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.

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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.

Parenting: What Socrates Said

Xanthippe Socrates British MuseumAccording to legend, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after reading Book Two of Xenophon’s famous Memorabilia of Socrates. The second chapter of this book portrays Socrates engaging in a short Socratic dialogue with his own son, Lamprocles.   It may have been a conversation Xenophon actually witnessed, or heard about from Socrates.  It gives us some interesting insights into Socrates’ attitudes toward parenting and his relationship with his own son.

Socrates had three sons, by his notoriously hot-tempered wife Xanthippe, of whom Lamprocles was the eldest.  Lamprocles was a young boy when Socrates was executed; two younger brothers, Menexenus and Sophroniscus, were still small children, at least one of them carried by Xanthippe like a baby.

According to Xenophon, Socrates one day noticed that Lamprocles was becoming increasingly irritable with Xanthippe, his mother.  So he decided to employ the Socratic method of questioning to help improve his son’s relationship with her.   Socrates’ method consists mainly in asking questions, although he sometimes ends up offering practical advice on what to do if the other person gets stuck.  I’ve paraphrased the discussion below, and inserted a few comments, although I’ve stayed very close to the original dialogue.

Part One: Katharsis

Socrates begins by asking his son, Lamprocles, what we typically mean when call someone ungrateful.  He asks “What do people do to earn this name?”  Lamprocles says that we call someone ungrateful if they’ve been treated well and could show gratitude in return but don’t.  Socrates asks him if that means ingratitude is a bad thing and Lamprocles agrees that it is.  So from the outset they have both agreed this definition as common ground upon which to begin working.

Then Socrates asks a trickier question: Could it perhaps be that it’s wrong to show ingratitude toward our friends but right to show ingratitude to our enemies?  He asks that question, incidentally, because Lamprocles would have been familiar with a Greek saying that a good man helps his friends and harms his enemies, which Socrates thought was a very wrong-headed way of understanding justice.

Lamprocles says he’s thought about this already and disagrees with it, perhaps because he’s heard Socrates’ criticisms of this view.  (We can almost imagine him thinking “Hmmm… I’ve heard this one before.”) So instead the boy says that whether someone is a friend or an enemy, either way, as long as we’ve received a favour from them then we should show them gratitude in return.  They both agree that being ungrateful to anyone, friend or enemy, who does you favour would be the height of injustice.  Socrates asks if that means that the greater a favour someone receives without showing gratitude in return, the more unjust they are being, and his son agrees.

Well, says Socrates, what greater favour could there be than that shown by parents to their children?  Parents benefit their children by having them and giving them their very existence.  So every other good thing they can possibly experience depends upon that fact.   My six-year-old daughter Poppy’s comment on this is that it’s like saying we should be grateful to the man who built our house because we can eat in it and watch television and sleep, and it gives us the space to do other good things.  Indeed, Socrates says, most people believe that their own life is so valuable that they would do anything to hang on to it.  The greatest crimes were punished by the death sentence in Athens because everyone assumed life was the most precious thing and nobody wanted to lose it.  (Of course, elsewhere Socrates himself questions whether death is an evil and there’s a hint of irony here because we all know he later receives the death penalty from an Athenian court himself.)

Socrates reminds Lamprocles that parents sacrifice a lot because they want to have children.  Mothers carry around the weight of the baby inside them for months and then, in ancient Greece, they actually risk their own lives in giving birth to them.  Socrates mother, Phaenarete, was reputedly a midwife, an esteemed middle-class profession in Athens.  His empathy with mothers here, surprising for a man of his time, perhaps hints at Phaenarete’s influence on him.  Once a baby is born, he says, its mother feeds it and cares for it, even though it has never done her any favours.  The baby doesn’t even know anything about its parents yet but still receives their care and attention.  For years, the mother has to go through all sorts of drudgery, day and night, rearing her infant without knowing whether she’ll ever receive any gratitude in return.  Not only do the parents care for the child by clothing and feeding them but they also try to educate them.  They try to share any knowledge with them that they think might be important.  If they think it would be better taught by someone else, they pay for teachers and coaches as well.  So there are lots of reasons to grateful, at least to a typical conscientious mother like Xanthippe.

This sounds like it’s at risk of turning into a bit of a finger-wagging sermon on being grateful to your mother for everything she’s sacrificed, etc., although maybe quite a reasonable and articulate one.  Lamprocles isn’t convinced, though.  He says, “Well, all that might be true, but nevertheless you can’t expect anyone to put up with her temper!”  He’s trying to say that negates everything else.  This leads Socrates into an interesting examination of how to cope with difficult people.  If it’s much easier to deal with Xanthippe’s temper than their son assumes then he’s got no reason to be ungrateful to her, given everything else she’s done for him.  Her sharp-tongue becomes something trivial.  Indeed, elsewhere we’re told that even when she threw cold water over Socrates or tore the shirt from his back in public, he just shrugged it off with indifference.

Next Socrates asks the odd-sounding question: Is it harder to bear with the ferocity of a wild beast or with that of your own mother?  Lamprocles say “With a mother, if she’s like mine!”  That’s interesting and perhaps the key point at stake for them both.  Lamprocles is half-joking.  When people are half-joking about what upsets them, that’s often a signal.  It often means they’ve said something that they believe emotionally although they realize logically that it can’t actually be true.  We often use humour to mask the contradictions in our thinking.  Socrates doesn’t let his son off the hook, though…

He asks: Has your mother ever injured you by biting or kicking, like wild animals do?  “Of course not”, says the boy, “but she says things you wouldn’t want to put up with every day of the week.”  Socrates points out that his son has actually been doing things all his life that worry and upset his mother, so he should remember it cuts both ways.  “Yes,” says Lamprocles, “but I’ve never said or done anything to make her ashamed of me.”

Then Socrates says something very peculiar indeed: Do you think it’s harder for you to listen to the things your mother says than it is for actors in tragedies when they’re yelling abuse at one another?  (If I remember right, he uses the same argument somewhere else as well.)  We might think he’s come very close here to the familiar English adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  This profound indifference to criticism from others is an aspect of Socrates’ original philosophy that may have influenced Antisthenes and the Cynics, and later the Stoics.

Lamprocles quite naturally responds “That’s all well and good but actors in tragedies don’t actually believe that those verbally abusing them intend to punish or harm them.” They’re just pretending, playing a role on the sage.  It’s make-believe.  This is where Socrates finally reveals his hand, though.  “Yes and you do get angry with your mother,” he says, “even though you know well enough that she doesn’t intend to harm you either, any more than the the performers arguing on stage mean to harm one another.”  Here Socrates is reminding Lamprocles of something he’s already acknowledged, which contradicts what he’s now trying to say.  Even though Xanthippe gets angry and can be argumentative, it’s not devoid of any kind intention.  Paradoxically, it’s because she loves her son and wants to do him good.  “Or do you imagine”, asks Socrates, “that she means to harm you?” Lamprocles acknowledges that she doesn’t.

Xanthippe wants to help her son. Socrates reminds Lamprocles that she always does her best to look after him when he’s sick, and tends to his every need.  She’s always praying to the gods for his welfare.  For Lamprocles to say that his mother is unbearable is therefore to say that what actually does him good is unbearable.  So, in a nutshell, it’s not someone’s words that should concern us, no matter how sharp-tongued they’re being, but their real underlying intentions.  As Lamprocles genuinely accepts that his mother doesn’t intend to harm him then why should he be bothered by her bluster?  He should remind himself that it’s just a misleading appearance like the actors yelling verbal abuse at one another on stage.  This recalls one of Socrates’ most famous analogies, when he elsewhere compares our fear of death to that of small children who are frightened by grotesque masks.  The wise man removes the mask and inspecting what’s behind it finds nothing terrifying.  He looks beyond surface appearances, and that’s what Lamprocles should learn to do when Xanthippe is screaming and shouting at him.

Lamprocles Diagram

Part Two: Functional Analysis

Socrates then shifts perspective, adopting a new line of argument.  The first part of the dialogue helps Lamprocles to question his initial impression that Xanthippe’s behaviour is awful or intolerable and to perceive it with greater indifference.  That’s a typical strategy in both Socratic philosophy and Stoicism.  Next, Socrates draws his son’s attention to the negative consequences of his old way of looking at things.  Again, this is a familiar strategy, both Socratic and Stoic.  Imagining the broader and longer-term consequences of some course of action is still used today as a way of evaluating it and building motivation to change.

Socrates asks: Do you think there’s anyone else in life who deserves your respect?  Lamprocles admits that there are, of course, people such as teachers, military officers, city officials, etc., whom it’s appropriate to respect and obey.  He also asks Lamprocles whether he wants to be liked by his neighbours.  “So that he may offer you a light for your fire when you need one,” says Socrates, “or contribute to your success and give you prompt and friendly help should you ever meet with misfortune.”  Take the example of a fellow traveller, or anyone else you might encounter, he adds.  Would it make no difference to you whether he became your friend or your enemy?  He asks if Lamprocles should care at all whether the people he meets in life want to help him or harm him.  He agrees that we should prefer people to have goodwill toward us, where possible.

So you think it’s worthwhile concerning yourself with whether strangers are friendly toward you, says Socrates, and yet not to be concerned for your relationship with your mother, who loves you more than anyone else does?  He mentions that the Athenian state doesn’t normally punish ingratitude but that people who show disregard for their parents are penalized and debarred from holding public office.  This is because such offices often involved offering traditional sacrifices to the gods, which requires someone known for possessing good character.  The Athenians didn’t trust men who disrespected their own parents.  Indeed, Socrates notes, even someone who fails to tend the graves of his dead parents might have that held as a serious charge against him when applying for public office.

So my son, Socrates concludes, if you’re prudent you’ll ask the gods to forgive you for any disregard you’ve shown toward your mother in the past, and you’ll take care that your fellow Athenians don’t observe you neglecting your parents in the future.  That’s a sure fire way to lose their respect and friendship, he adds, as they’re bound to conclude, if they think about it, that from someone who has shown ingratitude toward his own parents  nobody can expect to receive gratitude in return for doing them a favour.

