Socrates was a hugely important figure for the ancient Stoics. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Zeno then asked where men like Socrates were to be found, which led him to become a follower of the Cynic Crates of Thebes. In other words, Zeno apparently became a Cynic in order to learn how to emulate Socrates. However, according to another story, Zeno’s father, a seafaring merchant, often went to Athens and brought home many books about Socrates for Zeno while he was still a boy. His student Sphaerus reputedly wrote three volumes about Lycurgus, the legendary Spartan lawmaker, and Socrates. Later, Posidonius in his book on Ethics would point to the moral progress made by Socrates, Antisthenes, and Diogenes the Cynic, as evidence that virtue exists and presumably can be taught.
Emulation of Socrates as a role model was clearly central to Roman Stoicism, perhaps because of Zeno’s interest in him. Musonius Rufus refers to Socrates several times, in the surviving lectures, as a suitable role model for Stoics and this perhaps helps to explain the emphasis placed on Socrates’ example by Musonius’ famous student Epictetus. We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect. However, they were also critical of Plato’s version of Socratic philosophy. They probably believed, with some justification, that the “real” Socrates had focused more on ethics as a guide to daily life and espoused a simpler and less metaphysical philosophy than Plato’s Academy, more akin to the Socrates of Xenophon’s dialogues. For instance, the Socratic dialogues to which Epictetus particularly likes to refer are:
- The Symposium of Xenophon, which he twice tells his students to go and read
- Plato’s Apology and Crito, depicting the trial and imprisonment of Socrates
Other sources such as the writings of Antisthenes were available to Zeno and his followers in the early Greek Stoa and their view of Socrates was reputedly as the ultimate source of the Cynic-Stoic tradition, via his student Antisthenes. The Stoic use of Socrates is therefore a complex subject. This article just aims to present most of the passages referring to Socrates from the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and to intersperse some brief commentary.
If you want a scholarly analysis of Stoicism in relation to Socratic philosophy, you might enjoy reading A.A. Long’s excellent Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (20014). If you’re interested in reading more sayings and anecdotes feel free to download the e-book I created containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius, called The Life and Opinions of Socrates.
One of the most famous sentences in The Handbook is immediately followed by the less well-known example of Socrates’ noble death. The “good death” of Socrates was particularly important to Stoics, who seemed content to accept Plato’s early dialogues as providing an acceptable account of his trial and execution.
Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. (5)
Another fundamental Stoic technique involves emulation of a wise man or moral exemplar, e.g., literally asking yourself “What would Socrates or Zeno do?” Note that here Socrates and Zeno are presented as the two most obvious examples of a Stoic role model. Did Zeno likewise ask himself what Socrates would do and seek to emulate his example?
When you are going to meet with any person, and particularly one of those who are considered to be in a superior condition, place before yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will have no difficulty in making a proper use of the occasion. (33)
Socrates here is presented as having attained, or come close to, the goal of life, by dedicating himself to living consistently in accord with reason, synonymous for the Stoics with their slogan of “living in agreement with Nature”. Note that again, Epictetus’ students are directly instructed to emulate Socrates (more even than Zeno).
Socrates in this way became perfect, in all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet a Socrates, ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates. (51)
The Handbook even concludes with a pair of famous quotes from the last days of Socrates. The first refers to acceptance of fate and the second to indifference to even the most extreme form of physical harm, Socrates’ execution. Anytus and Meletus were two of the three men who brought charges against Socrates. Cassius Dio tells us that Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, a movement greatly admired by Epictetus, used to paraphrase this by saying “Nero can harm me but he cannot kill me.” Thrasea was apparently a student and friend of Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus. Nero eventually executed Thrasea. This closing passage of the Handbook may perhaps have been read by some as an indirect allusion to Thrasea, paying tribute to him, or maybe it was a favourite quote also of Musonius.
And the third also: O Crito, if so it pleases the Gods, so let it be [Crito]; Anytus and Melitus are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me [Apology]. (53)
Fragments from Epictetus
Xanthippe was Socrates’ notoriously troublesome wife. A slight variation of this anecdote is also told by Diogenes Laertius: “He had invited some rich men and, when Xanthippe said she felt ashamed of the dinner, ‘Never mind,” said he, “for if they are reasonable they will put up with it, and if they are good for nothing, we shall not trouble ourselves about them.’” It’s there immediately followed by the remark: “He would say that the rest of the world lived to eat, while he himself ate to live.”
Xanthippe was blaming Socrates, because he was making small preparation for receiving his friends: but Socrates said, If they are our friends, they will not care about it; and if they are not, we shall care nothing about them.
Archelaus was reputedly one of the teachers of Socrates. Epictetus uses this anecdote to make a point about playing the role well that Fate has assigned to us, even if we’re in beggar’s rags.
When Archelaus was sending for Socrates to make him rich, Socrates told the messengers to return this answer: At Athens four measures (choenices) of meal are sold for one obolus (the sixth of a drachme), and the fountains run with water: if what I have is not enough (sufficient) for me, yet I am sufficient for what I have, and so it becomes sufficient for me.
Several times, Epictetus mentions Socrates and Diogenes together as role models for his students. However, Epictetus mentions Socrates more often in The Discourses than any other individual, about twice as often, for instance, as he mentions Diogenes the Cynic, or four times as often as Zeno.
This saying about being a citizen of the cosmos (cosmopolitan) is also attributed to Diogenes the Cynic but several ancient sources, like Epictetus here, suggest it originated with Socrates himself.
If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world (κόσμιος). (1.9)
Socrates again is portrayed as someone who believes strongly in mankind’s kinship with the gods, a teaching probably emphasized in the Greek Mystery Religions. Socrates must have been perceived here as alluding figuratively to his own reputation as a war hero. He famously distinguished himself in several major battles of the Peloponnesian War. Epictetus uses Socrates’ trial to make a point about identifying with our (divine) capacity for reason, with the wellbeing of our moral character, rather than merely with the preservation of our body.
How did Socrates behave with respect to these matters? Why, in what other way than a man ought to do who was convinced that he was a kinsman of the gods? “If you say to me now,” said Socrates to his judges, “we will acquit you on the condition that you no longer discourse in the way in which you have hitherto discoursed, nor trouble either our young or our old men, I shall answer, you make yourselves ridiculous by thinking that, if one of our commanders has appointed me to a certain post, it is my duty to keep and maintain it, and to resolve to die a thousand times rather than desert it; but if God has put us in any place and way of life, we ought to desert it.” Socrates speaks like a man who is really a kinsman of the gods. But we think about ourselves, as if we were only stomachs, and intestines, and shameful parts; we fear, we desire; we flatter those who are able to help us in these matters, and we fear them also. (1.9)
Wherever we go we are enslaved or imprisoned by our passions, as long as we don’t accept events that befall us with indifference, viewing virtue as the only true good. Socrates, paradoxically, was free through imprisoned, because he accepted his Fate with indifference.
What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly. (1.12)
Epictetus, who also taught dialectic to his students, here reminds them of the importance Socrates placed on defining concepts, particularly the virtues. Note that he refers to the Socrates’ of Xenophon’s dialogues rather than Plato’s.
And who is it that has written that the examination of names is the beginning of education? And does not Socrates say so? And of whom does Xenophon write, that he began with the examination of names, what each name signified? (1.17)
The notion of being like a stone, indifferent to insults, is found in other sources. This passage may allude to the now lost anecdote also mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, in which Socrates was stripped of his cloak in public by Xanthippe, his shrewish wife. Socrates had “one face” because he was relatively indifferent to external events and his mood didn’t fluctuate depending on his external fortune. This constancy of character was greatly admired by the Stoics.
For what is it to be reviled? Stand by a stone and revile it; and what will you gain? If then a man listens like a stone, what profit is there to the reviler? But if the reviler has as a stepping-stone (or ladder) the weakness of him who is reviled, then he accomplishes something.—Strip him.—What do you mean by him?— Lay hold of his garment, strip it off. I have insulted you. Much good may it do you. This was the practice of Socrates: this was the reason why he always had one face. (1.25)
Attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty is the beginning of Stoic philosophy. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Epictetus directly links this to the Stoic notion of training in self-awareness and recognition of our own character flaws.
