What Seneca Really Said about Epicureanism

Survey of Seneca’s remarks about Epicurus in the Letters to Lucilius, and elsewhere.

EpicurusPeople often notice that, despite being a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus favourably at the start of the Letters to Lucilius.  That’s hard to miss.  He mentions him in about the first thirty letters, and periodically thereafter.  Seneca also refers to Epicurus and Epicureanism, albeit sometimes more indirectly, throughout his other writings.

From that evidence people occasionally leap to the conclusion that Seneca was espousing a hybrid of Epicureanism and Stoicism, or at least that he had assimilated significant Epicurean ideas into his version of Stoicism.  This would be surprising, of course, because the Stoics were generally known for their ardent criticism of Epicureanism.  They traditionally saw it as fundamentally opposed not only to their own philosophy but to most schools of Hellenistic philosophy derived from Socratic ethics.  The Discourses of Epictetus, for example, contain very blunt and hostile criticism of Epicureanism.  The same criticisms are made by Seneca, typically with greater diplomacy but, as we’ll see he was also sometimes extremely hostile toward Epicureanism.  These appear to be well-established Stoic lines of argument, that probably derive from much earlier sources.  The main bone of contention was that most schools of philosophy viewed the doctrine that virtue is an end-in-itself (“virtue is its own reward”) as fundamental.  The Epicureans were one of the few schools to reject this view, and to propose instead that virtue in itself is of merely instrumental value, as a means to attaining pleasure (hedone) or tranquility (ataraxia).

At the beginning of the Letters to Lucilius, Seneca actually seems quite positive about Epicureanism.  Although, as we’ll see, his compliments are carefully qualified.  As he proceeds, in the later letters, he begins to intersperse more serious criticisms.  Likewise, elsewhere in his writings, such as On Benefits, Seneca is scathingly critical of Epicurean ethics.  One interpretation that scholars have offered is that Seneca wrote the Letters to Lucilius precisely in order to persuade Epicureans to “convert” to the Stoic philosophy.  He goes out of his way here to open with references to Epicurus and to emphasise areas of apparent common ground, leaving his criticisms until later.

He sometimes praises Epicurus’ character, while nevertheless attacking his philosophy.  Indeed, it was a common strategy among other Hellenistic authors to argue that certain philosophers are more praiseworthy than their teachings, i.e., that their own character and way of life was inconsistent with their philosophy.  Even within the Letters to Lucilius, therefore, Seneca makes it clear right from the outset that Epicureanism is to be viewed as the enemy camp:

The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp – not as a deserter but as a scout. (Letters, 2)

Note that here as elsewhere, such as in On Leisure, Seneca stresses that he is merely scouting out Epicureanism and not deserting Stoicism, in any sense.  He later explains,

It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’ noble words instead of words taken from our own school.  But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? (Letters, 8)

He says several times that the quotes he draws from Epicurus typically articulate very commonplace ideas found in the writings of many earlier philosophers, poets, and playwrights.  There are many ideas expressed by the Stoic school which we should not be surprised to find echoed elsewhere.  However, that does not mean that the Stoics or Seneca agree with everything, or even the main things, said by these other authors.  Indeed, Seneca is implicitly criticising Epicurus by pointing out that what is good in Epicureanism is not unique, and what is unique in it is not good.

By the ninth letter, Seneca is openly criticising Epicureanism, however.  He rejects the Epicurean doctrine that the wise man needs friends to achieve the goal of living a truly pleasant life, free from fear and pain.  The Stoic position is that the wise man is self-sufficient but that he prefers to have friends, fate permitting.  Seneca quotes a letter of Epicurus as saying that the wise man needs friends for the reason:

That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want.

Seneca, like other Stoics, criticises Epicurus for teaching his followers to develop what we call today “fairweather friendships”.  Friends are valued by the Epicureans only as a means to the end of protecting their own peace of mind, comfort, and tranquillity.  This is something Seneca, like other Stoics, sees as morally reprehensible.  Seneca writes:

He who regards himself only [i.e., his own self-interest], and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly.  The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chains such a friend will desert him.  These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. […] He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.  (Letter, 8)

The Stoics believe that genuine friendship is based on love of another person’s character, because they are good (virtuous), and share our values, not merely because having them as our friend is expedient.  (What happens when their company ceases to be calming?  Do we ditch them?)

