Socrates the Pimp and the Celestial Art of Love

Eros“It seems to me that in writing about the deeds of truly good men, it is proper to record not only their serious activities, but their diversions too.” That’s the opening line of Xenophon’s Symposium, a dialogue about the philosopher Socrates and his friends attending a drinking party. It’s a philosophical dialogue about the nature of love, friendship, and goodness. However, it’s clearly has layers of meaning and we’re warned from the outset that Socrates isn’t being entirely serious here, although he’s not entirely joking either.  The whole dialogue is steeped in double meaning and Socratic irony.

We’re told that Callias, a wealthy man who paid a great deal of money to be educated by Sophists, was strongly attracted to an adolescent boy called Autolycus. After watching a horse race together, accompanied by the boy’s father, they all set off for Callias’ house in Piraeus when they spotted Socrates with a group of his friends.  Callias invited them to join him for dinner because he was eager to enjoy their conversation.

As the symposium or drinking party gets underway, Callias wants to bring in perfumes but Socrates objects saying that men should smell of the sweat worked up in gymnasia. Autolycus’ father says that’s alright for the young but what about the old – what are they to smell of? Socrates replies “True goodness, of course.” “Where”, the man asks, “are they to get that perfume?” And Socrates replies by quoting the poet Theognis: “Good company will edify you whereas bad will rob you even of the wits you had.” This causes the friends to get into a debate about where Autolycus should find a good teacher and whether virtue can be taught at all.

There’s a lot of good humoured banter, and a bit of light philosophical discussion.  Socrates assures his friends that drinking wine gets his approval because “wine refreshes the heart”, and both allays worry while fanning the flame of good cheer. However, he says it affects the human body and mind just as plants are affected by having too much or too little water. When they get too much plants can’t stand up straight in the breeze but when they get just the right amount they grow upright and flourish. So the friends should drink just the right amount. Socrates wisely recommends that they should drink from small goblets so that they moderate their consumption, as that way he thinks they’ll enjoy the evening more. The friends agree.

They begin discussing where each man’s area of expertise lies.  When asked what he’s most proud of Autolycus says his father and Callias remarks that Lycon, in that case, must be the richest man in the world because he obviously wouldn’t exchange all the wealth of the Great King of Persia for his beautiful son. When they come round to Socrates, though, he declares, to their surprise, that the thing he’s most proud of is his expertise as a pimp (μαστροπός).

In typical Socratic fashion, he then proceeds to define what it means to be a pimp, starting with a fairly uncontroversial statement that soon leads to something more paradoxical.  A pimp, he says, is someone who represents his client as a pleasing person to everyone he meets.  That seems reasonable enough as a starting point for their definition.  However, notes Socrates, even someone physically beautiful may give either friendly or hostile looks with the same eyes.  They may speak either modestly or insolently with the same tongue, and behave in ways that are either offensive or conciliatory. There are, he’s implying, both pleasant and unpleasant ways that even a beautiful person may behave.  So he adds a twist: a good pimp, if he’s going about his work properly, should also teach his client character traits that are pleasing and not just depend upon their looks.

Socrates continues by saying that any pimp worthy of the name should also make his client pleasing not just to one person, or a few, but to many.  The friends begin to disagree at this point, perhaps sensing that Socrates is leading them further away from the conventional meaning of the word.  Nevertheless, Socrates insists that a “supremely good pimp” would be able to make his client appear pleasing to the entire city.  This is a typical maneuver on his part.  I think he’s implying that to be pleasing to everyone, you must go beyond mere appearances and actually become pleasing in a more genuine way.  As he elsewhere likes to say, you should be as you wish to appear.

To everyone’s surprise, Socrates then concludes that his good friend Antisthenes is just that sort of pimp, having perfected precisely this art. At first, he’s slightly offended. However, Socrates reminds Antisthenes that it was he who introduced Callias to the famous Sophist Prodicus.  Antisthenes saw that Callias had a great desire to learn philosophy and Prodicus at that time needed money. Indeed, Antisthenes has introduced Socrates to some good people as well by praising both parties so effectively that they fell in love and went hunting for one another. Antisthenes is therefore an excellent pimp, by Socrates’ standards. He means that he’s a good matchmaker for those who should be friends.  Antisthenes excels at spotting people who would benefit one another through their acquaintance. He’s good at recognizing individuals’ good qualities and praising them, accurately and truthfully, to one another.