This then is the beginning of philosophy, a man’s perception of the state of his ruling faculty; for when a man knows that it is weak, then he will not employ it on things of the greatest difficulty. But at present, if men cannot swallow even a morsel, they buy whole volumes and attempt to devour them; and this is the reason why they vomit them up or suffer indigestion: and then come gripings, defluxes, and fevers. Such men ought to consider what their ability is. In theory it is easy to convince an ignorant person; but in the affairs of real life no one offers himself to be convinced, and we hate the man who has convinced us. But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (1.28)
Epictetus famously said that being shackled is an impediment to the leg but not to our mind, or moral choice. He tells his students to apply this way of speaking more generally, and here is an example in relation to Socrates. We should not say that Socrates was imprisoned or poisoned but rather that these things were done to his body, whereas his mind was free insofar as it chose to remain indifferent. (This doesn’t entail a Platonic sort of mind-body dualism, a metaphysical view, but rather a more practical contrast between the passivity of the body and the freedom of our conscious mental activity.) He concludes this passage with the famous pair of quotes placed at the end of The Handbook.
How strange then that Socrates should have been so treated by the Athenians. Slave, why do you say Socrates? Speak of the thing as it is: how strange that the poor body of Socrates should have been carried off and dragged to prison by stronger men, and that any one should have given hemlock to the poor body of Socrates, and that it should breathe out the life. Do these things seem strange, do they seem unjust, do you on account of these things blame God? Had Socrates then no equivalent for these things? Where then for him was the nature of good? Whom shall we listen to, you or him? And what does Socrates say? Anytus and Melitus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me: and further, he says, “If it so pleases God, so let it be.” (1.29)
Marcus and Epictetus both like to refer to this figure of speech from Socrates, where fear of death and similar anxieties are compared to the fear small children have of people wearing scary masks. As adults we should be able to remove the mask, look behind it, and realize there’s nothing of which to be afraid. “As a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face…“ The mask corresponds for Epictetus with our value judgement that something is evil but the Stoic should suspend that judgement (remove the mask) and view externals objectively, with indifference.
Confidence (courage) then ought to be employed against death, and caution against the fear of death. But now we do the contrary, and employ against death the attempt to escape; and to our opinion about it we employ carelessness, rashness and indifference. These things Socrates properly used to call tragic masks; for as to children masks appear terrible and fearful from inexperience, we also are affected in like manner by events (the things which happen in life) for no other reason than children are by masks. For what is a child? Ignorance. What is a child? Want of knowledge. For when a child knows these things, he is in no way inferior to us. What is death? A tragic mask. Turn it and examine it. See, it does not bite. (2.1)
Socrates said that philosophy was a preparation for dying, and the Stoics likewise consider philosophy to consist fundamentally in a preparation for meeting not just death but also all other forms of adversity. Living virtuously and in accord with reason involves preparing ourselves to face adversity with emotional resilience.
Therefore Socrates said to one who was reminding him to prepare for his trial, Do you not think then that I have been preparing for it all my life? By what kind of preparation? I have maintained that which was in my own power. How then? I have never done anything unjust either in my private or in my public life. (2.2)
This metaphor of Stoicism as a ball game appears to go right back to Chrysippus. The ball symbolizes any external, indifferent thing. Playing in a sportsmanlike manner represents virtue. We treat the ball is something of no real intrinsic value; it’s just a tool for exercising our skill in a sporting manner. Socrates is compared to a skillful player in the ball game, in terms of his handling of external events such as his trial and execution.
This is just what you will see those doing who play at ball skilfully. No one cares about the ball as being good or bad, but about throwing and catching it. In this therefore is the skill, in this the art, the quickness, the judgment, so that even if I spread out my lap I may not be able to catch it, and another, if I throw, may catch the ball. But if with perturbation and fear we receive or throw the ball, what kind of play is it then, and wherein shall a man be steady, and how shall a man see the order in the game? But one will say, Throw; or Do not throw; and another will say, You have thrown once. This is quarrelling, not play. Socrates then knew how to play at ball. How? By using pleasantry in the court where he was tried. Tell me, he says, Anytus, how do you say that I do not believe in God. The Daemons (δαίμονες), who are they, think you? Are they not sons of Gods, or compounded of gods and men? When Anytus admitted this, Socrates said, Who then, think you, can believe that there are mules (half asses), but not asses; and this he said as if he were playing at ball. And what was the ball in that case? Life, chains, banishment, a draught of poison, separation from wife and leaving children orphans. These were the things with which he was playing; but still he did play and threw the ball skilfully. So we should do: we must employ all the care of the players, but show the same indifference about the ball. For we ought by all means to apply our art to some external material, not as valuing the material, but, whatever it may be, showing our art in it. (2.5)
Epictetus refers several times to Socrates’ writing poetry while awaiting execution as an example of Stoic indifference.
