Teaching sophrosyne: The use of the elenchos by Xenophon’s Socrates





Xenophon, elenchos, sophrosyne, education, politics


In contrast to the abundance of discussion of Plato’s portrayal of the Socratic elenchos, relatively little work has been done on the elenchos as it appears in Xenophon. The reason is obvious: Xenophon makes much less use of the elenchus than Plato and what he does offer is not as interesting philosophically. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to look more closely at Xenophon’s portrait. It provides a corrective to the excessively intellectualizing portrait of the elenchus found in Plato’s writings, and exhibits an educational quality that is characteristic of ancient Greek attitudes but not always stressed in treatments of Socrates. In the introduction to Bandini and Dorion 2000-2010, cxviii-clxxxii, Louis-André Dorion offers a probing analysis of the term elenchos as used by Xenophon and a broad survey of the elenchoi in Xenophon’s Socratic writings. Although Xenophon’s Socrates sometimes uses argumentation reminiscent of his Platonic cousin, this is only a minor part of his over-all conversational repertoire. Education is accomplished not by interrogation but by the direct and open communication of doctrine and by the practice of virtue (askēsis: see Mem. i 2.23, ii 1.1). Rather than employing the elenchos, Xenophon’s Socrates generally spends his time offering abundant useful advice to his friends. According to Dorion, Xenophon’s scant use of the elenchos is a result of his deep skepticism about its educational value. As a result of this skepticism, Xenophon creates an alternative portrait of Socrates in which interrogation plays a much smaller role. Dorion is certainly right to note that the elenchos is far less important for Xenophon than for Plato, but his conclusion is somewhat extreme.  Although Xenophon does not focus on the Socratic elenchos, he does offer some portraits of it and he does not contest Plato’s fuller portrait of it either. This is because the elenchos does have some value for Xenophon, even if this value differs from what we may assume is its value in the Platonic portrait. As Morrison 1994 has shown, the elenchos serves a valuable role in selecting or preparing students for more substantive lessons. It can also play a valuable role in training for and acting in political affairs. And the elenchos can serve an educational role in another way, by contributing directly to the acquisition of virtue (sophrosune) by the interlocutor. I shall trace these significant roles of the elenchos for Xenophon.


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How to Cite

Danzig, G. (2021). Teaching sophrosyne: The use of the elenchos by Xenophon’s Socrates. Revista Archai, (31). https://doi.org/10.14195/1984-249X_31_08



Archai Dossier: Socratic Voices