Socrates goes even further and links being a good pimp to being an ideal citizen, like a great statesman.

It seems to me that a man who is able to recognize people who are likely to benefit each other, and who can make them desire each other, could develop friendship between political states and arrange suitable marriages, and would be a very valuable ally for both states and individuals to possess.

Socrates jokes that Antisthenes got offended at first when he called him a pimp because he didn’t realize what he meant but now the term has been properly defined, it’s clear that being a good pimp is actually something to which one should aspire because it benefits the whole of society.  The greatest pimps make the greatest statesmen?  It’s fair to say this is yet another of Socrates’ famous paradoxes.  Antisthenes says he’s no longer offended and that if he actually has the qualities that Socrates attributes to a pimp thenn his soul must be filled with true wealth, by which he means virtue.

The Argument

As they were discussing philosophy, the man in charge of the entertainers was becoming irritated because they had lost interest in his young dancers. So he starts trying to pick an argument with Socrates. He says “Aren’t you the one they call the ‘thinker’?”, referring to Antisthenes’ play The Clouds, in which Socrates was satirized quite unfairly for being a pompous intellectual. Instead of getting annoyed, Socrates just replies “Yes, that’s nicer than if they called me the ‘thoughtless’, though”, turning it into a compliment. The man persists in trying to pick a fight and brings up some of the things that would later be used against Socrates in his trial: the idea that he talks about celestial phenomena, as if this were a form of impiety. Socrates turns this around as well, though, saying that there’s nothing more celestial than the gods.

As this rather belligerent man goes on and on, spoiling the mood of the party, Antisthenes interrupts accusing him, to the others, of starting to resemble a slanderer. Socrates subtly points out that his friends should stop there before they also begin to sound like slanderers themselves. Phillip the comedian, who was about to make fun of the man for being a slanderer, isn’t convinced and objects that if he praised him instead he’d be lying, like a toady, instead of telling the truth. Socrates notes that it’s also slander to say that someone is better than everyone else, presumably because praising one person in that way implies criticism of others.

Phillip asks to whom he should compare the man if not better or worse types of people and Socrates tells his friend that he’d be better not to compare him to anyone. He advises Phillip that the way to earn one’s place at the dinner table is to keep quiet when things are better left unsaid. In other words, if you want to be welcome among friends, you have to learn how to avoid pointless arguments. In this way, says Xenophon, the heated conversation of Socrates’ inebriated companions was cooled down. Socrates then persuades them all to sing a song, “as we’re all so keen to have our voices heard”, and thereby artfully changes the subject. And he sneakily persuades the argumentative man to have his dancers perform a routine representing the Graces, who traditionally danced in a circle holding hands, and personified charm, friendship, and harmony. In other words, Socrates found an way to encourage someone who was causing an argument to exhibit his ability to restore harmony and grace to their company, and win praise by doing so.

Celestial and Common Love

After quelling the brewing argument, Socrates turns to praise of Eros or Love.

Gentlemen, we are in the presence of a great deity, as old in time as the eternal gods, and yet most youthful in appearance, who pervades all things in his greatness and is enshrined in the heart of man: I mean Love.

Socrates says he can’t think of a time when he hasn’t been in love with someone or other and he gives examples of all the people his companions love. In particular, Socrates praises Callias for being in love with Autolycus because he’s not attracted by someone pampered but by a youth who’s self-disciplined, courageous, and worthy of admiration. To be attracted by such admirable qualities is evidence of the lover’s own character.

Socrates then brings up the distinction between two Aphrodites: Celestial and Common. He says that there are different shrines for both versions of Aprhodite and she’s worshipped with different rites under either name. The Common Aphrodite he says inspires physical love whereas the Celestial Aphrodite inspires love of the mind, friendship, and more noble behaviour. Socrates says that Callias has the higher, Celestial, sort of love because he loves Autolycus for his good character.  Callias invites the boy’s father to accompany them, which proves that there’s nothing about their relationship that needs to be concealed. One of Socrates’ friends, Hermogenes, makes the astute observation that Socrates is to be admired for his exceptional ability to praise others while simultaneously showing them how they ought to behave. That’s like saying that he focuses on the best in people, and their potential for good, and praises this in such as way as to nurture it and encourage them toward greater virtue.

Socrates says that this higher love also brings more pleasure, ultimately, than merely physical love.  He says that those who crave others physically often end up criticizing their character whereas love of good character leads to friendship and companionship.  Also when we love someone for purely physical reasons, as they grow older, our love naturally wanes, whereas love of the mind grows stronger as our beloved matures.  Moreover, sexual desire is an appetite that becomes satiated, like hunger for food, whereas affection for the mind is never exhausted.

Reciprocal Love

There are several advantages, therefore, that allow us to derive more pleasure from the higher type of love.  However, Socrates now argues that the love inspired by the Celestial Aphrodite has an even more important advantage.  Whereas mere carnal love is often one-sided, it is more natural for love of good character to be reciprocated.

First of all, says Socrates, nobody can really hate someone who considers him truly good.  Secondly, nobody can hate someone who places the welfare of his beloved ahead of his own pleasure. Indeed, someone who has the higher sort of love would not even be turned away from his beloved by the “calamity of a disfiguring disease”. Those whose love and affection is mutual therefore look at one another with pleasure, and converse with friendship. They trust one another, and are considerate, sharing pleasure in one another’s successes and sorrow in their misfortunes. They continue in happiness for as long as they are together and in good health, and they care for one another in sickness. This is the true love, according to Socrates, sacred to the Celestial Aphrodite. When people treat one another like this they enjoy the continuation of their friendship even into old age.

Xenophon then portrays Socrates roundly criticizing the merely sexual love of older Athenian men for young boys, which he denounces as exploitative and corrupting.  He goes on to say that those who love others only physically are servile and go around like beggars after their beloved. He adds that it’s his higher love that prompts him to speak out thus against its adversary. One who loves only the body is like a person who has rented a plot of farmland rather than one who owns a holding. He wants to exploit it and gain as much as he can in the process whatever the consequences. Those who have the higher form of love, love of another’s character, resemble farmers who nurture the land they own with its long-term value in mind.

Those who are loved for their bodies alone have no incentive to develop good character, moreover. Whereas those loved for their minds are motivated to maintain their good character, and so they naturally care more about virtue.  However, says Socrates, the supreme benefit conferred by higher love, the Celestial Aphrodite, is upon the lover himself who is compelled to cultivate good character in order to win the friendship of the beloved, whose character he admires. All the virtues are encouraged by loving another because he possesses goodness.  In other words, loving goodness makes us good ourselves, and for Socrates that is love’s greatest gift to us.

If you remember, Xenophon opened the whole dialogue by saying that it was a story about good men enjoying themselves.  Although he doesn’t spell this out, Socrates himself, the supreme pimp, has also acted like the supreme lover.  He shows love for his friends by wanting to educate them about the nature of love.  He wants to them to flourish and become good men.  He’s not at all possessive but happy to match them up with other teachers he believes will benefit them in this respect.  Indeed, the dialogue ends with the drinking party coming to a close and the youthful Autolycus getting up to leave for home.  As the boy leaves with his father, he pauses for a moment, turns back, and says: “I swear, Socrates, it seems to me that truly you are a good man.”

Save $5 on Pre-orders of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

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Table of Contents
1. The Dead Emperor
    The Story of Stoicism
2. The Most Truthful Child In Rome
    How to Speak Wisely
3. Contemplating the Sage
    How to Follow Your Values
4. The Choice of Hercules
    How to Conquer Desire
5. Grasping the Nettle
    How to Tolerate Pain
6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations
    How to Relinquish Fear
7. Temporary Madness
    How to Conquer Anger
8. Death and the View from Above

Book Review: Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall

Aristotle's Way by Edith HallAristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life is a new book by Edith Hall, professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College, London.  As the title makes clear, it’s a book about how Aristotle’s philosophy can provide practical guidance for living, aimed at a general readership.

I really enjoyed this book and I think others will too.  I found it very readable and Hall is clearly an authority in this area.  She’s written about Aristotle in quite a conversational style but she clearly cares deeply about the material.  She mentions that she travelled to eight different places where he lived as part of her research into his life and philosophy.  She tries hard to make Aristotle’s ideas accessible to modern readers who are unfamiliar with classical literature or academic philosophy and I think she  succeeds very well.  My own area of interest is Stoic philosophy and its practical applications to modern living so the similarities and differences between the Stoics and Aristotle are particularly interesting to me.  I’ll touch on some of those aspects below as I describe a few of the key ideas from Hall’s book.

The chapter titles are fairly self-explanatory and provide a convenient overview of the main topics covered in the book:

  1. Happiness
  2. Potential
  3. Decisions
  4. Communication
  5. Self-knowledge
  6. Intentions
  7. Love
  8. Community
  9. Leisure
  10. Mortality

Hall begins by explaining that although most of us seem to agree that happiness is desirable, the word itself is somewhat ambiguous and has acquired several quite distinct meanings.  In a sense, the rest of the book can be understood as an attempt to explore Aristotle’s concept of happiness (eudaimonia) and its implications for different areas of our lives.  However, according to Hall, John F. Kennedy captured the essence of Aristotelian happiness in a single sentence: “The full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.”  The first and simplest point to observe about this, as Hall notes, is that Aristotelian virtue ethics is traditionally contrasted with certain forms of hedonism.  There’s more to life than the pursuit of pleasure.  A genuinely fulfilled life also requires actualizing our potential as rational beings, which is basically what Aristotle means by virtue (arete), although pleasure also plays a part in this.

Hall explains the Aristotelian principle known as the “Golden Mean”, according to which virtue lies between the two extremes of excess and deficiency, which constitute vice in relation to some character trait or quality.  For instance, courage is understood as the middle state between the vices of rashness and cowardice, the former resembling an excess of courage and the latter a deficit.  Vengeance, likewise, is okay in moderation according to this view.  As Hall puts it: “people who have no desire whatsoever to get even with those who have damaged them are either deluding themselves or have too low an estimate of their own worth.”

This differs from the ethical position adopted by Socrates, and later by the Stoics, who said that the desire for vengeance is inherently foolish and vicious.  The desire for revenge is just wrong, according to this view, even if it’s relatively moderate in nature.  For example, in Plato’s Crito, Socrates asks whether it is right, as the whole world says, to  attempt to get even by repaying evil with evil.  Doing evil, or harm, to others, he says, is the same thing as doing them an injustice, which would be wrong.

Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. […] Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return. (Crito, 49c)

When I studied Aristotle at Aberdeen University, a few decades ago now, Ian Fowley – an elderly philosopher who looked remarkably like Socrates – liked to describe the principle of the Golden Mean as follows…  If you were throwing a party and uncertain how many bottles of wine to purchase for your guests, Aristotle’s advice would be like saying “don’t buy too many, but don’t buy too few either – the right amount being somewhere between these two extremes”.  Perhaps that might sound wise, in a sense, but it’s a bit too vague to be of very much help when it comes to practical decision-making.

As Hall explains, Aristotle thinks we should be angry with our enemies but not too much, just the right amount.

The truly great-souled man will get to the point of serenity where he “does not bear grudges, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them.” On the other hand, Aristotle does think that there is a time and a place not only for vengeful feelings such as anger, but for vengeful action. […] In the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics he even argues that revengeful feelings can be virtuous and rational.

