Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Xenophon (c. 430–c. 350 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
XENOPHON, son of Gryllus, was an Athenian, modest of demeanor and beautiful beyond description. Tradition tells how Socrates met him in a narrow way, and barring the passage with his leveled staff, began to ask him where this or that commodity could be bought. The boy answered readily. Finally the sage inquired, “Where can the beautiful and noble be found?” The youth shook his head in perplexity. “Follow me and learn.” So Xenophon became his hearer.  1
  The anecdote is traceable only to gossiping Diogenes Laertius, six centuries later. It is doubtless an invention; but a good one. As a beautiful and vigorous stripling, joining in the Socratic search for wisdom with the eager half-comprehending faith of youth, Xenophon stands eternalized in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens,’ and in the grateful memory of mankind.  2
  It is most natural and fitting, then, that Xenophon’s masterpiece, the ‘Anabasis,’ is the ideal book for boys, and furnishes the chosen high-road for every new generation, marching in slow daily stages—albeit unwilling and tearful ofttimes—toward a mastery of the speech and life of ancient Athens. Furthermore this supreme adventure, this triumphant failure, of Xenophon’s life, begins with a bold outbreak of truancy and disobedience!  3
  “There was in the army a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who was neither general, captain, nor soldier. His old friend, the general Proxenus, had written inviting him, promising to make him a friend to Prince Cyrus, whom Proxenus declared he himself prized more than he did his native city.” This unpatriotic sentiment of a Theban toward a barbarian, a boy, a despot, should have warned the Athenian youth. Xenophon, however, on reading the letter, asked Socrates’s advice. He, wisely fearing that Cyrus’s friendship would cost Xenophon the good-will of Athens, and perhaps to gain time for riper thought, bade him consult Apollo’s Delphic oracle. “Xenophon, going to Delphi, asked Apollo to which of the gods he should make prayers and vows, in order to succeed in the expedition on which his heart was set, so as to come prosperous and safe home again.” Socrates reproached his disciple, upon his return, for not asking first whether it were better to go at all or to stay at home. “Since, however,” he added, “you did put the question so, you must now do what the god bade you.”  4
  Many scenes and incidents of the ‘Anabasis’ are used again in the ‘Cyropædeia’ (Youth of Cyrus the Elder), which makes no real pretension to truth, being indeed the first European “historical” novel or romance. This has cast much doubt on the veracity of the ‘Anabasis.’ The remark in a third Xenophontic work (the ‘Hellenica,’ or Contemporary History) that the upward march and retreat of the Ten Thousand had been recorded “by Themistogenes the Syracusan,” does not help our faith.  5
  Every reader of the ‘Anabasis’ must see, at any rate, that the writer views the world through Xenophon’s eyes, always knowing his thoughts, and even his dreams. Of its authorship we can have no real doubt. Its truthfulness is another question. Like Cæsar’s ‘Commentaries,’ it represents what the chief hero, and sole recorder, wishes the world to accept as truth. It is rarely possible to convict such masterly special pleaders of direct falsifying.  6
  Perhaps every story of a life, adequately told, is felt to be typical of universal humanity. Certainly many a reader has dreamily felt that this truant scholar, deserting Athens, home, school, philosophy, for Babel, wealth, power, the favor of a rash and doomed prince,—is but young manhood itself, hesitant and erring at the parting of the ways.  7
  It was a veteran schoolmaster who attempted at last to indicate this recurrent feeling in a marginal comment on the ‘Anabasis’ (iv. 8, 4).

  THE IMPERIAL boy had fallen in his pride
  Before the gates of golden Babylon.
  The host, who deemed that priceless treasure won,
For many a day since then had wandered wide,
By famine thinned, by savage hordes defied.
  In a deep vale, beneath the setting sun,
  They saw at last a swift black river run,
While shouting spearmen thronged the farther side.
Then eagerly, with startled joyous eyes,
  Toward the desponding chief a soldier flew:—
  “I was a slave in Athens, never knew
My native country; but I understand
  The meaning of yon wild barbarian cries,
And I believe this is my fatherland!”
This glimpse have we, no more. Did parents fond,
  Brothers, or kinsmen, hail his late return?
  Or did he, doubly exiled, only yearn
To greet the Euxine’s waves at Trebizond,
The blue Ægean, and Pallas’s towers beyond?
  Mute is the record. We shall never learn.
  But as once more the well-worn page I turn,
Forever by reluctant schoolboys conned,
A parable to me the tale appears,
  Of blacker waters in a drearier vale.
    Ah me! When on that brink we exiles stand,
  As earthly lights and mortal accents fail,
Shall voices long forgotten reach our ears,
    To tell us we have found our fatherland?