In Letter thirteen, Seneca opens by praising the philosophy of Epicurus:

I myself believe, though my Stoic comrades would be unwilling to hear me say so, that the teaching of Epicurus was upright and holy, and even, if you examine it narrowly, stern: for this much talked of pleasure is reduced to a very narrow compass, and he bids pleasure submit to the same law which we bid virtue do – I mean, to obey nature. (Letters, 13)

However, he immediately qualifies this by saying that Epicureanism lends itself to abuse and misinterpretation by contemporary adherents looking for an excuse to justify their own bad habits

Luxury, however, is not satisfied with what is enough for nature.  What is the consequence?  Whoever thinks that happiness consists in lazy sloth, and alternations of gluttony and profligacy, requires a good patron for a bad action, and when he has become an Epicurean, having been led to do so by the attractive name of that school, he follows, not the pleasure which he there hears spoken of, but that which he brought thither with him, and, having learned to think that his vices coincide with the maxims of that philosophy, he indulged in them no longer timidly and in dark corners, but boldly in the face of day.  I will not, therefore, like most of our school, say that the sect of Epicurus is the teacher of crime, but what I say is: it is ill spoken of, it has a bad reputation, and yet it does not deserve it.

Once again, Seneca begins by apparently praising the virtue of the Epicurean school, and defending it against critics, but then subtly shifts toward criticism as the letter proceeds.  He does this by blaming Epicurus himself for fostering this popular misinterpretation of his philosophy.  He portrays the Epicurean schools as a brave man dressed in effeminate clothing, noisily banging a drum to draw attention.  Apparently in reference to the motto above the door to the Garden (“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”) Seneca writes:

Choose, then, some honorable superscription for your school, some writing which shall in itself arouse the mind: that which at present stands over your door has been invented by the vices.

Clearly, this no longer sounds like praise of Epicureanism, the tone has shifted dramatically toward criticism.  He immediately proceeds to argue that making pleasure the supreme goal of life, as Epicurus did, is problematic unless it is subordinated to reason.

He who ranges himself on the side of virtue [i.e., the Stoics] gives thereby a proof of a noble disposition: he who follows pleasure [i.e., the Epicureans] appears to be weakly, worn out, degrading his manhood, likely to fall into infamous vices unless someone discriminates his pleasures for him, so that he may know which remain within the bounds of natural desire, which are frantic and boundless, and become all the more insatiable the more they are satisfied.  But come!

However, whereas Stoics make reason (wisdom) the supreme goal and subordinate pleasure to it, the Epicureans inverted this and made reason or virtue of merely instrumental or subordinate value to their goal of pleasure (or absence of pain, ataraxia).

Let virtue lead the way: then every step will be safe.  Too much pleasure is hurtful: but with virtue we need fear no excess of any kind, because moderation is contained in virtue herself.  That which is injured by its own extent cannot be a good thing: besides what better guide can there be than reason [as opposed to pleasure] for beings endowed with a reasoning nature?  So if this combination pleases you, if you are willing to proceed to a happy life thus accompanied, let virtue lead the way, let pleasure follow and hang about the body like a shadow: it is the part of a mind incapable of great things to hand over virtue, the highest of all qualities, as a handmaid to pleasure.

So from fulsome praise of Epicurus, Seneca has very rapidly proceeded into scathing criticism, and ends up apparently selling the advantages of Stoicism over Epicureanism as a  guide to the best way of life.

In letter thirty-three, Seneca, as he has done several times already, stresses that Epicurus’ valuable sayings are common to poetry, plays, and philosophy in general.

Poetry is crammed with utterances of this sort, and so is history.  For this reason I would not have you think that these utterances belong to Epicurus.  They are common property and are emphatically our won.  They are, however, more noteworthy in Epicurus, because they appear at infrequent intervals and when you do not expect them, and because it is surprising that brave words should be spoken at any time by a man who made a practice of being effeminate.  For that is what most persons maintain.  In my opinion, Epicurus is really a brave man, even though he did wear long sleeves.  (Letters, 33)

Again, Epicurus’ character is praised, although his philosophy is being criticised.  This may have generally been considered courteous, although it also serves as a rhetorical strategy for softening the blow of criticisms made against Epicureanism.

For example, Seneca elsewhere rejects as absurd, in two letters, the teaching of Epicurus that the wise man even experiences pleasure while being tortured.  In letter sixty-six, his theme is to show that virtue, the supreme good, can flourish even in a frail, sickly, ugly, or impoverished body.  He opens by declaring the Stoic doctrine that virtue needs nothing else to set it off – it lacks no extrinsic goods, in other words.  Seneca compares this to what Epicurus said:

Epicurus also maintains that the wise man, though he is being burned in the bull of Phalaris, will cry out: “Tis pleasant, and concerns me not at all!”  (Letters, 66)

Here as elsewhere, Seneca notes that it is hard to believe, or implausible, that the Epicurean wise man finds it “pleasant to be roasted in this way”.

We find mentioned in the works of Epicurus two goods, of which his Supreme Good, or blessedness, is composed, namely, a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.  These goods, if they are complete, do not increase; for how can that which is complete increase?  The body is, let us suppose, free from pain; what increase can there be to this absence of pain?  The soul is composed and calm; what increase can there be to this tranquillity?  […] Whatever delights fall to his lot over and above these two things do not increase his Supreme Good; they merely season it, so to speak, and add spice to it.  For the absolute good of man’s nature is satisfied with peace in the body and peace in the soul.

