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Xenophon contra Plato: Citizen Motivation and Socratic Biography

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

AbstractXenophon’s Cyropaedia should be considered a classic text of political theory. It inaugurated the political biography and is one of the most extensive classical Greek works on political leadership. It has, however, been neglected or, when studied, misunderstood as a cautionary tale of political corruption. I argue that Xenophon’s method in the Cyropaedia is illustrative of Socratic biography and focused on three problems: why leaders emerge, what motivates them, and how their character is constituted. Xenophon responds to these questions by modelling a spirited character type, a person uniquely motivated by philotimia, the desire for political status and honour, and thus uniquely suited for development into a political leader. Furthermore, Xenophon is in theoretic dialogue with Plato over the concepts which comprise this model and a proper understanding of their dialogue impacts interpretations of the Cyropaedia as a whole, Xenophon’s intervention in Greek political discourse, and Plato’s influence on contemporaries.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton UniversityBaker Hall, Princeton, NJ


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