Kalev’s Anti-Blog: How to Read the Opening of Xenophon’s Symposium


Until the 19th century, Xenophon was considered one of the best writers ever. In Medieval times, his novel The Cyropedia was the favorite of the day. Julius Caesar imitated Xenophon’s style when he wrote his commentaries. What makes Xenophon such a powerful writer is that he is intensely reserved and terse in his writing, leaving a lot between the lines, and because he writes farces, unlike Plato who writes comedies. Some have likened Xenophon to P.G. Wodehouse, another great writer.

I want to make explicit something that no one, not even Leo Strauss, the greatest modern commentator on Xenophon’s work, mention when they discuss the opening of his Symposium.

The dialogue begins (using the Robert C. Bartlett translation): “But in my opinion, not only are the serious deeds of gentleman worth recalling, but so too are the deeds done in times of play. I wish to make clear those deeds at which I was present and on the basis of which I make this judgment.”

We have a dialogue that does not begin at the beginning. Xenophon begins in the middle of an argument. It is not the first time that Xenophon does not begin at the beginning. His Hellenica apparently begins where Thucydides leaves off. One is tempted to say that the Symposium is merely the continuation of the Hellenica, one of the most dreary books ever about the fall of Athens and Greece generally. There we have the great deeds of men destroying Greece, while here we have men at play, particularly one man, Socrates, whose deeds are always at play, and whose deeds are witnessed by Xenophon, a man in deed was a historian as well as novelist and dialogue writer. But the use of the “but” at the beginning is also done in the exact same way in Xenophon’s The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.

A gentleman is distinguished from the mere human being. In fact, the wording used by Xenophon means literally noble or beautiful and good men. A gentleman is a socialized form.

To play is not to work. While the synonyms of work are usually labor, toil, task, and drudgery, work from the Saxon weorc, like the Greek ergon, is a general term, including any activity that calls for the exertion of our strength. Play comes from the Anglo-Saxon plegian from plega, a fight, battle, or sport.

Play may require the exercise of the body or mind, or both at the same time; however, unlike a game, play is unsystematic and as such is very adaptable to infants. Moreover, we play for the sake of pleasure and it is for the sake of play, not for a result as we would have in a game or sport. Moreover, we often play to amuse ourselves with anything that is intellectually oriented. Play is always an action. To be playful means to have the highest disposition to play.

Even if we play for the sake of being playful, as play is an action, in any dialogue or play, the action is what the character wants, whether explicit or implicit. Seen in the context of Xenophon’s Socratic writings, Strauss notes, “…the Symposium reveals itself as devoted not merely to Socrates’ playful deed but simply to his deeds: his deed, as distinguished form his speech and his thought, is nothing but playful …” Play is done in a friendly way. The serious deeds of men can done with huge enmity.

Xenophon continues: “It was at the time of the horse race of the Great Panathenian games.” These games were grander than the yearly games, and involved much in the sacrifice and ritual. There was a recitation of Homer as well. Note, the games are systematic, while play itself is not.

“Callias the son of Hipponicus happened to be in love with the Autolycus and took him to the spectacle on the occasion of the latter’s having won the pancratium.”

Callis is a man of great reputation and he was considered the richest man in Greece. He was a politician and a general, and served as an ambassador to Sparta. Callias, along with several other wealthy men were accused of profaning the mysteries in 399 BCE. He was notorious in living his life in a ruinously extravagant way. And, of course, as we will see, Callias paid to buy a lot of wisdom from sophists. He was also involved in another scandal. He was the son-in-law of a perfect gentleman, the farmer Isochomachos, who had boasted that he taught his wife to be a great wife in Xenophon’s dialogue, The Oeconomicus. He even taught her that she should not wear make-up, that beauty is natural, not a work of art that improves on nature. We know from Andocides, an orator who was one of the defendants in the profanation of the mysteries trial, that Callias not only married Ischomachos’s daughter, but a year after the marriage he took the her mother, the well-trained wife of a perfect gentleman, as a mistress. Living with both mother and daughter, he imitated the Pluto-Hades as the keeper of both mother and daughter, Demeter and Persphone. If anyone happens to notice, there is a bit of the imitation of the mysteries in these relationships; one might even think it profane. The daughter was not keen on this arrangement, and tried to hang herself, but failed to kill herself. She ran away, i.e., mother threw her out of the house. Callias, needless to say, tired of the mother as well, and threw her out. When it turned out that she was pregnant and gave birth to a son, Callias denied his paternity. Years later, however, Callias fell in love with her once again, and welcomed her and the boy into his house.