Seneca goes on to say that Epicurus’ writings contain “a graded list of goods just like that of our own [Stoic] school”, by which he presumably means the Stoic list of virtues and also the hierarchy of things considered to be of secondary value (axia), which are not “good” in the strict sense.  (The Stoics sometimes use the word “good” loosely to describe “indifferent” things, which are merely “preferred”.)

For there are some things, he declares, which he prefers should fall to his lot, such as bodily rest free from all inconvenience, and relaxation of the soul as it takes delight in the contemplation of its own goods.  And there are other things which, though he would prefer that they did not happen, he nevertheless praises and approves, for example, the kind of resignation, in times of ill-health and serious suffering, to which I alluded a moment ago, and which Epicurus displayed on the last and most blessed day of his life.  For he tells uss that he had to endure excruciating agony from a diseased bladder and from an ulcerated stomach, so acute that it permitted no increase of pain;” and yet, “he says, “that day was none the less happy.”

Seneca appears to be alluding to the Epicurean definition of the Supreme Good, mentioned earlier by him, and defined as “a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.”  However, the “resignation, in times of ill-health” he mentions is the virtue of fortitude or endurance, which Epicurus reputedly valued only as a means to the end of maintaining pleasure and tranquillity.

Seneca began this letter by praising goods such as rational pleasure and tranquillity in agreement with Epicurus, he then argued at length contrary to Epicurus that virtue must be equal to other goods.  Now, however, he qualifies that position by concluding that reason or virtue maintained in the face of adversity is obviously more praiseworthy and admirable than the peaceful tranquillity of someone living a pleasant and contented life.

Allow me, excellent Lucilius, to utter a still bolder word: if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater.

He suggests that though all uses of reason and virtue are equal, greater “I should bestow greater praise on those goods that have stood trial and show courage, and have fought it out with fortune.”  He follows this with the celebrated example of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who burned his own hand to defy the Romans’ enemies.

Why should I not reckon this good among the primary goods, and deem it in so far greater than those other goods which are unattended by danger and have made no trial of fortune, as it is a rare thing to have overcome a foe with a hand lost than with a hand armed?

He even goes so far as now to say that he should desire adversity himself, as an opportunity to exercise virtue.  Somehow, what started off as praise of Epicureanism, by the end of the letter, has turned into a very different stance, where Mucius is held up as a Stoic exemplar that seems obviously at odds with the Epicurean ideal.  Once again, Epicurus is praised for his personal virtue of endurance in the face of physical pain, which is presented as being at odds with his own teaching that virtue is of merely instrumental value and the absence of physical pain is part of the Supreme Good.

In letter ninety-eight, Seneca criticises Epicurus more openly, although pairing that with a (fairly commonplace, once again) point of agreement:

Let us disagree with Epicurus on the one point, when he declares that there is no natural justice, and that crime should be avoided because one cannot escape the fear which results therefrom; let us agree with him on the other – that bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, and that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drive and whips it on, and it cannot rely upon the guarantors of its own peace of mind. (Letters, 88)

The Stoics were appalled by the Epicurean doctrine that the main reason to avoid committing a crime or injustice is basically fear of being caught.  They typically point out that in many situations there is absolutely no risk of being found out, so Epicureanism provides no rationale for acting in the manner we’d normally consider ethical.  They agree that vice tends to lead to inner turmoil, but for the Stoics a good man refrains from immoral deeds because they are immoral, not just because they cause him anxiety.

In his other writings, Seneca is more openly critical of the Epicureans.  For example, Book IV of On Benefits, deals with the Socratic and Stoic contention that virtue is its own reward.  Seneca contrasts this with the Epicurean doctrine that virtue is merely of instrumental value, as a means of procuring pleasure or the absence of suffering (ataraxia):

In this part of the subject we oppose the Epicureans, an effeminate and dreamy sect who philosophise in their own paradise, amongst whom virtue is the handmaid of pleasures, obeys them, is subject to them, and regards them as superior to itself.  You say, “there is no pleasure without virtue.”  But wherefore is it superior to virtue?  Do you imagine that the matter in dispute between them is merely one of precedence?  Nay, it is virtue itself and its powers which are in question.  It cannot be virtue if it can follow; the place of virtue is first, she ought to lead, to command, to stand in the highest rank; you bid her look for a cue to follow.