The Stoics, by contrast, believed that anger is temporary madness and that the wise do not indulge in this sort of vengeance.  Stoics accept their initial feelings (propatheiai) of anger as something involuntary, natural, and morally indifferent.  However, we shouldn’t continue to fan the flames of our anger voluntary but rather learn to take a step back from it and regain our composure before deciding what action to take next.  For the Stoics, the distinction between virtue and vice is more qualitative than quantitative.  The full passion of anger is always irrational, and unphilosophical, because it entails a desire for the other person to suffer harm.  The wise man, by contrast, wishes that his enemies would improve and become wise themselves.

I find that today some people tend to be more drawn to the Stoic perspective and some to the Aristotelian way of looking at anger.  Some people just don’t get very angry, and they seem to get along fine in life.  Other people get quite angry but appear able to deal with it constructively.  What I’ve learned, though, from my experience as a cognitive therapist, though, is that strong feelings such as anger tend to introduce various cognitive and attentional biases.  These potentially hamper our ability to deliberate clearly about difficult situations and to engage in rational problem-solving.  And once we begin to entertain feelings of anger they can easily begin to skew our judgement.

I’m definitely more inclined toward the Stoic perspective, which inspired the theory and practices of modern cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy.  However, I can see the merits of both points of view, Stoic and Aristotelian, and I think they provide a great opportunity for discussion, comparing them to one another and teasing out the subtle differences.   However, Hall’s short appraisal of Stoicism is surprisingly negative and somewhat dismissive:

Other ancient philosophical systems have found advocates in modern times, especially the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. But Stoicism does not encourage the same joie de vivre as Aristotle’s ethics. It is a rather pessimistic and grim affair. It requires the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommends the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active, practical engagement with the fascinating fine-grained business of everyday living and problem-solving. It doesn’t leave enough room for hope, human agency or human intolerance of misery. It denounces pleasure for its own sake. It is tempting to agree with Cicero, who asked, “What? Could a Stoic arouse enthusiasm? He will rather immediately drown any enthusiasm even if he received someone full of zeal.”

I think these are criticisms worth hearing and each of these points about Stoicism deserves to be answered.  For example, you might say Stoicism lacks joie de vivre, although a profound type of joy (chara) is actually one of the core positive emotions (eupatheiai) endorsed by the Stoics.  For example, Marcus Aurelius frequently refers to such joy.  He even specifies several psychologically insightful means of cultivating this healthy emotion.  I doubt most modern followers of Stoicism would say that Stoicism is any more “grim and pessimistic” a philosophy than Aristotle’s is.  It doesn’t really advocate the “suppression of emotions” any more than cognitive therapy does but rather the transformation of unhealthy emotions into more natural and healthy ones by disputing the irrational beliefs underlying them.

The ancient Stoics also didn’t really recommend the “resigned acceptance of misfortune”, in the negative sense Hall appears to have in mind.  Rather they taught that emotional acceptance of events beyond our direct control should be combined with a commitment to practical action in accord with justice  and other ethical values – something Epictetus calls the “Discipline of Action”.  For instance, when the Marcomanni and their allies launched a massive invasion of Pannonia, and penetrated into Italy, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius didn’t respond with “resigned acceptance” and inaction.  Instead, he “donned the military cape and boots”, rode out from Rome to lead the counter-offensive, and ended up commanding the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier throughout a series of wars that lasted nearly a decade.  Indeed, the Stoics were well-known for actively (even stubbornly) engaging in various political struggles and military enterprises, often risking their lives in doing so.  They were definitely not passive doormats.

Likewise, the Stoic attitude toward pleasure is more nuanced than Hall perhaps implies.  Pleasure (hedone) isn’t “denounced” but classed as an “indifferent”, neither good nor bad.  In fact, denouncing pleasure as bad would be a fundamental mistake according to the Stoics.   On the other hand, it’s true that indulging excessively in pleasure by treating it as something more important than wisdom or virtue was a vice denounced by the Stoics.   On the other hand, as noted earlier, the Stoics place considerable importance on a healthy form of cheerfulness or joy (chara), which complements the exercise of wisdom and virtue.  So the Stoics weren’t joyless; it would be much closer to the truth to say they thought we shouldn’t treat bodily pleasures (and things like flattery) as if they were the goal of life.  These pleasures aren’t bad in themselves but rather craving them to excess is a vice, especially if we do so at the expense of more important things.