We must remember that ancient Greece is pre-Christian. Pleasure can be obtained from men and women and other things as well without Christian conscience and Christian guilt. About the pancratium, I will remark about it later.

“When the race ended, he started off for his house in the Piraeus with Autolycus and the boy’s father; Niceratus too was accompanying him. But when Callias saw Socrates, Critoboulus, Hermogenes, Antisthenes,and Charmides standing together, he ordered someone to lead those with Autolycus onward, while he himself went over to Socrates and those with him, and said, ‘What a fine thing it is that I’ve happened on you! You see, I’m about to give a feast for Autolycus and his father, and I think the setting would appear much more resplendent if the men’s quarters were adorned with men whose souls have been purified, like yours, than it would be with generals, cavalry commanders, of those eager for office.'” Piraeus, the seaport outside of Athens, was a place full of strangers, foreigners, men of commerce, and was not a place like the tradition-bound city it served.

Callias makes a distinction between men whose souls are purified and those who are not, i.e., military men and politicians. Let’s put a couple of things together: Callias is infatuated with this lug of a guy who is being protected by his father. What is happening, of course, is that Callias wants to seduce Autolycus, but the boy’s protector obviously has to be overcome. Thus, Callias believes that he needs help, even if unwitting, and he decides that the Socratic crowd will. They are not soldiers or politicians, i.e., men who seek and are the splendor and force of the city. That means they are not competition for Callias. They are also purified, i.e., they are not men who would lust after Autolycus. I would also suggest that this crowd is rather ugly. Antisthenes, for example, was very short, and ugly. And, of course, the ugliest of the lot is Socrates himself.

Part of the problem of reading this dialogue is that we have to recreate that Athenian homosexuality and its obsession with the “boy,” i.e., a teenager who has yet to grow the beard of a man. Homosexuality is prevalent throughout ancient Greece, but in Sparta and Boeotia it has an obligatory character that arises out of the military tradition. Spartan boys are initiated into manhood by an older soldier who goes out with the boy into the wild and teaches the boy the ways of men, including buggery, state-sponsored act. In Athens, however, we know that there is a specialized asymmetry where the entire erotic character is in the gesture of the beloved who grants his grace, or charis, to the lover. It is like the Italian notion of concedere le proprie grazie or the French agréer. We learned about this charis from Plato who wrote about the laws of love in his dialogues. However, in the end, as we see in Plato’s Symposium, the grace turns out to be an obligation that the homosexuals in the dialogue want.

Athenians treated love as if it were a war, like storming a city. That Callias doesn’t want politicians and warriors at this table is a tacit effort to deceive the boy and his father into thinking he is not waging that war of love, when, in truth, he is. But this Athenian war is fought in words, and what Callias wants is men around him who are very good at words so that Callias, who is the student of a number of sophists, can display his verbal gifts to lure the boy into his host’s bed.

