Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
As Xenophon saw it (aeon.co)
71 points by amanuensis 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

Have commented here before on the link between horsemanship (for which Xenophon's treatise is the philosophical foundation) and leadership, (Xenophon's key preoccupation according to the article.)

Officer classes were usually trained in horsemanship for very good reason. It's one of the few transformative experiences that can be taught and practised. Before cars, horses were probably one of the few sources of what we now call "peak experiences" available.

Today we can fly and jump out of planes, ride motorcycles, surf, and achieve the transcendent "self-actualization" required for leadership through a variety of other peak experiences, so horsemanship has become a kind of esoteric pursuit. But the underlying need for self-actualized leaders hasn't changed. Or maybe it has, but a few people still see the gap but don't have the words to describe it.

Looking forward to reading Anabasis.

>the transcendent "self-actualization" required for leadership

Spot on, in every interview I ask the hiring manager if they have ever jumped out of a plane, and if they say "no" my respect for them drops to zero (sorry, it's a fundamental subconscious response I can't help it). I call their boss, tell them that their subordinate forgot to self-actualize, and I get made their manager on the spot. It's how I got my last two jobs.

i've jumped out of a plane (it was incredible of course), but i have no idea what you're talking about—but maybe I don't understand what "self-actualization" means.

They were joking.

Were they? I really didn't get that

I'm not joking at all, in fact if you mention in a Google interview that you went to horse camp they skip the rest of the process and make you a staff engineer on the spot. Many companies, especially the high-power consulting firms, are sending their most troubled young executives to horse camp as a remedial effort. It's impossible to overstate the importance of self-actualization.

Thought it was a funny snark joke, but funny in more ways than perhaps intended.

I have seriously thought of operating a horse camp for executives. Most of what's out there is touchy feely healing lodge crap, where historically, cavalry was where leaders were minted, and their core training was sometimes as short as a few weeks.

People in offices spend most of their time around unstable neurotic personalities, and it means they have no gravitas to bring to their teams. That instability breaks creative flow and prevents people from committing, and that dissonance is what creates stress and suffering that staff take home.

It's no accident that one the most famous charisma trainers, Olivia Fox-Cabane, was/is also a horsewoman as well.

It's funny to say remedial horse camp for crap execs, but if you have ever been on one of those infantalizing management retreats, treating people like adults would be orders of magnitude better.

To be fair, people in these positions do get sent to ridiculous bullshit.

> Looking forward to reading Anabasis.

I highly recommend. it's one of the few classic texts I've been able to read almost as if it were a modern novel.

if you're interested, it's also a great "first text" to try and read in greek. Xenophon writes in a straightforward manner that's much easier to translate than contemporary plays and philosophical works.

The Anabasis by Xenophon can be read in the original, with translations on alternating pages, as in the Loeb series. There are also interlinear translations available, such as this one: https://archive.org/details/anabasisofxenoph00xenoiala/page/...

The translation in the Loeb book is just delicious. While reading the original, I couldn't keep myself from reading the English text as well - it's too good. (Makes me think that studying foreign/ancient languages in order to read is not actually important in the least and might be better left to professional translators.)

> Makes me think that studying foreign/ancient languages in order to read is not actually important in the least and might be better left to professional translators.

it really depends on your goals. if you are just reading for pleasure, it can be lovely to just read a good translation as written. if you are approaching the text more seriously, you need to be aware that the translation of many key words can be quite controversial in these texts. to make matters worse, there are instances where the only copies of the text have been damaged and scholars have inferred letters or entire words. these reconstructions can also be controversial.

you don't necessarily have to become a fluent reader to get the most out of a particular text, but I would at least recommend reading the translation side-by-side with the greek, preferably with a good commentary to consult. sometimes the arguments in the commentary can be as interesting as the text itself!

Commentaries are definitely interesting to read, even by themselves. I'll often read commentaries on Biblical books by themselves. It's interesting to have a copy of the Greek/Hebrew, even if you don't know it, because they often make so many interesting arguments about why the words are the way they are, then offer their general commentary.

That’s fine until you come across an untranslated text or a poor translation. Worse, a misleading translation.

Often you have to have an understanding of the language to know how well it’s translated. It’s a bit circular.

But when you read such a tremendous translation effort it does indeed raise those thoughts.

the perseus site is also great. [0] you can easily read the greek and english side-by-side, and every greek word is a hyperlink to a page with the definition and inflection of the word and links to its entries in various lexicons.

[0] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Xen.%20Anab.

This article is a good introduction to Xenophon.

The major thing that's missing here is that his writings were actually very influential among ancient philosophers, especially ones of the Stoic school.

For example, Zeno of Citium, who had found the Stoic school, decided to become a philosopher after reading Xenophon's Memorabilia. Epictetus, a prominent philosopher of Roman era, references Xenophon's writing as much as Plato.

I wonder since when philosophy became all about Plato.

Well, he did invent the word. Snark aside, I think the reason why Plato is so influential is Christianity - basically a radicalized form of his ideas.

He did not invent the word. In the funeral oration for example Thucydides has Pericles refer to the Athenians as a philosophizing people:

Philokaloumen te gar met ' euteleias kai philosophoumen aneu malakias.

Plato was probably the first to use the term in a technical sense, to refer to someone who spends his life as a 'professional' philosopher.