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  1. My video on the life and philosophy of Socrates, with full transcript
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The Stoic Socrates

Life of Socrates CoverSocrates was a hugely important figure for the ancient Stoics. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, 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. We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect.  However, they were also critical of Plato’s version of Socratic philosophy. They probably believed, with some justification, that the “real” Socrates had focused more on ethics as a guide to daily life and espoused a simpler and less metaphysical philosophy than Plato’s Academy, more akin to the Socrates of Xenophon’s dialogues.  The Socratic dialogues to which Epictetus particularly likes to refer are:

  • The Symposium of Xenophon, which he twice tells his students to go and read
  • Plato’s Apology and Crito, depicting the trial and imprisonment of Socrates

Other sources such as the writings of Antisthenes were available to Zeno and his followers in the early Greek Stoa and their view of Socrates was reputedly as the ultimate source of the Cynic-Stoic tradition, via his student Antisthenes. The Stoic use of Socrates is therefore a complex subject. This article just aims to present most of the passages referring to Socrates from the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and to intersperse some brief commentary.

If you’re interested in reading more sayings and anecdotes feel free to download the e-book I created containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius, called The Life and Opinions of Socrates.


One of the most famous sentences in The Handbook is immediately followed by the less well-known example of Socrates’ noble death. The “good death” of Socrates was particularly important to Stoics, who seemed content to accept Plato’s early dialogues as providing an acceptable account of his trial and execution.

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. (5)

Another fundamental Stoic technique involves emulation of a wise man or moral exemplar, e.g., literally asking yourself “What would Socrates or Zeno do?” Note that here Socrates and Zeno are presented as the two most obvious examples of a Stoic role model. Did Zeno likewise ask himself what Socrates would do and seek to emulate his example?

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. (33)

Socrates here is presented as having attained, or come close to, the goal of life, by dedicating himself to living consistently in accord with reason, synonymous for the Stoics with their slogan of “living in agreement with Nature”. Note that again, Epictetus’ students are directly instructed to emulate Socrates (more even than Zeno).

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. (51)

The Handbook even concludes with a pair of famous quotes from the last days of Socrates. The first refers to acceptance of fate and the second to indifference to even the most extreme form of physical harm, Socrates’ execution. Anytus and Meletus were two of the three men who brought charges against Socrates. Cassius Dio tells us that Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, a movement greatly admired by Epictetus, used to paraphrase this by saying “Nero can harm me but he cannot kill me.” Thrasea was apparently a student and friend of Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus. Nero eventually executed Thrasea. This closing passage of the Handbook may perhaps have been read by some as an indirect allusion to Thrasea, paying tribute to him, or maybe it was a favourite quote also of Musonius.

And the third also: O Crito, if so it pleases the Gods, so let it be [Crito]; Anytus and Melitus are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me [Apology]. (53)

Fragments from Epictetus

Xanthippe was Socrates’ notoriously troublesome wife. A slight variation of this anecdote is also told by Diogenes Laertius: “He had invited some rich men and, when Xanthippe said she felt ashamed of the dinner, ‘Never mind,” said he, “for if they are reasonable they will put up with it, and if they are good for nothing, we shall not trouble ourselves about them.’” It’s there immediately followed by the remark: “He would say that the rest of the world lived to eat, while he himself ate to live.”

Xanthippe was blaming Socrates, because he was making small preparation for receiving his friends: but Socrates said, If they are our friends, they will not care about it; and if they are not, we shall care nothing about them.

Archelaus was reputedly one of the teachers of Socrates. Epictetus uses this anecdote to make a point about playing the role well that Fate has assigned to us, even if we’re in beggar’s rags.

When Archelaus was sending for Socrates to make him rich, Socrates told the messengers to return this answer: At Athens four measures (choenices) of meal are sold for one obolus (the sixth of a drachme), and the fountains run with water: if what I have is not enough (sufficient) for me, yet I am sufficient for what I have, and so it becomes sufficient for me.


Several times, Epictetus mentions Socrates and Diogenes together as role models for his students. However, Epictetus mentions Socrates more often in The Discourses than any other individual, about twice as often, for instance, as he mentions Diogenes the Cynic, or four times as often as Zeno.

This saying about being a citizen of the cosmos (cosmopolitan) is also attributed to Diogenes the Cynic but several ancient sources, like Epictetus here, suggest it originated with Socrates himself.

If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world (κόσμιος). (1.9)

Socrates again is portrayed as someone who believes strongly in mankind’s kinship with the gods, a teaching probably emphasized in the Greek Mystery Religions. Socrates must have been perceived here as alluding figuratively to his own reputation as a war hero. He famously distinguished himself in several major battles of the Peloponnesian War. Epictetus uses Socrates’ trial to make a point about identifying with our (divine) capacity for reason, with the wellbeing of our moral character, rather than merely with the preservation of our body.

How did Socrates behave with respect to these matters? Why, in what other way than a man ought to do who was convinced that he was a kinsman of the gods? “If you say to me now,” said Socrates to his judges, “we will acquit you on the condition that you no longer discourse in the way in which you have hitherto discoursed, nor trouble either our young or our old men, I shall answer, you make yourselves ridiculous by thinking that, if one of our commanders has appointed me to a certain post, it is my duty to keep and maintain it, and to resolve to die a thousand times rather than desert it; but if God has put us in any place and way of life, we ought to desert it.” Socrates speaks like a man who is really a kinsman of the gods. But we think about ourselves, as if we were only stomachs, and intestines, and shameful parts; we fear, we desire; we flatter those who are able to help us in these matters, and we fear them also. (1.9)

Wherever we go we are enslaved or imprisoned by our passions, as long as we don’t accept events that befall us with indifference, viewing virtue as the only true good. Socrates, paradoxically, was free through imprisoned, because he accepted his Fate with indifference.

What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly. (1.12)

Epictetus, who also taught dialectic to his students, here reminds them of the importance Socrates placed on defining concepts, particularly the virtues. Note that he refers to the Socrates’ of Xenophon’s dialogues rather than Plato’s.

And who is it that has written that the examination of names is the beginning of education? And does not Socrates say so? And of whom does Xenophon write, that he began with the examination of names, what each name signified? (1.17)

The notion of being like a stone, indifferent to insults, is found in other sources. This passage may allude to the now lost anecdote also mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, in which Socrates was stripped of his cloak in public by Xanthippe, his shrewish wife. Socrates had “one face” because he was relatively indifferent to external events and his mood didn’t fluctuate depending on his external fortune. This constancy of character was greatly admired by the Stoics.

For what is it to be reviled? Stand by a stone and revile it; and what will you gain? If then a man listens like a stone, what profit is there to the reviler? But if the reviler has as a stepping-stone (or ladder) the weakness of him who is reviled, then he accomplishes something.—Strip him.—What do you mean by him?— Lay hold of his garment, strip it off. I have insulted you. Much good may it do you. This was the practice of Socrates: this was the reason why he always had one face. (1.25)

Attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty is the beginning of Stoic philosophy. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Epictetus directly links this to the Stoic notion of training in self-awareness and recognition of our own character flaws.

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 at present, if men cannot swallow even a morsel, they buy whole volumes and attempt to devour them; and this is the reason why they vomit them up or suffer indigestion: and then come gripings, defluxes, and fevers. Such men ought to consider what their ability is. In theory it is easy to convince an ignorant person; but in the affairs of real life no one offers himself to be convinced, and we hate the man who has convinced us. But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (1.28)

Epictetus famously said that being shackled is an impediment to the leg but not to our mind, or moral choice. He tells his students to apply this way of speaking more generally, and here is an example in relation to Socrates. We should not say that Socrates was imprisoned or poisoned but rather that these things were done to his body, whereas his mind was free insofar as it chose to remain indifferent. (This doesn’t entail a Platonic sort of mind-body dualism, a metaphysical view, but rather a more practical contrast between the passivity of the body and the freedom of our conscious mental activity.) He concludes this passage with the famous pair of quotes placed at the end of The Handbook.

How strange then that Socrates should have been so treated by the Athenians. Slave, why do you say Socrates? Speak of the thing as it is: how strange that the poor body of Socrates should have been carried off and dragged to prison by stronger men, and that any one should have given hemlock to the poor body of Socrates, and that it should breathe out the life. Do these things seem strange, do they seem unjust, do you on account of these things blame God? Had Socrates then no equivalent for these things? Where then for him was the nature of good? Whom shall we listen to, you or him? And what does Socrates say? Anytus and Melitus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me: and further, he says, “If it so pleases God, so let it be.” (1.29)

Marcus and Epictetus both like to refer to this figure of speech from Socrates, where fear of death and similar anxieties are compared to the fear small children have of people wearing scary masks. As adults we should be able to remove the mask, look behind it, and realize there’s nothing of which to be afraid. “As a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face…“ The mask corresponds for Epictetus with our value judgement that something is evil but the Stoic should suspend that judgement (remove the mask) and view externals objectively, with indifference.

Confidence (courage) then ought to be employed against death, and caution against the fear of death. But now we do the contrary, and employ against death the attempt to escape; and to our opinion about it we employ carelessness, rashness and indifference. These things Socrates properly used to call tragic masks; for as to children masks appear terrible and fearful from inexperience, we also are affected in like manner by events (the things which happen in life) for no other reason than children are by masks. For what is a child? Ignorance. What is a child? Want of knowledge. For when a child knows these things, he is in no way inferior to us. What is death? A tragic mask. Turn it and examine it. See, it does not bite. (2.1)

Socrates said that philosophy was a preparation for dying, and the Stoics likewise consider philosophy to consist fundamentally in a preparation for meeting not just death but also all other forms of adversity. Living virtuously and in accord with reason involves preparing ourselves to face adversity with emotional resilience.

Therefore Socrates said to one who was reminding him to prepare for his trial, Do you not think then that I have been preparing for it all my life? By what kind of preparation? I have maintained that which was in my own power. How then? I have never done anything unjust either in my private or in my public life. (2.2)

This metaphor of Stoicism as a ball game appears to go right back to Chrysippus. The ball symbolizes any external, indifferent thing. Playing in a sportsmanlike manner represents virtue. We treat the ball is something of no real intrinsic value; it’s just a tool for exercising our skill in a sporting manner. Socrates is compared to a skillful player in the ball game, in terms of his handling of external events such as his trial and execution.

This is just what you will see those doing who play at ball skilfully. No one cares about the ball as being good or bad, but about throwing and catching it. In this therefore is the skill, in this the art, the quickness, the judgment, so that even if I spread out my lap I may not be able to catch it, and another, if I throw, may catch the ball. But if with perturbation and fear we receive or throw the ball, what kind of play is it then, and wherein shall a man be steady, and how shall a man see the order in the game? But one will say, Throw; or Do not throw; and another will say, You have thrown once. This is quarrelling, not play. Socrates then knew how to play at ball. How? By using pleasantry in the court where he was tried. Tell me, he says, Anytus, how do you say that I do not believe in God. The Daemons (δαίμονες), who are they, think you? Are they not sons of Gods, or compounded of gods and men? When Anytus admitted this, Socrates said, Who then, think you, can believe that there are mules (half asses), but not asses; and this he said as if he were playing at ball. And what was the ball in that case? Life, chains, banishment, a draught of poison, separation from wife and leaving children orphans. These were the things with which he was playing; but still he did play and threw the ball skilfully. So we should do: we must employ all the care of the players, but show the same indifference about the ball. For we ought by all means to apply our art to some external material, not as valuing the material, but, whatever it may be, showing our art in it. (2.5)

Epictetus refers several times to Socrates’ writing poetry while awaiting execution as an example of Stoic indifference.

And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison. (2.6)

Epictetus also likes to remind his students that the Socrates Method focused on trying to help the person with whom he was speaking during a philosophical debate to persuade themselves of the truth by exposing hidden contradictions in their thinking to them. Socrates didn’t force technical definitions on other people during debates but began with their own definitions. He didn’t lecture them but engaged with them in this more down-to-earth way, on their own terms. The Socratic Method was more like modern counselling or psychotherapy in this respect, arguably. Epictetus concludes by placing remarkable emphasis on Socrates’ ability to engage in friendly debate with others, avoiding arguments while nevertheless radically questioning their most cherished beliefs. Again, it’s notable that the Stoic students here are being instructed to read Xenophon’s Symposium rather than Plato’s.

How then did Socrates act? He used to compel his adversary in disputation to bear testimony to him, and he wanted no other witness. Therefore he could say, ‘I care not for other witnesses, but I am always satisfied with the evidence (testimony) of my adversary, and I do not ask the opinion of others, but only the opinion of him who is disputing with me.’ For he used to make the conclusions drawn from natural notions so plain that every man saw the contradiction (if it existed) and withdrew from it (thus): Does the envious man rejoice? By no means, but he is rather pained. Well, Do you think that envy is pain over evils? and what envy is there of evils? Therefore he made his adversary say that envy is pain over good things. Well then, would any man envy those who are nothing to him? By no means. Thus having completed the notion and distinctly fixed it he would go away without saying to his adversary, Define to me envy; and if the adversary had defined envy, he did not say, You have defined it badly, for the terms of the definition do not correspond to the thing defined—These are technical terms, and for this reason disagreeable and hardly intelligible to illiterate men, which terms we (philosophers) cannot lay aside. But that the illiterate man himself, who follows the appearances presented to him, should be able to concede any thing or reject it, we can never by the use of these terms move him to do. Accordingly being conscious of our own inability, we do not attempt the thing; at least such of us as have any caution do not. But the greater part and the rash, when they enter into such disputations, confuse themselves and confuse others; and finally abusing their adversaries and abused by them, they walk away. Now this was the first and chief peculiarity of Socrates, never to be irritated in argument, never to utter any thing abusive, any thing insulting, but to bear with abusive persons and to put an end to the quarrel. If you would know what great power he had in this way, read the Symposium of Xenophon, and you will see how many quarrels he put an end to. (2.12)

Here the “Platonic” relationship between Socrates and his young admirer Alcibiades is used to illustrate Stoic training in mastery of our sensual desires, and a comparison with Hercules, another Stoic role model is thrown in for good measure. It might seem surprising to us today that the Stoics would compare Socrates to Hercules, but they meant this quite seriously. (As an aside, athletes here are dismissed as training themselves in a “sorry” or trivial manner compared to philosophers.)

Go to Socrates and see him lying down with Alcibiades, and mocking his beauty: consider what a victory he at last found that he had gained over himself; what an Olympian victory; in what number he stood from Hercules; so that, by the Gods, one may justly salute him, Hail, wondrous man, you who have conquered not these sorry boxers and pancratiasts, nor yet those who are like them, the gladiators. (2.18)

We return to the theme of Socrates trusting in his interlocutors’ ability to refute themselves, through use of the Socratic Method. The method consists in exposing contradictions in the other party’s beliefs, through careful questioning, like a cross-examination in a court of law, rather than simply lecturing them.

For this reason Socrates also trusting to this power used to say, I am used to call no other witness of what I say, but I am always satisfied with him with whom I am discussing, and I ask him to give his opinion and call him as a witness, and though he is only one, he is sufficient in the place of all. For Socrates knew by what the rational soul is moved, just like a pair of scales, and then it must incline, whether it chooses or not. Show the rational governing faculty a contradiction, and it will withdraw from it; but if you do not show it, rather blame yourself than him who is not persuaded. (2.26)

Even the greatest teacher has bad students. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Not even Socrates persuaded everyone he spoke with. (Also, trivial ideas gain more agreement while more radical and important ones often meet with a more hostile reception – think of the scorn poured for years upon Charles Darwin’s claims.) Nevertheless, Socrates believed it was his duty to attempt to enlighten others through the use of his method of philosophy. The comparison between the wise man and the bull who defends the herd here may be an allusion to the portrayal of mankind as a herd of cattle in the Republic of Zeno.

Did Socrates persuade all his hearers to take care of themselves? Not the thousandth part. But however, after he had been placed in this position by the deity, as he himself says, he never left it. But what does he say even to his judges? “If you acquit me on these conditions that I no longer do that which I do now, I will not consent and I will not desist; but I will go up both to young and to old, and, to speak plainly, to every man whom I meet, and I will ask the questions which I ask now; and most particularly will I do this to you my fellow citizens, because you are more nearly related to me.” —Are you so curious, Socrates, and such a busybody? and how does it concern you how we act? and what is it that you say? Being of the same community and of the same kin, you neglect yourself, and show yourself a bad citizen to the state, and a bad kinsman to your kinsmen, and a bad neighbour to your neighbours. Who then are you?— Here it is a great thing to say, “I am he whose duty it is to take care of men; for it is not every little heifer which dares to resist a lion; but if the bull comes up and resists him, say to the bull, if you choose, ‘and who are you, and what business have you here?’” Man, in every kind there is produced something which excels; in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not then say to that which excels, Who then are you? If you do, it will find a voice in some way and say, I am such a thing as the purple in a garment: do not expect me to be like the others, or blame my nature that it has made me different from the rest of men. (3.1)

Socrates was not concerned with refined language or theoretical speculations, in contrast with Sophists and metaphysicians. His only real concern was the genuine cultivation of virtue, the practical application of ethics to our daily lives.

But what does Socrates say? As one man, he says, is pleased with improving his land, another with improving his horse, so I am daily pleased in observing that I am growing better. Better in what? in using nice little words? Man, do not say that. In little matters of speculation (θεωρήματα)? what are you saying?— And indeed I do not see what else there is on which philosophers employ their time. — Does it seem nothing to you to have never found fault with any person, neither with God nor man? to have blamed nobody? to carry the same face always in going out and coming in? This is what Socrates knew, and yet he never said that he knew any thing or taught anything. But if any man asked for nice little words or little speculations, he would carry him to Protagoras or to Hippias; and if any man came to ask for potherbs, he would carry him to the gardener. Who then among you ‘has this purpose (motive to action)? for if indeed you had it, you would both be content in sickness, and in hunger, and in death. If any among you has been in love with a charming girl, he knows that I say what is true. (3.5)

Socrates led by his example. Stoics likewise teach others primarily by aiming to provide them with a living example of virtue. Note that Marcus praises his teachers for providing with examples of what it means for a man to live in accord with Nature. This obviously contrasts with the Sophists who taught by lecturing and wouldn’t normally be held up as living examples of virtue in this way. We should change ourselves first before attempting to change others. Epictetus here alludes to the Stoic and Socratic doctrine that virtue is its own reward.

Make us imitators of yourself, as Socrates made men imitators of himself. For he was like a governor of men, who made them subject to him their desires, their aversion, their movements towards an object and their turning away from it. — Do this: do not do this: if you do not obey, I will throw you into prison. — This is not governing men like rational animals. But I (say): As Zeus has ordained, so act: if you do not act so, you will feel the penalty, you will be punished.—What will be the punishment? Nothing else than not having done your duty: you will lose the character of fidelity, modesty, propriety. Do not look for greater penalties than these. (3.7)

Epictetus’ “Discipline of Assent”, again linked to Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living. But here Epictetus suggests that means that an unexamined thought (impression) is not worth accepting. Stoics should check every impression first and foremost to see if it conflates value judgements with externals, is it an Objective Representation (phantasia kataleptike) free from value judgements that we project onto external things? He says physical exercise can serve as moral exercise, as long as it’s not carried out for external goals like vanity. The difference between training in a gym to improve our character and training to look good.

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? And finally whatever means are applied to the body by those who exercise it, if they tend in any way towards desire and aversion, they also may be fit means of exercise; but if they are for display, they are the indications of one who has turned himself towards something external and who is hunting for something else and who looks for spectators who will say, Oh the great man. For this reason Apollonius said well, When you intend to exercise yourself for your own advantage, and you are thirsty from heat, take in a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out and tell nobody. (3.12)

In this passage, Epictetus appears to be referring to the Socratic Method or elenchus (confutation) as a powerful means for overcoming arrogance, and revealing our deficiencies by exposing the contradictions in our thinking.

You must root out of men these two things, arrogance (pride) and distrust. Arrogance then is the opinion that you want nothing (are deficient in nothing): but distrust is the opinion that you cannot be happy when so many circumstances surround you. Arrogance is removed by confutation; and Socrates was the first who practised this. And (to know) that the thing is not impossible inquire and seek. This search will do you no harm; and in a manner this is philosophizing, to seek how it is possible to employ desire and aversion (ἐκκλίσει) without impediment. (3.14)

Epictetus wants to say that Socrates and Diogenes, his two favourite role models, were uniquely suited by their respective characters for different roles in life, assigned to them by Nature herself.

But not even wisdom perhaps is enough to enable a man to take care of youths: a man must have also a certain readiness and fitness for this purpose, and a certain quality of body, and above all things he must have God to advise him to occupy this office, as God advised Socrates to occupy the place of one who confutes error, Diogenes the office of royalty and reproof, and the office of teaching precepts. (3.21)

This striking passages attributes to Socrates an implicit message like the Biblical quo vadis – “Where goest thou?” Socrates is like a messenger whose role is to remind us that our true goal in life lies within our own souls and that we should not be distracted by external things.

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? (3.22)

Epictetus mentions at least twice the notion that Socrates loved his children with a peculiar kind of philosophical detachment. This is similar to his advice that we should love our wives and children while remembering that tomorrow they may die, i.e., to love without attachment. He refers in passing to Socrates’ public service as a “senator” (a member of the Athenian boule or citizen council) and as a hoplite in the Athenian army.

Did not Socrates love his own children? He did; but it was as a free man, as one who remembered that he must first be a friend to the gods. For this reason he violated nothing which was becoming to a good man, neither in making his defence nor by fixing a penalty on himself, nor even in the former part of his life when he was a senator or when he was a soldier. (3.24)

Again, compare “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” Socrates’ moral character was not harmed by his execution, although we may say that his body was harmed. However, his accusers (and here his judges) harmed their own moral character by their unjust actions against him.

Socrates then did not fare badly?—No; but his judges and his accusers did. (4.1)

Again, although Socrates loved his wife and children, he did not allow this to compromise his moral character. He had a country but thought of himself as a citizen of the whole cosmos. Socrates’ military service is mentioned again as well as his refusal to comply with the unlawful order to arrest Leon of Salamis. Epictetus reflects on Socrates’ attitude toward his sentence and his refusal of Crito’s offer to help him escape from the prison. Epictetus makes the striking claim that through the example of his noble death, like a martyr for philosophy, Socrates continues to be useful to mankind even though he is long dead.

And that you may not think that I show you the example of a man who is a solitary person, who has neither wife nor children, nor country, nor friends nor kinsmen, by whom he could be bent and drawn in various directions, take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly; and when he was sent by the tyrants to seize Leon, he did not even deliberate about the matter, because he thought that it was a base action, and he knew that he must die (for his refusal), if it so happened. And what difference did that make to him? for he intended to preserve something else, not his poor flesh, but his fidelity, his honourable character. These are things which could not be assailed nor brought into subjection. Then when he was obliged to speak in defence of his life, did he behave like a man who had children, who had a wife? No, but he behaved like a man who has neither. And what did he do when he was (ordered) to drink the poison, and when he had the power of escaping from prison, and when Crito said to him, Escape for the sake of your children, what did Socrates say? did he consider the power of escape as an unexpected gain? By no means: he considered what was fit and proper; but the rest he did not even look at or take into the reckoning. For he did not choose, he said, to save his poor body, but to save that which is increased and saved by doing what is just, and is impaired and destroyed by doing what is unjust. Socrates will not save his life by a base act; he who would not put the Athenians to the vote when they clamoured that he should do so, he who refused to obey the tyrants, he who discoursed in such a manner about virtue and right behaviour. It is not possible to save such a man’s life by base acts, but he is saved by dying, not by running away. For the good actor also preserves his character by stopping when he ought to stop, better than when he goes on acting beyond the proper time. What then shall the children of Socrates do? “If,” said Socrates, “I had gone off to Thessaly, would you have taken care of them; and if I depart to the world below, will there be no man to take care of them?” See how he gives to death a gentle name and mocks it. But if you and I had been in his place, we should have immediately answered as philosophers that those who act unjustly must be repaid in the same way, and we should have added, “I shall be useful to many, if my life is saved, and if I die, I shall be useful to no man.” For, if it had been necessary, we should have made our escape by slipping through a small hole. And how in that case should we have been useful to any man? for where would they have been then staying? or if we were useful to men while we were alive, should we not have been much more useful to them by dying when we ought to die, and as we ought? And now Socrates being dead, no less useful to men, and even more useful, is the remembrance of that which he did or said when he was alive. Think of these things, these opinions, these words: look to these examples, if you would be free, if you desire the thing according to its worth. (4.1)

Once again, Epictetus repeats the unusual observation that Socrates provides an example of someone who does not engage in quarrels, despite asking penetrating questions and speaking the truth plainly.

The wise and good man neither himself fights with any person, nor does he allow another, so far as he can prevent it. And an example of this as well as of all other things is proposed to us in the life of Socrates, who not only himself on all occasions avoided fights (quarrels), but would not allow even others to quarrel. See in Xenophon’s Symposium how many quarrels he settled, how further he endured Thrasymachus and Polus and Callicles; how he tolerated his wife, and how he tolerated his son who attempted to confute him and to cavil with him. For he remembered well that no man has in his power another man’s ruling principle. He wished therefore for nothing else than that which was his own. And what is this? Not that this or that man may act according to nature; for that is a thing which belongs to another; but that while others are doing their own acts, as they choose, he may nevertheless be in a condition conformable to nature and live in it, only doing what is his own to the end that others also may be in a state conformable to nature. (4.5)

Xanthippe, his notoriously ill-tempered wife, is again cited as an example of Socrates’ patience and endurance, along with his wayward son. The story was that Alcibiades sent Socrates a fine cake, which Xanthippe trampled underfoot, to which he remarked only that she’d spoiled her own share. These are used as examples of Stoic indifference to external things.

Remembering this Socrates managed his own house and endured a very ill tempered wife [Xanthippe] and a foolish (ungrateful?) son. For in what did she show her bad temper? In pouring water on his head as much as she liked, and in trampling on the cake (sent to Socrates). And what is this to me, if I think that these things are nothing to me? (4.5)

Epictetus refers once again to Socrates’ saying from Crito about acceptance of his fate. Socrates’ goal was to free his own mind to follow reason, and not to gain praise for lecturing in public, like a Sophist. Again, his writing of poetry while awaiting execution is used as an example of his indifference.

Or how will you still be able to say as Socrates did, If so it pleases God, so let it be? Do you think that Socrates if he had been eager to pass his leisure in the Lyceum or in the Academy and to discourse daily with the young men, would have readily served in military expeditions so often as he did; and would he not have lamented and groaned, Wretch that I am; I must now be miserable here, when I might be sunning myself in the Lyceum? Why, was this your business, to sun yourself? And is it not your business to be happy, to be free from hindrance, free from impediment? And could he still have been Socrates, if he had lamented in this way: how would he still have been able to write Paeans in his prison? (4.4)

The Meditations

Some of Marcus’ references to Socrates appear to be derived from Epictetus. Complicating things, only four of the eight Discourses of Epictetus survive today but Marcus appears to have also read the ones lost to us. So he may be alluding at times to discussions of Socrates by Epictetus in some of the lost Discourses.

Antoninus Pius is compared to Socrates in terms of his ability to either enjoy or abstain from (to take or leave) the sort of things other people tend to indulge in too much – “All things in moderation”.  This could be a writing to Plato’s Symposium or to the Memorabilia or Symposium of Xenophon.

And that might be applied to him [Antoninus Pius] which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus. (1.16)

Marcus mentions in passing his reflection on the fact that “lice” killed Socrates and that we should likewise be prepared for death, something that comes even to the greatest and wisest among us (3.3). Marcus attributes to Socrates the idea that philosophy trains us to separate the mind from externals, which is a central aspect of Stoic psychological training.

But if nothing appears to be better than the deity which is planted in thee, which has subjected to itself all thy appetites, and carefully examines all the impressions, and, as Socrates said, has detached itself from the persuasions of sense, and has submitted itself to the gods, and cares for mankind; if thou findest everything else smaller and of less value than this, give place to nothing else, for if thou dost once diverge and incline to it, thou wilt no longer without distraction be able to give the preference to that good thing which is thy proper possession and thy own; for it is not right that anything of any other kind, such as praise from the many, or power, or enjoyment of pleasure, should come into competition with that which is rationally and politically or practically good. (3.6)

In those two passages, Marcus lists Socrates along with other great philosophers and interestingly sets Epictetus beside him, reflecting on their mortality.

[…] so many noble philosophers, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates [are now dead and gone]. (6.47)

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus has time already swallowed up! (7.19)

Marcus refers, like Epictetus, to the incident where Socrates refused the unlawful order to arrest Leon of Salamis, mentioned in Plato’s Apology. Nevertheless, we can’t judge someone’s virtue purely by looking at their actions, we have to understand their underlying motives and attitudes as well.

How do we know if Telauges was not superior in character to Socrates? For it is not enough that Socrates died a more noble death, and disputed more skilfully with the sophists, and passed the night in the cold with more endurance, and that when he was bid to arrest Leon of Salamis, he considered it more noble to refuse, and that he walked in a swaggering way in the streets—though as to this fact one may have great doubts if it was true. But we ought to inquire what kind of a soul it was that Socrates possessed, and if he was able to be content with being just towards men and pious towards the gods, neither idly vexed on account of men’s villainy, nor yet making himself a slave to any man’s ignorance, nor receiving as strange anything that fell to his share out of the universal, nor enduring it as intolerable, nor allowing his understanding to sympathize with the affects of the miserable flesh. (7.66)

Here Socrates is mentioned alongside Heraclitus (again) and Diogenes as examples of a great philosopher.

Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Pompey, what are they in comparison with Diogenes and Heraclitus and Socrates? For they were acquainted with things, and their causes [forms], and their matter, and the ruling principles of these men were the same [or conformable to their pursuits]. But as to the others, how many things had they to care for, and to how many things were they slaves! (8.3)

Marcus recalls one of Epictetus’ favourite sayings from Socrates about our fear of death being like children who are spooked by those dressed in frightening masks.

Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae,—bugbears to frighten children. (11.23)

Socrates’ avoids indebting himself to others who offer him favours.

Socrates excused himself to Perdiccas for not going to him, saying, It is because I would not perish by the worst of all ends; that is, I would not receive a favor and then be unable to return it. (11.25)

This seems to be related to the anecdote, now lost, which Epictetus mentions in passing, where Xanthippe apparently stripped Socrates of his clothing.

Consider what a man Socrates was when he dressed himself in a skin, after Xanthippe had taken his cloak and gone out, and what Socrates said to his friends who were ashamed of him and drew back from him when they saw him dressed thus. (11.28)

The two following passages appear to run together and may be quotes from Epictetus about Socrates. The question of our own sanity is of peculiar importance because all other questions depend upon our ability to reason clearly. This is a snippet showing Socrates using the elenchic method to expose a contradiction between the beliefs of his interlocutors and their actions. They do not seek to achieve sanity and reason because they assume they already have it but then if they are indeed perfectly sane and rational why do they fight and quarrel with one another?

The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter, but about being mad or not. Socrates used to say, What do you want, souls of rational men or irrational?—Souls of rational men.—Of what rational men, sound or unsound?—Sound.—Why then do you not seek for them?—Because we have them.—Why then do you fight and quarrel? (11.38-39)

If you’re interested in reading more sayings and anecdotes feel free to download the e-book I created containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius, called The Life and Opinions of Socrates.

The Life and Opinions of Socrates

Life of Socrates CoverThe Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius is one of our main sources of anecdotes about ancient Greek philosophy.  It was written around the first half the 3rd century AD but draws heavily on earlier sources. The information Diogenes gives us isn’t always reliable.  Nevertheless, he remains one of our most important sources for information on many of these schools of philosophy.

There are ten volumes, each containing chapters dedicated to a different group of philosophers.  Diogenes dedicated the second volume to Socrates, including several of his predecessors and the main philosophers in his circle of followers.  However, Plato gets a chapter to himself and Antisthenes is included in the chapter on Cynicism.

I have just created a new e-book that contains the chapter on Socrates and four of his most influential students: Antisthenes, Aristippus, Xenophon, and Plato.  You’re welcome to download a free copy from my e-learning site.  It comes in EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF formats.

Here are some of the most interesting quotes from the chapters mentioned above:


  • He is nearest the gods who has fewest wants.
  • He used to say it was strange that, if you asked a man how many sheep he had, he could easily tell you the precise number; whereas he could not name his friends or say how many he had, so slight was the value he set upon them.
  • There is, he said, only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance; wealth and good birth bring their possessor no dignity, but on the contrary evil.
  • And, being once asked in what consisted the virtue of a young man, he said, “In doing nothing to excess.”
  • He had invited some rich men and, when Xanthippe said she felt ashamed of the dinner, “Never mind,” said he, “for if they are reasonable they will put up with it, and if they are good for nothing, we shall not trouble ourselves about them.”
  • He would say that the rest of the world lived to eat, while he himself ate to live.
  • To one who said, “You are condemned by the Athenians to die,” he made answer, “So are they, by nature.”
  • To one who said, “Don’t you find so-and-so very offensive?” his reply was, “No, for it takes two to make a quarrel.”


  • When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”
  • He used to say, as we learn from Hecato in his Anecdotes, that it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.
  • When he was asked what advantage had accrued to him from philosophy, his answer was, “The ability to hold converse with myself.”


  • Being asked what he had gained from philosophy, he replied, “The ability to feel at ease in any society.”
  • It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.” 
  • Being asked how Socrates died, he answered, “As I would wish to die myself.”


  • The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his stick to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question, “And where do men become good and honourable?” Xenophon was fairly puzzled; “Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and learn.” From that time onward he was a pupil of Socrates.
  • On this occasion Xenophon is said to have been sacrificing, with a chaplet on his head, which he removed when his son’s death was announced. But afterwards, upon learning that he had fallen gloriously, he replaced the chaplet on his head. Some say that he did not even shed tears, but exclaimed, “I knew my son was mortal.”


  • They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.
  • A story is told that Plato once saw some one playing at dice and rebuked him. And, upon his protesting that he played for a trifle only, “But the habit,” rejoined Plato, “is not a trifle.”
  • One day, when Xenocrates had come in, Plato asked him to chastise his slave, since he was unable to do it himself because he was in a passion. Further, it is alleged that he said to one of his slaves, “I would have given you a flogging, had I not been in a passion.”

Free download. I’ve just created a new e-book containing excerpts about the life and opinions of Socrates and his most prominent students, from Diogenes Laertius. It’s in EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF format. Feel free to comment and share your favourite quotes. I’ll be updating it in the future with additional notes. Enjoy! 🙂

Socrates and Forgiveness

Socrates Wanted PosterThis is the text of a ten-minute talk I gave about Socrates to an audience of people who were mostly new to philosophy…

My daughter, Poppy, is six years old. She loves Greek mythology. She’s Nova Scotia’s leading expert on Hercules and she loves Wonder Woman – an Amazonian princess created by Zeus. Poppy also loves Greek philosophy.

While we were walking round town, or on the bus, she used to constantly pull my sleeve saying “Daddy, tell me stories!” I don’t read fiction; I’ve only read about four novels in my entire life. So the only stories I knew were about Greek philosophy. And this is one of them…

A long, long, time ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens. His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived. He said he was just a “philosopher”, though. That word means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself. Philosophers are always seeking wisdom, like children, they’re always asking questions…

But Socrates wasn’t always a philosopher. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason and sculptor who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis. When he was a young boy, his father taught Socrates how to cut stone to make buildings and beautiful statues. That’s what he did for a living for many years and he became really good at it. Some people say he made a famous statue of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.

Socrates tried really hard to make his statues perfect. He wanted them to physically embody wisdom and virtue. He thought that would be the most beautiful and inspiring thing anyone could possibly create. He tried and tried but he was never happy with the results. He always felt something was missing. So he went to the older and more experienced sculptors, seeking their advice. He was disappointed, though.

They made very beautiful statues depicting virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline However they couldn’t really explain what these qualities were or where to learn them. Socrates said they had become like blocks of stone themselves: blockheads, lacking wisdom and self-awareness. He realised they were looking too much at the outside, at statues, rather than looking deep inside themselves. They were experts at creating the appearance of virtue but they didn’t really embody it in their own lives.

Then Socrates had a great idea. He did something that I’ve seen many therapy clients do over the years, and it often dramatically improves their lives… He quit his job. He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped sculpting stone and began sculpting himself instead, his own mind, his character, trying to develop wisdom and virtue. He wanted to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues. Everyone thought this was hilarious because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at. He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his student Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat! It’s not a compliment. Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character. He liked to say that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he should be the winner because his character was much more beautiful than theirs. His friends weren’t convinced; they weren’t sure if he was joking or serious.

Anyway he gave up being a sculptor and instead of doing his father’s job he decided to switch to doing his mother’s job instead. Now, Socrates’ mother was a midwife. But instead of helping pregnant women give birth to their babies… he wanted to become a midwife for wisdom… to help men and women alike to give birth to the ideas inside them, so that they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them. We call that “Socratic questioning”.

Socrates helped people to give birth to their ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good. He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is the essence of wisdom?” He asked lots of questions but he always pretended he didn’t know the answers. That’s called Socratic irony – the word “irony” actually means ignorance. He used to say “I know only that I know nothing”, feigning ignorance, although he was much wiser than the people to whom he was talking. If you ask Poppy, she’ll explain that’s the secret of Socrates’ wisdom. He used to ask lots of questions, and then he’d listen really carefully to the answers people gave. That’s how he became the wisest man in history.

However, sometimes when you ask too many difficult questions to powerful and important people they get upset. That’s what happened to Socrates. He rocked the boat and they came after him. Two men called Anytus and Meletus put together a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates was found guilty and executed, forced to drink hemlock. But nearly two and a half thousand years later, we still remember the things he said…

Once, Socrates asked his friends “what is justice?” and it led to a really long and really famous conversation, which was described in Plato’s book The Republic. One of Socrates’ companions said justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies. Even in ancient Greece that was a popular idea – it’s Donald Trump’s worldview, good guys versus bad guys. It makes sense. Help your friends; harm your enemies… Socrates said that was wrong, though. He said justice consists in helping your friends and helping your enemies. Everyone thought he was crazy.

So this was his argument… Wisdom is the most important thing in life. It’s much more valuable than material possessions. Why? Well, for example, wealth is only as good as the use we make of it. In the hands of a fool, money is used foolishly. In the hands of a wise man, money can be used wisely. So wealth is neither good nor bad in itself, what matters is the use we make of it. And to help someone is to do them good. So Socrates argued that if we really wanted to help people we would educate them and lead them toward wisdom rather than just giving them money, or other external things. And if our enemies genuinely become wise then they’ll cease to be our enemies and become our friends instead. So justice should consist in helping, or educating, both our friends and our enemies. Maybe that seems idealistic but I agree with Socrates.

So this is my take home message… It may surprise you, but the main lesson I learned from Socrates was forgiveness. We blame people when we don’t understand them. To understand all is to forgive all. And so the closer we get to wisdom, I believe, the more forgiving we become. Socrates even forgave Anytus and Meletus the two men who had him executed. Indeed, he said something truly remarkable at his trial: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” That’s how firmly he believed that the most important thing in life is our moral character, the one thing that nobody can ever take away from you unless you let them. So I hope that now you all know as much about Socratic wisdom as Poppy does.

How “eclectic” were the Stoics?

Brief outline of the influence of other philosophical schools on the Stoic tradition.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

In ancient philosophy the term “eclecticism” normally refers to philosophers who don’t adhere to a particular school of thought but borrow concepts and theories from multiple sources.  In particular, the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, the teacher of Cicero, introduced an eclectic approach to the Platonic Academy, which attempted to assimilate elements of Stoic and Aristotelian thought into Platonism.

However, when people today talk about eclecticism they often just mean a more general notion of combining different philosophical elements.  The Stoic school itself was originally “eclectic” in this sense.  When Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, he found himself at a bookseller’s stall and allegedly read Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.  (Possibly the section in which Socrates’ relates the parable called The Choice of Hercules, developed by his friend, the Sophist Prodicus.)  According to other accounts, though, Zeno had already read the Dialogues of Plato in his youth.

Zeno was originally a wealthy Phoenician dye merchant who reputedly lost his fortune at sea, and was shipwrecked near Athens.  The story goes that Zeno consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told to “take on the colour of dead men”, which he interpreted as meaning he should study the philosophers of previous generations.

After reading about Socrates, Zeno turned to the bookseller and asked where he could meet such a man.  The Cynic Crates of Thebes was walking past at that moment, and the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno, who became his follower for many years as a result.  Crates had been the student of Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism.  Diogenes in turn was allegedly inspired by one of Socrates’ closest and most highly-regarded followers, Antisthenes.  (Although modern scholars doubt Diogenes could have actually met Antisthenes, it’s quite possible he encountered his writings and perhaps even some of his followers.)

Hence, in the ancient world, authors such as Diogenes Laertius, claimed that the Stoic school founded by Zeno descended directly from Socrates via Antisthenes, and the Cynics Diogenes and Crates.  This is sometimes called the “Cynic-Stoic succession” theory.  Antisthenes was sometimes even referred to as the founder of Cynicism in the ancient world – he was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon (“Absolute Dog”) and taught at the Cynosarges (“White Dog”) gymnasium.

We’re also told that Zeno studied in the Platonic Academy, under the famous scholarchs Xenocrates and Polemo.  The Cynics did not teach Physics or Logic and it seems that Zeno felt this was a serious omission, which he could rectify by attending other more “academic” philosophical lectures.  Nevertheless, we also know that Zeno attacked Plato’s philosophy, particularly in his Republic, a critique of Plato’s book of the same name.

We also know, however, that Zeno studied under philosophers of another Socratic sect: the Megarians and the associated Dialecticians.  The Megarian school specialised in logic and was founded by Euclid of Megara, another one of Socrates’ circle.  The head of the Megarian school in Zeno’s day, Stilpo, was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his time.  We find references to him and to Megarian Logic scattered throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  Zeno also appears to have studied with another famous Megarian called Diodorus Cronus.  Although the Megarians were particularly renowned for their Logic, they also had influential ethical teachings, which may have resembled those of the Cynics and other Socratic sects in holding that virtue is the only true good.

Zeno therefore studied under the main figures of all three major surviving Socratic sects of his day.  Xenophon, whose Memorabilia Zeno had read, greatly admired Antisthenes.  Like the Stoics, the Cynics believed that virtue was the only true good.  Antisthenes also appears to have believed this, and perhaps to have attributed it to Socrates.  Likewise, Xenophon appears to suggest this was Socrates’ ethical philosophy.  There are some indications that this was also the position of the Megarian school, and possibly they too derived it from Socrates.  The Stoics therefore possibly believed that the doctrine that became associated with them, that virtue is the only true good, was derived ultimately from Socrates himself, via most of his followers, with the notable exception of Plato, who portrays Socrates saying this in some of his earlier Dialogues, but equivocates elsewhere.  The Platonic Academy later became associated with the doctrine that virtue is the highest but not the only good, and that the good life is composed of virtue in combination with bodily and external goods, which was also the position of the Aristotelian school.

On some accounts, Zeno is surprisingly silent about Aristotle.  However, Plutarch claims that Zeno was heavily critical of the Peripatetic school.  Aristotle stood somewhat outside of the Socratic tradition, and Zeno apparently did not choose to study in the Lyceum.   The early Stoics generally appear relatively uninterested in Aristotle’s philosophy.

Those were the major Hellenistic influences on Stoicism.  However, there are also many references to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Pythagoreanism in the surviving Stoic literature, particularly to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras.  We know that Zeno wrote a book on Pythagoreanism.  So he may have studied Pythagorean writings when developing his conception of the Stoic philosophy.

It’s also generally believed that the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was important to Stoicism.  There’s no evidence Zeno studied Heraclitus.  However, Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book on Heraclitus.  For all we know, though, Zeno may have also referred to Heraclitus in his own writings on Physics and that may be why Cleanthes chose to write about him.

These philosophies all influenced the development of Zeno’s original Stoic school, and they continue to be influential among Stoics right down to the Roman Imperial age.  That’s probably because references to these different schools of philosophy were interspersed in the canonical Stoic writings, which subsequent generations of Stoics continued to read.  As far as we’re aware, among other topics, Zeno wrote books on Plato (The Republic), Pythagoras (Pythagorean Questions), and Memorabilia of Crates the Cynic.  He also wrote books on Homer and other poets.

These different philosophical and literary traditions influenced Stoicism in many ways.  However, the Stoic curriculum combined the scholarly study of Physics, Ethics and Logic, probably influenced by the scope of the Platonic Academy.  It’s sometimes said, crudely, that the Stoics derived their Ethics from the Cynics, their Logic from the Megarians, and their Physics from Heraclitus.  They also appear to have been particularly known for taking the Cynic ethical doctrine that virtue is the only true good (perhaps shared with Antisthenes, Xenophon, and the Megarians) and reconciling it with the Platonic (and Aristotelian) doctrine that the good life consists in a combination of virtue, bodily, and external goods.  They did this by introducing the novel concept that virtue consists in making proper selections between things of secondary value (axia), known as “preferred indifferents”.

Although Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, it’s sometimes held that the third head of the Stoa, Chrysippus, was in fact the most influential Stoic scholarch.  He was by far the most prolific of the school’s founders, writing over 700 texts.  Chrysippus modified the earlier doctrines of Zeno and Cleanthes significantly.  It was traditionally claimed that he did so in order to defend them against an onslaught of criticism from the rival Epicurean and Academic schools, particularly from the Academic Skepticism of Arcesilaus, which was just being developed, prior to Arcesilaus being appointed head of the Academy.

Socrates the Soldier

Some notes on Socrates’ military service, and how it’s described in the surviving sources.

Or how will you still be able to say as Socrates did, If so it pleases God, so let it be? Do you think that Socrates if he had been eager to pass his leisure in the Lyceum or in the Academy and to discourse daily with the young men, would have readily served in military expeditions so often as he did; and would he not have lamented and groaned, Wretch that I am; I must now be miserable here, when I might be sunning myself in the Lyceum? (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4)

Athenian hoplitesMost people think of Socrates (470-399 BC) as a balding, pot bellied, old philosopher, with a beard.  People are often surprised to learn that Socrates was, in fact, also a decorated military hero, renowned among other army veterans for his courage on the battlefield, and for his extraordinary endurance and self-discipline.  Some scholars believe that it was actually Socrates’ heroism at the Battle of Delium that catapulted him to fame in Athens.

Socrates served as an Athenian hoplite, and distinguished himself in several important battles during the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), in which Athens and its allies fought the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.  We learn about Socrates’ military service mainly from the Dialogues of Plato and in Diogenes Laertius’ chapters on Socrates and Xenophon in Lives and Opinions.  However, there are also allusions to Socrates’ conduct and character in the military to be found in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which contains many allusions to the Battle of Delium, the events of which it followed by merely a few months.  The Suda, a 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia, likewise briefly states: “he campaigned against Amphipolis and Potidaea and fought in the battle of Delium”.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates himself cites his service as a hoplite, or armored infantryman, in the Athenian army during the extended siege of Potidaea (432 BC), the Athenian assault on Delium (424 BC) and the expedition to defend the Athenian colony of Amphipolis (422 BC).  Socrates was an older soldier, aged between 38 and 48, when these particular battles took place.  During his trial he mentions in passing that just as he considered it his duty to remain where he was stationed during these three battles, despite the risk of death, he also considered it his duty, following the Delphic Oracle’s guidance, to pursue philosophy even the face of opposition, persecution, and the risk of death by execution.

In Plato’s Laches, the eponymous general is portrayed as describing an eyewitness account of Socrates’ exceptional service in the Battle of Delium.  In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades likewise describes witnessing Socrates’ courage in the battles of Potidaea and Delium.  We have a brief mention of Socrates’ service from Xenophon but also a longer portrayal of Socrates discussing military training and tactics, in a manner indicative of his past experience.  It’s clear from the surviving writings that Socrates was famous among Athenians for his military endurance, self-discipline, and courage on the battlefield.  He is also portrayed as an experienced veteran, whose opinions on military matters are valued by his younger followers.

And that you may not think that I show you the example of a man who is a solitary person, who has neither wife nor children, nor country, nor friends nor kinsmen, by whom he could be bent and drawn in various directions, take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly. (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1)

Socrates’ Military Attire

The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his staff [bakteria] to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question, “And where do men become good and honourable?” Xenophon was fairly puzzled; “Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and learn.” From that time onward he was a pupil of Socrates. (Lives and Opinions)

Diogenes Laertius suggests that Socrates, Antisthenes, and the subsequent Cynic philosophers wore a light grey cloak (tribon), made from undyed wool or linen, and carried a staff (bakteria).  These appear to the resemble the “Spartan staff and cloak”, which Plutarch describes as well-known symbols of the Spartan military.  The staff used by Socrates and the Cynics was typically called a bakteria, which is the same word used to describe the staff carried by Spartan officers, and used to beat helot slaves and discipline their subordinates.

We don’t know much about Socrates’ use of the staff.  However, it plays an important role in anecdotes about his follower Antisthenes and the Cynics.  According to legend, Antisthenes went barefoot and wore only the cloak, which he doubled over to use as a blanket in winter.  He reputedly taught this to Diogenes the Cynic (although modern scholars doubt they actually met) and it became particularly associated with the Cynic tradition.  We are repeatedly told that Socrates also went barefoot, although we don’t know if he doubled his cloak in a similar manner.

According to one story, the Cynic staff was originally used as a walking stack by Diogenes but later to defend himself against scoundrels.  We’re also told repeatedly about Antisthenes and Diogenes beating followers and onlookers with their staffs, to make a point.  Again, we don’t hear anything about Socrates behaving in this manner, although there is a curious anecdote about him meeting the Athenian general Xenophon for the first time, in which Socrates blocks Xenophon’s path by holding his bakteria across a narrow alleyway.

Socrates’ Military Endurance

Plato’s account of Socrates focuses on his reputation for exceptional endurance (karteria) in the army, as well as his bravery and self-discipline.  In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates freezes in deep meditation en route to a drinking party (the ‘symposium’ of the title).  The host, Agathon, and the other guests, are left waiting; a slave is sent and returns reporting:

“Socrates is here, but he’s gone off to the neighbour’s porch. He’s standing there and won’t come in even though I called him several times.”

Agathon gives the order, “Go back and bring him in!” but Socrates’ companion, Aristodemus, objects:

“No, no, leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands frozen, wherever he happens to be.”

Socrates eventually arrives when the meal is halfway finished, at which Agathon chides him:

“Socrates, come lie down next to me. Who knows, if I touch you, I may catch a bit of the enlightenment (sophia) that came to you under my neighbour’s porch. It’s clear you’ve seen the light. If you hadn’t you’d still be standing there!”

Toward the end of the symposium, the drunken Alcibiades arrives. He begins a speech singing the praises of his beloved mentor, describing how the middle-aged Socrates exhibited surprising sexual restraint by continually spurning his advances, even when he went so far as slipping naked into bed with him. Alcibiades was at this time a youth, famous for his beauty.

Alcibiades continues by describing various events which he observed during their military service together, in the battles of Potidaea (432 BC) and Delium (424 BC). During battle of Potidea Socrates was awarded the ‘prize of pre-eminent valour’, which he declined in preference that it should belong to Alcibiades, who later (c. 416 BC) rose to the rank of Athenian general.  (According to some accounts, though, Socrates was overlooked by the generals in favour of Alcibiades.)  This may be connected with the fact that Socrates reputedly saved the life of Alcibiades at Potidea.

Despite his age, Socrates appeared to be hardier and tougher than any other soldier. He walked barefoot on ice, and in bitter cold wore only the customary grey, light woollen cloak of the ancient philosophers. When supplies were lost he seemed impervious to hunger. He wasn’t partial to drink, but he could drink any man under the table, seemingly unaffected by alcohol. We are also told that several times when Athens was rife with plague, Socrates was the only citizen unaffected by illness.  The Athenian troops at Potidaea were also affected by a plague, which Socrates presumably avoided.  The curious incident on the way to the Symposium is portrayed as typical of Socrates and illustrative of his behaviour, particularly his endurance, during his military service.

The Battle of Potidaea (432 BC)

Greek hoplite
Do we imagine Socrates like this?

The Athenians sent a force to attack the rebellious city of Potidaea, a former tribute-paying ally.  They ended up laying siege to its defences for three years.  This was one of the events that instigated the Peloponnesian War.  We don’t know how long Socrates served in this campaign but it may have been for the duration of the siege, which lasted two or three years, ending in 430/429 BC.  The Athenians were cut off from their supplies and suffered considerable hardship as a result.  There was an outbreak of plague among them at one point, which does not seem to have affected Socrates.

Socrates was probably already becoming famous as a philosopher by this point.  He was a messmate and friend of the young Alcibiades, a ward of the great Athenian statesman and general Pericles, who would later rise to the rank of Athenian general himself.  From what we know, it appears Socrates was already viewed as a competent and courageous hoplite.  During one intense battle, the Athenian lines broke, and their troops began to scatter in retreat.  Alcibiades was wounded but Socrates single-handedly rescued him and saved his life.

Plato set The Charmides the day after Socrates returned from Potidaea where he says little about the conflict except referring to Socrates’ long absence from Athens on military service and the fact that on the journey home some of Socrates’ friends had been slain in skirmishes.  (Charmides was a mere boy when Socrates left Athens and is now a young man, implying he has been gone for several years with the army.)  Plato portrays Socrates being quizzed about the campaign by the excited Athenian youths who meet him on his return.  However, he doesn’t appear to want to say much about the war and artfully shifts the conversation instead back to philosophical inquiry.  Plato appears to assume that Socrates is well-known as a philosopher by this date and has established his trademark method of questioning.  If correct, he must already have been known as a philosopher (perhaps long) before 432 BC when he left Athens to serve in the army attacking Potidaea, aged around 38.

Of the Battle of Potidaea, Diogenes Laertius wrote,

[Socrates] served at Potidaea, where he had gone by sea, as land communications were interrupted by the war.  While there he is said to have remained a whole night without changing his position, and to have won the prize of valour. But he resigned it to Alcibiades, for whom he cherished the tenderest affection, according to Aristippus in the fourth book of his treatise On the Luxury of the Ancients.  (Diogenes Laertius)

Likewise, Plato portrays Alcibiades’ account of Socrates at the battles of Potidaea and Delium.

And in combat, if you want to hear about it – for it is just to credit him with this once when there was a battle for which the generals gave me the prize of excellence, no other human being saved me but he; for he was not willing to leave me wounded, but saved both myself and my weapons. And even then, Socrates, asked the generals to offer me the prize of excellence. And in this too you will not blame me and say that I lie; but as a matter of fact, when the generals looked to my rank and wanted to offer me the prize of excellence, you [Socrates] proved more eager than the generals that I take it rather than yourself. (Symposium)

Alcibiades goes on to describe how, during the Potidaea campaign, Socrates would enter meditative trances to the amazement of his fellow soldiers.  He begins by using a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, comparing Socrates to the Ithacan king, adventurer, and general Odysseus.

“So much for that! But you should hear what else he did during that same campaign, ‘The exploit our strong-hearted hero dared to do.’ One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood in the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the Sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.” (Symposium)

The Battle of Delium (424 BC)

Five years after the siege of Potidaea ended, Delium was the first full-scale hoplite battle of the whole Peloponnesian War, and it has also been called the bloodiest.  The Athenian army fortified the sanctuary of Apollo Delium with a wooden palisade, in an attempt to create a stronghold in the heart Boeotia, which was hostile territory close to Athens.  (This was presumably a sacrilegious act.)  Before long, a superior Theban force attacked and the Athenians were somehow thrown into disarray, at one point attacking and killing dozens of their own men by mistake.  They were forced to make a chaotic retreat, abandoning the small garrison trapped inside the sanctuary walls.  The men left in the building were then attacked by the Theban army using some novel “flame-blowing” siege engine, which burned their fortifications to the ground, scattering the garrison within.  Some of the Athenians who had been left behind were apparently burned alive inside the sanctuary.  According to Thucydides, nearly 500 Boeotians fell and nearly 1,000 Athenians were killed, including their general.  This was a humiliating and troublesome military disaster for the Athenians and it occurred close to their own borders.

Plato portrays the Athenian general Laches, in the dialogue of the same name, commending Socrates for his bravery as follows:

[…] I have seen him maintaining, not only his father’s, but also his country’s name. He was my companion in the retreat from Delium, and I can tell you that if others had only been like him, the honour of our country would have been upheld, and the great defeat would never have occurred. (Laches)

Laches later says to Socrates that although he has never heard him discuss philosophy he would be delighted to be questioned by him about virtue:

So high is the opinion which I have entertained of you ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger, and gave a proof of your valour such as only the man of merit can give. (Laches)

Plato puts the following words in the mouth of Alcibiades:

Furthermore, men, it was worthwhile to behold Socrates when the army retreated in flight from Delium; for I happened to be there on horseback and he was a hoplite. The soldiers were then in rout, and while he and Laches were retreating together, I came upon them by chance. And as soon as I saw them, I at once urged the two of them to take heart, and I said I would not leave them behind.

I had an even finer opportunity to observe Socrates there than I had had at Potidaea, for I was less in fear because I was on horseback. First of all, how much more sensible he was than Laches; and secondly, it was my opinion, Aristophanes (and this point is yours); that walking there just as he does here in Athens, ‘stalking like a pelican, his eyes darting from side to side,’ quietly on the lookout for friends and foes, he made it plain to everyone even at a great distance that if one touches this real man, he will defend himself vigorously. Consequently, he went away safely, both he and his comrade; for when you behave in war as he did, then they just about do not even touch you; instead they pursue those who turn in headlong flight. (Symposium)

Of Delium, Diogenes Laertius wrote,

[…] and when in the battle of Delium Xenophon had fallen from his horse, he [Socrates] stepped in and saved his life.  For in the general flight of the Athenians he personally retired at his ease, quietly turning round from time to time and ready to defend himself in case he were attacked. (Lives and Opinions)

This is either a mistake or he’s referring to another Xenophon because Socrates’ follower of that name would only have been eight years old at the time.  Alternatively, if Diogenes or a copyist simply has the name wrong, he could perhaps be thinking either of the time Socrates saved Alcibiades, although that was probably at Potidaea, or possibly of Socrates’ defence of the Athenian general Laches at Delium, if he had been unhorsed.

The Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC)

Socrates was a military veteran, approximately 48 years old, with a well-known reputation for his exceptional endurance and courage when the battle of Amphipolis took place.  As far as we know, this was his last battle.  Diogenes Laertius sounds impressed that he was hardy enough to take to the field once again as a hoplite, despite his age.

He took care to exercise his body and kept in good condition. At all events he served on the expedition to Amphipolis.  (Lives and Opinions)

Two years after the Battle of Delium, the Athenians undertook a military expedition to recapture the town of Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in Thrace that had been taken by the Spartans shortly after the Athenian defeat at Delium.  However, the campaign failed.

Among the generals at this battle was Thucydides, the famous Greek historian.  He was responsible for shipping in reinforcements for the Athenians but failed to get them on the field in time to make a difference.  The Athenians therefore tried Thucydides for incompetence and exiled him for twenty years as punishment.  However, we know nothing more about Socrates’ role in the battle.

Xenophon’s Account

Xenophon was himself a young soldier, who later rose to the rank of general.  It’s surprising perhaps that he does not say more about Socrates’ military service.

Again, concerning Justice he did not hide his opinion, but proclaimed it by his actions. All his private conduct was lawful and helpful: to public authority he rendered such scrupulous obedience in all that the laws required, both in civil life and in military service, that he was a pattern of good discipline to all. (Memorabilia, 4.4.1)

In the Memorabilia, Xenophon portrays Socrates saying,

Which will find soldiering the easier task, he who cannot exist without expensive food or he who is content with what he can get? Which when besieged will surrender first, he who wants what is very hard to come by or he who can make shift with whatever is at hand? (Memorabilia, 1.6.9)

Then in his Apology, Xenophon refers to the siege of Athens during the last year of the Peloponnesian War.

Or for this, that during the siege, while others were commiserating their lot, I got along without feeling the pinch of poverty any worse than when the city’s prosperity was at its height? Or for this, that while other men get their delicacies in the markets and pay a high price for them, I devise more pleasurable ones from the resources of my soul, with no expenditure of money? And now, if no one can convict me of misstatement in all that I have said of myself, do I not unquestionably merit praise from both gods and men? (Apology, 1.18)


Antisthenes and Stoicism

Short article summarising some things we know about the life and thought of the philosopher Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ closest companions and an important precursor of Stoicism.

AntisthenesSome ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, claim that the Stoic school descended from Socrates in the following succession: Socrates taught Antisthenes, who inspired Diogenes the Cynic, who taught Crates of Thebes, the mentor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.  This is called the Cynic-Stoic succession.

