The Influence of Socrates on Stoicism

Please add your comments below. You’ll probably need to click on the image to enlarge its size for readability…  You can also read more about this diagram on the page below:

Influence of Socrates on Zeno and Stoicism
Click on image to enlarge size…

Free Email Course

Meditations email modal

Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
london, uk

Join the conversation


Leave a Reply to Donald Robertson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Taking a break from Kantian studies apropos Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Representation”, and deciding that laughter and mirth is invariably the best tonic between heavyweight philosophical bouts, I dipped into one of my favourite antique authors, Lucian, and came across the following which may well be of interest to you, and which certainly has some bearing on the topic we are discussing.

    It was a few lines in his “The Parasite” (which is a kind-of parody of a Platonic dialogue but which might also be interpreted as a satire on the Stoic sage, for both parasite and sage are impossible ideals.)

    Tychiades speaks: “. . . I doubt much whether you can name any [philosophers who have been addicted to sponging].” Simon, the parasitic, replies (N.B.): “You must be little read in the writers who have recorded the lives of these personages . . .” (Unfortunately Lucian doesn’t provide us with any of the names of these writers / biographers.

    Simon goes on to provide a list of names and details beginning with the Socratic Aeschines, followed by Aristippus, then Plato, Aristoxenus (a pupil of Aristotle), Euripides, Anaxarchus, and finally, Aristotle. That looks like a sort-of succession to me. Not exactly the one you find in Diogenes Laertius though.

    Further on towards the end of “The Parasite” Simon has this to say: “In the first place, nobody can say that a philosopher ever lost his life in battle. Either they have never entered the service, or if they have, they took the first opportunity to desert. Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates, Zeno, Plato, Aeschines, Aristotle, and the whole rout of them, never in their lives saw an army drawn up in battle-array; and the only one of them [Socrates], that had the heart to be present at the affairs of Amphipolis, deserted from the fort of Parnethe into the palaestra of Taureas; thinking it much pleasanter and more polite to sit with spruce young sparks, and entertain them with his gossiping conversation . . .” etc..

    What’s interesting about that, (if we ignore the way Lucian’s character Simon goes to town in defaming Socrates,) is that the order Antisthenes to Zeno is maintained. Again this order plus a few further names is to be found in Diogenes Laertius. The stories surrounding the other philosophers mentioned are worth looking into too. For me these two snippets raise all sorts of questions but I have no time to follow up on them.

    A couple of final thoughts: Anaxarchus is famous for biting off his own tongue and spitting it into the face of the tyrant Nicocreon prior to being pounded to death in a mortar. He is supposed to have said to Nicocreon “Pound the body of Anaxarchus, for thou dost not pound his soul.” Epictetus may well have been influenced by the idea behind this story, i.e., the idea that is central to his teaching, viz., that of what truly belongs to a person, what not, and so on, for he alludes to the story at 3. 24. 71-72. He was no doubt also influenced by this same idea in the story of the return of Stilpo’s plundered property; Stilpo denied that he had lost anything which really belonged to him, etc..

  2. Again, I refer you to Epictetus or, rather, to Arrian, the pupil that recorded / compiled Epictetus’ words / sayings. He is spoken of as “the second Xenophon” and, from what I can gather, he even called himself “the younger Xenophon” (he called the actual Xenophon “the elder”.) Arrian clearly imitated / copied Xenophon in his writing. Thus Xenophon wrote the Memorabilia of Socrates; Arrian wrote the Memorabilia (which is how he himself refers to what are now called the “Diatribes” or “Discourses”) of Epictetus. They (Xenophon and Arrian) both wrote military histories and they both wrote on coursing, etc.. These are not mere coincidences but the sort-of evidence that would stand up in Court; the sort-of evidence you requested. One has merely to compare the extant writings of Xenophon, who heard Socrates, with those of Arrian, who heard Epictetus. It is evident then that the terms “Socratic” and “Stoic” have become almost interchangeable, almost synonymous. And of course the other names on our list, Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates, and Zeno, are made much mention of in Arrian’s Memorabilia of Epictetus. This is no mere accident. What is especially noticeable is the space Arrian gives to Diogenes—extolling this “heavenly dog” to the skies. Furthermore, just as there was said to have been a meeting between Diogenes and Alexander—you know the stories no doubt—there was said also to have been a meeting between Epictetus and Hadrian which incidentally spawned a sub-literature all of its own.
    Yes, Zeno was influenced by Plato (and Diogenes); each wrote his own utopian “Republic” but there were no doubt differences. The sources do point to how Diogenes “took the piss” out of Plato. I find it interesting that this aristocrat should “discover” a poverty-stricken “street philosopher” with a brilliant mind, Socrates. (Recall that Arrian too, was well-to-do, while Epictetus was a former slave.) I think (check it out though) that Chrysippus also wrote a “Republic” but that was much later. However, from what I can understand of what I have read, he was more interested in logic and was thus heavily indebted to Aristotle. After Zeno and Cleanthes died the school they founded died too. Chrysippus picked up the pieces and created the philosophical system now known as “Stoicism”.
    So between the early Greek Cynic / Stoics and the late Roman Cynic / Stoics there is the curious Middle Stoic period during which Stoicism was transplanted from Athens to Rome. It took the Romans some time to accept this alien Greek philosophy. Cicero, writing under the influence of the Platonistic Stoics Panaetius and Posidonius, doesn’t seem to have appreciated Diogenes’ “methods of instruction”, such as his masturbating in public, his defecating in public, etc.. He (Cicero) remarks on the subject of the Cynics and their lack of decorum in “the Offices” which is supposed to have been mostly Panaetian in origin. Nevertheless, by the time of Seneca, Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, Lucian, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, etc., the situation in philosophy had reverted back to what it was in the Greek world and the Stoics and Cynics were once more barely to be distinguished from one another.
    Enough for now!