And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison. (2.6)
Epictetus also likes to remind his students that the Socrates Method focused on trying to help the person with whom he was speaking during a philosophical debate to persuade themselves of the truth by exposing hidden contradictions in their thinking to them. Socrates didn’t force technical definitions on other people during debates but began with their own definitions. He didn’t lecture them but engaged with them in this more down-to-earth way, on their own terms. The Socratic Method was more like modern counselling or psychotherapy in this respect, arguably. Epictetus concludes by placing remarkable emphasis on Socrates’ ability to engage in friendly debate with others, avoiding arguments while nevertheless radically questioning their most cherished beliefs. Again, it’s notable that the Stoic students here are being instructed to read Xenophon’s Symposium rather than Plato’s.
How then did Socrates act? He used to compel his adversary in disputation to bear testimony to him, and he wanted no other witness. Therefore he could say, ‘I care not for other witnesses, but I am always satisfied with the evidence (testimony) of my adversary, and I do not ask the opinion of others, but only the opinion of him who is disputing with me.’ For he used to make the conclusions drawn from natural notions so plain that every man saw the contradiction (if it existed) and withdrew from it (thus): Does the envious man rejoice? By no means, but he is rather pained. Well, Do you think that envy is pain over evils? and what envy is there of evils? Therefore he made his adversary say that envy is pain over good things. Well then, would any man envy those who are nothing to him? By no means. Thus having completed the notion and distinctly fixed it he would go away without saying to his adversary, Define to me envy; and if the adversary had defined envy, he did not say, You have defined it badly, for the terms of the definition do not correspond to the thing defined—These are technical terms, and for this reason disagreeable and hardly intelligible to illiterate men, which terms we (philosophers) cannot lay aside. But that the illiterate man himself, who follows the appearances presented to him, should be able to concede any thing or reject it, we can never by the use of these terms move him to do. Accordingly being conscious of our own inability, we do not attempt the thing; at least such of us as have any caution do not. But the greater part and the rash, when they enter into such disputations, confuse themselves and confuse others; and finally abusing their adversaries and abused by them, they walk away. Now this was the first and chief peculiarity of Socrates, never to be irritated in argument, never to utter any thing abusive, any thing insulting, but to bear with abusive persons and to put an end to the quarrel. If you would know what great power he had in this way, read the Symposium of Xenophon, and you will see how many quarrels he put an end to. (2.12)
Here the “Platonic” relationship between Socrates and his young admirer Alcibiades is used to illustrate Stoic training in mastery of our sensual desires, and a comparison with Hercules, another Stoic role model is thrown in for good measure. It might seem surprising to us today that the Stoics would compare Socrates to Hercules, but they meant this quite seriously. (As an aside, athletes here are dismissed as training themselves in a “sorry” or trivial manner compared to philosophers.)
Go to Socrates and see him lying down with Alcibiades, and mocking his beauty: consider what a victory he at last found that he had gained over himself; what an Olympian victory; in what number he stood from Hercules; so that, by the Gods, one may justly salute him, Hail, wondrous man, you who have conquered not these sorry boxers and pancratiasts, nor yet those who are like them, the gladiators. (2.18)
We return to the theme of Socrates trusting in his interlocutors’ ability to refute themselves, through use of the Socratic Method. The method consists in exposing contradictions in the other party’s beliefs, through careful questioning, like a cross-examination in a court of law, rather than simply lecturing them.
For this reason Socrates also trusting to this power used to say, I am used to call no other witness of what I say, but I am always satisfied with him with whom I am discussing, and I ask him to give his opinion and call him as a witness, and though he is only one, he is sufficient in the place of all. For Socrates knew by what the rational soul is moved, just like a pair of scales, and then it must incline, whether it chooses or not. Show the rational governing faculty a contradiction, and it will withdraw from it; but if you do not show it, rather blame yourself than him who is not persuaded. (2.26)
Even the greatest teacher has bad students. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Not even Socrates persuaded everyone he spoke with. (Also, trivial ideas gain more agreement while more radical and important ones often meet with a more hostile reception – think of the scorn poured for years upon Charles Darwin’s claims.) Nevertheless, Socrates believed it was his duty to attempt to enlighten others through the use of his method of philosophy. The comparison between the wise man and the bull who defends the herd here may be an allusion to the portrayal of mankind as a herd of cattle in the Republic of Zeno.
