11/17/12 What Would We Be?

Be as you wish to seem


There is no escaping Socrates. He is a recurring theme in my writings. He was a recurring theme in the writings of many: Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon. I suppose that’s because he was a teacher, and they that sat at his feet went on to become some of the world’s most original and profound thinkers. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from what his students wrote about him. We are thankful for that, for very little of what Socrates said or did has passed to us through his own hand.

The quote above is one worth governing one’s life by.

“How should I live my life?” the student asked the master.

“Be as you wish to seem,” the master said back.

Young Xenophon scratched his head at that. He pondered it. He thought about it. “What do I wish to be?” he asked himself. He had no answer, but continued to ponder the question. “I want to be wise like you, master, but how will I know when I have achieved my goal?”

“You won’t get there by merely thinking about it; and you may never know if you have achieved it,” said Socrates to the young Xenophon, “You’ll have to actually do something. We can’t just intellectually be what we seem to be, we have to become what we seem to be. What is it that you seem to be?”

“I seem to be a student,” he replied.

Socrates said, “You are a student, so you are what you seem to be. But is there another aspect of your nature in which you are presenting yourself as something you may not yet be? What do you like? How do you spend your free time?”

“I love horses. I love to train horses – – working with them, training them in such a way as they do not need the whip or the spur, but carry us and serve us because we have trained them to want to do so.”

“Do you know how to do that? Have you mastered this? Are you satisfied that you are able to be that person?” the master asked his star pupil.

“Oh, no!,” cried Xenophon. “Horses have a mind of their own. Sometimes it seems I have accomplished what I want in a particular horse, but other times it seems I know nothing about horses at all. Each horse has its own personality, and some just can’t be taught.”

“Are not some students the same?” asked the master. “Are not they who come to this school with the most knowledge the hardest to teach, having no room in their minds for something new?”

“I suppose it is as you say,” said Xenophon, “I only know that I have a lot to learn.”

“Than you are well on the way to your complete education,” said the master. “What have the horses taught you?”

“Taught me?” asked Xenophon. “I am the one who trains the horses.”

“But surely, you have learned something about horses from the horses themselves,” said the master. 

Xenophon thought about this, suspecting it was a trick question, since Socrates was quick to lay traps for his students, particularly those who thought they had the ready answer. He stated to speak, but held his peace a while longer as he pondered with all the cleverness he could summon on how he might answer in a way that would satisfy the master and not bring on more questions, endless questions, each one getting harder and harder until one’s mind was weary from self-examination.

“I have learned that the horse will respond to the whip and the spur, but is always ready to throw his rider when trained that way, for his fear is always ready as his answer. But I have also learned that one can train the horse to carry the rider willingly, to move in such a way as to keep the rider balanced. But to train the horse like this, one must earn the horse’s trust and respect, and nothing will suffice but time. As the horse grows in experience, the horse and rider learn to trust each other. Soon, the horse and the rider have respect for each other, and the horse will not turn away at the sight of the bridle, but yield to it in willing service. If one can train a horse in this way, one not only has a means of transportation, but a friend and servant. Yet the man must serve the horse, too. They must serve each other.”

“And did you just wake up one morning with this knowledge? Or did you learn it from the horses?” asked the master.

“Oh, no! It was a hard lesson. I learned it from working with the horses. The hardest horses to train were the ones that had been taught through fear. It was nearly impossible to train them to something new, so great was that which had been instilled in them.”

“Ah! Now, you see my dilemma,” said the master as he turned to other things. Xenophon knew that he had been dismissed, that the lesson was over. He had learned something without having been taught anything. He knew now that he had much to unlearn before he could learn more. He knew then that he would be what he seemed to be. He would be a master trainer. A physician and breeder of horses. After all these centuries, The Works of Xenophon still teach men who would study it about the training and care of horses. It is still a valuable tool since, even though centuries have passed and the world seems a different place, horses haven’t changed all that much. They are still horses.

The honest man strives to be what he seems. Sometimes what a man seems to be and what he is are not the same. When there is less to a man than meets the eye, we would be wise to give him a wide berth. And, sometimes, the horse seems gentle right up until the point where we put our foot in the stirrup.

Things are not always what they seem. If we know nothing else, we should know that.

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