Exegetical Commentary on Personal Failings: Xenophon’s Critique in The Education of Cyrus

Xenophon’s account of the life of Cyrus the Great tells the story of one of the world’s most successful leaders. Cyrus, king of Persia, established one of the largest empires in the world. He was also a leader in establishing human rights when he granted individual rights and religious freedom to his people. Cyrus’s leadership on the outside seems benevolent and even somewhat selfless, putting the wellbeing of his people on the forefront. However, at its core, Cyrus’s rule is manipulative and narcissistic.

Cyrus’s tactic for a strong army was to keep them on strict diet and exercise regimens that would keep them in top shape: “Cyrus also took care that they would never come to lunch or dinner without sweating . . . for he held this to be good for pleasant eating, being healthy, and for being able to labor; and he held that these labors were good for their being more gentle to each other, because horses too, when they labor together, stand [in their stalls] more gently with each other.” Certainly with regard to facing the enemy, those who are conscious of themselves as having exercised well become more high-minded. Cyrus designed these routines of diet and exercise to keep the troops healthy and performing well. If the men kept to these routines, they would do well in battle. “He announced victory prizes also for those whole companies and whole platoons, likewise for those squads of ten and of five, that showed themselves to be most obedient to their rulers and to practice most enthusiastically what was announced.” The king acknowledged those that did well in battle and rewarded them with a meal at the king’s table with Cyrus himself. He also punished those that caused failure by disobeying, abandoning the regimen, or ignoring orders. This encouraged the troops to always be their best and follow orders. At first, this plan of diet and exercise and rewards seems like an act of benevolence on Cyrus’s part. He makes sure his people are healthy and well taken care of, even giving them his some of his own food when they have done well. He gives everyone rewards or punishments based on their performance in order to make sure they are always at their best.

However, when a reader looks deeper, Cyrus’s motives for taking care of his people are almost entirely narcissistic. Cyrus wants a large, successful army that will follow his orders almost mindlessly and win battles. And if “doing what is good” is equivalent to “doing what Cyrus wants,” the only way one can do what is good is to get inside the mind of Cyrus. “He used to invite and honor any whom he saw doing the sort of thing he wished them all to do.” This can result in the goal of entire armies being to try to imagine and embody the king’s will. In the end, entire armies obsess over their king and dedicate themselves to paying close attention to him in order to realize what he expects of them and avoid punishment. Cyrus uses people that are willing to study and follow him to bring glory to his name .Yet, was the soldiers’ obedience really willing if it was done to avoid punishment? In reality, Cyrus’s leadership was almost totalitarianism. With every hope of impressing Cyrus and being rewarded, there would always be a fear of falling short of his expectations and being punished.

Cyrus turned his rule of a bureaucratic hierarchy into a self-serving dictatorship focused on bringing glory to himself. There were still the different levels of command of a hierarchy and the many different officials of a bureaucracy, but every one of their decisions was made while trying to measure up to Cyrus’s merit system and avoid being punished.Cyrus died in 530 B.C., leaving his sons behind to run his vast empire. “When Cyrus died, however, his sons immediately fell into dissension, cities and nations immediately revolted, and everything took a turn for the worse.” Why did the First Persian Empire fall apart so quickly after Cyrus’s death? It may have been that Cyrus’s rule was revolving so much around himself that once he was gone and a real bureaucracy was left to rule, the power vacuum left by Cyrus’s death destroyed the empire. Cyrus’s habit of rewards and punishments was gone and the people no longer had any incentive to stay in peak condition or follow their leaders.

Xenophon ends his book by saying, “the present Persians and their associates have been demonstrated to be more impious regarding gods, more irreverent regarding relatives, more unjust regarding others, and more unmanly in what pertains to war than were their predecessors.”Cyrus the Great died after establishing the First Persian Empire and successfully creating a bureaucratic government to rule over it. However, hiding underneath the bureaucracy was an almost totalitarian system with a narcissistic king at the top. Cyrus manipulates his troops into following his orders with promises of reward and threats of punishment. This results in the armies being completely obsessed with Cyrus, trying to figure out what he deems worthy of reward. Perhaps if Cyrus’s rule had not been so centered around Cyrus himself, his empire would not have fallen apart after his death.

