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Big Boys And Little Boys: Justice And Law In Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Memorabilia

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

Xenophon’s anecdote concerning the exchange of clothes between a big boy and a little boy in Cyropaedia (1.3.16–18) offers a valuable framework for understanding his conception of justice and the problematics of administering it. Interpreters have erred by assuming that Cyrus’ teacher, as well as Socrates in Memorabilia, simply identifies the just with the lawful. Rather than identifying the two, both characters argue that the law is just; but they differ widely in their explanations of what makes the law just. For Cyrus’ teacher, the obligation to observe the law rests on a universal pre-legal ban on violence; for Socrates statutory law is to be obeyed for utilitarian reasons. Socrates’ view thus justifies both the teacher’s insistence that Cyrus obey the law—since the law is of benefit to the community—and also Cyrus’ decision to violate the law to achieve a just and beneficial redistribution. But it offers no justification for a universal ban on violence. In conformity with the Socratic principle, Cyrus avoids violence as far as possible, but only for the prudential reasons expressed by his mother. Once he acquires the power to coerce, Cyrus uses it to enforce the principle of proportional equality and meritorious redistribution he had approved in his judgment of the actions of the big boy.


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