  3. Well, yes, I was already assuming that, to be honest. The picture is complex. The Stoics don’t actually say much about the line of succession, though, so it’s not really clear to me that they thought it was as important as you’re implying – although it’s possible you’re right. Our main source is Diogenes Laertius, a late commentator. The picture he paints is more that Zeno went around training in the main available schools of Athenian philosophy, and particularly reading about the life of Socrates. So you could say he’s portraying Zeno as someone who’s tried to situate himself as integrating the main philosophical traditions, partly by claiming that he was returning to a more authentically Socratic approach. I think it does sound, in that account, as if he leant more toward the Cynics. Then again, later Stoics seem more drawn to Platonism and Aristotelianism.

  4. Two citations and remarks from me that you may find useful.

    “The line of Cynics runs from Antisthenes through Diogenes of Sinope, Crates, Bion of Borysthenes, Teles, and spreads out into a body of genuine ascetics and cunning imposters, who wore the folded cloak and imitated the surly manners of their leaders . . .” [More, Hellenistic Philosophies, pp.71-2.]

    More doesn’t do justice to the enormity and diversity of the Cynic movement in antiquity but nevertheless his line is sufficient to make the point that the Cynics didn’t consist of only three men, i.e., Antisthenes, Diogenes, and Crates, to be slotted in between Socrates and Zeno, ‘proving’ the Stoics to be rightful heirs to a somehow vacant Socratic throne. On the contrary More’s line suggests to me that the authors of successions joined up the dots perhaps partly after their own or others’ almost arbitrary influence and fashion—either that or else they pandered to some sort-of popular hand-me-down opinion, consensus, historical or stylistic tradition, without critically questioning whether there was any substance to it or not.

    “The affiliation of Zeno’s doctrine may be gathered by reading together two passages from antiquity; one from the historian of Laerte, who says that Antisthenes laid the foundation of the city by anticipating the apathy of Diogenes, the continence of Crates, and the endurance of Zeno; the other from a late Stoic who declares that by the counsel of God Socrates took for his province the examination of souls, and Diogenes the art of rebuking in royal fashion, whereas Zeno made philosophy didactic and dogmatic.” (Diog. Laert. 6. 15; Epictetus, Discourses 3, xxi, 19.) [Ibid. pp. 72-3.]

    What More says here is surely worth consideration. My argument is that Laertius’ remarks are too finished when history was never that cut and dried. The connections between the various philosophers and the philosophical schools of antiquity is not as simple (or simplistic) as Laertius would have us believe. The more you investigate the more problems and contradictions you come across.

    I’ve already provided a couple of citations from Epictetus. Here is yet another. Historical successions or lineages like these perhaps allow later Stoics to see themselves within some sort-of meaningful context. Whilst an artist inevitably practises his art in relation to the times in which he lives—he cannot do otherwise—he also learns (consciously and unconsciously) to situate his own practise within a broader historical context thereby giving it a certain authenticity, authority, or power. But anyway I think I’ve said enough now!

  5. I think I said earlier on that I give you full marks for trying to sort this mess out but that for my money you have an impossible task ahead of you if you seek to produce a stemmata that gives a true picture (one that might stand up in a court of law as valid evidence.)
    Moving on… Wikipedia makes mention of the tradition and its purpose and provides a number of names:
    Sotion is mentioned and since he was a teacher of Seneca one might conceivably find Seneca if anyone is your best bet for some snippet touching upon this literary tradition.

  6. Hmm… You only seem to have quoted one scholar to support that view (?) and it’s not clear they’re saying that’s the only or main influence on Stoicism. So I’m open-minded but these comments don’t really support that conclusion so I’ll look for some sort of textual evidence. Or am I missing something? Why do you think it’s proven rather than conjecture? I’m not sure I really get what you’re driving at here either. You make the point that Socrates is a kind of precursor to the Cynics but why? That’s already what I’d said, it’s not something I was disputing. Again, maybe I’ve missed something, so my apologies if that’s the case, but I don’t really understand the point you’re making.

%d bloggers like this: