Three Ideas the Stoics Learned from Socrates

Life of Socrates CoverSocrates was a hugely important precursor of ancient Stoicism. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Emulation of Socrates as a role model was clearly central to later Stoicism and perhaps goes right back to Zeno himself. Epictetus makes far more references to Socrates than to any other philosopher.  We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect.

In this article, I’ll look at three key ways in which Socrates inspired Stoicism.  See my longer article on Socrates in Stoicism for more information, and lots more examples, though.

You may also be interested in my new Crash Course on Socrates. It’s completely free of charge and only takes about twenty minutes to complete:

1. It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. (Encheiridion, 5)

This is probably Epictetus’ most famous quote.  It was often taught to clients in Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and early Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  Many people think of it as distinctly Stoic.  However, it’s a recurring theme in the Socratic dialogues.  As it’s found both in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, it’s likely to have come from Socrates himself.  Indeed, as you can see, Epictetus immediately follows this by using Socrates as an example.  Epictetus notes that death cannot be intrinsically frightening because Socrates, and others, are not afraid of death.

Socrates employed the same simple little argument himself.  If everyone doesn’t have the same emotional reaction to an event then the way we feel is probably determined by the way we think about it.  For example, in Book One of The Republic, Plato portrays Socrates discussing old age with his elderly friend Cephalus.  Cephalus notes that most people tend to complain about old age being a cause for misery but he disagrees, and he quotes a famous saying from Sophocles to show he disagreed as well.  So Socrates and Cephalus jointly conclude that what matters is how we think about it, as those who approach old age with a positive attitude live with greater calm and happiness, like Cephalus.

Socrates himself was remarkably indifferent to the notorious temper tantrums of his young wife, Xanthippe.  In one of Xenophon’s dialogues, he’s shown giving his eldest son, Lamprocles, advice about how to remain calm when his mother is being difficult.  Socrates refers to the fact that actors aren’t upset when, on stage, other actors scream and yell abuse at them.  Although Xanthippe has a sharp tongue, Lamprocles has no doubt that she loves him, and Socrates draws his attention to the fact he’s responding to the superficial impression her behaviour creates rather than to his knowledge of her good intentions.  It’s not the other person’s behaviour that upsets us, he explains, but the way we think about it.

2. Model the behaviour of wise men

When you are going to meet with any person, and particularly one of those who are considered to be in a superior condition, place before yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will have no difficulty in making a proper use of the occasion. (Encheiridion, 33)

Epictetus often advises his students to contemplate the behaviour of role models and to emulate them, particularly that of Socrates.  However, this practice also comes from Socrates himself.  Xenophon, for example, places great emphasis on the way that Socrates improved the character of others by the example he set in his own life.  He even goes so far as to say that the memory of Socrates continued to help improve others after his death:

Indeed, even to recall him now that he is gone is no small help to those who were his habitual companions and who accept his views. (Memorabilia, 4.1)

Socrates frequently advises his students to seek out wise and virtuous individuals as friends.  He clearly believes that good friends are far more important in life than possessions or money.  That’s because he believed that we can learn most by sharing the company of good people and observing their behaviour.  Socrates usually claimed to lack knowledge of virtue himself, and his attempts to arrive at verbal definitions of the virtues often end inconclusively.  Nevertheless, he believed that virtue could be acquired by emulating the example set by others:

As for his views about what is right, so far from concealing them, he demonstrated them by his actions. (Memorabilia, 4.4)

3. The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates in this way became perfect, in all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet a Socrates, ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates. (Encheiridion, 51)

The Stoics believed that we should live mindfully, paying continual attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty (hegemonikon).  This is also derived from their interpretation of Socrates.  The Stoics place considerable emphasis on our ability to admit our weaknesses and fallibility, by reflecting on and criticizing our own character, in a constructive manner, in order to continually improve ourselves.

This then is the beginning of philosophy, a man’s perception of the state of his ruling faculty; for when a man knows that it is weak, then he will not employ it on things of the greatest difficulty. […] But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (Discourses, 1.28)

Epictetus relates this to what he called The Discipline of Assent, through which Stoics train themselves to question their initial impressions of things, and to suspend strong value judgements of the kind that cause emotional distress.

The third topic concerns the assents, which is related to the things which are persuasive and attractive. For as Socrates said, we ought not to live a life without examination, so we ought not to accept an appearance without examination, but we should say, Wait, let me see what you are and whence you come; like the watch at night (who says) Show me the pass (the Roman tessera). Have you the signal from nature which the appearance that may be accepted ought to have? (Discourses, 3.12)

The signal from nature that he’s talking about is what the Stoics call an “Objective Representation” (phantasia kataleptike).  They basically meant that we should ensure we’re viewing events in an objective and matter-of-fact way, without projecting our (strong) value judgements onto them.  In particular, they sought to avoid confusing external things –such as health, wealth, and reputation – with the highest good, and goal of life, which the Stoics, and apparently also Socrates, identified with virtue (arete).

It is his duty then to be able with a loud voice, if the occasion should arise, and appearing on the tragic stage to say like Socrates: Men, whither are you hurrying, what are you doing, wretches? like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without? (Discourses, 3.22)

We can only live wisely, though, by continually reflecting on the way we’re employing reason in daily life, from moment to moment.

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