This is really the fundamental Stoic criticism of Epicureanism.  It constitutes a complete difference of opinion of their respective definitions of the supreme goal of life.  Seneca continues:

“What,” asks our [Epicurean] opponent, “does that matter to you?  I also declare that happiness is impossible without virtue.  Without virtue I disapprove of and condemn the very pleasures which I pursue, and to which I have surrendered myself.  The only matter in dispute is this, whether virtue be the cause of the highest good, or whether it be itself the highest good.”  Do you suppose, though this be the only point in question, that it is a mere matter of precedence?  It is a confusion and obvious blindness to prefer the last to the first.  I am not angry at virtue being placed below pleasure, but at her being mixed up at all with pleasure, which she despises, whose enemy she is, and from which she separates herself as far as possible, being more at home with labour and sorrow, which are manly troubles, than with your womanish good things.

Compare this to Seneca’s slightly more opaque version of essentially the same argument, in Letter 66 above.  He continues to criticise his Epicurean “opponents” throughout On Benefits.  For example, later in Book IV, he presents criticisms of Epicurus’ negatively-defined goal of life, absence of suffering, as being akin to sleep (or death), which were first made many centuries earlier by the Cyrenaic school:

You Epicureans take pleasure in making a study of dull torpidity, in seeking for a repose which differs little from sound sleep, in lurking beneath the thickest shade, in amusing with the feeblest possible trains of thought that sluggish condition of your languid minds which you term tranquil contemplation, and in stuffing with food and drink, in the recesses of your gardens, your bodies which are pallid with want of exercise; we Stoics, on the other hand, take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labour, provided that they lighten the labours of others; though they lead us into danger, provided that they save others, though they straiten our means, if they alleviate the poverty and distresses of others. (On Benefits, 4.13)

Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Review of The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday (2014).

The Obstacle is the WayThe Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) by Ryan Holiday is a book about overcoming apparent setbacks and by turning them to our advantage.  It’s not exactly a book about Stoicism but it does contain a great many references to Stoicism, which reinforce the central message that every adversity is potentially an opportunity.

Ryan was the keynote speaker at the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York, where he talked about the profound influence that reading the Stoics had on his life.  The book he subsequently co-authored with Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, focuses exclusively on Stoic wisdom, presenting quotations from the classics for each day of the year.

Indeed, the title of The Obstacle is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads:

The impediment to action advances action.  What stands in the way becomes the way.

This is a quote from the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations 5.20, which Marcus begins by reminding himself that in one respect other people are of concern to us and that we have a duty to help them, alluding to the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, or identifying with the welfare of others.  In another respect, though, he says other people are as indifferent to us as sun or wind, or wild animals, being external to our own mind and volition.  We shouldn’t place too much importance on what they think of us, as long as we’re aiming to do what’s right and acting wisely.

Ryan’s book contains a plethora of anecdotes about historical figures who have persevered in the face of social and material obstacles, under conditions that would make many people abandon hope.  In that respect, it stands in a venerable tradition of self-help books, one that goes back indeed to the Victorian classic Self-Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles.  It also harks back, as Ryan notes, to Plutarch’s Lives, the express purpose of which was to be simultaneously both an ethical and historical treatise by focusing on what can be learned from the characters and virtues of numerous great men.

There’s plenty of good advice in The Obstacle is the Way; it’s an interesting and entertaining read.  It will perhaps also inspire many people to study Stoicism in more depth and also to explore the range of psychological skills and strategies used by the Stoics to overcome such obstacles, and maintain their equanimity in the face of adversity.  That’s something I’ve written about but unfortunately I still don’t think there’s a really good popular introduction that covers the range of Stoic doctrines and practices.

I was pleased that the book made me realise the beautiful simplicity and appeal of the story of Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator.  I told my five-year old daughter this tale after reading about him in the book, and she made me tell it to her again and again, two or three times the same day.  There were many stories from American political history that I wasn’t very familiar with, which were also fascinating to read.

The most important thing about the book, though, is its message that a formula for turning obstacles into opportunities can be learned from the examples of these great (and in some cases not so great) men and women.  From Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommell, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.  Most of these individuals had their strengths and weaknesses, of course.  (As a Scot, my flesh crawls at the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s name, and Steve Jobs was a notorious bully who exploited his own friends and workers in ways that many people would balk at as unethical.)  However, what Ryan’s doing is trying to model specific examples of resilient behaviour and attitudes from these recognisable figures, not their whole lives and characters, which are inevitably a mixed bag.

That’s something I think he’s achieved admirably and I’m very pleased the book has already become so successful.  Every day, it seems to bring more people into the Stoic community, who say they “got into Stoicism” after reading The Obstacle is the Way, and now have a thirst to learn more.  That’s a good thing.  As the founders of the Stoa taught: the wise man has a duty and natural calling to write books that help other people.  Though none of us are indeed wise, we can help others by writing about the lives of people who exemplify virtues to which we might all aspire.  That’s why I think this is a book worth reading.  It gives people hope that they might be able to learn how to live like that, with admirable resilience and tenacity, and it surely motivates them to engage in self-improvement in the same direction.

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.

The Teachings of the Stoic School

A paraphrase from the account of early Stoic teachings in Diogenes Laertius.

