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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 March 2024

Gabriel Danzig*
Bar-Ilan University


The social virtues are not discussed thematically in the Socratic writings of Plato and Xenophon, but they are on display everywhere. Taking Aristotle's accounts of these virtues as a touchstone, this paper explores the portrait of Socrates as a model of good humour in Xenophon's Symposium. While Xenophon is addressing the same issues as Aristotle, and shares some of his red lines, his conception of the ideal humourist and of virtue in general differs from Aristotle's not only in detail but also in general conception. While he never actually violates the rules Aristotle sets down for eutrapelia, Xenophon's Socrates strives not to avoid opposites but to combine them. It is the careful combining of the spoudaion and the geloion that redeems Xenophon's otherwise outrageous portrait of Socratic humour. This suggests a broader paradigm in which virtuous behaviour is a combination of opposites rather than a middle path.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association

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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference ‘Where literature and philosophy meet: the virtues in Xenophon's writings’, held at Kibbutz Zubah, November 17–21, 2019, and at ‘Socratica V’, held at Rice University, July 11–14, 2022. I thank the audiences at both conferences for the kind reception and useful comments, and David Konstan and David M. Johnson for valuable feedback on the written text. I thank the Israel Science Foundation and the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies for support during the completion of this paper.


1 On Aristotle's tendency to provide open-ended formulas, see Danzig, G., ‘The political character of Aristotelian reciprocity’, CPh 95 (2000), 399424Google Scholar.

2 The discussion occurs in the treatment of the virtues in the Nicomachaean Ethics, and Aristotle explicitly indicates the ethical character of eutrapelia: ‘Those who joke gracefully are called eutrapeloi, as being well-mannered (eutropoi). These seem to be motions of the character; and just as bodies are judged by their motions, so too are character-traits (êthê, Eth. Nic. 1128a)’. This and all other translations from Greek are my own.

3 Noting a tradition of philosophers, especially Pythagoreans, who eschewed laughter along with other strong emotions, S. Halliwell suggests that Aristotle's criticism of the agroikos is aimed at morose philosophers like Plato (Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity [Cambridge, 2008], 312, cf. 275; The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems [Princeton, 2002], 82). But would the mere appearance of the word agroikos be enough to bring Plato to mind? The fact that Aristotle says almost nothing about the agroikos, and that Plato wrote scintillatingly clever and humorous dialogues, argues against this proposition.

4 See Walker, M., ‘Aristotle on wittiness’, in Destrée, P. and Trivigno, F.V. (edd.), Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford, 2019), 103–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 108. As he argues, the bômolochos seems to be lacking in enkrateia. Aristotle generally applies enkrateia to control of the desires (epithumiai) and not to the passions, although on occasion he does use the word pathos in relation to enkrateia (i.e. Eth. Nic. 1145b13–14, 1147b16–18). Similarly, he limits akrasia to the bodily pleasures (1117b28–1118a1), but says that the term akratês can be applied by analogy also to those overcome by anger (thumos), or the desire for victory, honour and wealth (1147b20–1148a22). Although he does not mention the failure to control laughter, it might also be considered an analogous form of akrasia. For discussion, see C. Hahnemann, ‘Xenophon's depiction of the ability to bear ridicule as a form of self-control’, in G. Danzig, D.M. Johnson and D. Konstan (edd.), Xenophon's Virtues (forthcoming).

5 Halliwell (n. 3 [2008], 319), argues that in Pol. 7.17 (1336b20–3) Aristotle condones aischrologia in sympotic settings. However, Aristotle only says that young people should be prevented from attending iambic recitals and comedies until they reach the age at which they are permitted to recline and drink wine at a symposium. He does not say that aischrologia is acceptable at a symposium. See also Destrée, P., ‘Aristotle on why we laugh at jokes’, in Destrée, P. and Trivigno, F.V. (edd.), Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford, 2019), 3651CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Here Aristotle assumes that an eleutherios would not cause pain to others, which shows that it is a quality with moral significance. Later he says that mockery is a form of vilification, and wonders if it is worth allowing it (Eth. Nic. 1128a31–3): ‘Mockery is a form of vilification (loidorêma), and lawgivers forbid certain kinds of vilification. Perhaps they ought to forbid certain kinds of mockery as well’. On this reading the word ἔνια is carried over to the next line.

