Friday, March 19, 2021

Lessons and Teachers - Xenophon

Lessons and Teachers - Xenophon

The March of the Ten Thousand

Xenophon has apparently inspired many - from Alexander the Great, to the early Stoics, to Niccolo Machiavelli, to Peter Drucker, to people this very day... He will likely inspire people well into the future. He was a direct student of Socrates twenty-five centuries ago. He has, apparently often been negatively (and perhaps unfairly) compared to his contemporary, Plato. I won’t go into any of this, other than to say that if one simply starts with Wikipedia (e.g. see “Xenophon”, his influence on the very word for “Management”, etc.) and then delves much deeper into popular writings (and other media such as websites, podcasts, etc.) as well as academic publications about Xenophon - then one will find many fascinating reflections and insights on this prolific thinker, writer, and person-of-action of antiquity. 

The Expedition of Cyrus / The Anabasis / The March of the Ten Thousand, etc. (all various names for the same work) is well worth reading. Other works of Xenophon are, too.

Here are a few (of many) resources that I found useful (in my personal journey of trying to understand this work) and which I would therefore recommend, for anyone wanting to explore Xenophon and The March of the Ten Thousand:

[Book] Xenophon: The Expedition of Cyrus: A new translation by Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics), 2005 [Note: The Introduction to this translation by Tim Rood is well worth reading and the Select Bibliography is rich with ideas for additional readings]

[Book Chapter] Why Read The Classics? [Chapter 3 “Xenophon’s Anabasis”], Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin, Vintage Books (A Division of Random House, Inc.), 2000

[Article] Xenophon’s Philosophic Odyssey: On the Anabasis and Plato’s Republic, Jacob Howland, The American Political Science Review, Dec., 2000, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Dec., 2000) pp. 875-889

[Article] Being Greek, Henry Day, London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 21, (Nov, 2006),

[Article] Redeeming Xenophon: Historiographical reception and the transhistorical, Tim Rood, Classical Receptions Journal, 2013 vol. 5 (2) pp. 199-211 

[Podcast] Xenophon - BBC Radio 4 -

I feel that it is important to acknowledge (loudly) that no one today would, or should, strive to be exactly like Xenophon. He was certainly a (great) man of his times but we would, and should, quite rightly, find many of his views, and the context in which he held those views, quite appalling (e.g. he lived at a time when slavery was widely accepted - and he traded in slaves, among other spoils of war!). So, I am going to loudly proclaim (in case any reader is seriously confused...) that clearly we should neither admire, nor emulate, all aspects of Xenophon (nor, necessarily, any historical figure...) and we should never whole-heartedly long for the (real or imaginary) past

As I once voiced my frustration - ‘There may be nothing so dangerous as combining nostalgia for an imagined past with ignorance of the actual past’ (and this sentiment and concept has, also, probably been better said by others). To put it simply - no person (or period, or age) was ever perfect (or even particularly “great”). No person, living or dead, should be idolized. And no, there really never was a pure ‘golden age’ or actual ‘garden of eden’/‘paradise’ to which we should return. The good life is what we individually and collectively strive to create each day. It is not something we can find in the past.  

If anything, we currently live in the most flourishing period of human history - for the most humans in history - in almost any way that can be objectively measured (and Steven Pinker will also be one of the “100 Teachers” I have learned from regarding the facts of human progress). That doesn’t mean, however, that our (current) time is not fraught with actual suffering and potential perils. And, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from reflecting on the past. But, we do need to be self-aware and mindful that our current reflections on the past are as much (or even more so) our distant, imagined reflections as contrasted with whatever actually happened in the past. And, it is our reflections and meditations and recreations - and then our subsequent actions - that matter most in our own minds and our own lives and in the lives of those around us. 

Caveats and disclaimers regarding Xenophon (and any teacher) fully acknowledged, as well as my own limited knowledge regarding Xenophon, the history of Ancient Greece, Greek Philosophy, etc. - I simply want to set down some of my thoughts and feelings, at this moment, after reading The March of the Ten Thousand a couple of times over the past couple of years. I was fortunate to have personally ‘discovered’ Xenophon a couple of years ago (through my readings about Machiavelli). Both Machiavelli (another often severely misunderstood figure - and another of the 100 Teachers I will reflect upon) and Xenophon have been sources of inspiration and resilience for me the past few years. 

