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Contractualism and Community: Xenophon’s Anabasis in its Sophistic Context

Alex Lee

Florida State University

What binds communities together? What legitimates conceptions of law and justice? This paper considers how the Anabasis can help us untangle Xenophon’s views on these questions by placing the text in dialogue with sophistic debates on the emergence of political community and normativity.

While the Ten Thousand have long been recognized as a (quasi-)political community (e.g. Nussbaum 1967; Hornblower 2004; Lee 2008), most of this work is concerned with elucidating the decision-making procedures and logistical solutions of the “polis on the march.” Rather little attention has been paid, at least in the disciplinary confines of Classical Studies, to the significance of the Anabasis for understanding Xenophon’s political thought. Previous scholarship in this vein either has been dominated by Straussian approaches or has focused too singularly on Xenophon’s conception of the ideal leader, the problems and pitfalls of which have been discussed recently by Rood (2015a). This paper thus attempts to answer the challenge posed by Rood of “understanding better Xenophon’s interrogation of Greek political thought about the creation and development of communities” by placing the Anabasis in relation to “politically charged” writing of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

Building upon Rood’s observation (2015b) that Xenophon’s description of the Greeks’ aporia after the murder of the generals (Anab. 3.1) draws upon sophistic accounts of early human development, I advance the argument further and demonstrate that Xenophon engages with sophistic social contract theories. Such theories have three features: 1) the identification of a primitive condition in which humans lack any kind of government or social organization; 2) the recognition that the lack of order creates undesirable conditions, out of which the desire for organized society emerges; 3) an attempt to ground the legitimacy of the now organized society in an agreement or contract (either implicitly or explicitly) made among those within the society (e.g. Kahn 1981; de Romilly 2001). All three features, I argue, are present in Xenophon’s account from Book 3 onwards (after the pivotal murder of the generals). I demonstrate that the desire for survival is the impetus for community formation and that it dictates the contours of justice which operate among the army. Attention to such features allows us to see points of contact between Xenophon and a range of sophists who employ the social contract to theorize about the origins and value of community and normativity. On my reading, Xenophon has more in common with figures like Anonymus Iamblichi, Prodicus, and Democritus—sophistic “vindicators” of morality—than he does with “debunkers” of morality like Thrasymachus or Antiphon (cf. de Romilly 1992; Barney 2017; Anderson 2016).

This reading challenges the view that Xenophon is primarily interested in charismatic individuals by considering him as a profoundly social thinker. Moreover, by demonstrating that Xenophon was steeped in sophistic debates, it highlights the artificiality of the intellectual divide between the “sophistic” 5th century and “Socratic” 4th century while supporting Prince’s claim (2015: 13) that “the Socratic movement was part of the Sophistic movement.”

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Greek Historiography

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