Friday, March 1, 2013

The Great Tradition: Xenophon

Today's post is my thoughts on the entry on Xenophon, in The Great Tradition. The excerpt is from The Memorabilia, and is taken from Book IV.

I greatly enjoyed Xenophon's account of how Socrates interacted with those he thought of as inferior in intellect, or, more likely, those who thought themselves superior in intellect but who were actually much less so, like poor young Euthydemus. 

But the part that most stuck with me, even after looking through the text again, and reading my marked passages and the notes that accompanied them, was this passage, where Socrates is deploring the thought of some that true knowledge is an easy thing to come by.

Soc. Is it not surprising that people anxious to learn to play the harp or the flute, or to ride, or to become proficient in any like accomplishment, are not content to work unremittingly in private by themselves at whatever it is in which they desire to excel, but they must sit at the feet of the best-esteemed teachers, doing all things and enduring all things for the sake of following the judgment of those teachers in everything, as though they themselves could not otherwise become famous; whereas, among those who aspire to become eminent politically as orators and statesmen, there are some who cannot see why they should not be able to do all that politics demand, at a moment's notice, by inspiration as it were, without any preliminary pains or preparations whatever? And yet it would appear that the latter concerns must be more difficult of achievement than the former, in proportion as there are more competitors in the field but fewer who reach the goal of their ambition, which is as much as to say that a more sustained effort of attention is needed on the part of those who embark upon the sea of politics than is elsewhere called for. (page 31 in The Great Tradition)
There are two main things that this makes me think of, and as it often is with me these days, one deals with the temporal, and one with the eternal. 

To the temporal first, then. This reminds me of the underlying attitudes of some of my students. They think that school should be easier. They think that the essay I've asked them to write is too hard. And they are hard essays. Even the middle schoolers write analyses of texts (my eighth graders analyzed a Psalm from both literary and spiritual perspectives). But that is how proficiency is achieved: practice. And just as an Olympic weightlifter doesn't dink around with the puny weights that I struggle against, because he has mastered them, but takes more, and still more, they have to be always challenging their abilities. 

Now, one thing I am not saying here is that I am one of the "best-esteemed teachers," or even that my methods are the best that they could be. Even in seven months of teaching I have learned more about which methods work and which do not than in my four year teaching track. And God willing, I will be able to continue learning such for the rest of my career. 


The eternal view that this quote brings me to is this: It recalls to me the times my heart rebells against the leading of the Holy Spirit, who is the ultimate teacher (or counsellor, John 14:16). And how much more difficult is it to be holy, the way that God is holy (1 Peter 1:16), than to succeed in politics, or speaking well, or anything else? The same way that Euthydemus sought to rely on his books to bring him wisdom, I seek to rely on my own works to bring me into holiness, when only the sanctifying work of the Spirit will do.

Yes, sanctification will be painful at times, and hard. But we are called to be like Jesus in "doing all things and enduring all things for the sake of following the judgment of those teachers in everything." Jesus followed His teacher even unto death, shame, and separation from His eternal Father. And do I balk at having to give up some hobby or material possession that has become an idol in my heart? As the writer of Hebrews says, of me as much as of anyone, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:4)


I very much enjoyed Xenophon, and am glad to have made his acquaintance. It does make me chuckle that such a rebel would be revered by (political) conservatives. I suppose he seceded himself from Athens to Sparta.

Next is Isocrates, who is turning out to be an enjoyable handful. I might have two posts on him. One on the first two excerpts, and one on his Antidosis.

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