Did Socrates persuade all his hearers to take care of themselves? Not the thousandth part. But however, after he had been placed in this position by the deity, as he himself says, he never left it. But what does he say even to his judges? “If you acquit me on these conditions that I no longer do that which I do now, I will not consent and I will not desist; but I will go up both to young and to old, and, to speak plainly, to every man whom I meet, and I will ask the questions which I ask now; and most particularly will I do this to you my fellow citizens, because you are more nearly related to me.” —Are you so curious, Socrates, and such a busybody? and how does it concern you how we act? and what is it that you say? Being of the same community and of the same kin, you neglect yourself, and show yourself a bad citizen to the state, and a bad kinsman to your kinsmen, and a bad neighbour to your neighbours. Who then are you?— Here it is a great thing to say, “I am he whose duty it is to take care of men; for it is not every little heifer which dares to resist a lion; but if the bull comes up and resists him, say to the bull, if you choose, ‘and who are you, and what business have you here?’” Man, in every kind there is produced something which excels; in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not then say to that which excels, Who then are you? If you do, it will find a voice in some way and say, I am such a thing as the purple in a garment: do not expect me to be like the others, or blame my nature that it has made me different from the rest of men. (3.1)
Socrates was not concerned with refined language or theoretical speculations, in contrast with Sophists and metaphysicians. His only real concern was the genuine cultivation of virtue, the practical application of ethics to our daily lives.
But what does Socrates say? As one man, he says, is pleased with improving his land, another with improving his horse, so I am daily pleased in observing that I am growing better. Better in what? in using nice little words? Man, do not say that. In little matters of speculation (θεωρήματα)? what are you saying?— And indeed I do not see what else there is on which philosophers employ their time. — Does it seem nothing to you to have never found fault with any person, neither with God nor man? to have blamed nobody? to carry the same face always in going out and coming in? This is what Socrates knew, and yet he never said that he knew any thing or taught anything. But if any man asked for nice little words or little speculations, he would carry him to Protagoras or to Hippias; and if any man came to ask for potherbs, he would carry him to the gardener. Who then among you ‘has this purpose (motive to action)? for if indeed you had it, you would both be content in sickness, and in hunger, and in death. If any among you has been in love with a charming girl, he knows that I say what is true. (3.5)
Socrates led by his example. Stoics likewise teach others primarily by aiming to provide them with a living example of virtue. Note that Marcus praises his teachers for providing with examples of what it means for a man to live in accord with Nature. This obviously contrasts with the Sophists who taught by lecturing and wouldn’t normally be held up as living examples of virtue in this way. We should change ourselves first before attempting to change others. Epictetus here alludes to the Stoic and Socratic doctrine that virtue is its own reward.
Make us imitators of yourself, as Socrates made men imitators of himself. For he was like a governor of men, who made them subject to him their desires, their aversion, their movements towards an object and their turning away from it. — Do this: do not do this: if you do not obey, I will throw you into prison. — This is not governing men like rational animals. But I (say): As Zeus has ordained, so act: if you do not act so, you will feel the penalty, you will be punished.—What will be the punishment? Nothing else than not having done your duty: you will lose the character of fidelity, modesty, propriety. Do not look for greater penalties than these. (3.7)
Epictetus’ “Discipline of Assent”, again linked to Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living. But here Epictetus suggests that means that an unexamined thought (impression) is not worth accepting. Stoics should check every impression first and foremost to see if it conflates value judgements with externals, is it an Objective Representation (phantasia kataleptike) free from value judgements that we project onto external things? He says physical exercise can serve as moral exercise, as long as it’s not carried out for external goals like vanity. The difference between training in a gym to improve our character and training to look good.
