Xenephon on Socrates, the Educator


From Xenephon’s Memorabilia translated by H. G. Dakyns:

Such was Socrates; so helpful under all circumstances and in every way that no observer, gifted with ordinary sensibility, could fail to appreciate the fact, that to be with Socrates, and to spend long time in his society (no matter where or what the circumstances), was indeed a priceless gain. Even the recollection of him, when he was no longer present, was felt as no small benefit by those who had grown accustomed to be with him, and who accepted him. Nor indeed was he less helpful to his acquaintance in his lighter than in his graver moods.

Let us take as an example that saying of his, so often on his lips: “I am in love with so and so”; and all the while it was obvious the going-forth of his soul was not towards excellence of body in the bloom of beauty, but rather towards faculties of the soul unfolding in virtue. And these “good natures” he detected by certain tokens: a readiness to learn that to which the attention was directed; a power of retaining in the memory the lessons learnt; and a passionate predilection for those studies in particular which serve to good administration of a house or of a state, and in general to the proper handling of man and human affairs. Such beings, he maintained, needed only to be educated to become not only happy themselves and happy administrators of their private households, but to be capable of rendering other human beings as states or individuals happy also.

He had indeed a different way of dealing with different kinds of people. Those who thought they had good natural ability and despised learning he instructed that the most highly-gifted nature stands most in need of training and education; and he would point out how in the case of horses it is just the spirited and fiery thoroughbred which, if properly broken in as a colt, will develop into a serviceable and superb animal, but if left unbroken will turn out utterly intractable and good for nothing. Or take the case of dogs: a puppy exhibiting that zest for toil and eagerness to attack wild creatures which are the marks of high breeding, will, if well brought up, prove excellent for the chase or for any other useful purpose; but neglect his education and he will turn out a stupid, crazy brute, incapable of obeying the simplest command. It is just the same with human beings; here also the youth of best natural endowments—that is to say, possessing the most robust qualities of spirit and a fixed determination to carry out whatever he has laid his hand to—will, if trained and taught what it is right to do, prove a superlatively good and useful man. He achieves, in fact, what is best upon the grandest scale. But leave him in boorish ignorance untrained, and he will prove not only very bad but very mischievous, and for this reason, that lacking the knowledge to discern what is right to do, he will frequently lay his hand to villainous practices; whilst the very magnificence and vehemence of his character render it impossible either to rein him in or to turn him aside from his evil courses. Hence in his case also his achievements are on the grandest scale but of the worst.

Or to take the type of person so eaten up with the pride of riches that he conceives himself dispensed from any further need of education—since it is “money makes the man,” and his wealth will amply suffice him to carry out his desires and to win honours from admiring humanity. Socrates would bring such people to their senses by pointing out the folly of supposing that without instruction it was possible to draw the line of demarcation between what is gainful and what is hurtful in conduct; and the further folly of supposing that, apart from such discrimination, a man could help himself by means of wealth alone to whatever he liked or find the path of expediency plain before him; and was it not the veriest simplicity to suppose that, without the power of labouring profitably, a man can either be doing well or be in any sort of way sufficiently equipped for the battle of life? and again, the veriest simplicity to suppose that by mere wealth without true knowledge it was possible either to purchase a reputation for some excellence, or without such reputation to gain distinction and celebrity?

Socrates was an educator, and the type of educator sorely needed today. He showed his students, his interlocutors, what was right to do, leading them to see the importance of moral truth.

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