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Monday, October 27, 2008

The education of Cyrus - Xenophon, Philosophy, and Education

The education of Cyrus - Xenophon, Philosophy, and Education

Anything that interests me!

Technically speaking, I was never interested in Xenophon's philosophy and his particularly pseudohistorical writing, but having studied his book the Cyropedia, I am now very interested in Cyrus, education and basically the rise to power of a wise and great king. The problem is that at first glance one would think that this Persian leader that Xenophon portrays is excellent, a real example that virtue and leadership can go together and that a virtuous leader, a philosopher king and stuff like that can and do exist.

Sad to say, but it's not true.


When I read Cyrus for the first time I was really impressed by his benevolence and kindness and how he always managed to make his enemies into his friends. He was a true hero in every sense of the word, and when he made his speeches about honour and glory, it really motivated me and I was really impressed, and mind you, I am one cynical person. I tried to find many reasons as to why he would be so virtuous but was unable to, and had to contrive to find anti-theses like Cyrus is doing things for his own profit, he was bluffing, he was lying and other stuff like that, but trust me it was hard, given Xenophon's portrayal of Cyrus the Great as really, truly and totally GREAT.

To take two examples, as a young man he managed to convince his grandfather's troops that he was an emperor and they followed him off to fight enemies. That was real leadership.

As for virtuous leadership, this man could invade another country, make the other king surrender with minimal loss of life, and then after that help to make peace with another country, such that his enemies became his friends! That is, he beat the heck out of the Armenians, and then when they complained that now they were weak and going to be bullied by the Chaldeans, he helped them against the Chaldeans and made peace between them. And to cap, he did not take loot, but only took what was owed him. Can you beat that?

A truly virtuous leader, and I really admired him.

And then I learnt in class that there was something fundamentally wrong with his virtue that led to the collapse of his empire at the end. 

Look, if he was truly such a powerful leader, why is it his empire collapsed when he died? If he was truly so good, why were there so many little doubts along the way to his rule? It's simple, really.

Ma'am's (that's my USP philosophy teacher) analysis was that he had linked virtue with rewards, and that was the problem - because now people did not do things for the sake of the things themselves ie. they did not do good because it was right to do so, but because of profits and the benefits that they could get.

The great Cyrus had set the example and the precedent because every good thing that he did led to his benefit, and he had tied virtuous living to earning money - that was precisely how he rallied his men and how he made friends! That is, the reality was that his enemies became his friends not because they were moved by his goodness (partly, I am sure, because he was such an inspirational person) but because he could benefit them. 

And precisely because he was good and virtuous, letting them be in charge of the loot and everything, and they could see that it was to their own advantage to hang about with a truly good man, that's why his empire collapsed once he died. 

Because... ultimately, it seems, there is no link between virtue and benefits. Cyrus, by his forceful personality, had forced the link between them such that virtue led to good ends.

What is worse, when I did my own research I realised that he was not even a pure virtuous leader either - and that Cyrus had winning the empire always in his mind. 

It turns out that Adam Smith was right. 

Cyrus was a really good man because he wanted to become king and emperor, and virtue made him rich and powerful and successful, and all his enemies did not want to fight him but to join him instead. Adam Smith 1, philosophies that deal with ethics and virtue o. I was told that Emmanuel Kant would never countenance lying. Well, Kant, you lose to Smith! 1-0. Cyrus the liar wins, because he had an empire, was rich, was famous and even better still, all his peers thought him virtuous and good! Whereas honest people like me and you, Herr Kant, are considered fools and naive. Kudos! I myself thought that Cyrus was virtuous, and it is very difficult to truly know whether he was or not, but one thing can be said - he was very cunning!

Now I go back to my work. I am writing an essay on virtue and leadership and I have hit, not the famous and dreaded writer's block, but the famous laziness disease. You're been reading my philosophical and personal thoughts on Xenophon the Greek philosopher and soldier, Cyrus the great king and philosophical thoughts on Cyrus' education.

Anything that interests me!