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Socrates was famously modest in his tastes, however pretentious he may have been intellectually. In the following passage, the famous general Xenophon describes the philosopher’s personal modesty, and his view that physical indulgences of any kind become controlling forces, anthropomorphized as slave masters or demanding mistresses.
Because it is mostly a dialog, the text here has been reformatted as a play to reduce the quotation marks and “he saids” in it.
(This passage is designed to be read in connection with a selection from Xenophon’s Oeconomicus.)
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Xenophon (to the reader): [Socrates] schooled his body and soul by following a system which, in all human calculation, would give him a life of confidence and security, and would make it easy to meet his expenses. For he was so frugal that it is hardly possible to imagine a man doing so little work as not to earn enough to satisfy the needs of Socrates. He ate just sufficient food to make eating a pleasure, and he was so ready for his food that he found appetite the best sauce; and any kind of drink he found pleasant, because he drank only when he was thirsty. Whenever he accepted an invitation to dinner, he resisted without difficulty the common temptation to exceed the limit of satiety; and he advised those who could not do likewise to avoid appetizers that encouraged them to eat and drink what they did not want, for such trash was the ruin of stomach and brain and soul.
Socrates (joking): I believe it was by providing a feast of such things that Circe made swine [out of Odysseus’ sailors in The Odyssey]; and it was partly by the prompting of Hermes, partly through his own self-restraint and avoidance of excessive indulgence in such things, that Odysseus was not turned into a pig [in that story].
Xenophon (to the reader): This was how he would talk on the subject, half joking, half in earnest.
Of sensual passion he would say:
Socrates: Avoid it resolutely; it is not easy to control yourself once you meddle with that sort of thing.
Xenophon (to the reader): Thus, on hearing that Critobulus had kissed Alcibiades’ pretty boy, he put this question to Xenophon before Critobulus:
Socrates: Tell me, Xenophon, did you not suppose Critobulus to be a sober person, and by no means rash; prudent, and not thoughtless or adventurous?
Socrates: Then you are to look on him henceforth as utterly hot-headed and reckless; the man would do a somersault into a ring of knives; he would jump into fire.
Xenophon: What on earth has he done to make you think so badly of him?
Socrates: What has the man done? He dared to kiss Alcibiades’ son, and the boy is very good-looking and attractive.
Xenophon: Oh, if that is the sort of adventure you mean, I think I might make that venture myself.
Socrates: Poor fellow! What do you think will happen to you through kissing a pretty face? Won’t you lose your liberty in a trice and become a slave, begin spending large sums on harmful pleasures, have no time to give to anything fit for a gentleman, be forced to concern yourself with things that no madman even would care about?
Xenophon: Heracles! What alarming power in a kiss!
Socrates: What? Does that surprise you? Don’t you know that the scorpion, though smaller than a farthing, if it but fasten on the tongue, inflicts excruciating and maddening pain?
Xenophon: Yes, to be sure; for the scorpion injects something by its bite.
Socrates: And do you think, you foolish fellow, that the fair inject nothing when they kiss, just because you don’t see it? Don’t you know that this creature called “fair and young” is more dangerous than the scorpion, seeing that it need not even come in contact, like the insect, but at any distance can inject a maddening poison into anyone who only looks at it? Maybe, too, the loves are called archers for this reason, that the fair can wound even at a distance. Nay, I advise you, Xenophon, as soon as you see a pretty face to take to your heels and fly.
[He turns to Critobulus.]
And you, Critobulus, I advise to spend a year abroad. It will certainly take you at least as long as that to recover from the bite.
Xenophon (to the reader): Thus in the matter of carnal appetite, he held that those whose passions were not under complete control should limit themselves to such indulgence as the soul would reject unless the need of the body were pressing, and such as would do no harm when the need was there.
As for his own conduct in this matter, it was evident that he had trained himself to avoid the fairest and most attractive more easily than others avoid the ugliest and most repulsive.
An interactive quiz is available to doublecheck your understanding of this passage and the linked passage from the Oeconomicus. (Quiz Link)
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