Memorabilia and Exercise

Inspired by a series on Socrates over at Siris, I read Xenophon's Memorabilia this weekend. True to its title it is a written collection of memorable observations of Socrates' conduct in deed and word.  Below are summaries of what was most memorable to me after this initial reading.  Throughout the work is the message that one is to work on oneself unceasingly if one wants to leave a good and lasting impression: it takes exercise to be remembered well.
Freedom as self-denialSocrates notes that self-denying ordinances actually insure his liberty. For him to not deny himself and indulge in a more expensive lifestyle would require he charge fees of his interlocutors which would in turn dictate with whom he could and could not speak.  Also, as all jobs more or less involve censure, it may even be better to work as a high-up 'slave' and manage the land if this will provide a good pension plan (I rephrase liberally).
Service as a leap of faith"The greater the power that deigns to serve you, the more honour it demands of you."  It is noted that by serving men, one may discern which of those men is willing to serve one in return.  To take the leap of faith and serve the caring gods, the greatest good, one will see whether one will in return receive counsel in matters otherwise hidden to man.
Wealth is having fewer wantsThe leisure to supply needs is greater in one who lives simply, able to make do with anything.
Those with fewer wants are better friendsIf abstinence seems difficult, a motto is suggested as one begins to deny their wants: "I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends."  What is more, Socrates encourages his friends to avoid making friends with the man who loves and drives a hard bargain, or who works so hard as to have no time for leisure, or who makes enemies for their friends, always quarrelsome. Friends are to try to make themselves indispensable to, not betrayed by, one another.
The beauty and the good are the sameBecause one is to learn to see what is beautiful and good as also being useful.  Attending a lavish banquet may be pleasant but it will not fulfill one (liberty taken in rephrasing, again).
Know thyself"For those who know themselves, know what things are expedient for themselves and discern their own powers and limitations. And by doing what they understand. They get what they want and prosper: by refraining from attempting what they do not understand, they make no mistakes and avoid failure".  To be unaware of one's strengths and weaknesses, one may be defeated by the stronger and lose one's liberty.

Know what you are talking about and help others be clearSocrates says that a person must know what a thing is if they are to expound it to others.  At the same time, he is shown most tactfully to ask those who loudly maintain their opinion without furnishing proof what the function of the subject is, then asking what a better example of the subject could be, then what the subject does: an illustration that harkens back to him saying in Plato's Meno that he makes use of those points the questioned person knows.
Study but not superfluouslyOne is to seek practical knowledge only to the point of usefulness: no fancy physics theories here, but only enough of the stars for navigation.  "To seek that which the gods do not reveal runs the risk of losing sanity". 
Exercise, exercise!It is not enough to be gifted, one is to learn and practice that in which one wants to excel.  What is more, through knowledge and practice, even prudence and wisdom become the same because one knows and avoids what is base.  "Only a fool can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning.  Only a fool can think that without distinguishing these he will get all he wants by means of his wealth and be able to do what is expedient."  Exercise also meant physical exercise: it is no excuse to avoid it by claiming one is no athlete.  Not exercising is connected with cowardice, poor health, enslavement by the physically stronger: to be strong is to be useful, to be a better friend.  Socrates says, "it is matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition, loss of memory, depression, discontent, insanity often assail the mind so violently as to drive whatever knowledge it contains clean out of it ... it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit".
This latter point can be heard uttered by none other than workout legend and actress Jane Fonda.  She says, after relating how a fan who did her exercises noticed her first muscle one morning as she was brushing her teeth motivating her to stand up to her demeaning boss, that, "You don't know what you'll be able to do when you are strong." Plutarch wrote that the "blessings of the other world" are real, if reached through rather unnerving initiations through straying through darkness, and even though men on the terrestrial, weaker, side "trample one another down and in their fear of death cling to their ills".  It seems sometimes that a leap of faith is needed if one is to attempt to improve oneself, but it is no excuse to say one is not an athlete in life.

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees.  Brush: Ewansim Grunge at DeviantART.


  1. I like this reading of the Memorabilia quite a bit. It goes with the fact that Xenophon tends to emphasize the idea that there are certain general skills that are needed for success in any endeavor -- if there's anything that can count as a general skill, it's a readiness to do what work needs to be done (discipline oneself, practice one's skill, etc.).

    1. It had not occurred to me to recognize such readiness as a general skill: that could be very useful to mention when teaching. I really enjoyed Xenophon. This was the first of his works I have read and would appreciate any suggestions as to which works of his might be read next, though I have more immediately commenced a rereading of the Theaetetus and look forward to some discussion of maieutics - another kind of "readiness", now that you mention it!

    2. The next Xenophon I'll be doing is the Apology, when I do Plato's; and then, probably a couple of weeks after that, his Symposium (also when I do Plato's). I like his Symposium -- Plato's is brilliant, of course, but Xenophon's strikes me as a more realistic picture of what happens when you get a bunch of guys at a drinking-party arguing philosophy.

    3. I hope to be reading along at that time!