7 Destrée (n. 5). In my discussion of Xenophon (below), I apply this principle of amelioration to another form of humour that Aristotle does not mention, namely slapstick performances.

8 On innocuous humour, see Walker (n. 4), 111 citing Rh. 1412a28–b11, 1372a1. For psychros referring to weak or insipid speech see Pl. Euthyd. 284e, Theophr. Char. 2.4–5; also Xen. Cyr. 8.4.22–3.

9 Aristotle repeatedly speaks of saying and hearing: Eth. Nic. 1128a1–2 (x2), 1128a16–22, 1128a28–30. Sometimes he distinguishes the saying and the hearing (καὶ τοιαῦτα λέγων ὧν οὐδὲν ἂν εἴποι ὁ χαρίεις, ἔνια δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἂν ἀκούσαι, 1128a35–b1; see 1128a2), implying that one can stand to hear some things that one would never say. He seems to be more tolerant of aschêmosunê in the conversation of others, objecting only if it is great (1126b34–6). Plato also notes the difference between hearing disgraceful words and saying them oneself (Resp. 10.606c).

10 To Imelman, the alternative ‘not causing pain or sharing pleasure’ seemed to omit one half of the activities performed by the friendly man, namely his willingness to cause pain when necessary. He conjectured ἤ instead of μή, so that the passage would read ‘aiming at causing pain or sharing pleasure’.

11 Xenophon does not have clear terminology for the social virtues. kalos kagathos is a broad term that certainly includes social virtue. On the related term kalokagathia, see F. Bevilacqua, ‘kalokagathia in Xenophon: is it a virtue?’, in G. Danzig, D.M. Johnson and D. Konstan (edd.), Xenophon's Virtues (forthcoming). Other terms include asteios and eucharis for good social behaviour (see Cyr. 2.2.12, 8.4.23, Ages. 8.1–4), struphnos (Cyr. 2.2.11), agroikos (Mem. 3.13.1) and psychros (Cyr. 8.4.22, 23) for rude or humourless behaviour, and alazon (Cyr. 2.2.11–12, Mem. 1.7.1–5) for pretending to be more than one is.

12 For an excellent account of this scene and others, with an emphasis on Socrates’ role as a moral guide, see Hobden, F., ‘How to be a good symposiast and other lessons from Xenophon's Symposium’, PCPS 50 (2004), 121–40Google Scholar and The Symposion in Ancient Greek Society and Thought (Cambridge, 2013), especially 218–22.

13 Socrates is being provocative when he argues that Hermogenes’ silence is enough to classify his behaviour as paroinia, usually meaning drunken misbehaviour or unpleasant behaviour (Symp. 6.1–2).

14 Gray, V., ‘Xenophon's Symposion: the display of wisdom’, Hermes 120 (1992), 5875Google Scholar.

15 See also Pl. Euthyd. 303e for charien used (ironically) to refer to someone who belittles himself.

16 See the laughter at Hephaestus and Thersites in Books 1 and 2 of the Iliad, and the mockery by Idomeneus (13.381–3) and Patroclus (16.740–9).

17 Old comedy is usually seen as Aristotle's reference here, but Janko thought the reference was to the Megarian Susarion, and that Aristophanes was moderate in Aristotle's eyes: R. Janko, Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II (London, 1984), 244–50.

18 At Euthyd. 278bc Socrates says that people rejoice and laugh when they see someone pulling a stool from under someone trying to sit down. See also the bench episode in Pl. Charm. 155b–c.

19 See Symp. 6.7. Cyrus is accused of being frigid as well (Cyr. 8.4.23) not for failing to tell jokes but for telling insipid jokes. Such jokes are called kala in Euthyd. 299b, and Cyrus seems to think that women like them (Cyr. ibid.).

20 With one exception: he insults Socrates at one point, perhaps seeing him as a low-status threat to his livelihood (Symp. 2.20).

21 As B. Huss notes (Xenophons Symposion. Ein Kommentar [Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1999], 105, 110, on 1.11 and 1.12; see also Symp. 1.15 and 4.50) Callias has asked Philippus to show up in order to entertain his guests. Otherwise, why does he worry that he will get no more invitations (Symp. 1.15)? The speeches in Symp. 1.11–13 in which Callias pretends that Philippus has come uninvited and hesitates whether to let him in or not are a mildly humorous game. Halliwell suggests that because Callias has asked Philippus to show up he is an invited guest (n. 3 [2008], 143). But being asked to come and beg for dinner is not the same as being invited.

22 Self-mockery is not the preserve of low-status participants like Philippus: Socrates mocks himself, and the only time Niceratus raises a laugh is when he acknowledges being a greedy bastard (Symp. 4.45), but they are not in serious distress.

23 Although Xenophon writes that he appeared to be weeping (Symp. 1.15), this does not imply that he is in reality not in distress (contrast Halliwell [n. 3, 2008], 144 n. 102). Xenophon mentions the appearance because it is this that arouses the laughter. He regularly points out that appearance and reality can be in agreement, as when he says that one should be as good as one appears (Mem. 1.7.2–5, Cyr. 1.6.22).

24 Other foils include Antisthenes, who is aggressive and tactless, and Hermogenes, who is morose and unfunny. On Antisthenes, see Johnson, D.M., Xenophon's Socratic Works (London and New York, 2021), 193–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 For an account of the educational value of Socratic mockery outside of the Symposium see Lombardini, J., The Politics of Socratic Humor (Oakland, CA, 2018), 93128CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Symp. 8.4–6: the customer is Antisthenes. The fact that Socrates complains about beatings and refers to the presence of other customers suggests he is imitating a low-level hetaera if not a pornê. As T.A. van Berkel notes, the two statuses are sometimes isomorphic (The Economics of Friendship: Conceptions of Reciprocity in Classical Greece [Leiden and Boston, 2020], 350–3). Halliwell (n. 3 [2008]), 150 suggests that this is an imitation of a young beloved male. But in a parallel passage (Mem. 3.11) Socrates speaks with a hetaera; and an imitation of a woman would provide a parallel to Socrates’ imitative report of the more dignified Diotima in Plato's Symposium.

27 This remark is paradoxical because Socrates is neither beautiful nor rich, and does not act with conventional social grace. The phrase kalos kagathos seems to retain an aesthetic connotation (see Ar. Nub. 797–8, Xen. Cyr. 4.6.3, 7.1.49, Hell. 5.4.57). In <…> kagathos phrases in the fifth century the first term always retains its meaning and is usually primary (Soph. Phil. 119, 421–2, 1050–1, Trach. 541–2; Eur. Heracl. 298, Hipp. 427, 1419, 1454).

28 Johnstone, S., ‘Virtuous toil, vicious work: Xenophon on aristocratic style’, CP 89 (1994), 219–40Google Scholar, has applied this concept to Xenophon.

29 Through the character Cyrus Xenophon suggests (Oec. 4.21–5) that if an activity can be done by an elite person in a stylized way, it can be done in the same spirit by a person who does not share the elite status. This shows a remarkable lack of class bias on his part.

30 He does not go as far as Plato's Socrates in despising food and drink, a portrait that Xenophon may have regarded as excessively disdainful and hence boorish, but rather shows a moderate and cultured attitude towards both of them.

31 On this dialogue, see Rossetti, L., sui, ‘RicercheDialoghi Socratici” di Fedone di Elide’, Hermes 108 (1980), 183200Google Scholar; Rossetti, L., ‘Phaedo's Zopyrus (and Socrates’ confidences)’, in Zilioli, U. (ed.), From the Socratics to the Socratic Schools: Classical Ethics, Metaphysics, and Epistemology (London and New York, 2015), 8298Google Scholar; Lanzo, D. Di, ‘Phaedo of Elis: The biography, Zopyrus, and his intellectual profile’, in Stavru, A. and Moore, C. (edd.), Socrates and the Socratic Dialogue (Leiden and Boston, 2018), 221–34Google Scholar.

