The Relay Race of Virtue

Plato's Debts to Xenophon

By William H. F. Altman

Subjects: Ancient Greek Philosophy, Plato, Classics, Literary History
Series: SUNY series in Ancient Greek Philosophy
Hardcover : 9781438490915, 384 pages, November 2022
Paperback : 9781438490922, 384 pages, May 2023

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Table of contents

Preface: How Xenophon led Chion of Heraclea to the Academy

Introduction: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

1. Xenophon in Plato’s Dialogues

2. Xenophon’s Debts to Plato

3. Ordering Xenophon’s Writings

4. Plato’s Debts to Xenophon

5. A Socratic Relay Race


Demonstrates that Plato and Xenophon ought to be regarded less as rivals and more as engaged in a dialogue advancing a common goal of preserving the Socratic legacy.


The ancient view that Plato and Xenophon were rivals at least had the merit of allowing them to respond to each other; in modern times, the view that Plato wrote first eliminates the possibility of an exchange between the only two Socratics whose writings are preserved intact. Challenging the chronological assumptions on which Plato's across-the-board priority currently rests, the purpose of The Relay Race of Virtue is to show that Plato and Xenophon were responding to each other and that we can gain a greater appreciation for both by recognizing the back-and-forth nature of their friendly dialogue. Instead of regarding Xenophon as Plato's inept copyist, William H. F. Altman presents him as first blazing the trail for his fellow Socratic and then learning from Plato in return. By emphasizing "Plato's Debts to Xenophon," Altman is charitable to both, justifying Socrates' belief (Memorabilia 1.2.8) "that those of his companions who adopted his principles of conduct would throughout life be good friends to him and to each other."

William H. F. Altman is an independent scholar and the author of a five-volume study of Plato’s dialogues.


"This extraordinary book on the dialogues of Plato provides a detailed study of the interrelationship between the writings of Plato (427–347) and Xenophon (426–354), the only ancient Greek authors whose Socratic dialogues have come down through time." — CHOICE

"This revolutionary book enriches studies of both Plato and Xenophon with a groundbreaking reassessment of their respective works' intertextual relationships. Battling well-entrenched perceptions of their supposed rivalry, Altman masterfully traces the intricate insights and missteps of past interpretations that have shaped our contemporary understanding of these philosophers. His extremely compelling argument concerning their mutual indebtedness enhances our appreciation of Plato's literary genius and Xenophon's philosophical acumen. Altman's readable book deftly leads us through many trees to keep the larger philosophical forest view ever present." — Anne-Marie Schultz, author of Plato's Socrates on Socrates: Socratic Self-Disclosure and the Public Practice of Philosophy and Plato's Socrates as Narrator: A Philosophical Muse