“Socrates’ own conversation was ever of human matters. Investigating what is pious, what is impious; what is beautiful, what is ugly; what is just, what is unjust; what is prudence, what is madness; what is courage, what is cowardice; what is a state, what is a statesman; what is government and what is a governor—these and others like them, knowledge of which made a gentleman, in his opinion, while ignorance could fairly be called slavishness.”
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It would be interesting to do a little self-study. What are the main topics of our conversation in any given day?
A common feature of the lives of great men is the quality of their conversation. Surely a certain percent of their conversation will be, as with the rest of us, about daily matters, or formalities of personal interactions. The overall difference between their conversation and ours is probably at the two ends: certain negative things don’t show up in their conversation at all, while certain positive things consistently do.
Xenophon’s account of Socrates is remarkable; and it fits with Plato’s account of him.
Human matters. The modifier ‘human’ here is not a restriction that excludes super-human matters. The emphasis is rather that the subject of his conversation was consistently the matters that most of all pertain to a truly human life. These matters—such as those listed by Xenophon—are what give context and meaning for everything else we might discuss, or do. In a sense, what else is there?
For Socrates, human life is such that the most important truths call for investigation, rumination, and digestion. With friends, and even strangers. Again and again. The object is not only to understand what justice or prudence are, but also the especially challenging matter of how we are to live them in the here and now of our life. This will demand certain kinds of intentional conversation, with my friends, my spouse, my parents, my mentors, my teachers, and others I simply meet along the way of life.
The content and direction of my conversation might be more in my power than I have realized.
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues are Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which he shares insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household, and also Memorabilia, in which he shares recollections of the life of Socrates.
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