And of course Herodotus refers to Solon as a lover of wisdom in his Histories.

Considering my user name I guess I should have led with that reference.

Hmm - I had no idea. I came across the distinction (philosophy/sophism) in Plato's work. I had the feeling that Sophism continued to be the normal term, without its modern pejorative sound, until the advent of christianity as the dominant ideology of the roman empire- certainly, I think the idea of philosophy as the love of (divine) wisdom is a sort of curtailment of the whole project, really only favourable to Platonists, Christians, or I guess Parimedeans- so I thought it's the kind of thing that Plato (and his school) would have put about.

Perseus project hosts full text of Xenophon's Cyropaedia with Greek and English translation. Highly recommended. Could never figure why it was never given same import as other classics among modern audiences.


Once I learned that it was largely fictional I lost interest, as well written as it might be.

I enjoyed reading the Anabasis. The writing felt more like recollections of past events. Xenophon gives account of details by accident. For example, the greek army has marched deep in the persian empire, the battle of Cunaxa took place (and the greek encampment was raided on that occasion), then the greek leaders were killed, then they escape up north (and one realizes that was because there were no bridges over the Euphrates and the Tigris at the time), then they have to weather winter in hostile territory in mountainous eastern Anatolia. And at that point, Xenophon drops a remark about the women who were with them. I was so surprised, I had to read the phrase twice and even then I was in disbelief. What were women doing on a dangerous military campaign? Xenophon doesn't bother to explain.

It is wonderful that we have writings from a lost world, it is frustrating however that so little has survived.

Poor merchants, prostitutea and all kinds of people serving/scavenging from the army would follow the train in those times.

/r/askhistorians has a great thread on this, will try and find it.

Probably a lot of slaves as well. One has to consider how a large band of soldiers survives "in country". A lot of pillaging, ravaging and general nastiness. Slaves were a fact of life back then.

Key points:

- Xenophon began as a member of Cyrus' army who carried out an ill-fated assault on Artaxerxes II, king of Persia

- He survived, returned to Athens (took two years) and started writing on a wide variety of subjects, including the nature of leadership, and accounts of Socrates that are of a more personal nature than Plato's

- "Plato had a serious philosophical agenda of his own... Xenophon’s interests are at once more worldly and more realistic"

I haven't read the article. I was stopped in my tracks by the picture of the Artemision jockey on his horse, in the leader. I grew up in Athens, just a short ride away from the Archeological museum and I visited often, when I was a child. The jockey and his horse was one of my favourites.

It was the horse that I was most taken with. You can see the attention to detail that went into it- the skin is wrinkling around the joints, the muscles ripple under it, the tendons and the veins bulge out - nothing was left to chance. It was more than a thousand years before the figure of a living thing was studied again with such detail and represented as faithfuly, in the Rennaissance, and later by the Dutch Masters.

We forget, I think, that art is a form of technology. Indeed, the word "technology" itself is a composite of the Greek words for art, "techne" and discourse, "logos". It may be more accurate then to say that technology itself is a form of art- the art of making things. We call our technological devices "artifacts" after all, don't we? That is - "works of art"!

Greek sculptural technology reached unprecedented heights during the Hellenistic period, where the jockey hails from, as well as that other masterpiece from the same, Artemision wreck, the Artemision Bronze [1]. Nothing comes close, noone had been able to create such works before, and then for a very long time after. This is no fluffy emotional judgement. Greek bronzes are now mostly lost, their metal recycled away, and they primarily survive as Roman era copies, in stone. But the Roman copies can always be distinguished by their "third leg"- a prop added to human figures to, well, prop them upright. You see, the Greeks knew how to make a sculpted human form (in bronze or stone, cast or carved) that could stand on its own, unaided. This skill was lost almost immediately after the Hellenistic time. The Romans didn't have it. So their statues needed props to stand.

In a very real sense then, making those sculptures required knowledge, technology. The knowledge to make beautiful things.


[1] I could talk for hours about the Artemision Bronze and sound like a mushy old fool. But if you're ever in the Museum in Athens, take a look at the pose of its feet. The back foot has its heel raised, so that its toes are pushing down and twisting the leg around, to put the strength of the whole body behind the force of the throw. At the same time, the front leg is firmly planted- except for its toes, that are pulled back by the tension of its own muscles as they counter the back leg's motion. It is a depiction of momentum. That was the artist's target- to carve motion into the rigid metal. And it is a wisely chosen pose indeed. A split second when the body is moving of its own will; a few moments later, the man will have to rebalance himself in a way that only a living human can. But at that second, in that pose, it is not easy to tell the difference.

The Anabasis is available as an ebook from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1170

No mentions of The Warriors yet?


The Warriors is a 1979 American crime film directed by Walter Hill and based on Sol Yurick's 1965 novel of the same name. This novel was, in turn, based on Xenophon's Anabasis. The story centers on a New York City gang who must make an urban journey of 30 miles (48 km), from the north end of The Bronx to their home turf in Coney Island in southern Brooklyn, after they are framed for the murder of a respected gang leader. It was released in the United States on February 9, 1979.

A cult classic. The central theme is, indeed, similar- the guy who has summoned the Warriors is killed and they must make their way back home through hostile territory. It never occurred to me.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact