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The World's First Online Collaborative Commentary to an Ancient Text

Cyrus’ Prayer and the Game of Life

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In this blog post, I will outline the basics of two concepts that have been helpful to me in understanding the Cyropaedia: first, the nature and purpose of a “control level” in narrative generally, and second, the control level in this work in its broadest outline. Future posts will look more specifically at Xenophon’s unique approach to this aspect of narrative in this work, and will consider how that unique approach may have opened up narrative possibilities that ultimately gave us the narrative form of the novel.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 What is a control level, and why is it necessary? The term is one I have adopted from Nick Lowe’s work on the nature of plot, The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (Oxford 2000). He develops an incredibly graceful and effective analytical model for understanding narrative plot: a plot is a game, unfolding on a board, structured by the passage of time through a clock, with players who compete to gain certain objectives, playing the game according to a set of rules that determine the possibilities for moves, which is to say, changes in the state of play initiated by a player. All of this is directed towards an “endgame,” a state of play established by the rules as final and/or conclusive, beyond which further play becomes part of another story, or pointless, or impossible (for the “endgame” as a narratological term, see Lowe 2004:60 and passim). The reader is invited to engage with this game by inference: not all of the rules will be immediately apparent, nor all of the characteristics of the players, nor (necessarily) the endgame. Even in cases (like the Cyropaedia, we may observe) where the endgame has been established from the outset, much of the reader’s attention will be engaged in trying to deduce how such an endgame state will proceed from the state of play granted at the start of the game. What moves, given what she knows (or guesses) about the game, could possibly yield such a state of play? In Lowe’s model, the affective content of plot (as distinguished from other components of narrative, we should stress) comes from precisely this disjunction, between the plot as it is played out step by step and the plot as it exists as a whole: “…our desire for harmony between our two dissonant and incomplete story models makes us vulnerable to sustained and purposeful affective manipulation. It is this, I would argue, that accounts for the power of plot” (Lowe 2000:24).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 A control level is an agency within the narrative that serves to justify the rules governing play: it may be a god or gods, it may be some puppetmaster human, it may be a “Force” or “Fate” or “Destiny.” The text may even suppress it completely, never clarifying its nature nor even alluding to it. Why, then, must we posit its existence when nothing in the text points to it directly? Lowe’s model implies that the control level is necessitated by two key constraints of a narrative and the act of reading it. The first is that every narrative, however much it attempts to simulate life-as-experience, is necessarily finite and fixed. Not only are we moved relentlessly towards an endgame using a finite number of characters on a finite board following a finite set of rules, but we are encouraged to replay the events as though they were unfolding before us: yet when events unfold in the real world, chance and choice are always present, while in a narrative every choice and every event has, in fact, been fully scripted before we begin to read. Even this minimal level of predetermination present in any narrative is thus sufficient to necessitate the presence of some sort of force controlling events, someone whom we might blame for this unrelenting and infallible certainty with which everything must occur. As Lowe puts it, “One question that the reader may understandably ask is: why is this fictional world different in kind from my own? What enforces the working of all these narrative rules, whether moral or magical or simply a sense of inevitability and purpose in story direction?” (2000:56).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 And here is where the other constraint placed on the narrative and the act of reading comes into play. The most obvious answer to the question above, the answer which is in one sense undoubtedly true and which soon suggests itself if we are allowed to think about the question for too long, is that the author is responsible for the narrative rules (this is absolutely true in the case of pure fiction, and always at least partially true in the case of history). Lowe imagines the reader next asking “Are not these rules the inept impositions of an author seeking artificial control over his subcreation?” (2000:56). A key part of the artistry of good narrative technique, however, at least as our cultural aesthetic has defined it, is that it minimizes insights of this sort (hence the judgment implicit in Lowe’s “inept” in the question just imagined). The author is ideally never visible, or at worst, his visibility is only fleeting and only at moments where he has carefully shielded the fragility of his narrative creation from the shattering blow his appearance might deal it. In this sense, then, a control level is necessary for every narrative: in as far as we are able to will a “suspension of disbelief” upon ourselves, we must necessarily transfer the predetermination of the text onto some force other than the author.