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Xenophon (c.427–355/50 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A121-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 25, 2019, from

Article Summary

The Greek historian and philosophical writer Xenophon was a companion of Socrates, and is second in importance only to Plato as a source for our knowledge of him. He was also a penetrating and influential political thinker in his own right. He left Athens to embark on a spectacular military career in 401 bc, two years before Socrates’ execution, and his military experiences had a deep impact on his thought and writings. An important historian and an innovator in literary forms, Xenophon limited his philosophical interests to political and ethical themes. Two questions are especially prominent: (1) What are the psychological roots of human virtue, and how can it be taught? (2) What are the limits of and the prospects for human attainment of self-sufficiency? He develops these themes most fully in two major works that present two competing models of the best human being. His Memoirs (usually referred to by the Latin title Memorabilia) presents the model of the philosophical life, mainly by recounting conversations between Socrates and a wide variety of human types. His The Education of Cyrus (often referred to by its Latin title Cyropaedia) presents the model of the political life, mainly by giving a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire. Generally speaking, Xenophon seems in these works less willing than Plato and Aristotle to privilege the claims of philosophy over the claims of politics, and less optimistic about the power of reason to produce happiness. His works were highly esteemed by the Romans, as well as by such moral thinkers as Machiavelli, Montaigne and Rousseau.

Citing this article:
O'Connor, David K.. Xenophon (c.427–355/50 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A121-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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