This war of homosexual love is based on duplicity. The Athenians forgive the pederastic lover from doing anything he can to seduce the boy, and he can break every oath in his pursuit. However, at the same time, the beloved boy is always protected, either by a father or by a mope-eyed tutor. The place of seduction was the gymnasium where the older men cruised the boys as they exercised naked in the sand. On top of that, the beloved boy is taunted by the other boys, his peers, in the gym for being a “fag,” so to speak. Meanwhile, the man attempts to use his words, his wisdom, his intelligence, and especially his virtue to get the boy. We are talking here about the Athenian aristocracy here, and they were obsessed with their place above others. The problem, of course, is that any slave can have sexual pleasure. What could distinguish the Athenian man in his pleasures? Well, yes, he has virtue, and there are plenty of virtue-mongers, sophists, wandering around, selling the means to virtue. Callias is almost infamous in his patronizing sophists. He wants to be a man of virtue, the best of gentlemen.

Moreover, by ritualizing this love war in the way they did, we learn from Plato that the lover must take incredible risks to get the boy, the beloved, to gracefully give the lover what he wants. In addition, this beloved is the passive one; he gives his anus to the lover as the lover doesn’t want to be thought of as a girl. (In the segregated state of Saudi Arabia where the holy book forbids homosexuality, homosexuality is rampant precisely because the women are separated from the men. There, the obsession is not to be the bottom, as that is too feminine.) Any careful reading of both Xenophon’s and Plato’s Symposium will see that that both men make fun of this entire war and also create a delicate between-the-lines critique of this nonsensical attempt to link virtue and sexuality, not to mention homosexuality. One cannot make virtue of heterosexuality or homosexuality or any sexuality.

In Plato, virtue and homosexuality are linked by several of Socrates’ interlocutors. The love of the boy must be virtuous, because the Athenian male has to deceive himself and everyone else that he isn’t in the boy solely for the sake of pleasure that even a slave can have. This kind of homosexual virtue extended throughout Greece, even in Sparta, as well as Crete (we learn all this from Plato) and it shows itself most later on the battlefield of Chaeronea where the Theban corpses were found lying in pairs, virtuous lovers together in death as they were in life, dead at the hands of the Macedonians.

Of course, the true meaning of the word charis is not homosexual. Plutarch tells us: “The ancients, Protogenes, used the word charis to mean the spontaneous consent of the woman to the man.” The erotic siege cannot be won without the beloved opening herself gracefully to the man.

The first hairs that grew on the chin of a boy were called Harmodius and Aristogiton (the legendary assassins of a tyrant), because they freed the boy from the erotic tyranny of the pursuit of a man. The boy escapes being a beloved, and then he goes into the world of the lover, just like Autolycus’s father probably did and why he is protecting his son.

When we see what Callias is doing in the context of Athenian male sexuality, we see his need to have Socrates and his entourage, including the silent Xenophon, as part of the duplicity, as they are all talkers, not “doers” like military men and politicians. This Socratic crowd is playful, thus indirectly helping Callias in his siege, while at the same time giving an impression that everything is harmless. Military men are paired in love throughout Greece, as every soldier will fight harder not to shame himself before his lover, as well as fight harder to save the life of his lover. Don’t ask, don’t tell is a sissy approach to soldiering. Homosexuality traditionally was the strongest incentive for soldiers to fight with utmost bravery.

Socrates is no fool. He gets what Callias is doing, and he replies, “And Socrates said, ‘You’re always making of us! You look down on us because, while you’ve paid a great deal of money to Protagoras for wisdom—and to Gorgias and Prodicus’ and many others besides—you see that we’re just self-taught in philosophy.'” The truth is that Socrates really doesn’t want any part in the erotic siege of the boy.

“And Callias said, ‘Well up to now, I’ve kept concealed from you that I can say many wise things. But now, if you come to my house, I’ll show you that I am worthy of a very great seriousness.'” Socrates does try to decline, but when Callias seems very hurt Socrates reverses his decision and they all go to the feast. They exercise, shower up, get a massage, and some have a bath before they recline down for dinner, with Autolycus sitting with his father.

