Socrates Stoicism

Athens: Visiting the “Prison of Socrates”

The Greeks tell tourists this house carved into the Hill of the Muses is the “prison of Socrates” but there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence for that.  Still, it’s worth a visit.  You could maybe climb though the bars and imagine that you’re awaiting a cup of hemlock, if you want to relive the great philosopher’s last days.  (Here are some photos from my trip to the so-called “Prison of Socrates”.)

The Stoics were particularly interested in the way Socrates resigned himself to his fate after being condemned to death by the Athenians.  For example, Epictetus wrote:

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. (Discourses, 1.12)

For the Stoics, in typically paradoxical fashion, anyone who resents his fate or craves more than he has effectively condemns himself to dwell in a psychological prison of his own making.  Socrates, by contrast, was as free as a bird, even as he sat chained in a cell.

Socrates was so indifferent to his own predicament that he spent his time discussing philosophy when his friends visited, or composing poems when alone.  This was something Epictetus saw as emblematic of his philosophical attitude toward death:

And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison. (Discourses, 2.6)

Epictetus would have his students say that it was not Socrates who was chained in prison but his body, while his mind remained as free as ever.

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.” (Discourses, 1.29)

Anytus and Melitus were the two main accusers who brought Socrates to trial.  This final part of the quote is also the closing line of the Handbook of Epictetus:

O Crito, if so it pleases the Gods, so let it be; Anytus and Melitus are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me.

These two quotes, from the Crito and Apology respectively, were obviously of great significance to Epictetus and his students.  Moreover, we’re told that a one of Epictetus’ heroes, Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, was known for saying: “Nero can kill me but he cannot harm me.”

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