The Defense of Utopias

Xenophon’s dialogue portrays a conversation between Simonides, the poet, and Hiero of Syracuse. During the exchange Simonides is able to give the tyrant advice as to how to reform his tyranny, but Xenophon’s text suggests that Hiero will not implement the poet’s suggestions. Kojeve criticizes Simonides for not giving effective advice. This, he argues, is the shortcoming of all utopian ideas, which, unlike active revolutionary ideas, direct men to an ideal state of affairs without taking into account existing realities or “the current business” of the tyrant, which may prove “incompatible with the measures that would have to be taken in order to apply the wise man’s advice” (OT 137). By not showing Hiero how to implement his advice, Simonides acts like “a typical ‘Intellectual’ who criticizes the real world in which he lives from the standpoint of an ‘ideal’ constructed in the universe of discourse, an ‘ideal’ to which one attributes an ‘eternal’ value, primarily because it does not now exist and never has existed in the past” (OT 137).

Strauss responds: “But would it not have been up to Hiero if he seriously desired to become a good tyrant, to ask Simonides about the first step?” Kojeve’s criticism ignores that it is impolitic or dangerous to give a tyrant unsolicited advice. The most a wise man would do is to give the tyrant the material that makes it possible for him to ask the right question. Strauss concedes that this defense is inadequate, for Hiero does ask one question (whether he should keep his mercenaries), and the reform that Simonides suggests (that he should keep them while arming his subjects) “faces an almost insurmountable difficulty.” Strauss defends Simonides’ reputation as a wise man by maintaining that he “did not believe in the viability of his improved tyranny, that he regarded the good tyranny as a utopia, or that he rejected tyranny as a hopelessly bad regime” (OT 187). Now, Kojeve attributes something like this view to Xenophon, but he denies that it could be Simonides’ view. And if it were, he would deny that this is a defense of Simonides, for it implies that Simonides’ “attempt to educate Hiero is futile . . . [a]nd a wise man does not attempt futile things” (OT 187).

According to Strauss, this criticism betrays “an insufficient appreciation of the value of utopias.” A utopia describes “the simply good social order,” and “the utopia of the best tyranny” describes the maximum improvement that is compatible with the existence of a tyrannical order (OT 187). Simonides’ utopia provides the standard for judging any actual tyranny and any proposed alterations to it. Kojeve suggests that active revolutionary ideas serve this purpose just as well as utopian ideas while having the additional advantage of showing “how, here and now, to begin to transform the given concrete reality with a view to bringing it into conformity with the proposed ideal in the future” (OT 138). But this very concern with the actualization of the ideal society interferes with clarity about that ideal. As Strauss observes, the desire to “find a guarantee for the actualization of the best social order” led modern philosophers “to lower the goal of man,” which lowering can take many forms. While a utopia “supplies a stable standard by which to judge any actual order,” the modern approach “eventually destroys the very idea of a standard that is independent of actual solutions” (OT 210-211).

Strauss also alludes to another use of utopias. His discussion subtly moves from an understanding of a utopia “in the strict sense” to a looser one. A utopia in the strict sense is the simply good social order. A utopia in the loose sense is the best possible order. A utopian teaching can be valuable if it teaches one that “the simply good social order” is impossible. This knowledge would prevent one from seriously undertaking impossible reforms and it allows one to be satisfied with small political reforms or to make good use of a utopia of the best possible order.

The small reform that Strauss mentions in this context is Simonides’ advice that Hiero should stop competing at the Olympian and Pythian games. If Hiero implemented this reform, he “would improve his standing with his subjects and in the world at large, and he would indirectly benefit his subjects” (OT 188). According to Strauss, “a sensible man like Simonides would think that he deserved well of his fellow men if he could induce the tyrant to act humanely or rationally within a small area,” but we do not take such little actions seriously because “we are in the habit of expecting too much.” This “we” includes Kojeve. For in summarizing Simonides’ reforms, all of which he claims have been implemented by modern tyrannies, Kojeve omits the example in question, even though it would have supported his thesis. In cultivating the expectation of revolutionizing society, the realistic approach of modern philosophy can cultivate a certain disregard of small but possible gains. It can cultivate the vice of dreamers.

