Xenophon records several examples of situations in which Socrates would help his friends to cope with difficulties. He was perceived as having a talent for giving sound practical advice. When someone had a problem that could be resolved by knowledge, he would try to educate them. When they faced practical obstacles he would encourage his friends to help one another in various ways. In this dialogue, Xenophon reports a conversation between Socrates and an otherwise unknown man called Aristarchus about how to deal with refugees (Memorabilia, 2.7). I’ve paraphrased it below, and added a few brief comments for clarification.
The context is perhaps the democrat uprising against the Thirty Tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that ruled Athens for eight months. Xenophon is believed to have left Athens for good a couple of years after this event. A rebel army led by the naval officer Thrasybulus had captured the Piraeus and many democrat exiles rallied there before the final battle that overthrew the oligarchy of the Thirty, and restored democracy in Athens.
One day, Socrates noticed that Aristarchus appeared rather despondent. “You look as though you were weighed down by something, Aristarchus”, he said. “You ought to share the burden with your friends; perhaps we could even help relieve you a little.” Aristarchus explains his problem. He says that since the “civil war” broke out, and many Athenians fled to the nearby port of Piraeus, a large number of female refugees have gathered under his roof. Including his sisters, nieces, and cousins, there are now fourteen women seeking shelter in his household. Aristarchus is in dire straits. His family can get nothing from their farm because the land has been seized by their opponents. They cannot raise any money from other properties they own because he says the city is practically deserted. There are no potential buyers for one’s belongings and it’s impossible even to raise a loan from anyone. He jokes that you’ve a better chance of finding money by searching for it on the streets than by applying for a loan. Aristarchus is clearly in despair and he says it is very painful to “stand by and watch one’s family die by degrees” because in such difficult circumstances he lacks the resources even to feed so many of them.
Having heard this, Socrates asks how another man, called Ceramon, is able not only to provide for his large household, and feed them, but also to make a profit and become rich, at the same time Aristarchus’ family are dying of want. This is typical Socrates: he often begins by questioning whether other people might respond to the same situation differently. Aristarchus says this is because Ceramon’s household is full of slaves whereas his own problem is supporting free people, his own relatives. Socrates asks whether the free people in Aristarchus’ household are better than the slaves in Ceramon’s. He says that he thinks they are. It’s a shame, muses Socrates, that Ceramon should actually be prospering because of the size of his household whereas Aristarchus is struggling because of his, despite believing them to be better people.
Well, says, Aristarchus, that’s surely because he’s supporting slaves who work for him as craftsmen whereas I’m supporting people who were born and raised in freedom. Socrates responds by asking what it means to be a craftsman or artisan. Aristarchus agrees with his suggestion that it obviously means someone who knows how to make something useful. Now Socrates brainstorms a list of examples… So is hulled barley useful? What about bread? Men and women’s coats, shirts, cloaks, or tunics? Aristarchus agrees that all of these things are very useful.
Well, says Socrates, don’t your guests know how to make any of these things? On the contrary, says Aristarchus, they presumably know how to make all of those. Don’t you know, says Socrates, that from one of these trades alone, hulling barley, Nausicydes supports not only himself and his servants but also a large number of pigs and cattle? He has so much to spare that he often carries out public services for the state as well. And didn’t you hear that Cyrebus maintains a whole household and lives in luxury just by baking bread? Then there’s Demeas of Collytus who makes a living by manufacturing cloaks, Meno who weaves blankets, and most of the Megarians earn their living making tunics.
That’s true, replies a hesitant Aristarchus, but these people all keep foreign slaves to do the work for them. They can force them to do whatever happens to be convenient to support the household but I’m dealing with free people, who are my relatives. Do you really think that just because they’re free born and related to you, exclaims Socrates, that they should do nothing but eat and sleep? What about other free people? Don’t you think that people who work and apply themselves energetically to doing something constructive have a better quality of life and aren’t they more fulfilled than those who do nothing useful? Or do you find that idleness and apathy help people to learn and improve, to gain physical health and fitness, and to prosper in life? Surely these female relatives of yours, asks Socrates, didn’t learn these arts because they regarded them as being of no practical benefit? Surely they learned them intending to practice them seriously in a manner that’s of benefit to themselves and others? So is it more sensible for humans to do no work at all or to occupy themselves useful in such things? And which person has more integrity: one who works or one who frets about how to obtain life’s necessities without working?
As things are right now, he adds, I would imagine that there’s no love lost between you and them. You feel that these women are imposing a great burden on you by seeking refuge in your home and they must be able to see that you’re growing irritated with them. So there’s a real danger that animosity will grow to replace your initial feelings of goodwill toward one another. However, if you encourage them to do work, you will naturally begin to feel more positively about their presence when you see that they’re doing something beneficial for you and they will grow more fond of you when they realize that you’re pleased to have them as your guests. Over time, you’ll feel more and more gratitude toward one another, and your relationship will improve – you’ll become good friends.
Now, of course, if the women in your household were forced into some dishonourable occupation in order to survive they might feel like their lives were not worth living anymore. However, as it stands, the work at which they’re already competent seems to be of the sort considered most respectable and appropriate for a woman. Moreover, people always do better, make faster progress, and take more enjoyment in work they understand well. So don’t hesitate to suggest this solution to them as it’s a course of action that will benefit both you and them. I’m sure they’ll be glad to comply. Aristarchus was convinced. He told Socrates that he thought that sounded like great advice. “Until now,” he said, “I’ve been too anxious to borrow because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it back but now I feel that I can justify a loan to get work started.”
Indeed, Xenophon tells us what happened afterwards. As a result of this conversation, he says Aristarchus obtained the capital required to purchase wool for the women. They would start work before breakfast and continue until supper, and became more cheerful as a result of their situation improving. Instead of looking askance at one another the two parties became better friends. The women came to look upon Aristarchus as their guardian, and he came to respect them for helping to support the household. Eventually, he went to visit Socrates and was delighted to tell him how well things had worked out. He jokes that although at first he was worried about putting them to work now the women criticize him for being the only person in the household who’s not weaving.
“You should tell them the story about the dog,” said Socrates. They say that back when animals could talk a sheep said to its shepherd: “I don’t understand. We sheep provide you with wool and lambs and cheese but you give us nothing except grass to eat. The dog gives you nothing but you treat him as if he’s special, and share your own meals with him.” The dog overheard and replied: “Quite right too! I am the one to whom you owe your safety. I protect you from being stolen by men or seized by wolves. If I didn’t keep watch over the flock you wouldn’t even be able to graze in peace for fear of being killed.” When they heard this argument, says Socrates, even the sheep admitted that the dog deserved his privileges. So you should tell the women who are guests in your home that you’re like the dog in that story, guarding them and taking care of them. That should remind them that it’s through your goodwill that they’re able to live and work in safety, and be happy.”
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.