The third topic concerns the assents, which is related to the things which are persuasive and attractive. For as Socrates said, we ought not to live a life without examination, so we ought not to accept an appearance without examination, but we should say, Wait, let me see what you are and whence you come; like the watch at night (who says) Show me the pass (the Roman tessera). Have you the signal from nature which the appearance that may be accepted ought to have? And finally whatever means are applied to the body by those who exercise it, if they tend in any way towards desire and aversion, they also may be fit means of exercise; but if they are for display, they are the indications of one who has turned himself towards something external and who is hunting for something else and who looks for spectators who will say, Oh the great man. For this reason Apollonius said well, When you intend to exercise yourself for your own advantage, and you are thirsty from heat, take in a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out and tell nobody. (3.12)
In this passage, Epictetus appears to be referring to the Socratic Method or elenchus (confutation) as a powerful means for overcoming arrogance, and revealing our deficiencies by exposing the contradictions in our thinking.
You must root out of men these two things, arrogance (pride) and distrust. Arrogance then is the opinion that you want nothing (are deficient in nothing): but distrust is the opinion that you cannot be happy when so many circumstances surround you. Arrogance is removed by confutation; and Socrates was the first who practised this. And (to know) that the thing is not impossible inquire and seek. This search will do you no harm; and in a manner this is philosophizing, to seek how it is possible to employ desire and aversion (ἐκκλίσει) without impediment. (3.14)
Epictetus wants to say that Socrates and Diogenes, his two favourite role models, were uniquely suited by their respective characters for different roles in life, assigned to them by Nature herself.
But not even wisdom perhaps is enough to enable a man to take care of youths: a man must have also a certain readiness and fitness for this purpose, and a certain quality of body, and above all things he must have God to advise him to occupy this office, as God advised Socrates to occupy the place of one who confutes error, Diogenes the office of royalty and reproof, and the office of teaching precepts. (3.21)
This striking passages attributes to Socrates an implicit message like the Biblical quo vadis – “Where goest thou?” Socrates is like a messenger whose role is to remind us that our true goal in life lies within our own souls and that we should not be distracted by external things.
It is his duty then to be able with a loud voice, if the occasion should arise, and appearing on the tragic stage to say like Socrates: Men, whither are you hurrying, what are you doing, wretches? like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without? (3.22)
Epictetus mentions at least twice the notion that Socrates loved his children with a peculiar kind of philosophical detachment. This is similar to his advice that we should love our wives and children while remembering that tomorrow they may die, i.e., to love without attachment. He refers in passing to Socrates’ public service as a “senator” (a member of the Athenian boule or citizen council) and as a hoplite in the Athenian army.
Did not Socrates love his own children? He did; but it was as a free man, as one who remembered that he must first be a friend to the gods. For this reason he violated nothing which was becoming to a good man, neither in making his defence nor by fixing a penalty on himself, nor even in the former part of his life when he was a senator or when he was a soldier. (3.24)
Again, compare “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” Socrates’ moral character was not harmed by his execution, although we may say that his body was harmed. However, his accusers (and here his judges) harmed their own moral character by their unjust actions against him.
Socrates then did not fare badly?—No; but his judges and his accusers did. (4.1)
Again, although Socrates loved his wife and children, he did not allow this to compromise his moral character. He had a country but thought of himself as a citizen of the whole cosmos. Socrates’ military service is mentioned again as well as his refusal to comply with the unlawful order to arrest Leon of Salamis. Epictetus reflects on Socrates’ attitude toward his sentence and his refusal of Crito’s offer to help him escape from the prison. Epictetus makes the striking claim that through the example of his noble death, like a martyr for philosophy, Socrates continues to be useful to mankind even though he is long dead.
And that you may not think that I show you the example of a man who is a solitary person, who has neither wife nor children, nor country, nor friends nor kinsmen, by whom he could be bent and drawn in various directions, take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly; and when he was sent by the tyrants to seize Leon, he did not even deliberate about the matter, because he thought that it was a base action, and he knew that he must die (for his refusal), if it so happened. And what difference did that make to him? for he intended to preserve something else, not his poor flesh, but his fidelity, his honourable character. These are things which could not be assailed nor brought into subjection. Then when he was obliged to speak in defence of his life, did he behave like a man who had children, who had a wife? No, but he behaved like a man who has neither. And what did he do when he was (ordered) to drink the poison, and when he had the power of escaping from prison, and when Crito said to him, Escape for the sake of your children, what did Socrates say? did he consider the power of escape as an unexpected gain? By no means: he considered what was fit and proper; but the rest he did not even look at or take into the reckoning. For he did not choose, he said, to save his poor body, but to save that which is increased and saved by doing what is just, and is impaired and destroyed by doing what is unjust. Socrates will not save his life by a base act; he who would not put the Athenians to the vote when they clamoured that he should do so, he who refused to obey the tyrants, he who discoursed in such a manner about virtue and right behaviour. It is not possible to save such a man’s life by base acts, but he is saved by dying, not by running away. For the good actor also preserves his character by stopping when he ought to stop, better than when he goes on acting beyond the proper time. What then shall the children of Socrates do? “If,” said Socrates, “I had gone off to Thessaly, would you have taken care of them; and if I depart to the world below, will there be no man to take care of them?” See how he gives to death a gentle name and mocks it. But if you and I had been in his place, we should have immediately answered as philosophers that those who act unjustly must be repaid in the same way, and we should have added, “I shall be useful to many, if my life is saved, and if I die, I shall be useful to no man.” For, if it had been necessary, we should have made our escape by slipping through a small hole. And how in that case should we have been useful to any man? for where would they have been then staying? or if we were useful to men while we were alive, should we not have been much more useful to them by dying when we ought to die, and as we ought? And now Socrates being dead, no less useful to men, and even more useful, is the remembrance of that which he did or said when he was alive. Think of these things, these opinions, these words: look to these examples, if you would be free, if you desire the thing according to its worth. (4.1)
Once again, Epictetus repeats the unusual observation that Socrates provides an example of someone who does not engage in quarrels, despite asking penetrating questions and speaking the truth plainly.
The wise and good man neither himself fights with any person, nor does he allow another, so far as he can prevent it. And an example of this as well as of all other things is proposed to us in the life of Socrates, who not only himself on all occasions avoided fights (quarrels), but would not allow even others to quarrel. See in Xenophon’s Symposium how many quarrels he settled, how further he endured Thrasymachus and Polus and Callicles; how he tolerated his wife, and how he tolerated his son who attempted to confute him and to cavil with him. For he remembered well that no man has in his power another man’s ruling principle. He wished therefore for nothing else than that which was his own. And what is this? Not that this or that man may act according to nature; for that is a thing which belongs to another; but that while others are doing their own acts, as they choose, he may nevertheless be in a condition conformable to nature and live in it, only doing what is his own to the end that others also may be in a state conformable to nature. (4.5)
Xanthippe, his notoriously ill-tempered wife, is again cited as an example of Socrates’ patience and endurance, along with his wayward son. The story was that Alcibiades sent Socrates a fine cake, which Xanthippe trampled underfoot, to which he remarked only that she’d spoiled her own share. These are used as examples of Stoic indifference to external things.
Remembering this Socrates managed his own house and endured a very ill tempered wife [Xanthippe] and a foolish (ungrateful?) son. For in what did she show her bad temper? In pouring water on his head as much as she liked, and in trampling on the cake (sent to Socrates). And what is this to me, if I think that these things are nothing to me? (4.5)
Epictetus refers once again to Socrates’ saying from Crito about acceptance of his fate. Socrates’ goal was to free his own mind to follow reason, and not to gain praise for lecturing in public, like a Sophist. Again, his writing of poetry while awaiting execution is used as an example of his indifference.
Or how will you still be able to say as Socrates did, If so it pleases God, so let it be? Do you think that Socrates if he had been eager to pass his leisure in the Lyceum or in the Academy and to discourse daily with the young men, would have readily served in military expeditions so often as he did; and would he not have lamented and groaned, Wretch that I am; I must now be miserable here, when I might be sunning myself in the Lyceum? Why, was this your business, to sun yourself? And is it not your business to be happy, to be free from hindrance, free from impediment? And could he still have been Socrates, if he had lamented in this way: how would he still have been able to write Paeans in his prison? (4.4)
Some of Marcus’ references to Socrates appear to be derived from Epictetus. Complicating things, only four of the eight Discourses of Epictetus survive today but Marcus appears to have also read the ones lost to us. So he may be alluding at times to discussions of Socrates by Epictetus in some of the lost discourses.
Antoninus Pius is compared to Socrates in terms of his ability to either enjoy or abstain from (to take or leave) the sort of things other people tend to indulge in too much – “All things in moderation”. This could be a reference to Plato’s Symposium or to the Memorabilia or Symposium of Xenophon.
And that might be applied to him [Antoninus Pius] which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus. (1.16)
Marcus mentions in passing his reflection on the fact that “lice” killed Socrates and that we should likewise be prepared for death, something that comes even to the greatest and wisest among us (3.3). Marcus attributes to Socrates the idea that philosophy trains us to separate the mind from externals, which is a central aspect of Stoic psychological training.
But if nothing appears to be better than the deity which is planted in thee, which has subjected to itself all thy appetites, and carefully examines all the impressions, and, as Socrates said, has detached itself from the persuasions of sense, and has submitted itself to the gods, and cares for mankind; if thou findest everything else smaller and of less value than this, give place to nothing else, for if thou dost once diverge and incline to it, thou wilt no longer without distraction be able to give the preference to that good thing which is thy proper possession and thy own; for it is not right that anything of any other kind, such as praise from the many, or power, or enjoyment of pleasure, should come into competition with that which is rationally and politically or practically good. (3.6)
In those two passages, Marcus lists Socrates along with other great philosophers and interestingly sets Epictetus beside him, reflecting on their mortality.
[…] so many noble philosophers, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates [are now dead and gone]. (6.47)
How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus has time already swallowed up! (7.19)
Marcus refers, like Epictetus, to the incident where Socrates refused the unlawful order to arrest Leon of Salamis, mentioned in Plato’s Apology. Nevertheless, we can’t judge someone’s virtue purely by looking at their actions, we have to understand their underlying motives and attitudes as well.
How do we know if Telauges was not superior in character to Socrates? For it is not enough that Socrates died a more noble death, and disputed more skilfully with the sophists, and passed the night in the cold with more endurance, and that when he was bid to arrest Leon of Salamis, he considered it more noble to refuse, and that he walked in a swaggering way in the streets—though as to this fact one may have great doubts if it was true. But we ought to inquire what kind of a soul it was that Socrates possessed, and if he was able to be content with being just towards men and pious towards the gods, neither idly vexed on account of men’s villainy, nor yet making himself a slave to any man’s ignorance, nor receiving as strange anything that fell to his share out of the universal, nor enduring it as intolerable, nor allowing his understanding to sympathize with the affects of the miserable flesh. (7.66)
Here Socrates is mentioned alongside Heraclitus (again) and Diogenes as examples of a great philosopher.
Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Pompey, what are they in comparison with Diogenes and Heraclitus and Socrates? For they were acquainted with things, and their causes [forms], and their matter, and the ruling principles of these men were the same [or conformable to their pursuits]. But as to the others, how many things had they to care for, and to how many things were they slaves! (8.3)
Marcus recalls one of Epictetus’ favourite sayings from Socrates about our fear of death being like children who are spooked by those dressed in frightening masks.
Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae,—bugbears to frighten children. (11.23)
Socrates’ avoids indebting himself to others who offer him favours.
Socrates excused himself to Perdiccas for not going to him, saying, It is because I would not perish by the worst of all ends; that is, I would not receive a favor and then be unable to return it. (11.25)
This seems to be related to the anecdote, now lost, which Epictetus mentions in passing, where Xanthippe apparently stripped Socrates of his clothing.
Consider what a man Socrates was when he dressed himself in a skin, after Xanthippe had taken his cloak and gone out, and what Socrates said to his friends who were ashamed of him and drew back from him when they saw him dressed thus. (11.28)
The two following passages appear to run together and may be quotes from Epictetus about Socrates. The question of our own sanity is of peculiar importance because all other questions depend upon our ability to reason clearly. This is a snippet showing Socrates using the elenchic method to expose a contradiction between the beliefs of his interlocutors and their actions. They do not seek to achieve sanity and reason because they assume they already have it but then if they are indeed perfectly sane and rational why do they fight and quarrel with one another?
The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter, but about being mad or not. Socrates used to say, What do you want, souls of rational men or irrational?—Souls of rational men.—Of what rational men, sound or unsound?—Sound.—Why then do you not seek for them?—Because we have them.—Why then do you fight and quarrel? (11.38-39)
If you’re interested in reading more sayings and anecdotes feel free to download the e-book I created containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius, called The Life and Opinions of Socrates.
Free Email Course
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.