32 Weber, M., Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley, 1978), 1115Google Scholar [original 1921]; see also Giddens, A., Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber (Cambridge, 1971), 160–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Blondell, R., ‘Where is Socrates on the “ladder of love”?’, in Lesher, J., Nails, D. and Sheffield, F. (edd.), Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 147–78Google Scholar, at 149 speaks of the Platonic Socrates’ ‘chutzpah’.

34 By calling him a law unto himself, Aristotle indicates that the eutrapelos must decide autonomously where the limits lie in the particular situation, not that he is a special case.

35 Halliwell (n. 3 [2008]), 146 n. 106 notes that his refusal of perfume seems characteristic of an agroikos.

36 Unlike Critias, who did not appreciate Socrates’ advice for pursuing a young man (Mem. 1.2.29–30), Callias accepts Socrates’ advice.

37 The portrait of Antisthenes helps moderate the impression of Socrates’ agroikia. By behaving like a caricature of a rude Platonic Socrates, gracelessly attacking people and refuting them when they are trying to have a good time, Antisthenes makes Xenophon's Socrates look good. See D.L. Gera, ‘Xenophon's Socrateses’, in M. Trapp (ed.), Socrates from Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2007), 45–6.

38 See D.L. Gera, Xenophon's Cyropaedia: Style, Genre, and Literary Technique (Oxford, 1993), 163 n. 39. The term does not appear in Xenophon's writings.

39 See Plato on imitative poetry (Resp. 397d, 398a–b).

40 According to Huss (n. 21), all kaloi kagathoi exhibit some modulation between serious and humorous; the combination of spoudê and paidia gives Xenophon's kalos kagathos a virtue of eucharis (65, on Symp. 1.1). Most of Socrates’ companions (with the exception of Hermogenes) display this quality. Critobulus, the advocate of pleasure, makes a humorous but serious speech on the value of beauty; Charmides makes a humorous but serious speech on the advantages of poverty; and Antisthenes, the advocate of virtue, makes an ironic speech about the true nature of wealth. But Socrates’ speech is both more ridiculous and more serious than any of the others.

41 The idea that a serious lesson should be introduced by a joke was picked up in the Rabbinic literature. The amora Rabbah used to open every class with a joke (Talmud Bavli, Shabat 30b, Pesachim 117a). A Rabbinic variation on the theme of spoud(ai)ogeloion appears in Talmud Bavli Berachot 30b in expositions of the Biblical phrase gilu bir`adah (‘rejoice with trembling’, Tehilim 2.11).

42 Hahnemann (n. 4).

43 See Mem. 4.1.1. On the educational function of humour in Xenophon see Jazdzewska, K., ‘Laughter in Plato's and Xenophon's Symposia’, in Danzig, G., Johnson, D. and Morrison, D. (edd.), Plato and Xenophon: Comparative Studies (Leiden and Boston, 2018), 187-207Google Scholar and Hahnemann (n. 4).

44 This is part of a general point about the role of the soul in enhancing beauty which is reflected in Socrates’ profession of ability as a pimp; see G. Danzig, ‘Xenophon's Symposium’, in M.A. Flower (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Xenophon (Cambridge, 2016), 132–51.

45 In Euthydemos Socrates claims to be taking lessons in music and to be interested in learning eristic as well (272c; see also Lach. 201ab).

46 Compare Plato's Symp. 216e–17a, where Alcibiades once ‘caught’ Socrates when his inner being was open.

47 See Huss (n. 21), 149–52, 155 on Symp. 2.17, 2.19, and ‘The dancing Sokrates and the laughing Xenophon, or the other Symposium’, AJPh 120 (1999), 381–409. This may imitate Plato's Socrates who pretended that he learned about erotics from Diotima.