This is a more or less direct paraphrase from some key passages in Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Zeno, our main source for the teachings of the early Greek Stoa.

Some philosophers claim that all animals naturally seek pleasure, and everything else is then sought for the sake of pleasure. However, the Stoics forwarded detailed arguments disproving this assumption. Instead they argued that pleasure is a by-product of the animal achieving the goals of its natural constitution, and ultimately the goal of self-preservation. Being healthy and surviving is the real natural goal of animals, feeling pleasure and avoiding pain are incidental to this. For example, when an animal satisfies its appetite it feels pleasure, as a side effect, but its true goal is to satisfy its appetite and not simply to feel the pleasure. Pleasure is therefore a side-effect of achieving our natural goals, not the goal itself. There are several reasons why the wise man fixes his attention on the goal itself rather than the side effect:

  1. The pleasurable feelings that typically follow as consequences of achieving our natural goals are unpredictable and not guaranteed because they are not under our direct control.
  2. There is often a delay before the consequences follow, and in some situations, such as facing death in battle, there may never be an opportunity to enjoy pleasurable feelings as a reward of our actions.
  3. There may be other factors which intervene and prevent pleasurable feelings from attending the achievement of our natural goals from following. For example, when we’re extremely preoccupied with our actions, such as in the heat of battle, we may not have the leisure to notice or enjoy pleasurable feelings.
  4. There are, or appear to be, shortcuts to achieving pleasure that are unhealthy or unethical. For example, we may use drugs to achieve pleasure.
  5. The Stoics liked to give examples of animals enduring pain and foregoing pleasure for the sake of self-preservation, or even the preservation of their mates or offspring. For instance, a bull may endure the pain of injury and threat of death, attacking a lion in defence of his herd.

Our feelings can often be our best guide. However, that’s not always true, and in many crucial situations, our feelings may be a bad guide, and wisdom requires acting “against” them temporarily. For instance, the feelings of a pathologically depressed, anxious, or angry individual are often a poor guide to them in life. Pleasure and pain, likewise, are often misleading guides to life.

With the development of reason, human beings acquire an obligation not just to survive like other animals (self-preservation), but to fulfil their potential to live rationally (wisdom). The Stoics forward several arguments to demonstrate this. For example, most people would instinctively prefer to save their mind and lose their body, rather than lose their mind and save their body, which shows that humans identify more with their minds than their bodies. Reason is inherently goal-directed: to think is to seek to grasp the truth. So we’re already committed to the goal of truth and the Stoics conclude we should therefore aim to become wise. Moreover, reason is capable of co-ordinating our behaviour by reflecting on our instincts and desires, and responding to them. To put it crudely, nature has made reason our highest or master faculty, in charge of our behaviour. Our supreme goal is therefore to preserve reason and fulfil its potential, which means to become wise. The goal of life is therefore the art of living wisely.

Zeno was the first (in On the Nature of Man) to call as the goal of life: “life in agreement with nature”. This is completely synonymous with living a virtuous life because our nature is rational, and to fulfil it is to become wise, wisdom being the essence of virtue. The virtues are all forms of practical wisdom, applied to different aspects of life. For example, justice is wisdom applied to social relations, courage is wisdom applied to things hard to endure, and self-discipline is wisdom applied to things we tend to crave. The other Stoics followed Zeno’s definition. Chrysippus said that living wisely or virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with our experience of the course of nature, or external events, because our individual nature is part of the Nature of the whole universe. By living wisely, we adapt to our experience of external events, even seeming adversity, our life goes smoothly, and we are no longer alienated but become at one with Nature as a whole.

This is why the goal of life may be defined as living in accord with nature, both our own human nature as well as that of the universe as a whole. This is what is meant by the virtue of the fulfilled (eudaimon) man and his smooth flow of life, when all actions promote the harmony of his inner self with the will of the universe. Chrysippus therefore said virtue is a harmonious disposition of our character, virtue is an end-in-itself and not sought out of hope or fear or any external motive. Moreover, fulfilment (eudaimonia) consists purely in virtue because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious, and therefore fulfilled. So how do human beings, rational beings, end up going wrong and forsaking the natural goal of wisdom? We are drawn into error because of the natural deceptiveness of external events, such as the sway that pleasurable and painful impressions have over us, or sometimes due to the influence of individual people, and society in general. But the starting point of our nature is completely sound and reason has everything it needs to guide us as long as we are not led astray by investing too much value in external things and other people’s opinions.

The original and more-general meaning of virtue (arete) is the perfection of anything whatsoever, such as the beauty of a statue or the speed of a horse. The goal of life for Stoics is to achieve the virtues of the mind, or of our character, such as wisdom and justice. However, the virtues (or strengths, if you prefer) of our body, such as physical strength and health, are sought as being of secondary and relative value. The physical virtue of health will tend to be a consequence of character virtues such as temperance or self-discipline. However, because physical virtues like health and strength merely supervene or follow on as consequences of mental virtues, they are also sometimes found even in bad men. Bad men sometimes become good, they observe, which suggests virtue can be learned. The Stoics disagreed with one another about how many virtues they were and how best to divide them. Some divided virtues into logical, physical and ethical, others said that practical wisdom is the only real virtue. The cardinal virtues are traditionally: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. These are broad categories consisting of many subordinate virtues, though. Wisdom is defined as “the knowledge of things good and bad and of what is neither good nor bad”, i.e., the indifferent things.

The good is what is beneficial, or healthy, i.e., what is “good for us”. Only virtue and vice can truly help or harm us, in terms of our character. The Stoics mainly call virtue “good”, but speaking more loosely they also refer to specific virtuous actions themselves as good and the people doing them as being good men. They also define the good as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational.” This mainly corresponds to virtue, but some Stoics also refer to the healthy feelings (eupatheiai) that supervene on virtue such as joy and gladness, etc., as good, and as part of human fulfilment (eudaimonia).

We share natural preconceptions (intuitions) that tell us, on reflection, the nature of the good, which is synonymous with many different qualities. Among these, foremost are the sense in which what is good for a rational being, a human being, is also what is beneficial (or healthy, good for us), and what is praiseworthy (or honourable, good for society). For Stoics, these perfectly coincide. The good is also synonymous with what is truly beautiful in human beings, i.e., in terms of our true nature as rational beings to have a beautiful character is to be virtuous.

The good things are virtues such as wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, and their subordinates. The bad things are the vices opposed to these: folly, injustice, cowardice and intemperance, etc. Neutral things fall between the categories of good and bad and are called “indifferent” with regard to the good life, although some are naturally preferred above others. The main examples of the indifferent things are therefore: life and death, health and disease, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, wealth and poverty, good reputation and bad reputation, being born into a good family and being born into a bad family, etc. Chrysippus and others class life, health, and pleasure, etc., as morally indifferent but nevertheless “preferred”. They argue that something cannot be intrinsically good if it can be put to good or bad use, but wealth and health, etc., can be used for good or bad ends, so are not good in themselves but merely indifferent. Likewise, that which is disgraceful cannot be intrinsically good, but some pleasures are disgraceful, so pleasure cannot be good in itself.

The Stoics use the word “indifferent” in a technical sense to mean things that do not contribute either to fulfilment (eudaimonia) or its opposite, they also speak of these things having selective “value”, but not as truly good or bad. It is possible for humans to be fulfilled without having health, wealth, or reputation, although, if they are used well or badly, such use of them tends to promote either fulfilment or misery. It’s therefore our use of “indifferent” things that’s most important, rather than the things themselves. The wise man uses all things well; the fool uses all things badly. Of the “indifferent” things, therefore, some are to be preferred by the wise man, some to be rejected, and other are indifferent in the complete sense. The things of value that are to be preferred they define as those which contribute directly, and those which contribute indirectly to living harmoniously and in accord with to nature. They therefore mean that the “value” of “preferred” indifferents may be due, for example, to “any assistance brought by wealth or health towards living a natural life”. Preferred things amongst mental qualities include natural ability and the like. Among physical qualities we naturally “prefer” life, health, strength, good functioning of organs, physical beauty, etc. In the sphere of external things the “preferred” things include wealth, fame, noble birth, etc. Qualities of character such as natural ability are preferred for their own sake, because they are in accord with our rational nature, whereas physical and external things are preferred merely as means to the end of achieving what is good in our mind or character.

Did Marcus Aurelius Persecute the Christians?

Article surveying some of the evidence for and against the claim that Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians.

It’s often said on the Internet that Marcus Aurelius somehow persecuted Christians.  I find that specific details are often lacking, though.  In fact, there are two questions worth considering here:

  1. Did the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius actively persecute Christians himself?
    Most modern scholars think that he almost certainly did not.
  2. Did Marcus allow others to persecute Christians?
    This is harder to answer, although the weight of evidence suggests Marcus actually tried to prevent others from persecuting Christians.  Some persecution of Christians undoubtedly took place during his reign, but it’s unclear how much, to what extent he was aware of it, and what opportunity he would have had to stop it.


The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul in 177 AD.  The one and only piece of evidence for this incident comes from the Christian historian Eusebius, who quotes a rather odd letter in his Ecclesiastical History, which described the events as follows:

The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded.  For with all his might the adversary [Satan] fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever.  But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.

And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury; and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.’ Romans 8:18 7. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace; clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch [garrison commander?] and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.

The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that appears somewhat excessive and colourful.  Some modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.

