A few days ago Bill Kristol posted a reader email on the Weekly Standard blog (the first blog you should read after Power Line) about how Republicans are neglecting the lessons of Xenophon, which we linked to in our “Picks” section here. By coincidence, I begin a close reading of Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus with my Pepperdine University graduate class on political leadership this morning.
The Cyropaedia, like the rest of Xenophon’s corpus, has tended to be neglected, but has been making a comeback in recent decades. It has been justly compared to Machiavelli’s Prince for its ambition and depth of insight about the nature and difficulties of ruling. The opening poses a great and basic question about political life for students to ponder: Why are human beings hard to govern? Xenophon notes that sheep, pigs, and cattle are easy to govern, and never revolt against their rulers, whereas human beings are more or less in a constant state of revolt against their rulers. Just when you think Xenophon is going to give up at the lesson that political instability is the unsolvable problem of human life (and this shortening the Cyropaedia to an op-ed), he takes a turn that launches the rest of the book:
Now when we have considered these things, we are inclined to this judgment about them; It is easier, given his nature, for a human being to rule all other kinds of animals than to rule human beings But when we reflected that there was Cyrus, a Persian, who acquired very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all obedient to himself, we were thus compelled to change our mind to the view that ruling human beings does not belong to those tasks which are impossible, or even among those that are difficult, if one does it with knowledge.