48 As Xenophon's Cyrus says, there is nothing wrong with inventing stories to entertain others (Cyr. 2.2.12). That makes one ‘witty’ (ἀστεῖοι) and ‘charming’ (εὐχάριτες), and Socrates also has a good lesson in mind.

49 As David Konstan reminds me, Plato's Socrates uses a similar tactic when he explains the meaning of his practice of midwifery in Tht. 149a–51c.

50 Is Xenophon suggesting that a misunderstanding of Socrates’ joke led to the charge that Socrates encourages shameful work? Compare Mem. 1.2.56–7 with 2.7–9, where Xenophon argues that Socrates encouraged seemingly shameful work, but not for a shameful purpose.

51 In Mem. 1.2.30 Socrates compares Critias to a pig rubbing himself on a stone. The image of the boy as a stone perfectly fits Socrates’ description of the lack of mutual pleasure in sexual relations between an older lover and his boy (Symp. 8.21). The use of a euphemism for sexual relations recalls Aristotle's preference for huponoia.

52 See Danzig (n. 44), 149–50.

53 Hahnemann (n. 4).

54 Mem. 3.1.6. See D. Johnson, ‘Courage in Xenophon’, in G. Danzig, D.M. Johnson and D. Konstan (edd.), Xenophon's Virtues (forthcoming).

55 N.B. Sandridge, Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations of Leadership in Xenophon's Education of Cyrus (Washington, DC, 2012), 66–9.

56 Quite possibly, the statement in Laws is a reaction to Xenophon's portrait of Socrates in Symposium. For possible Platonic responses to Xenophon see G. Danzig, ‘Introduction to the comparative study of Plato and Xenophon’ and Humble, N., ‘Xenophon and Plato on Sparta’, both in Danzig, G., Johnson, D. and Morrison, D. (edd.), Plato and Xenophon: Comparative Studies (Leiden and Boston, 2018), 130Google Scholar and 547–75.

57 Clay, D., ‘The tragic and comic author of the Symposium’, Arion 2.2 (1975), 238–61Google Scholar. For a sophisticated effort to describe Plato's use of spoudaiogeloion in the Symposium, see A. Stavru, ‘Platone, il dialogo socratico e lo spoudaiogeloion’, Estetica. Studi e Ricerche 1/2020, 223–40.

58 On Xenophon's conception of virtue, see Danzig, G., ‘Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon on the ends of virtue’, in Danzig, G., Johnson, D. and Morrison, D. (edd.), Plato and Xenophon: Comparative Studies (Leiden and Boston, 2018), 340–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 This list may have been inspired by Plato's list of the qualities of eros (Symp. 203d).

60 See G. Danzig, ‘Xenophon on virtue: an overview’, in G. Danzig, D.M. Johnson and D. Konstan (edd.), Xenophon's Virtues (forthcoming). See also Wolfsdorf, D., ‘Civic and anti-civic ethics’, in Billings, J. and Moore, C. (edd.), The Cambridge Companion to the Sophists (Cambridge, 2023), 306–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a compatible effort to reconstruct pre-Platonic concepts of virtue.

61 Plato's description of the appropriate modes of discourse in Republic (Books 2–3, 376d–403c) is closer to Aristotle than to Socrates.

62 Although Xenophon does not have a defined conception of phronêsis, his concern with practical reasoning is evident throughout his writings. For a comparison between the two authors’ conceptions of practical reasoning, see C. Mársico, ‘Preeminent in φρόνησις: Xenophon and Aristotle on the intellectual virtues’, in G. Danzig, D.M. Johnson and D. Konstan (edd.), Xenophon's Virtues (forthcoming).

63 Johnson (n. 54).

64 See Danzig (n. 60) for this notion and for the idea that aretê is a single whole.

65 D. Konstan, ‘Before virtue’, in G. Danzig, D.M. Johnson and D. Konstan (edd.), Xenophon's Virtues (forthcoming).