  Indeed there was much that was tragic, and even fatal, in this hasty venture of Xenophon. His master, certainly, he never saw again. The death scene which is immortalized—and without doubt freely idealized—at the close of Plato’s ‘Phædo,’ occurred while Xenophon was leading unruly mercenaries to fruitless battle against Kurdish and Armenian savages. Even when the survivors of the great retreat reached the Black Sea, many mishaps awaited them, in a Greek world rapidly falling apart under Sparta’s weak and selfish leadership. The remnant of the ten thousand adventurers was finally incorporated in the troops assembling for a campaign of the Spartans against the treacherous Persian Tissaphernes. Socrates’s fears for Xenophon apparently came true: a passing allusion in the ‘Anabasis’ itself tells us that Xenophon’s return from Asia to Hellas was in Agesilaus’s train, when that Spartan king was recalled from Asiatic victories to save Lacedæmon from the alliance of foes at home against her. Among those jealous allies was Athens. In Agesilaus’s barren victory at Coroneia (394 B.C.) Xenophon probably shared, thus fighting against his own townsmen.  9
  Whether this constituted him a traitor is not so easy to say. Party spirit ran as high in a classic Greek city as in mediæval Italy. Xenophon felt that his true city went into exile with the aristocratic party,—or with himself alone, like Dante! Death awaited both at the gate, unless they came home victorious in arms. Moreover there was a feeling, never wholly lacking from Agamemnon to Polybius, and of growing strength in Xenophon’s day, that Hellas was the true fatherland, that all Greeks were fellow-citizens, the Persians their only natural foes.  10
  In this very crisis, Agesilaus was recalled from a career in Asia that might have anticipated Alexander’s. Persian gold subsidized the revolt at home against Sparta’s leadership. Xenophon at Coroneia may well have justified his action as patriotic—if he indeed fought there. He himself had seen a handful of Greeks knock, like Hiawatha, at the very heart of the Persian leviathan, and come safe home again. The inability of that unwieldy empire to make effective resistance against sudden attack, he has recorded in words that fired Alexander’s confidence in the next generation. What wonder if Agesilaus was to him “better than a fatherland” so unfatherly? We only hear that on some charge of Laconism he was condemned to prolonged exile. Whether he ever returned to Athens is disputed. If at all, it was in extreme old age.  11
  The home founded by the exile at Scillus in Elis is lovingly described in a graceful excursus of the ‘Anabasis,’ which is cited in the following. Here he lived happily for more than twenty years, during which most of his literary work was apparently done.  12
  Xenophon is the first really versatile Greek writer of whom we hear. Of poetry, to be sure, he is quite incapable. His ‘Agesilaus’ is rather a eulogy than a biography; and the ‘Hiero’ is neither, but a dialogue between the tyrant and the poet Simonides, gracefully demonstrating the Socratic doctrine that the despot is wretched rather than fortunate.  13
  The ‘Memorabilia’ was probably in its intention a faithful memorial of Socrates, prepared about ten years after the master’s death. It is discussed with citations in a previous volume under that master’s name.  14
  Both the ‘Symposium’ and the ‘Economist’ are dialogues in which Socrates takes part. He is not, however, dominant in either; and we get the impression that they are largely or wholly Xenophon’s creations. The ‘Symposium’ is utterly inferior in power to Plato’s great dramatic scene, but is doubtless a far more realistic picture of an ordinary Athenian banquet,—possibly even of one actual banquet. The ‘Œconomicus’ is a sketch of an ideal gentleman farmer; and is cited largely in the following, because it contains one of the brightest glimpses in all ancient literature of a happy wife and home.  15
  The ‘Anabasis’ was apparently written after 380 B.C., and the ‘Cyropædeia’ much later still. As a novel the latter must be pronounced an interesting failure, being tedious and unprogressive as a whole. The childhood, and again the death, of the ideal prince are beautifully and touchingly described. In the first book especially Xenophon draws unmistakably “from the life,” and must have been on terms of loving familiarity with his own children.  16
  Quite the most unsatisfying of Xenophon’s chief works is his ‘Hellenica.’ It was probably undertaken to complete the account of the Peloponnesian War from the point where Thucydides’s pen dropped from his dying hand. Indeed, the manuscripts of Xenophon actually begin “And after that”—but it is thought a leaf or two was early lost at the opening; there is also a gap of some months between the events narrated in the two works. The closing years of the great struggle, 411–404 B.C., and the reign of terror in Athens under the Thirty Tyrants, are described in a complete section of the history, published previous to 387 B.C. The later section brings the story down to about 357 B.C. In this volume the omissions and disproportions are so glaring that some have thought we possess but an epitome of the original work. But probably Xenophon wrote these volumes as memoirs; consciously yielding largely to his personal interests and sympathies, and perhaps intending his work for a narrow circle. His unrivaled popularity, and the chance of survival, have left him our sole connected and contemporary authority for a very important period.  17
  There are abundant indications that Xenophon’s delight in outdoor life, agriculture, hunting, horsemanship, and athletics, kept him young and cheerful even into his eighth decade. “The heart of the old man was overjoyed to see his grandson, unable to keep silent in the excess of his delight, but ‘baying’ with excitement like a well-bred whelp, whenever he came to close quarters with a beast, and shouting to his fellows by name.” Behind the thin mask of royal Astyages, the author of the ‘Cyropædeia’ here shows his own cheerful face. An abiding faith in kindly guidance by the gods through omens, sacrifices, and dreams, contentment with his lot, loving loyalty to friendship, cool intrepidity in deadly peril, and a constant lively sense of the humorous in all things,—these are traits which Xenophon shared with Socrates, and it may well be that they are in part lifelong traces of the philosopher’s early influence.  18
  Xenophon himself, however, is not a philosopher, hardly even a scholar; and certainly not in the least a mystic. His nature is not a deep or brooding one. He has not even an abiding sense of the marvelous in life. Rather he reminds us of a cheerful English country gentleman, perfectly satisfied with his estates, his family, and himself. Modern sportsmen have made vigorous protests against some of his methods of snaring hares wholesale, but his ‘Treatise on Horsemanship’ is still useful. In general the man is astonishingly human, not to say modern.  19
  The best general paper on Xenophon known to us is the somewhat extended one by Henry Graham Dakyns, in the notable volume of English essays edited by Evelyn Abbott and entitled ‘Hellenica.’ This essay has been freely (but very incompletely) exploited in the present sketch. Mr. Dakyns is also the author of the best translation of Xenophon, several volumes of which have already appeared (Macmillan’s). It is quite unnecessary to catalogue editions of this favorite school author; but those who are weary of the beaten track will find Holden’s ‘Œconomicus’ a most enjoyable book, complete in itself.  20

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.