Memorabilia, Book I, Chapter 2, Sections 39-50

From Every Day a Holiday: Cinco de Mayo

Memorabilia by Xenophon

Book I, Chapter 2, Sections 39-50

I venture to lay it down that learners get nothing from a teacher with whom they are out of sympathy. Now, all the time that Critias and Alcibiades associated with Socrates they were out of sympathy with him, but from the very first their ambition was political advancement. For while they were still with him, they tried to converse, whenever possible, with prominent politicians. Indeed, there is a story told of Alcibiades, that, when he was less than twenty years old, he had a talk about laws with Pericles, his guardian, the first citizen in the State.

“Tell me, Pericles,” he said, “can you teach me what a law is?”

“Certainly,” he replied.

“Then pray teach me. For whenever I hear men praised for keeping the laws, it occurs to me that no one can really deserve that praise who does not know what a law is.”

“Well, Alcibiades, there is no great difficulty about what you desire. You wish to know what a law is. Laws are all the rules approved and enacted by the majority in assembly, whereby they declare what ought and what ought not to be done.”

“Do they suppose it is right to do good or evil?”

“Good, of course, young man, — not evil.”

“But if, as happens under an oligarchy, not the majority, but a minority meet and enact rules of conduct, what are these?”

“Whatsoever the sovereign power in the State, after deliberation, enacts and directs to be done is known as a law.”

“If, then, a despot, being the sovereign power, enacts what the citizens are to do, are his orders also a law?”

“Yes, whatever a despot as ruler enacts is also known as a law.”

“But force, the negation of law, what is that, Pericles? Is it not the action of the stronger when he constrains the weaker to do whatever he chooses, not by persuasion, but by force?”

“That is my opinion.”

“Then whatever a despot by enactment constrains the citizens to do without persuasion, is the negation of law?”

“I think so: and I withdraw my answer that whatever a despot enacts without persuasion is a law.”

“And when the minority passes enactments, not by persuading the majority, but through using its power, are we to call that force or not?”

“Everything, I think, that men constrain others to do ‘without persuasion,’ whether by enactment or not, is not law, but force.”

“It follows then, that whatever the assembled majority, through using its power over the owners of property, enacts without persuasion is not law, but force?”

“Alcibiades,” said Pericles, “at your age, I may tell you, we, too, were very clever at this sort of thing. For the puzzles we thought about and exercised our wits on were just such as you seem to think about now.”

“Ah, Pericles,” cried Alcibiades, “if only I had known you intimately when you were at your cleverest in these things!”

So soon, then, as they presumed themselves to be the superiors of the politicians, they no longer came near Socrates. For apart from their general want of sympathy with him, they resented being cross-examined about their errors when they came. Politics had brought them to Socrates, and for politics they left him. But Criton was a true associate of Socrates, as were Chaerophon, Chaerecrates, Hermogenes, Simmias, Cebes, Phaedondas, and others who consorted with him not that they might shine in the courts or the assembly, but that they might become gentlemen, and be able to do their duty by house and household, and relatives and friends, and city and citizens. Of these not one, in his youth or old age, did evil or incurred censure.

“But,” said his accuser, “Socrates taught sons to treat their fathers with contempt: he persuaded them that he made his companions wiser than their fathers: he said that the law allowed a son to put his father in prison if he convinced a jury that he was insane; and this was a proof that it was lawful for the wiser to keep the more ignorant in gaol.” In reality Socrates held that, if you clap fetters on a man for his ignorance, you deserve to be kept in gaol yourself by those whose knowledge is greater than your own: and such reasoning led him frequently to consider the difference between Madness and Ignorance. That madmen should be kept in prison was expedient, he thought, both for themselves and for their friends: but those who are ignorant of what they ought to know deserve to learn from those who know it.

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