Moreover, there are several quite apparent problems faced by those who would take this letter as evidence that Marcus persecuted Christians:

  1. Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, over a hundred and twenty years after the alleged incident took place.  There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was written.  However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born.
  2. Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and noteworthy nature.  It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident.  Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.
  3. The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution.  And yet, he makes absolutely no mention of this remarkable event supposedly happening in his own city.  On the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).
  4. The church father Tertullian, was aged around twenty at the time the incident at Lyon allegedly happened.  As we’ll see, he makes no mention of any persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians.
  5. The letter quoted by Eusebius begins by blaming the actions of the mob on “the adversary” or “Evil One”, by which the author clearly meant Satan. It goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, and yet were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched on the rack.  It also appears to claim martyrs were being miraculously raised from the dead.  This adds a supernatural element to the account, which many modern readers may find indicative of fabrication or embellishment.
  6. The letter actually concludes by blaming the mob and city of Lyon authorities – it does not attribute responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to Rome.  When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
  7. We have the surviving text of an Imperial edict from Marcus that provides evidence he actually tried to prevent the persecution of Christians by provincial authorities (see below).
  8. Finally, and bizarrely, Eusebius himself several times admitted that his church history contained significant fabrications.

Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, liked to point out that Eusebius admitted employing deliberate misinformation to promote the Christian message.  For example, one of his chapter headings reads: “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”  The historian Jacob Burckhardt therefore described Eusebius as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”.  It would be more appropriate to call Eusebius a Christian propagandist rather than historian.

For this and other reasons, Eusebius is considered an extremely unreliable source by many modern scholars.  His accounts of Christian martyrdom refer to events several generations before he was even born, as we’ve seen, and are embellished with extravagant details that have the air of fiction about them.  For example, persecution is not portrayed as sporadic but inflicted by Satan on myriads of Christians throughout the empire.  The scale and severity of this persecution is totally out of keeping with the testimony of other Christians alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the paucity of evidence from other authors.  Moreover, he includes many supernatural claims that undermine the credibility of his accounts in the eyes of modern readers.  For example, he elsewhere states as fact miracles such as that Christian martyrs survived inside the stomachs of lions after being eaten, levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, or were raised from the dead, all by the grace of God.  As noted above, the letter itself also describes the miraculous healing and restoration of martyrs at Lyon who were near death, and apparently also their resurrection from death.  If we reject these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter we can take seriously.

Eusebius is also known to be particularly unreliable with regard to this era of Roman history because, remarkably, at various points he actually confuses Marcus Aurelius both with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, and with his adoptive father Antoninus Pius.  Moreover, it is often the case that the documents (letters, etc.) quoted in ancient sources are found unreliable by scholarship because many forgeries circulated then and ancient authors often lacked the resources to authenticate them.  Scholars have, in fact, already identified numerous documents quoted in the writings of Eusebius as forgeries.  In this particular letter, unusually, no date is actually given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis Eusebius arrived at the conclusion that it was intended to refer to events during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  The letter itself only employs the generic title Caesar for the Emperor.  Eusebius may just be guessing the date, and that the Caesar in question is Marcus Aurelius, although it seems likely that the letter is a forgery anyway.  A more generous interpretation would be that it was originally intended to be read as fiction, or a vision or allegory, but over time was mistakenly assumed to be a literal account of historical events, and Eusebius merely fell into this error.  However, this quoted letter is the one and only piece of alleged evidence for the persecution at Lyon!


Indeed, the only sources which describe persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius come from later generations of Christian authors, who were not witness to the events they describe.  None of them actually attribute responsibility to Marcus.  The most famous account is the persecution of Lyon, which, as we have seen, is of highly questionable authenticity.

By contrast, the church father Tertullian was actually a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius and his testimony is that Marcus was emphatically a “protector” of Christians.

But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. (Apology, 5)

This potentially creates an internal contradiction in the Christian literature, for those who (dubiously) wish to read other Christian accounts as somehow blaming Marcus for the persecution of Christians.  (As we’ve seen, even Eusebius doesn’t actually appear to blame Marcus.)  Indeed, not a single author, Christian or pagan, appears to quote any edict by Marcus condemning Christians.  This is noteworthy because if he had actually issued one, they would certainly have mentioned it.

Marcus’ Letter to the Asian Provinces

We do, however, have a surviving edict attributed to Marcus and entitled Letter of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia, which appears to provide evidence that he actively intervened to prevent the persecution of Christians.  It is dated 161 AD, and issued from Marcus as Emperor, which suggests it was one of his first actions shortly after being acclaimed to the throne.

He explicitly refers to the problem of Christians who are regarded by Romans as atheists because they do not worship the conventional pagan gods.  Marcus warns the provincial authorities: “you harass these men, and harden them in their convictions, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists”.  He states that provincial governors had many times written to his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose response was always “not to molest such persons“, unless they were actually making attempts to undermine the Roman government.  Marcus says he has also frequently repeated this non-harassment policy to them himself, as Emperor.  He actually goes so far as to say: “And if any one persist in bringing any such [Christian] person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.”  In other words, he suggests that provincial authorities may be punished by Rome for persecuting Christians solely on the basis of their religion.

