in the public eye; at early morning he was to be seen betaking himself to one of the promenades, or wrestling- grounds; at noon he would appear with the gathering crowds in the market-place; and as day declined, wherever the largest throng might be encountered, there was he to be found, talking for the most part, while any one who chose might stop and listen. Yet no one ever heard him say, or saw him do anything impious or irreverent. Indeed, in contrast to others he set his face against all discussion of such high matters as the nature of the Universe; how the 'kosmos,' as the savants[8] phrase it, came into being;[9] or by what forces the celestial phenomena arise. To trouble one's brain about such matters was, he argued, to play the fool. He would ask first: Did these investigators feel their knowledge of things human so complete that they betook themselves to these lofty speculations? Or did they maintain that they were playing their proper parts in thus neglecting the affairs of man to speculate on the concerns of God? He was astonished they did not see how far these problems lay beyond mortal ken; since even those who pride themselves most on their discussion of these points differ from each other, as madmen do. For just as some madmen, he said, have no apprehension of what is truly terrible, others fear where no fear is; some are ready to say and do anything in public without the slightest symptom of shame;[10] others think they ought not so much as to set foot among their fellow-men; some honour neither temple, nor altar, nor aught else sacred to the name of God; others bow down to stocks and stones and worship the very beasts:--so is it with those thinkers whose minds are cumbered with cares[11] concerning the Universal Nature. One sect[12] has discovered that Being is one and indivisible. Another[13] that it is infinite in number. If one[14] proclaims that all things are in a continual flux, another[15] replies that nothing can possibly be moved at any time. The theory of the universe as a process of birth and death is met by the counter theory, that nothing ever could be born or ever will die.

[8] Lit. 'the sophists.' See H. Sidgwick, 'J. of Philol.' iv. 1872; v. 1874.

[9] Reading {ephu}. Cf. Lucian, 'Icaromenip.' xlvi. 4, in imitation of this passage apparently; or if {ekhei}, translate 'is arranged.' See Grote, 'H. G.' viii. 573.

[10] See 'Anab.' V. iv. 30.

[11] See Arist. 'Clouds,' 101, {merimnophrontistai kaloi te kagathoi}.

[12] e.g. Xenophanes and Parmenides, see Grote, 'Plato,' I. i. 16 foll.

[13] e.g. Leucippus and Democritus, ib. 63 foll.

[14] e.g. Heraclitus, ib. 27 foll.

[15] e.g. Zeno, ib. ii. 96.

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