The Stoics on Phocion the Good

Phocion the Good was an Athenian statesman and general who was born a few years before Socrates was executed.  He was executed at Athens himself around 318 BC, perhaps shortly after the arrival there of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.  Plutarch wrote a chapter on him in Parallel Lives, citing him as a Greek counterpart to the famous Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica.  Plutarch mentions Zeno of Citium in relation to the laconic style of speaking that Phocion shared with Cato:

For, as Zeno used to say that a philosopher should immerse his words in meaning before he utters them, so Phocion’s language had most meaning in fewest words.

He also says that Phocion was a “pupil of Plato when he was still a stripling, and later a pupil of Xenocrates, in the Academy” and he therefore “cultivated the noblest behaviour from the very beginning”.  We’re also told that Phocion  had been a follower of Diogenes the Cynic, in the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius.

In a fragment from a lecture by Musonius Rufus “on whether a philosopher will file a suit against someone for assault”

Socrates obviously refused to be upset when he was publicly ridiculed by Aristophanes; indeed, when Socrates met Aristophanes, he asked if Aristophanes would like to make other such use of him. It is unlikely that this man would have become angry if he had been the target of some minor slight, since he was not upset when he was ridiculed in the theater! Phocion the Good, when his wife was insulted by someone, didn’t even consider bringing charges against the insulter. In fact, when that person came to him in fear and asked Phocion to forgive him, saying that he did not know that it was his wife whom he offended, Phocion replied: “My wife has suffered nothing because of you, but perhaps some other woman has. So you don’t need to apologize to me.”

Marcus Aurelius may have heard this story because he also mentions Phocion in relation to enduring the contempt of others.

Will someone feel contempt for me? Let him look to that. But I for my part will look to this, that I may not be discovered doing or saying anything that is worthy of contempt. Will someone hate me? Let him look to that. But I will be kind and good-natured to everyone, and ready to show this particular person the nature of his error, not in a critical spirit, nor as if I were making a display of my tolerance, but sincerely and kindheartedly, like the great Phocion (if he really meant what he said). For that is how one should be within one’s heart, to show oneself to the gods as one who is neither disposed to be angry at anything nor to make any complaint. For what harm can come to you if you are presently doing what is appropriate to your nature, and you welcome what is presently appropriate for universal nature, as someone who is supremely anxious that by one means or another the common benefit should be brought to fruition? (Meditations, 11.13)

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