C.R. Haines, who published this edict as an appendix to his Loeb translation of The Meditations, included an essay entitled “Note on the Attitude of Marcus Toward the Christians.”  He begins “Nothing has done the good name of Marcus so much harm as his supposed uncompromising attitude toward Christians” and concludes:

As a matter of fact, Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds.  The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition.  So is the known character of Marcus.

He goes on to argue that the retrospective claim of Eusebius about myriads of Christians being persecuted and horribly tortured to death throughout the Roman Empire two centuries earlier is also inconsistent with numerous historical facts – often cited by Eusebius himself and other Christian authors.  For example, the presence of a bishop at the head of a community of Christians was tolerated in Rome itself, there were multiple Christians serving in Marcus’ own household, and probably even Christians in the Roman Senate.  According to Eusebius and three other Christian sources, for instance, the Senator Apollonius of Rome was allegedly condemned to death, under Commodus.  However, that means that during Marcus‘ reign Apollonius was apparently permitted to serve on the Senate, although a Christian.  Several sources, including Tertullian, attest that the Thunderbolt Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) commanded by Marcus on the northern frontier was composed largely of Christian soldiers.

Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout The Meditations.  However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors.  Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation.  Latin authors typically used the word humanitas (kindness) to describe his character; in Greek the word philanthropia (love of mankind) was favoured.

Haines therefore also finds it implausible that someone so universally regarded as a man of exceptional kindness and clemency would have “encouraged mob-violence against unoffending persons, ordered the torture of innocent women and boys, and violated the rights of citizenship”.  Indeed, as we’ve seen, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Marcus was actually responsible for the persecution of Christians.  The weight of evidence, rather, suggests that he was, as Tertullian claims, a “protector” of Christians, and tried to prevent provincial authorities from persecuting them.

Frank McLynn

Surprisingly, Frank McLynn, Marcus Aurelius’ modern-day biographer, concludes that he was a persecutor of Christians.  In the introduction to Marcus Aurelius: A Life, he makes the bold claim that:

Marcus will probably never be hugely popular with committed Christians, if only because he persecuted them.

The evidence he cites for this, bizarrely, mainly consists of Eusebius’ account of the incident at Lyon, which, as we’ve seen, is highly dubious.  Indeed, in the process of recounting the story, McLynn observes that the letter’s claim that Christians were rounded up “was of course contrary to Trajan’s standing order that Christians were not to be sought out” (McLynn, p. 290).  He adds, “In a clear breach of the guidelines laid down by Trajan and Hadrian, the governor then accepted hearsay evidence from pagan slaves who had been bribed or browbeaten to give evidence against their masters.”  Moreover, he notes,

Whether he was a weak man himself and at the mercy of the mob, or merely a psychopath in an administrative role, he decided that all Christians would be sacrificed in the arena, including men like Attalus, who was also a Roman citizen. All precedent and all imperial prescripts made it quite clear that a Roman citizen had to be beheaded when sentenced to capital punishment – the fate St Paul had suffered under Nero – but the governor ignored this: Attalus joined his co-religionists in the arena. (McLynn, p. 292)

Paradoxically, none of these contradictions led McLynn to question the authenticity of the story.  Nor does he so much as mention any of the numerous problems noted above, such a the fact that Eusebius admits to fabricating elements of his church history for the purposes of propaganda.  In fact, he presents the alleged persecutions at Lyon as if they were historical fact, without any words of caution to warn the reader that the story is actually of a highly questionable nature.

Let’s set aside the concern that this is quite possibly a fabricated story. McLynn actually concludes from it that Marcus himself persecuted Christians.  However, as we’ve seen, the only evidence we have for the persecutions at Lyon, the letter quoted by Eusebius, makes no mention of Marcus Aurelius and is not dated.  It also clearly blames the persecution on local mobs and possibly the provincial governor, rather than Rome or the emperor.  So it’s baffling how McLynn can conclude that “Marcus will probably never be hugely popular with committed Christians, if only because he persecuted them.”  That seems to be a totally unjustifiable claim.

Socrates the Soldier

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

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.

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.

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.

Socrates’ Military Attire

Diogenes Laertius suggests that Socrates, Antisthenes, and the subsequent Cynic philosophers wore a light grey cotton cloak (tribon), 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 stick 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.

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)

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 cotton 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 up to three years, and he would have experienced siege warfare first-hand.  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.  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 enquiry.

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.” (The 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, including their general were killed.  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. (The 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. (The 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.  (He could be thinking either to the time he saved Alcibiades, although that was probably at Potidaea, or possibly to Socrates’ defence of the Athenian general Laches at Delium.)

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)