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)


The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Shirt vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair.  His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away…  He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while…  he waits…  he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention…  He imagines looking at his body from the outside…  at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing…  He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective…  Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed…  He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body…  He looks down on the camp around him…  He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests…  He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers…  He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there…  going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…  Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them…  He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers…  where one country ends and another begins…  and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you…  silently turning…  majestic and beautiful…

You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth… Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life…  The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective.  Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth…  toward the real world, and the present moment…  toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes…  He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

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.

Ad Hominem Arguments and the Principle of Charity

Why are “ad hominem” arguments best avoided, especially in online discussion forums.

ad hominem memeMany moons ago, I did my first degree in philosophy, at Aberdeen University, in the northeast of Scotland.  I remember that one of the first things our lecturers explained, very wisely, was how in philosophy we should always criticise the theory and not the person.  In undergraduate philosophy tutorials, especially in debates about applied philosophy, we would have to discuss contentious issues like abortion, animal rights, and nuclear weapons.  We should strive to do that dispassionately, with philosophical objectivity, and without taking offence or attacking other people, even if we’d be shocked by the views they’re stating in the context of ordinary life.

There’s no other way to do philosophy.  If we want to think rationally ourselves, we have to focus on the evidence for and against what people say, and forego criticism of the other person’s character.  Attacking the person stating a theory is well-known as a fallacy.  It’s traditionally called the argumentum ad hominem.  There are many good reasons for avoiding ad hominem attacks.

  • It’s fallacious reasoning.  Criticising the character or actions of someone who holds a theory tells you absolutely nothing about the validity of the theory.  Even the world’s stupidest people have good ideas.  Sometimes bad people say the right things, albeit for the wrong reasons.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  If Hitler said that one plus one equals two, for example, that wouldn’t make it any less true.
  • It’s just not good manners in a philosophical or rational debate.  Especially today, on social media, good etiquette would be to express disagreement dispassionately, without taking offence or offending other people by attacking their character.
  • It’s what I call a “conversation killer” because it prevents rational discourse from continuing.  So it’s really very unphilosophical.  Wise people don’t kill conversations by derailing them with ad hominems.  They try to evaluate what other people say objectively and respond reasonably and politely.
  • It’s usually very presumptuous and tends to involve the fallacy of “mind-reading”.  You don’t really know what the motivations of a stranger on the Internet are.  So jumping to conclusions about what they’re thinking rather than focusing on the validity of what they’ve actually said is really not a good idea.  When we jump to conclusions about other people’s reasons for saying something, I tend to find it says more about our own attitudes than the other person.  There’s some truth in the Freudian-Jungian concept of unconscious “projection”.
  • We should be intellectually humble enough to always remember that the other person might actually turn out to have been right all along.  Think of all the ad hominem attacks against Charles Darwin that portrayed him as a foolish moral-degenerate and the cartoons depicting him as a monkey – the real fools were the people dismissing what he said.  Criticising the other person’s character potentially stops us from realising that what initially seemed false or stupid was actually correct.  Put bluntly, using ad hominems risks making you more stupid.

This is one of my favourite anecdotes about Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism…  One day, Zeno came across an arrogant young intellectual who was discoursing loudly about the philosopher Antisthenes.  (Antisthenes was one of Socrates’ closest friends, and greatly admired by him; his writings were held in very high regard in ancient Greece but none survive today.)  A small crowd had gathered around the young man and he was showing off by doing a hatchet job on Antisthenes, denouncing what he perceived as the shortcomings of his philosophy.  Zeno interrupted him and asked what he’d learned from Antisthenes that was of value, about wisdom or virtue.  The young man said “nothing”.  The story goes that Zeno told him he should be ashamed therefore to have spent so much time and energy picking over the flaws in a philosopher’s writings without first being able to identify what’s actually of value in his writings.  In Zeno’s day, the Platonic Academy became dominated by Skeptics who were adept at nit-picking flaws in any philosophical theory.  The Stoics felt these people risked of turning philosophy into nothing but clever wordplay and losing sight of any ideas that are actually of value.

This is similar (but not identical) to what philosophers today call the Principle of Charity.  The Principle of Charity involves giving other people the benefit of the doubt, assuming they’re not stupid, and interpreting their statements in the most charitable way in terms of the debate.  There’s always some ambiguity about what other people mean, especially on social media.  So if we’re not sure, it’s good etiquette to lean toward the most generous interpretation, i.e., not to assume the worst, but to see what others say in the most rational light.  That would entail not “mind-reading” others, for example, and risking falsely attributing dishonest or stupid motives to them.

Christopher Hitchens ad hominem memeThe philosopher Bertrand Russell, likewise, once said that the ideal way to study another philosopher consists in two distinct stages.  In the first stage, we should be as sympathetic as possible toward their theories, and perhaps even try to find additional reasons to support them.  We should empathise with their position and try to really understand them as deeply as possible.  Once we’ve done that enough, we should enter into the second stage, of criticism, and adopt a more hostile position, in which we identify as many flaws as possible with their theory.  It’s premature to criticise a theory until we’ve attempted to fully understand it.  Many philosophers waste time and energy expounding lengthy criticisms of other philosophers that, on close inspection, just show they didn’t fully understand their theories to begin with.  To some extent misunderstanding is inevitable.  Scholars believe that even Aristotle failed to fully appreciate his master Plato’s teachings, despite having been his most prominent student for many years.  On the other hand, though, at the extreme end of the scale, it’s not unusual to find people who publish long-winded criticisms of books they’ve obviously not read!

There is one exceptional circumstance, nevertheless, where I feel ad hominem criticisms may be legitimate.  When I trained psychotherapists, I often found that people were very strongly invested in particular schools of thought that they’d been previously trained in.  Now there are hundreds of competing psychotherapeutic theories.  They all say different things.  As Arnold Lazarus, one of the pioneers of behaviour therapy once put it: they can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong.

When I first began studying psychotherapy there were still many therapists deeply invested in Freudian theory.  They believed in things like the primacy of the Oedipus Complex, even though no evidence supported this theory.  Psychodynamic therapists believed that their form of therapy was the only effective form of therapy, even though countless research studies provide evidence that conflicted with this claim.  (Actually, it very often seems to be one of the least effective forms of therapy.)  When I pressed these therapists for the reason they believed these things in the face of conflicting evidence they’d often say something along the lines of this: “Freud is widely regarded to be a great psychologist.”  Likewise, in the 1990s, Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) was reaching the peak of its popularity as a fad.  There are also many studies on NLP, which overall show that it is ineffective and certainly does not show the dramatic results its proponents claim.  When I pressed NLP practitioners for the reason they believed in this approach, much like the Freudians (whom they hated!), after lot of prevarication, they would say something like: “Because Bandler’s research shows that it works.”  Richard Bandler, however, never conducted any genuine scientific research into the theories and techniques he developed.  He just published books on them, and trained others to use them, without testing them in clinical trials, etc.

Now, someone who holds pseudoscientific theories will very often attempt to support them by appealing to the perceived authority of the person who developed them.  That’s obviously another fallacy: the appeal to (perceived) authority or argumentum ad verecundiam.  You can try pointing out to them that it’s a fallacy but that often does nothing to dissuade them.  In those cases, if their rationale for holding something to be true is purely based on the character and credentials of someone else, I think it’s legitimate to question whether that’s good evidence.  Doing so may involve questioning the scruples or expertise of the person they’re citing, i.e., questioning their authority.  For example, Freud is certainly famous.  However, he is not highly regarded today as an expert on psychology or psychotherapy.  In fact, Freud conducted no research whatsoever on psychotherapy and only treated a very small number of psychotherapy clients – perhaps less than one hundred in his lifetime whereas most modern therapists treat thousands.  Bandler, likewise, is qualified neither as a psychotherapist nor as a psychologist and has published no scientific research in support of NLP.  His books have been shown to base their arguments on simple scientific errors about neuropsychology.

Now none of those observations necessarily mean that psychoanalysis or NLP are wrong.  They merely throw into question the reliability of the people behind them.  However, in the exceptional case mentioned above, where an individual cites the perceived authority of Freud or Bandler as their sole reason for believing something, I think it’s valid to use something resembling an ad hominem argument.  In that case, though, rather than attacking the character of the speaker, you’d be questioning whether someone they cite as an authority actually has the expertise and reliability they’re attributing to them.  Even so, this is a last resort, because ideally your interlocutor should realise that such appeal to authority is a fallacy to begin with.  It’s especially foolish to use such appeals as a reason to discount scientific evidence that points in a contrary direction.  Unfortunately, it’s still very common for people to think this way, though.

What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον.  So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor.  We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals.  We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind.  The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”.  That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean.  On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving.  It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way.  Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly.  In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”.  Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable.  There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might.  Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet.  The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers.  However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason.  This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom.  The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”

Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)

Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49.  This is a common theme in the Stoic literature.  Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.

