Phalinus, messenger from Persian King Artaxerxes, demands that the Persians (who had fought with Cyrus, now dead, against Artaxerxes) put down their arms.
Xenophon responds: “Phalinus, at this moment, as you see for yourself, we have no other possessions save arms and valor. Now if we keep our arms, we imagine that we can make use of our valor also, but if we give them up, that we shall likewise be deprived of our lives…”
Phalinus laughed and said: “Why, you talk like a philosopher, young man, and what you say is quite pretty; be sure, however, that you are a fool if you imagine that your valor could prove superior to the King’s might.”
Xenophon, Anabasis (or, The Persian Expedition)


The situation is dramatic. The Greeks acquitted themselves with distinction in the battle just ended; nonetheless Cyrus, whom they served, fell in the battle. Artaxerxes now holds all the cards, and the Greeks are far from home. And everyone knows it.

Phalinus, though himself a Greek, expresses a view especially common among barbarians. He sneers at the notion that “valor could prove superior” to great might. This of course, whether he knows it or not, evokes a deeper question: just what does “prove superior” mean? If the only notion of superiority is that of overpowering, of beating the opposition, then Phalinus’s point is surely well taken.

Yet history records the deeds of these Greeks’ cousins at Thermopylae just a few generations before. The barbarians certainly won the field, but the Spartans won undying remembrance, and honor.

There is might, and then there is character.

Plato, a contemporary of Xenophon, would lay out in his Republic two paths open to man, that of might and that of right. Not only individuals but whole communities and cultures can lose sight of the distinction, and the difference it makes.

But the reality, and power, of true human greatness, is never completely lost to sight. And many great books of our civilization bring before our eyes, with poignancy, this reality.

Note: Recently I have been reading Anabasis (The Persian Expedition) aloud with my son. It has provided both great excitement and occasion for reflection.

Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. In addition to Anabasis, the historical account of the Greeks who fought for Cyrus, he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues are Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which he shares insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household, and Memorabilia, in which he shares recollections of the life of Socrates.

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