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The author may choose to make this easy for us by supplying, or at least suggesting, a control level that may be used as a surrogate for his manipulations. Such a move is a gamble, however, since it forces our hand: if we reject the offer, the author himself is forced to the surface, whereas leaving the control level unspecified allows us the freedom to fill it with whatever we wish. This choice presumes that we wish to fill the control level with something, and this may not be the case: the author is thus left in a quandary, and must find a balance between the two possibilities. This is the choice every author must make, consciously or not: whether to include an explicit control level and hope that his readers accept it (since rejecting it removes the mask from his presence and reveals the narrative as his own creation) or to leave it out, or merely hint at it, and hope that his readers will be well-intentioned enough to supply one of their own. What choice did Xenophon make? One passage in particular allows us to paint this control level in the broadest strokes here, but it is a problematic passage and, as we will see, will require further examination (and investigation of its reception) in future posts.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Throughout this examination we must not forget what is at stake in the choices Xenophon makes, and why his construction of a control level matters to our understanding and appreciation of his masterwork. At the start of the work, Xenophon makes an implicit promise: play my game, watch Cyrus become a great leader, and you will see the sequence of moves by which a human can overcome the challenge of leading fellow humans, will yourself become, in other words, a great leader. The strength of that promise hinges upon the validity of the moves Cyrus makes, however: why should they necessarily turn out as they do (and, historically, did)? There are three possibilities: first, that they lead to the outcome they do simply because Xenophon says so (the narrative causality is pure fiction, that is). In that case, it is hardy worth our trouble to read the tale, except perhaps for its entertainment value. Second, things may turn out as they do from pure random chance. In this case, as well, the narrative has little value beyond entertainment (except perhaps as a meditation on how powerless we are in the face of chance). Third, and the only possibility that validates Xenophon’s promise, Cyrus’ moves may yield the outcome they do because of a logic of causality that derives not from Xenophon, but from some higher source of causality present in the world of lived experience. The most obvious truth, of course, lies in the first option: Xenophon may try to copy the causality of the world of experience, he may try to remain as faithful to it as possible, but he is ultimately its author (indeed, this would be true no matter how fictional or factual his story: narrative causality is a human construct).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Only if he is able to transfer responsibility successfully from himself to a control level (itself his creation as well, at least within the narrative universe), and only if the reader accepts this control level as operative in her own experience, will the promise of Cyrus as transformative example hold up (unless, of course, through an act of sheer complicity with Xenophon, the reader chooses to write in her own control level, on top, or in spite, of whatever Xenophon has provided). Thus if Xenophon claims that Cyrus is a counterargument to the truism that humans cannot rule humans, at least not well and not for long, we cannot understand the source of his authority in making this claim unless we understand the control level he constructs for the Cyropaedia. Fortunately, Xenophon has given us at least one passage that offers an overview of the role played by the control level in Cyrus’ narrative. When Cyrus has reached the end of his long and productive life, and we have nearly reached the end of our journey with him, he is visited by a dream of unquestionable divine origin. A godlike figure manifests itself and directs him to ready himself for death, since he will soon be joining the gods (8.7.2). His first response upon waking is to sacrifice to the gods, especially Zeus and Helios, and his full prayer is (rather unusually) given:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Ζεῦ πατρῷε καὶ Ἥλιε καὶ πάντες θεοί, δέχεσθε τάδε καὶ τελεστήρια πολλῶν καὶ καλῶν πράξεων καὶ χαριστήρια ὅτι ἐσημαίνετέ μοι καὶ ἐν ἱεροῖς καὶ ἐν οὐρανίοις σημείοις καὶ ἐν οἰωνοῖς καὶ ἐν φήμαις ἅ τ᾽ ἐχρῆν ποιεῖν καὶ ἃ οὐκ ἐχρῆν. πολλὴ δ᾽ ὑμῖν χάρις ὅτι κἀγὼ ἐγίγνωσκον τὴν ὑμετέραν ἐπιμέλειαν καὶ οὐδεπώποτε ἐπὶ ταῖς εὐτυχίαις ὑπὲρ ἄνθρωπον ἐφρόνησα. αἰτοῦμαι δ᾽ ὑμᾶς δοῦναι καὶ νῦν παισὶ μὲν καὶ γυναικὶ καὶ φίλοις καὶ πατρίδι εὐδαιμονίαν, ἐμοὶ δὲ οἷόνπερ αἰῶνα δεδώκατε, τοιαύτην καὶ τελευτὴν δοῦναι.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “Ancestral Zeus and Sun and all the gods, receive these gifts as an offering from many and good works, and in thanksgiving that you showed me both in sacrifices and in heavenly omens and bird signs and utterances what I should do and what I should not. My gratitude to you is great that I too knew your care and not once in my good fortune did I think myself more than human. And I beseech you to give happiness now too to my children and wife and friends and fatherland, and to me, to give too such an end as the life you have given.”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This is a clear example of Cyrus’ eusebeia, a trait whose importance to his successful leadership has been well treated by Norman (Sandridge 2012). On a narratological level, however, it also plays an important role: as a brief retrospective on the events that have preceded, it highlights the “endgame” conditions that have been met (and whose fulfillment signals the end of the narrative). More importantly for the purposes of my inquiry, however, it provides an interpretation of those events and their “endgame” and hints at a “meaning” lurking behind these and tied to the role played by the “control level” in them.