Now, Kojeve’s neglect of this reform is understandable because its importance is unclear: “Xenophon leaves it to the intelligence of his reader to replace that particular example by another one which the reader, on the basis of his particular experience, might consider to be more apt” (OT 188). The reform is indeed a small improvement in rationality. Hiero’s subjects would not have to pay for his chariots; he would not expose himself to the ridicule of a possible defeat, and he can devote his attention more fully to the worthy competition that occurs in the political arena. But Strauss also calls Hiero’s involvement in these competitions “inhuman,” which is a bit harsh, especially given what other things tyrants tend to do. But “inhuman” does not necessarily mean brutal. The Olympian and Pythian games were religious festivals and victory in them was tantamount to receiving Zeus’s or Apollo’s approval. The role of gods in human life is especially prominent in Pindar’s odes celebrating Hiero’s victories in these games. In On Tyranny, Strauss writes: “One is tempted to suggest that the Hiero represents Xenophon’s interpretation of the contest between Simonides and Pindar” (OT 118n76, 109n13). Simonides’ proposed reform is tantamount to a small piece of Enlightenment, less radical than teaching self-reliance by arming one’s subjects. In another work (see OT 109n13), Xenophon praises Agesilaus for not participating in these games and for persuading his sister to breed chariot horses so that by her victory people could see that it is wealth and not merit that decides these games.

According to Strauss’s original study, the advice against competing in athletic games “may have been the only purpose of Simonides’ starting a conversation with Hiero” (OT 63). It seems that this is the only issue that had direct bearing on the welfare of Simonides himself. In the “Restatement,” Strauss connects this particular matter to an important general question: Whose interest should a wise man consult when giving advice to a tyrant? In giving Hiero advice, Simonides consulted the interest of Hiero, of his fellow men (especially the tyrant’s subjects), and himself. But one may wonder about the order of importance: “The general lesson is to the effect that the wise man who happens to have a chance to influence a tyrant should use his influence for benefitting his fellow men” (OT 188). Strauss seems to suggest that a wise man would be more concerned with the interest of his fellow men than that of the tyrant. For this reason, among others, his undertaking is beset “with dangers.” Now, the drift of Strauss’s discussion regarding athletic games leads the reader to suppose that this is one piece of advice that Hiero actually followed. But Strauss nowhere says he did, and we know that he did not. We have the testimony of the poet Bacchylides that Hiero won the Olympic competition the year before his death. According to Strauss, had Hiero followed Simonides’ advice he would have improved his standing “in the world at large,” but he would not have improved his standing among the Greeks, and for this reason Hiero may have chosen to stick to his old practice. Still, the same evidence that shows Simonides’ failure proves his success. Bacchylides was Simonides’ nephew who took Pindar’s place in Hiero’s court and according to scholiasts Simonides had something do with Pindar’s downfall.

To understand all this, we have to turn to Strauss’s interpretation of the dialogue, where we see that Simonides’ utopian teaching was useful to Hiero:

Simonides’ praise of beneficent tyranny thus serves the purpose not merely of comforting Hiero (who is certainly much less in need of comfort than his utterances might induce the unwary reader to believe), but above all of teaching him in what light the tyrant should appear to his subjects: far from being a naive expression of a naive belief in virtuous tyrants, it is rather a prudently presented lesson in political prudence. Simonides goes so far as to avoid in this context the very term “tyrant.” (OT 62)

Strauss observes that toward the end of the dialogue Hiero asks his only question about the conduct of tyranny, and in formulating his question he “does not speak any longer of ‘tyrant,’ but of ‘ruler’” (OT 63). The conversation was not futile, for Hiero learned something of great importance from Simonides. Kojeve seems puzzled by Hiero acting more like a liberal statesman than a tyrant, that is, by his allowing “Simonides to speak and to depart in peace” (OT 138). But Simonides was not going anywhere. Kojeve fails to see that the ending of the dialogue is the beginning of an alliance between the wise poet and the partly educated tyrant.

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