I had never read Xenophon before and while a great fan of Thucydides, had never spent much time reading ancient Greek – as opposed to Byzantine – history. This was a challenge for me and while I can’t offer much original on Xenophon and his times, I can perhaps take a look at Xenophon’s view of politics in Clausewitzian terms. Consider this my own limited contribution to the round table discussion.
Gallagher, Winifred, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Penguin:New York, 2009, 244 pp.
Rapt is a wide-ranging and elegantly written summary of what scholars, authors, and a few mystics have to say about human attention and the role that it plays in our emotions and our day-to-day actions. Written in a very polished and literate style, it finds a nice balance between the author’s personal reflections on the role of attention in her life, quotations about focus and attention by authors such as William James and Thoreau, and interviews with leading psychologists and medical professionals. There’s perhaps a bit too much meat on the book’s bones to warrant selection for Oprah’s book club but fans of her TV show will find much to like and enjoy with Rapt.
In some ways, the book could be considered a skillful Boomer reflection on a subject that was grabbed with adolescent abandon by the same generation in the Sixties. The Power of Positive Thinking can’t quite match a world with many more religious, philosophical, pharmaceutical, and therapeutic choices in dealing with our unhappiness, or our endless distractions, or our frustrating procrastinations. Gallagher’s book makes a serious effort at surveying what we now know about particular habits of thought and focus. Anyone surrounded by colleagues wedded to their Blackberries, or by hordes of teenagers flogging their multi-coloured cellphones, has paused to wonder whether all of this is really “good” for people.
A few years ago I read a couple of books containing letters and replies to and from Ronald Reagan. I was fascinated by these writings and was quite surprised that the leader of the free world would take the time to actually reply to some of the mail he got. It opened up another side of Reagan to me – a more personal side.
Last week I was strolling through DFW and happened upon Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription by William F. Buckley Jr. As I posted that last link to Amazon I notice that I paid $4 too much at the airport. Oh well, I had to have it for that flight.
Prior to the roundtable, Dave Schuler a friend an astute blogger, asked if it mattered to me if Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus turned out to be a work of fiction? I thought for a moment and replied that if The Anabasis is a work of fiction, by Xenophon or attributed to him by some later writer, it is a very durable work of fiction because the lessons of the story have a timeless quality. One of the lessons of The Anabasis of Cyrus is on the art of leadership.
Throughout the text Xenophon gives contrasting examples of leadership in the narrative, and as with Cyrus and Clearchus, his explicit commentary. Xenophon’s conception of leadership goes beyond that of command and embraces political acumen, foresight and the moral example provided by Greek and Persian rulers ( used here in the same sense as Ambler’s translation, of anyone holding authority over others). In this conception of leadership, I think the teachings of Socrates lies heavily on Xenophon and the passages about Xenophon pressing forward to go East with Proxenus were included mainly to assert the independence of his judgment to his fellow Athenians.
How did Xenophon present the notable “rulers” in The Anabasis? A few examples:
Of all of the characters in the first section of the Anabasis, Clearchus is among the most important, and perhaps the most intriguing.
In Clearchus’s obituary, Xenophon describes a ruthless officer who is feared by all, respected by all, and liked by none(II,6). Clearchus was also the only Greek general who knew from the outset what Cyrus intended to do with the army he was raising(III, 1 (10)). Two questions are very much worth contemplating:
For whom was Clearchus working? And: who is responsible for his death?
The simple answer to the first is that Clearchus was working for Cyrus, as the narrative recounts. The narrative also allows the following interpretation: that Clearchus was using Cyrus to obtain sufficient treasure and military power to install himself as a King somewhere in the Hellenic world. There is a third possibility however: that Clearchus was in the employ of Artaxerxes, charged with tempting Cyrus to attempt a coup, and, if successful, delivering him to Persia and his death. If you imagine that this was his mission, he succeeded in this as well.