See my earlier article for a description of the passages in Xenophon’s Symposium depicting Antisthenes’ character and his philosophy.

Aside from Xenophon, one of our best accounts of Antisthenes comes from the chapter about him in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which this article explores in detail.

Antisthenes’ Life

We’re told Antisthenes (445 – 356 BC) was an Athenian, although he was not of pure Attic blood.  He distinguished himself, as a young man, at the second battle of Tanagra, during the Peloponnesian War, and was praised by Socrates for his bravery in battle.  Whereas other Athenians sneered at the fact his mother was a barbarian, from Thrace, Socrates defended him and appears to have thought very highly of him.

At first he was a student of the Sophist Gorgias, from whom he learned an elegant rhetorical style.  He became a teacher and gathered a following of students at an early age.  Later he became one of the most prominent followers of Socrates, whom he actually told his students to attach themselves to instead.  He was also highly-regarded by the Athenian general Xenophon, another close friend of Socrates.  Xenophon was about fifteen years his junior so it’s possible they may have fought together in some of the same battles.  Socrates himself was a decorated war hero.  So perhaps these three men may have bonded over their common debt to the military way of life.

Antisthenes was about twenty-five years younger than Socrates.  He and Xenophon undoubtedly both looked up to Socrates as an older veteran, renowned for his courage in battle.  Diogenes Laertius says that the most distinguished of the followers of Socrates were Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato.  Plato was about the same age as Xenophon.  Of the three, only Antisthenes seems to have been present at Socrates’ trial and execution; Plato was absent due to illness and Xenophon was on a military service.  Antisthenes is also said to have sought justice against the men who brought Socrates to trial on false charges.

Antisthenes is held responsible for the exile of Anytus and the execution of Meletus.  For he fell in with some youths from Pontus whom the fame of Socrates had brought to Athens, and he led them off to Anytus, whom he ironically declared to be wiser than Socrates; whereupon (it is said) those about him with much indignation drove Anytus out of the city.  (Diogenes Laertius)

According to legend, Antisthenes and Plato did not get along and often criticized each other’s philosophies.  Xenophon likewise was said to have become estranged from Plato.  Antisthenes taunted him for being arrogant, comparing him to a proud, showy horse.  It’s sometimes thought that Xenophon’s account of Socrates was more faithful, whereas Plato embellished his Socratic dialogues with his own ideas and notions derived from Pythagoreanism.

They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!”  For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.

In addition to being a soldier it’s implied by Diogenes Laertius that Antisthenes wrestled.  He was a famously tough and self-disciplined character.  For example, he would walk barefoot over five miles every day to Athens and back again, from his home in the port city of Peiraeus, just to hear Socrates speak.  (That would be a round trip of about three or four hours each day.)

Socrates did gently mock Antisthenes for a kind of inverse snobbery: taking too much pride in his own austerity.  According to Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Socrates, when Antisthenes turned his cloak so that the tear in it became visible, Socrates said “I see your vanity through the tear in your cloak.”

It seems to be implied that after the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes was sought out by young men who wanted to learn philosophy from him, one of the most highly-regarded of the Socratic inner circle.  However, he repelled students forcefully unless they were extremely persistent.  He only accepted a handful.

To the question why he had but few disciples he replied, “Because I use a silver rod to eject them.” When he was asked why he was so bitter in reproving his pupils he replied, “Physicians are just the same with their patients.” (Diogenes Laertius)

He’s sometimes described as carrying a bakteria, the wooden rod or narrow staff used by Spartan officers to beat helot slaves and discipline subordinates.

The Cynics

One day an Athenian man was making a sacrifice to the gods when a small white dog dashed up and snatched away his offering. He chased the dog and it finally dropped the meat at a spot just outside the city gates of Athens. The man was alarmed but received an Oracle telling him to set up a temple to the god Hercules in the precise location where the dog had dropped the offering. He did so and the area, dedicated to Hercules, became known as the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”. Later a gymnasium was built there and that was where Antisthenes would teach philosophy. He too was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon, the “Absolute Dog”, and some ancient sources claim that he was ultimately the founder of the Cynic (“Dog”) tradition, made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Antisthenes wrote at least three books about Hercules, and it’s tempting to see his fascination with the figure of Hercules as inspired by the history of the area in which he taught.

Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, considered Antisthenes actually to be the founder of the Cynic tradition.  Some even claimed that he taught Diogenes.  However, most modern scholars believe that it’s impossible they could have met.  Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Diogenes would have heard of Antisthenes and would have been exposed to his philosophy.  So it’s possible that he was the main precursor of the Cynic tradition and that his lifestyle and his writings, well-known at the time, influenced Diogenes the Cynic.   Diogenes Laertius, for example, says:

From Socrates he learned patient endurance, emulating his attitude of  indifference [apatheia], and so became the founder of the Cynic way of life. He demonstrated that pain is a good thing by instancing the great Heracles and Cyrus, drawing the one example from the Greek world and the other from the barbarians.

Diogenes Laertius portrays Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics as sharing much in common.  In addition to sharing the attitude of philosophical apatheia (indifference, or detachment) they also agreed that the fundamental goal of life was virtue:

They [the Cynics] hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the Goal to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Heracles: exactly like the Stoics. For indeed there is a certain close relationship between the two schools. Hence it has been said that Cynicism is a shortcut to virtue ; and after the same pattern did Zeno of Citium live his life.

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.

They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Heracles, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.

Antisthenes made several witty and curt remarks, which could be interpreted as exhibiting as a form of the famous Cynic parrhesia, or frankness of speech.

When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”

He walked barefoot and dressed in a single cloak, like the Cynics after him.  Although, as we’ve seen, it’s unlikely to be true that they actually met, according to one legend, when Diogenes asked Antisthenes for a coat to keep out the cold, he taught him to fold his cloak around him double, so that he would only need one garment for both winter and summer.

However, we also have the following anecdotes in Dio Chrysotom:

It was not long before [Diogenes] despised [all the philosophers at Athens] save Antisthenes, whom he cultivated, not so much from approval of the man himself as of the words he spoke, which he felt to be alone true and best adapted to help mankind. For when he contrasted the man Antisthenes with his words, he sometimes made this criticism, that the man himself was much weaker; and so in reproach he would call him a trumpet because he could not hear his own self, no matter how much noise he made. Antisthenes tolerated this banter of his since he greatly admired the man’s character; and so, in requital for being called a trumpet, he used to say that Diogenes was like the wasps, the buzz of whose wings is slight but the sting very sharp. (On Virtue)


Diogenes Laertius wrote “Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad”.  Indeed, he seems to have been well-known for teaching that pleasure was bad.  He famously said “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”.  The Stoics differed from this in teaching that both pleasure and pain were merely indifferent, neither good nor bad.  He also advocated a simple life.  By seeking things that are easy to obtain we’re more likely to achieve contentment.  He jokingly said, “We ought to make love to such women as will feel a proper gratitude”.

He practised indifference to the opinion of others.  When told that Plato was criticizing him, he replied “It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of”.  Marcus Aurelius quotes this saying in The Meditations (7.36).  He advised that when men are slandered, they should endure it more courageously than if they were pelted with stones.  (Which will perhaps remind us of the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”)  Likewise, that “it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.”  When someone said to him “Many men praise you”, he replied, “Why, what have I done wrong?” (He made a similar quip when praised by some men he considered scoundrels.)  This appears to be an allusion to a theme in Socratic philosophy that says that praise is worthless, and maybe even pernicious, unless it comes from the wise and virtuous.

Diogenes Laertius summarized the main arguments of his philosophy as follows:

  • That virtue can be taught.
  • That only the virtuous are noble.
  • That virtue by itself is sufficient for happiness, since it needed nothing else except “the strength of a Socrates.”
  • That virtue is about action and does not require much eloquence or learning.
  • That the wise man is self-sufficient, for all the goods of others are his.
  • That, paradoxically, ill-repute and pain are good things because they provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our wisdom and virtue.
  • That the wise man is not guided by the established laws in his social conduct but by the law of virtue.
  • That the wise will marry in order to have children with suitable women.
  • That the wise man will not disdain to love, for only he knows who are worthy to be loved.

If this is accurate, it does seem virtually identical to the Cynic philosophy, at least in terms of these key points.  It’s also very similar to Stoicism, except that Antisthenes and the Cynics view pain, hardship and disrepute as good things, insofar as they provide us with opportunities to learn virtue, like the Labours of Hercules.  By contrast, the Stoics view these things as indifferent with regard to virtue, and not necessarily to be actively sought out in life.

Antisthenes said that “virtue is the same for women as for men.”  This was the title of a book by the Stoic Cleanthes and based on two lectures that survive by the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the idea that women are as capable of learning philosophy as men was a long-standing feature of Stoicism, perhaps ultimately derived from Antisthenes.


Antisthenes was a very prolific writer.  In fact some critics attacked him for writing too much about trifling things.  His earlier training under the Sophist Gorgias seems to have taught him an elegant rhetorical style.  However, one gets the impression his arguments were considered less learned and sophisticated than Plato’s.  Diogenes Laertius says that in his day the collected writings of Antisthenes were preserved in ten volumes, each containing several texts.  In total, he names the titles of over sixty individual texts attributed to Antisthenes.

These include dialogue, speeches, and other texts.  The topics include rhetoric, the interpretation of poets, natural philosophy, law and economics, love and marriage, music, debate, education, knowledge, and also the virtues of courage and justice, and the nature of the good.  Notably, perhaps, he wrote at least four books on Cyrus, three on Hercules, two on death or dying, and about eight on The Odyssey or characters probably derived from it (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Circe and the Cyclops) so these were perhaps some of his favourite themes.  Two books entitled The Greater Heracles, or Of Strength, and Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength, may possibly have elaborated on what he meant by “Socratic strength”.

He also wrote about, or in response to, several historical and mythological figures: Cyrus, Aspasia, Satho, Theognis, Homer, Helen, Ajax, Calchas, Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Circe, the Cyclops, Hercules, Proteus, Amphiaraus, Archelaus, Midas, Orestes, Lysias, Isocrates, and the Sophists in general.  He also wrote books on Menexenus, one of Socrates’ sons, and Alcibiades, his lover.  One would presume he wrote about Socrates as well, although what and how much is unclear.  His writings were popular and probably had an influence on generations of philosophers, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.