Concerning Xenophon, I have delved into translations of the Memorabilia and the Cyropaedia, but the book that I keep returning to is the Anabasis / March of the Ten Thousand / The Expedition of Cyrus (and there are other titles for it). After reading a couple of Gutenberg Press editions, and listening to an audiobook version, I finally bought a paper copy of “Oxford World’s Classics” - “Xenophon: The Expedition of Cyrus: A new translation by Robin Waterfield”. I mention this version, in particular, not necessarily because I hold it above others, but because I actually hold it in my hands - and any direct quotes or page references below will be using this (excellent, IMHO) translation/version.

What stands out for me, above all else, is that this is a story of survival. I have always loved survival stories. There is something so ‘simplifying’ about having a single mission - to survive. One of the (many) things that makes this particular survival story so interesting to me is how Xenophon and his peers and his leaders are lured deeper and deeper into enemy territory - and farther and farther from home. What started out as a fairly simple military expedition (don’t they all start out appearing that way...) turns into an epic disaster for all involved. What is undertaken for glory, and gold, and, yes, greed, ends up becoming a (more admirable - although still morally problematic...) quest to escape and survive and help others to survive. 

There is so much to learn from this story. Most of us will never be in the military, and, if we are, we are unlikely to be in the thick of an expedition that goes horribly wrong and results in being trapped far behind enemy lines just trying to get home alive... To those that actually have been in this scenario - the account of Xenophon is not metaphorical. It is hopefully a source of comfort (if not a somewhat horrifying déjà vu) - and I thank you for your service and am glad to hear you survived.

For the rest of us, however, what can we learn from such a tale? There are leadership and management lessons we can glean (as per Peter Drucker supposedly saying it was the most important leadership book ever written?). There are military tactics. There are psychological insights. There are personal moments of epiphany (such as when Xenophon realized that if he doesn’t step up and do something now, he’s not going to live long enough to step up later...) 

[From the Robin Waterfield translation, page 57] 

“Why am I lying here? The night is passing and at dawn the enemy will probably arrive. If we fall into the king’s hands, we’ll inevitably die inglorious deaths, after witnessing all the most ghastly scenes one could possibly imagine and suffering the full range of the most gruesome tortures. Yet no one is showing the slightest interest in defence or doing anything practical about it; we’re just lying here as if we were in a position to take it easy. From what other city do I expect a general to come and organize things? Why am I waiting? How old do I have to be? I won’t get any older at all if I just surrender to the enemy today.”

There is just pure inspiration that one can survive hard times.

One thing that I reflect upon (as someone passionate about prevention and upstream thinking) is the that for all his knowledge and wisdom, for being a student of Socrates (!), for having other options in this life - Xenophon got lured in... He got lured into going. He got lured into going further and further ‘up country’... The whole thing was preventable! 

But sometimes in life we got lured in... We get promised one thing and delivered another (e.g. in relationships, at jobs, etc.). We often fool ourselves - or let ourselves get fooled (and Buddhism might argue that we are always fooling ourselves that the next thing we chase and try to grasp will provide lasting satisfaction). Or, we choose to believe things will be different despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (ah, wishful thinking...). We like to think of ourselves as exceptions to the rules - but the rules and laws of nature and other powerful forces will always win in the end (i.e. think death and taxes).

So, I love and respect Xenophon for everything he has to teach us about how to get unstuck once we’ve gotten really, really stuck. But his book should also be read backwards (and the book is actually titled backwards - i.e. it is called the march ‘up country’ when actually it tells the much more harrowing story of the march down/back/out). 

We all should know how to gird our loins, grit our teeth, and grind and fight our way out of hell, if we need to. That said, we should all learn something about the boundaries of hell and how to avoid going there whenever possible. If you’ve survived that abusive relationship... If you’ve survived that abusive boss... If you’ve survived this “worldwide global pandemic” - then you have a duty to try to prevent going there again. You have a duty to try to prevent future “ghastly scenes” and “gruesome tortures” - because you don’t even have to read about or imagine them. You’ve lived through them. You could live through them again, if you had to... But why would you want to? Why would you want others to?

Of course, sometimes ending up in hell just isn’t preventable. Sometimes hell descends upon us. Sometimes even with good intentions and the best of motivations night throws down nightmare upon nightmare. Sometimes we get lured in. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes random lightning strikes. Sometimes people just get terrible diseases. 

But today, while you’re awake for a while, consider actually doing something to prepare for the inevitable struggles that life will provide. What are you waiting for? How old do you have to be?

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