“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What is vice?  A familiar sight enough.  So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’  Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, everything fleeting.  (Meditations, 7.1)

Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.

“How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”

In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”  In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone.  (Meditations, 8.2)

He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.

“Give what you will, take back what you will.”

The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.”  But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)

This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.  However, it also recalls many other comments by Marcus.

“Where are they now?”

There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?

Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case.  Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where.  For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught.  (Meditations, 10.31)

This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.

“What purpose does this person have in mind?”

In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?”  But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).

This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.

The Dog of Philosophy

Children’s story about Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes the Cynic Billboard.Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.

Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)

Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!

One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)

Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.

Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.

Making Big Decisions

Some thoughts about advice on making major life decisions.

The Pythagorean UpsilonA famous physicist once said that the opposite of every profound truth is very often another equally “profound” truth. I think that’s usually the case with proverbs and folk wisdom: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, they say; but they also say “He who hesitates is lost.” Often folk wisdom is so vague it’s bound to be contradictory.

When you’re thinking about your career, it seems to me that the people giving sage advice fall into two camps. The first group say that the most important thing in life is to be able to adapt to circumstances, spot opportunities when they arise, and seize them with both hands. The second group say that the most important thing in life is to have a sense of personal identity, a fundamental goal in life, to make yourself totally committed to fulfilling your dream or destiny, and to remain unswayed by external events. Now, on the face of it, those both sound like reasonable pieces of advice. However, on the face of it, they also appear at odds with each other: we should be both flexible and inflexible about our goals.

I’ve heard or read this advice many times. Usually a person will go to one extreme or the other, and they always sound very wise, even when they’re saying contradictory things! So what’s the alternative? Now, I should say that I’m generally no fan of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said that the best course of action is often the middle way (via media) between two extremes. I remember one of my old philosophy professors at Aberdeen telling me that was interesting but “not very helpful”. “If I was holding a dinner party,” he said, “and wanted to know how much wine to buy, Aristotle’s advice would be ‘don’t buy too much but don’t buy too little either; get an amount somewhere in-between’.” That’s common sense, but unsatisfactory and vague.

Nevertheless, the best advice I can offer here, if only to remedy the bad advice that comes from clinging too much to one extreme, is that we should be neither too rigid nor too flexible but somewhere in-between when it comes to our goals in life. I believe that both the “profound truths” I mentioned at the start are true, in their own way. If you want to have a good life, you should pay attention when opportunity comes knocking at your door and be ready to change your plans, and adapt to your changing fortune, but not so much that it derails pursuit of your fundamental goal. Likewise, it’s wise to have a definite goal in life and remain passionately focused on it, but not so intransigently that you become a numbskull, and overlook compromises that might contribute to your longer-term happiness and wellbeing. You need to be on the lookout for opportunities and seize them when they arise, but only ones that are ultimately consistent with your fundamental vision, your destiny in life. You’re also going to have to suck it up sometimes and allow some incredibly tempting good fortune to pass you by, if clinging onto it would sweep you too far off course. So in a sense, I think wisdom consists in doing both of these things in harmony, and folly in doing neither of them, or in doing one of them too much.

People who appear merely wise cling to one extreme but in their case it’s only chance that determines whether that will turn out well or badly for them. One man sticks rigidly to his goal, ignores everything else, and becomes a huge success by following this rule of life, another does the same thing but ruins himself by being too rigid. One man watches fate like a hawk, pounces on good fortune when it appears, and flourishes as a result, another following the same principle ends up all over the place, and living a life completely out of kilter with his true values. Be cautious when listening to the advice of fortunate people because often they follow rigid philosophies of life, which only worked out for them by chance. If we only had to do one simple thing, life would be easy. What we often have to do is walk a tightrope, maintaining a delicate balance along the way. That’s hard work, although it’s also, in a sense, just one task. It’s a composite task, though, and though certain principles and ideas can guide us, many difficult decisions, requiring sound judgement, have to be made. That’s why nobody can tell you how much wine to buy. They can remind you not to get too much, nor too little, but you’re the only person who knows enough about your meal, and your guests, to decide what the right amount is. When you’re thinking about your future, don’t be led too much by events, and don’t stick too rigidly to your original goals. More specifically: keep comparing these two things to each other, weigh up each event carefully against the supreme criterion of your fundamental goal in life and ask yourself: “Will this contribute to my long-term happiness and well being, or not?”