Three Strategies of the Stoic Socrates

When confronted by the troubling behaviour of others, there were three main strategies or ideas that Socrates employed, which were later assimilated into Stoic philosophy.  (If you want to learn more, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on Socrates.)

1. Other people’s behaviour is indifferent

Socrates liked to remind himself and others that external events, including the actions of others, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but only insofar as we respond to them wisely or foolishly.   Events that are neither good nor bad are indifferent.  For example, he explains to his eldest son Lamprocles that the notorious tongue-lashings they receive from Socrates’ wife Xanthippe are no worse than those delivered by actors on the stage.  But one actor is not upset when another yells abuse at him.  So the behaviour in itself is indifferent, it’s our interpretation of it that upsets us, and we should remind ourselves of that.

2. Nobody does evil willingly

Socrates famously argued that no man does evil knowingly, which means he cannot do it willingly.  Everyone believes what he is doing to be right, he says, in other words he does what he does for the sake of achieving what he considers to be good for himself.  Socrates therefore argued that when people act viciously or unjustly it’s because they’re making an error of judgement about the course of action that will lead to their own good.  Realizing this we should pity the unjust, if anything, rather than feeling anger toward them.  They’re making the same sort of mistakes that children often make before they’ve learned to see beyond the misleading initial impressions we have of certain things.

3. Other people provide us with an opportunity to exercise our own virtue

Once we realize that other people’s actions are neither good nor bad and that injustice is due to ignorance, it becomes apparent that what matters most is whether our own response is good or bad.  Challenging situations, where our initial impressions are potentially upsetting, give us an opportunity to exercise wisdom and virtue, and doing so repeatedly strengthens our own character.  Socrates was often asked by his friends why he put up with Xanthippe scolding him, throwing cold water over him, and even ripping the shirt from his back in the street.  Socrates said that the best trainers choose to work with spirited horses knowing that by doing so they improve their own skills and become more confident dealing with whatever type of horses they may encounter in the future.  (Xanthippe’s name means yellow or golden horse in Greek.)

In the same way, Socrates said that putting up with Xanthippe was good training to strengthen his own character.  He knew that she was a good wife and mother, fundamentally, it was just that her quick temper sometimes created a negative appearance but he considered that misleading and saw beyond it.  Socrates liked to say that as small children we at first fear others wearing scary masks (think Halloween costumes).  When we realize that underneath the mask, it’s just other children having fun, the fear is eliminated.  He said we should view other events in the same way as adults, treating our initial impressions like bugbear masks.  The wise man pauses to remove the mask, examining what’s really behind it rationally, and thus his fears are often eliminated by greater knowledge and understanding of the truth.

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