Now the farce begins in earnest. “Someone might immediately suppose, in considering what took place, that beauty is something regal by nature, especially if one possesses it together with bashfulness and moderation as was the case with Autolycus then. For in the first place, just as when a light appears in the night and all eyes are led to it, so too was everyone’s gaze then drawn toward Autolycus’ beauty. Moreover, there was not an onlooker whose was unaffected by the boy in some way; some, at any rate, grew quiet, while others also took on a sort of dignified pose. Everyone under the sway of one of the gods is held to be worth beholding; but whereas those influenced by the gods are fiercer in appearance, more frightening in utterance, and carry themselves more vehemently, those inspired by the moderate Eros have eyes of a more kindly disposition, a gentler voice, and a mien more becoming liberality. Such indeed characterized Callias at the time on account of Eros, making him worthy to be beheld by the initiates of the god.”

At this point the careful reader of the past is on the floor laughing; however, most people reading this part will think that Xenophon is providing a straightforward account of the erotic affect. We must do a bit of imaginative recreation. Autolycus has at a young age won the pancratium. This sport was the most brutal one of all. It was a battle between two men where there are no rules, and it is a fight to the finish where the loser is killed or gives up. Alcibiades introduced biting into the sport, while a favored way to win was to break the fingers of one’s opponent. Killing, punching, hitting in the genitals, were all part of the sport, which was fought naked as well. While it is a game or sport, it is hardly playful. The winners were generally the biggest men, as to be small is just to be prey for the predator. To be the champion means that the winner has to win many bouts over a day. By the end, the champion’s body is completely disfigured. He is covered with bruises and his face is terribly swollen; he may have broken limbs. He probably has black eyes or only slits for eyes or one eye closed by the conflict. In other words, while Autolycus might be a very pretty and huge boy, he is the boy as seen in the aftermath of a battle. Xenophon points out elsewhere that the regular columns and disciplined order of an army marching is beautiful; however, are they still beautiful after a battle, where the troops are covered with dust and blood, missing limbs and eyes, and so forth? Autolycus is actually a huge mess of very big boy, and he has this rich man going gaga over him at dinner as if he were the most beautiful thing in the world. It is almost fetishistic or perhaps it is. Perhaps Callias is especially turned on by the damage that has been done to the boy.

It is no wonder, then, that so many of the guests are silent. It is embarrassing to see a man do what the gentleman Callias is doing with such a boy, who is so ugly at the moment. The guests do not want to be rude; so, they keep a dignified pose. The so-called liberality and moderation that Callias is showing is actually a ruse, a desperate tactic, to overcome the father and to get the boy. The whole thing is overwhelmingly funny to the guests, but they refuse to laugh out of politeness. What Xenophon then does is to bring in a clown, a professional gate-crasher, whose comedy falls flat and then makes everyone laugh. The laughter is needed, because the guest can now laugh at something other than their host.

A final note: In both Plato and Xenophon, eros is both a desire to possess while at the same time to admire at a distance at the same time. That the gentleman Callias sees the bruised boy as beautiful and wants to possess him at the same time says a lot about the mind of this man, taught by sophists. Callias is self-deluded, and his sophistical education has only made his mind more able to deceive itself. The gentleman Callias is working very hard; he is not at play. The problem is that the erotic is certainly much more pleasurable when it is at play, not when it is the product of the virtue of work.

About Kalev Pehme

I am an icastic artist and a Straussian. I am not a conservative or neocon Straussian. Sadly, there are too many of them. My interests are diverse, however, and sometimes quite arcane. I have a deep interest in Daoism, Indo-Aryan religion, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, and whole lot more. I love good poetry. I also enjoy all things ancient. And I would like to meet any woman who is born on May 29, 1985.
This entry was posted in Leo Strauss, Philosophy, Slow and Close Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kalev’s Anti-Blog: How to Read the Opening of Xenophon’s Symposium

  1. Alex Gorelik says:

    Why is the Hellenika so dreary, when Xenophon writes so well in the Anabasis and Cyropedia?

  2. icastes says:

    It’s not that the writing is bad. It is that decline and fall of Greece is so dreary. It is an exceptionally sad story.

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