Book Review: The Education of Cyrus
Americans tend to think of presidential elections as epochal events, landmarks in the very course of human history. But wise men have been observing the rise and fall of great empires for many thousands of years, all the while pondering the qualities most desirable in the rulers of great nations.
Plato is certainly the best-known student of Socrates, but the ancient Greek philosopher had another famous pupil named Xenophon (430–354 BC). Xenophon wrote a “mirror for princes” called the Cyropaedia or The Education of Cyrus.
Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire, which he ruled until his death in 530 BC. The Book of Daniel vividly recounts Cyrus’s conquest of the Babylonian Empire in the story of Daniel, Belshazzar, and the writing on the wall (told in The Education of Cyrus from an outside perspective with a dramatic twist). After the fall of Babylon, King Cyrus permitted the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple, an event that would prove to be a pivotal turning point in the emergence of Western Civilization.
But Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great is not quite the Cyrus the Great of history. As a writer of historical fiction - or more accurately, political romance - Xenophon splices his vision of the ideal military and political leader onto the historical Cyrus the Great.
Plato’s student Aristotle would list and describe all of the Greek Virtues: courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, and righteous indignation. Of these, Aristotle recognized magnanimity as the “crowning virtue.” Magnanimity is a word rarely used and even more rarely seen, but it means “greatness of soul.” Justice, benevolence, nobility, and self-sacrifice are all closely associated with magnanimity.
Xenophon takes this dry list of virtues and puts it into action, fashioning Cyrus the Persian into the pinnacle of Greek virtue: the magnanimous man, the great-souled leader.
For example, Cyrus turns his Persian tribe into a great empire by inviting the armies he has conquered to join him against their tyrannical master, the Babylonian king. Through his gracious and merciful conduct - foregoing pillage and plunder for the greatest prize of all, the Kingdom of Babylon itself - Cyrus converts the Babylonian forces into an unstoppable army aimed at the great city of Babylon itself.
The Education of Cyrus is far from a gripping old adventure saga with no practical modern value, however.
Every four years, the American people engage in a great public debate upon this very subject: which candidate possesses the virtues and qualifications most necessary for the leadership of a great nation? Should a great leader embody magnanimity or some other virtue - or vice?
In our representative republic, every American voter is a kingmaker, and every ballot cast is a reflection and judgment upon the governance of a great nation.