Franklin's Faves

Tracy Picks a Franklin’s Fave: Xenophon’s Socratic Education

Today’s post comes from Penn Press’s Marketing Operations Manager, Tracy Kellmer, continuing a blog series in which Tracy will explore one of the books currently for 75% off in the Franklin’s Faves section of our website!

One of the perks of working at a university press, and especially Penn Press, is that I am exposed to excellent scholarly treatments of a wide variety of subjects. As a member of the Marketing department, I get to know a bit about every book we publish through my engagement with its metadata, such as keywords and subject codes, and its descriptive copy, which appears in everything from seasonal catalogs to online retail sites (we know the one you’re thinking of). But a marketer has short-lived romances with books on the front list: every six months I have a new season’s worth of books to get to know and a new seasonal catalog to publish. That’s why I love Franklin’s Faves! I get a chance to rediscover a book that intrigued me the first time around. I hope you enjoy my rediscoveries as much as I do!

Xenophon's Socratic Education

What I picked:

Xenophon’s Socratic Education: Reason, Religion, and the Limits of Politics by Dustin Sebell

Why I picked it:

This is the second book of Dustin Sebell’s book that Penn Press published and the reviews for both of them emphasized his skill as a close reader. I never took a class about ancient philosophy but I did read the collected dialogues of Plato on my own. I had actually never heard of Xenophon until this book crossed my desk, and I thought this could be a good opportunity to explore Socratic teachings not only from a perspective other than Plato’s but also with a guide in the form of Dustin Sebell. And since the subtitle is Reason, Religion, and the Limits of Politics, I thought that looking back to the ancients might reveal some insight into our present debates, especially in an election year.

What I discovered:

First I read Chapter IV of Xenophon’s Memorabilia and was not surprised to see Socrates engaging in the method that is typically referred to as “his” method. The Socratic method, as Wikipedia helpfully reminds us, is a form of argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions. The person to whom the method is presumably directed in this chapter of Xenophon’s Memorabilia is a youth named Euthydemos, and since he wants to lead his citizenry someday, Socrates focuses on relevant topics such as law, justice, and piety. But Socrates is not alone—he is surrounded by his disciples, one of whom is Xenophon, who is recording their conversations.

And what Dustin Sebell does through his reading of Xenophon’s text is show that Socrates isn’t solely negating or refuting Euthydemos with his method. He is also imparting another layer of teaching to his followers. How he does that is through joking with Euthydemos: that is, Socrates can be ironic, or joking, with Euthydemos who is too young, naïve, uneducated, unwise, etc. to get the joke. Euthydemos may respond to Socrates’s words, and continue the argument, but the “jokes” go over his head. And that’s because they’re not meant for him. Only people like Xenophon can “get” the jokes—those who have already gone through the refutation process, that is the Socratic method, and come out the other side wiser than before.

But now I’m reading Sebell, who is reading Xenophon, who is recording Socrates, who is addressing two audiences at the same time in a style that privileges questions over answers. How am I to know which audience I belong to? Am I a Euthydemos—who collects books but can’t tell the difference between lawfulness and justice? Am I a Xenophon, who is sometimes regarded as no more than a military man with no philosophical inclinations and at other times (by Sebell, for example) as not only a faithful scribe of Socrates but also an acute philosopher in his own right? Who can I trust? What can I rely on to know?

And this is where Xenophon’s Socratic Education leads to in my reading of Sebell reading Xenophon writing Socrates: books won’t get you the truth, and other people can’t tell you what to do or believe. There are no answers, there is only yourself. We’ve heard or have been told, in some form or another, that to “know oneself” is a “good thing.” But what Xenophon/Sebell is saying is that you’ll never know anything about law or justice, the good or the beautiful, unless you can “learn” where your knowledge comes from. Was reason what guided you to the truth? Or was the truth revealed to you?

Trying to ascertain how I know what I know (or believe) is easier said than done. I have been “thinking” about this book and how to write about it for weeks. I’ve re-read passages, consulted notes, and started and stopped writing this post several times. I could follow how “lawfulness” connected to justice in that one doesn’t always lead to the other. And I could understand how public displays of piety don’t necessarily mean the gods are pleased, even if other people are comforted. I also weighed the words “spoken” by Socrates to Euthydemos against the “unspoken” words Sebell identified in Xenophon’s writing as leading to the “real” truth for the “in-crowd.” But my argument or theme for this blog post only clicked while I was ruminating in the shower. There’s a reason why it’s called divine inspiration and why it feels irrational and rational at the same time.

In public life, we have seen instances when adhering to the law hasn’t led to just outcomes. In public figures, we have witnessed egregious displays of moral hypocrisy from the outwardly devout. The subtitle of this book is “Reason, Religion, and the Limits of Politics.” For me, the reason why politics is limited is because both reason and religion fail in leading an individual, let alone an entire society, to the truth. But I also don’t believe this is cause for disappointment. In fact, I would say that the point of politics is not to ensure the everyone comes to the same truth, which is not human, either. The point of politics, because it is not rational nor divine, means that each person, with their own unfounded truth, must compromise to come up with a way to live together. Maybe if we could “know ourselves” better, that is, learn how we know what we know, we might have more patience and humility toward Truth with a capital T, and others’ “truths,” and our politics would improve not only in style but also in substance, for the public good.

Favorite bit:

There’s a bit where Socrates is talking to Euthydemos about the inscription “know yourself” inscribed on Apollo’s Temple in Delphi. If everyone who went to the temple read the inscription and then could know how to know oneself, then there would be no need for Socrates or the Socratic method. And isn’t that what we go to our therapists for? Or our best friends or priests or teachers? Or, in the case of writing, don’t we all appreciate a good editor, who improves our writing with their questions? We need others in order to truly know ourselves.