Knowledge, Community, and Humility in Cyrus

The Education of Cyrus by Xenophon is a book renowned in history as a useful tool in instructing leaders as well as illuminating the life of a noble king. It is also notable for another reason which lies in the title itself. The book focuses on the education of Cyrus, an education which Xenophon shows to continue throughout his life. Cyrus’s education never stops but is a lifelong state of existence. In The Education of Cyrus, Xenophon uses the example of Cyrus to portray what he believes to be the essential qualities of a leader, proposing that good leaders seek the counsel and advice of wise individuals, pursue knowledge doggedly, and display humility.

Xenophon demonstrates that a successful leader must seek the counsel and advice of trusted and wise individuals. This is something Cyrus does time and time again in The Education of Cyrus. Collaboration and communication can only strengthen an individual, and this sense of community runs throughout the narrative of Cyrus. In Book 4, Cyrus speaks to the Median and Hyrcanian cavalry and concludes, “If anyone sees anything better, let him speak”.This statement reflects a common theme throughout Cyrus’ speeches to the troops and generals during battle. He frequently asks for the thoughts of others and invites them to communicate their thoughts, should they disagree with him.

Additionally, Cyrus continuously pursues knowledge and puts himself in positions to learn. When young Cyrus must decide whether to remain in Medea or return to Persia, he explains to his mother, “at home, mother, among those of my age, I both am and am thought to be the best at throwing spears and shooting the bow, but here I know quite well that I am inferior to those of my age at riding…if you leave me here and I learn how to ride a horse, when I am in Persia, I think that I will easily be victorious for you over those who are good on foot.” Here, Cyrus demonstrates an awareness of his areas of weakness as well as an earnest desire to improve upon them, turning his weaknesses into strengths. This attitude continued into adulthood, when Cyrus gives a speech to his troops, proclaiming,“But someone will perhaps say that we do not understand how [to ride]. No, we do not, by Zeus, but even of those who now understand, before they learned, no one understood.” Cyrus encourages these adult men to learn a new skill, because accumulation of knowledge does not end with childhood.

Finally, Xenophon emphasizes that a good leader must be willing to humble themselves sometimes. Cyrus displays humility several times, acknowledging his own flaws and mortality. When speaking to allies about his troops’ unrefined riding skills, he jokes, “‘we will surely afford you a great laugh when we are seated on our horses, and, I think, when we fall down on the ground.” In doing this, he humbles himself before others and eases the tension by joking at his own expense. This is a wise action for a leader to take; in Cyrus’s case, he created a more relaxed environment between the leaders whilst subtly making them feel superior in this respect. Humility not only flatters others but fosters pursuit of new experiences and knowledge, which can diversify the skills of a leader as well as strengthening bonds between allies.

It can be seen that Cyrus possesses all of the traits listed above; he is humble, eager to learn, and invites additional counsel. However, a concern sometimes arises when his motives and intentions are examined in more depth. Xenophon and the various people in Cyrus’s life frequently heap praise upon Cyrus, exalting him as “worthy of wonder.” These perceptions come primarily from observation of the outcomes of his actions, as that is all they can easily know. It is, then, up for debate whether he acts as such from true desire to seek knowledge or in order to gain allies and power.

Although it is easy to look to the eventual demise of his empire and conclude that his motives were impure, a more complex analysis shows that Cyrus displayed these positive characteristics from the beginning, and did not act in ways purely motivated by hunger for power. For one thing, Cyrus demonstrated these traits even as a child. Cyrus was known as an inquisitive child, constantly asking questions and pursuing new ideas. As Xenophon writes, “Moreover, because he loved to learn, he himself used to ask many questions of whomever was around about how things happened to be.” Clearly, this curiosity was in his nature. Additionally, he displayed humility and understanding of his own flaws, as “he did not challenge his associates where he knew that he was superior, but he began right where he knew quite well that he himself was inferior.” This attitude, of challenging others in areas he struggled with, was indicative of a child willing to admit his failings and determined to improve them. It also displays the awareness that the greatest improvement comes from learning from others who are more skilled than yourself. These behaviors which Cyrus displayed as a child are reflected in his adult life.

Essentially, Xenophon uses Cyrus as an example a leader who possessed humility, eagerness to learn, and utilized wise counsel. Xenophon examined Cyrus’s life with the question of what made him a great leader, and in his portrayal, one of the defining factors seems to be these traits.