Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Xenophon and Sterne

Last weekend serendipity (the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also : an instance of this.) struck with the correspondence between a First Friday lecture "On the Socratic Xenophon" and a reading discussion Sunday morning of Tristram Shandy (Volume 2, Chapter XLVIII).  What you may ask do these two events share in common?  Well first I will briefly discuss the First Friday lecture and then conclude with an answer based on our reading of Sterne' Tristram.

The Lecture:

On Friday last George Anastaplo, Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, lectured "On the Socratic Xenophon".  He opened with a comparison of Xenophon's portrait of Socrates in his "The Apology of Socrates" and "The Memorabilia" with Plato's portrayal of Socrates in his own "Apology of Socrates".  Mr. Anastaplo conjectured that Xenophon, had he been present, could have persuaded the jury to not convict Socrates.  Xenophon's portrait of Socrates appears less offensive to the cultural norms of the jurors with a practical concern for everyday activities that does not appear in the Platonic portrayal.  Most importantly this reflected Xenophon's own reverence for the gods of Athens.  There are similarities between the two portraits including the presence of Socrates's "daimon".  Notable also is the importance for practical education in Xenophon's portrait of Socrates.  Again there appears a distinction between the Platonic Socrates who questioned to the point of disturbing many, Athenians about their possession of wisdom and the Socrates of Xenophon's writing who did not appear nearly as radical in his activities.  The distinction makes one wonder if the Socrates of Xenophon would reasonably be condemned to death.  On the other hand, as noted in Mr. Anastaplo's introductory remarks for the lecture, it was a wonder that the Socrates of Plato's Apology survived "into his seventieth year" with his critical questioning of Athenians as he was spurred on by the pronouncement of the Oracle at Delphi.
The lecture raised questions and successfully, for this listener, suggested further reading an thought is warranted on these and other aspects of Socrates' life and thought.

Tristram Shandy

To my surprise on Sunday morning as we discussed our continuing reading of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne we encountered the following statement:
"The first thing which entered my father’s head […] was to sit down coolly, after the example of Xenophon, and write a TRISTRA-poedia, or system of education for me…" (Vol 2, p 144).
Yes. Tristram was describing his father's attempt to collect "his own scattered thoughts, counsels, and notions", to provide an "Institute" for his education through childhood and adolescence.  This activity demonstrated some of that sort of practical advice that represents the Xenophon who was described so eloquently in the lecture I had attended only two days earlier.  Just as Walter Shandy had studied Xenophon and chose to pass on some of his wisdom to his son Tristram we too may continue to benefit from the lessons of this Greek author and thinker.  It is for me an example of serendipitous listening and reading and, hopefully, learning from the great writers of Western culture.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Everyman's Library, 1991 (1768)

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