Xenophon On Open Source Software...

Dave Long (dl@silcom.com)
Wed, 17 Feb 1999 22:04:58 -0800

Xenophon is well known for a treatise on horsemanship which shows how little
that activity has changed over the past few millenia:


However, I was surprised to find that X., had he not had the misfortune to
be born ca. 431 BC, might have been an OSS supporter.


[15.10] "`Why, Socrates, farming is not troublesome to learn, like other
arts, which the pupil must study till he is worn out before he can earn his
keep by his work. Some things you can understand by watching men at work,
others by just being told, well enough to teach another if you wish. And I
believe that you know a good deal about it yourself, without being aware of
the fact. [15.11] The truth is that, whereas other artists conceal more or
less the most important points in their own art, the farmer who plants best
is most pleased when he is being watched, so is he who sows best. Question
him about any piece of work well done: and he will tell you exactly how he
did it. [15.12] So farming, Socrates, more than any other calling, seems to
produce a generous disposition in its followers.'

s/farming/hacking/g, and [15.11] gives the sense. He then proceeds to have
Ischomachus extol the virtues of the startup in [20.21 - 20.26], although
his Socrates, hearing the description of improving the value of uncultivated
land hundredfold, finds more than Virtue standing at the entrepreneur's

[20.27] "`You mean, Ischomachus, that your father really loved agriculture
as intensely as merchants love corn. So deep is their love of corn that on
receiving reports that it is abundant anywhere, merchants will voyage in
quest of it: they will cross the Aegean, the Euxine, the Sicilian sea;
[20.28] and when they have got as much as possible, they carry it over the
sea, and they actually stow it in the very ship in which they sail
themselves. And when they want money, they don't throw the corn away
anywhere at haphazard, but they carry it to the place where they hear that
corn is most valued and the people prize it most highly, and deliver it to
them there. Yes, your father's love of agriculture seems to be something
like that.'

Then again, we shouldn't be surprised, for Xenophon had already given
Socrates a little passage which demonstrates Socrates' aversion to the
greenscreen tan (and gives a depth of provenance to the Dilbertian cubicle):

[4.2] "Very good, Critobulus; for, to be sure, the illiberal arts, as they
are called, are spoken against, and are, naturally enough, held in utter
disdain in our states. For they spoil the bodies of the workmen and the
foremen, forcing them to sit still and live indoors, and in some cases to
spend the day at the fire. The softening of the body involves a serious
weakening of the mind. ...


(Seriously, though, [15.10] contains the essence of what had driven me to
the software industry: I was able to learn by public example, and it's much
more of a young man's game than most traditional endeavors.)