Greek authors pay considerable attention to the emotion of envy (phthonos). Aristotle includes it in his treatment of the emotions in the Rhetoric (2.9.3-5, 2.10) and many tragedians, historians, and lyric poets portray the tyrant or monarch as envious to the point of paranoia and outrage (cf. Otanes’ speech in Herodotus 3.80). Classical scholars have taken up the study of envy as well, notably David Konstan (Envy, Spite, and Jealousy (ed.) 2003; Emotions 2007), though the prevalence of envy in the Education of Cyrus has been overlooked. Here Xenophon not only presents envious leaders, but a leader (Cyrus) who must respond to and pass judgment on the envy of others, often in complex political situations. We note four “case studies”: the Armenian king’s envy of Tigranes’ tutor (Cyr. 3.1.38-40), Cyaxares’ envy of Cyrus himself (5.5.5-37), the Assyrian king’s envy of Gadatas and the son of Gobryas (4.6.2-8, 5.2.28), and Hystaspas’ envy of Chrysantas, Cyrus’ most trusted and honored friend (8.4.9-12).
What emerges from these case studies is an inconsistent moral attitude toward envy but a more consistent political one. For example, whereas Cyrus forgives the Armenian king for executing his son’s tutor (in a scene reminiscent of the trial and death of Socrates), he eagerly pursues vengeance against the Assyrian king for murdering Gobyras’ son—though both killings were done out of envy. Instead of taking a consistent moral stance, Cyrus takes a politically expedient one. All of his responses to envy serve to strengthen his authority in specific ways: he plays the avenger, the reconciler, and the benefactor, in turn, as when he consoles Hystaspas’ envy by offering him the daughter of Gobryas in marriage. At one point, Xenophon is explicit about the benefit of envy for Cyrus: his followers rival one another for Cyrus’ friendship so much that they cannot form alliances against him (8.2.28). Cyrus tries to keep even family members from becoming too close to each another, unless their affinity has been facilitated by Cyrus himself.
This understanding of envy in the Education of Cyrus puts us at the heart of an ongoing debate about the darker, ironic, or subversive interpretations of Cyrus’ character versus a more optimistic one (Gray, Mirror of Princes, 2011). Specifically, it makes us question whether or not Cyrus is able to reconcile his own interests with those of his followers. Yet before we conclude that Cyrus cynically manipulates envy for his own political gain, we should note that he does solve the important and perennial problem of envy in the leader: by keeping his followers envious of one another, Cyrus himself never faces serious rivalry and thus does not fall prey to the monarchical leader’s typical expressions of envy, i.e., paranoia and outrage. In fact Cyrus is portrayed as envious only once, as a boy (toward the wine-pourer, Sacas), and this rivalry eventually turns into a lasting friendship. Thus, Cyrus’ solution to the problem of the envious leader, while it may not be ideal, may be seen as wise in moderation. For example, Cyrus does not allow his followers to feel envy so much that they harm one another; instead he is cautious to redirect their rivalrous impulses toward the enemy (3.3.10). Overall, Xenophon shows how an otherwise morally questionable emotion may be used properly to the leader’s (and the community’s) advantage.