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 This overview of the control level is problematic, however, for a variety of reasons. Cyrus alludes to at least two different superhuman forces that might have been at work in his life and could have been at least partly responsible for various stages of its narrative development. The notion of divine providence is here captured by the ἐπιμέλεια that Cyrus is grateful to have “known” repeatedly, i.e. “recognized”: an odd way of phrasing this that suggests that the divine care of which he is speaking is a given and that the real blessing is not receiving it, but simply knowing about it. And the idea of Fortune is then subtly opposed to this: even in times of good fortune, Cyrus didn’t get too high an opinion of himself; the ups and downs of Fortune are thus a separate (though related) pattern from the “yes” and “no” of divine guidance and care. This seems simple enough, but the contrast drawn here has a much deeper and far more extensive subtext: Fortune and Providence are nothing less than two competing systems of causality, two contrasting schemes, that is, for the control level in constructing a narrative. To invoke them both opens up complexities that will require further investigation. To what degree are Cyrus’ successes simply “good luck” and to what degree can they be attributed to a divine providence? And how, indeed, if either of these forces is responsible for his success, are we supposed to be able to replicate that success in our own leadership?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Even more problematic are, first, his assertion that the gods told him what to do and what not to do (reminiscent of Socrates’ daemonion, perhaps, except that the latter, according to Plato, only issued negative advice; see Apology 31d), and second, his request that the gods grant his family εὐδαιμονία and himself an end (τελευτὴ) that is of the same sort as the life they have granted him. The first is problematic because, casting our minds back over the story, we cannot recall a single instant when the gods opposed Cyrus; where then, is the evidence that the gods told him what not to do (as they often told Socrates)? The second is problematic because it attributes what are, both philosophically and narratively speaking, the final goals of any struggle, to the gods: happiness, a good life, a good end. If the gods have the ability to grant this simply in answer to a prayer, and if it is only granted if the gods so will it, Cyrus has attributed to them a level of control both in his own life and in that of others that far exceeds what we might have expected. This prayer, that is, encapsulates a very strong theology that comes as a bit of a surprise after a narrative whose control level is so jejune. It will require further investigation, detailed and in depth, to understand what is going on here: what role is granted to fate or chance or a similarly unchangeable control level? What role is granted to the gods, who differ in that they can presumably influence and be influenced by the players, and how does this role fit with the role granted to chance? Why has the role of both been so minimal (they never opposed Cyrus’ actions, for example), and how can we reconcile this with Cyrus’ prayer? Are there competing theologies, or is there a unified role for the control level throughout? What is the role of the control level in securing positive goals for the players (“happiness,” “a good life,” or “a good end,” e.g.), and how does this fit with the implicit promise that Cyrus’ leadership moves are replicable? Did Xenophon invent a new kind of control level to suit his new kind of narrative? Finally, what was the reception of this new control level (within narrative art) or new theology (in lived experience), i.e., how did it alter the horizon of expectations for readers and philosophers?

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 It is these questions, and perhaps others, that I will investigate and at least try to answer in my future posts. For now, I will end with one more question that may not have an answer but that may suggest what is at stake in this enquiry. Lowe’s model of narrative-as-game has at least two important corollaries. The first is suggested by Walter Burkert in his Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, where he argues that narrative and play may have a similar origin and purpose in human society, which is to say, both provide a kind of rehearsal for life (1996:25-26). Religion then offers an organizing principle, a “structure of sense” (a control level, Lowe might say) that allows the game/narrative to be organized into a pattern to avoid the chaotic randomness of lived experience. The second is suggested by the philosopher James Carse, who has examined the idea of a “game” in a philosophical sense in his study Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (1986). The fundamental distinction he makes, implicit in his title, is between the two “types” of games: a finite game has “winning” as its goal, while an infinite game has continued play as its only object. Bearing these two extensions of the idea of narrative as “game” in mind, a new question arises: if the Cyropaedia is, like all narratives, a kind of rehearsal for life, as Burkert suggests, and if the control level provides the structure of sense around which we organize our actions in engaging in that rehearsal, and thus provides the justification for the causality implicit in the narrative, whose outcomes our rehearsal is designed to achieve (or avoid), what sort of teleology does this control level imply? What, in other words, is the object of the game we play if we follow these rules, ordained by these gods? Every narrative is necessarily a finite game, of course, but what of the game it prepares us for? Are we rehearsing a finite game (whose object is to win), or an infinite one, whose object is continued play?