Of course, there are some ambiguities in these ancient texts and there’s scope for reading them in more than one way.  I’m somewhat more inclined to favour Stoicism and read it in a sympathetic light.  Hall’s bound to do the same with Aristotle.  For example, she acknowledges she’s somewhat sidelining his problematic views about the inferiority of slaves and women, although this arguably has wider implications for the modern reception of his ethical philosophy.  I think the most important thing is that dialogue continues between Stoic, Aristotelian, and other philosophical perspectives.  We have the most to gain by encouraging an intelligent comparison between these ethical perspectives, especially given the growing number of modern readers interested in applying them in their daily lives.  As it happens, Marcus Aurelius, though a Stoic, mentions Aristotelian ideas favourably and one of his closest friends and advisors, Claudius Severus, was an Aristotelian philosopher.  Marcus praised Severus in The Meditations, mentioning how grateful he was for the opportunity to learn about politics from him.  Indeed, I suspect that whether someone engages with Stoicism or Aristotelianism, or Epicureanism, they’re likely to end up better off than someone who doesn’t think about ethical philosophy at all but rather goes along uncritically accepting some of the values prevailing in modern society.

Venting memeI want to talk briefly about an Aristotelian concept that’s long been associated with psychotherapy.  Hall mentions that Aristotle’s Politics refers to “a certain catharsis and alleviation accompanied by pleasure”, which has been taken as the inspiration for Freud’s theory of emotional catharsis.  A “cathartic” in medicine is a purgative, a drug that supposedly cleanses poisons from the body by inducing defecation, a bit like a laxative.  Freud originally believed that venting strong emotions had a cathartic effect, somehow purging them from our minds.  However, although he endorsed emotional catharsis in his first book on psychotherapy, Studies on Hysteria (1895), Freud actually abandoned the method before long.  He concluded that venting alone was of little therapeutic benefit unless accompanied by insight into the source of our emotions.  In the 1960s and 1970s, several psychotherapists, such as Arthur Janov the founder of Primal Scream therapy, attempted to rehabilitate the notion of catharsis as a psychological therapy.  However, it ultimately it failed to gain clinical support.  Indeed, Freud and Janov developed their ideas without any scientific evidence, prior to the use of clinical trials in psychotherapy.

It’s beyond question that venting (catharsis) of emotions such as grief or anger often makes clients temporarily feel better.  However, feeling better and getting better are two very different things.  Researchers have been unable to find robust support for emotional catharsis having genuine long-term psychological benefits.  Indeed, in relation to both grief and anger, studies have shown that repeated venting is sometimes more likely to do people more harm than good.  It seems that venting an emotion can simply reinforce it, like exercising a muscle or repeating a habit, rather than “getting it out of our system”.  In other words, if Aristotle really believed in a psychotherapeutic mechanism of catharsis, as Freud initially did, it seems he may have been mistaken.  Perhaps his Golden Mean could be applied here: a little bit of emotional venting is natural and harmless, and suppressing our feelings is often unhealthy, but venting too much or too often isn’t usually therapeutic also be unhealthy.


I really enjoyed this book and I’d definitely recommend it to other people.  Even though I’m more partial to Stoicism, I found it interesting and valuable to compare what I’ve learned from Stoicism and cognitive therapy with what Hall says about the ethical and psychological guidance found in Aristotle’s philosophy.  It’s very easy to read and that’s quite an achievement with a topic of this nature.  I don’t remember Aristotle ever being quite as much fun as this when I was a student.  It does read like a mixture of what you’d expect from a conventional self-help book and what you might obtain from a good introduction to classical philosophy.  These elements are combined very well, though, and I think it will satisfy people approaching the book from different perspectives: whether they’re more into ancient philosophy or the self-improvement aspect.

Preliminary Data from Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is underway.  Just over 3,000 people have enrolled to take part this year.  Tim LeBon has already got some initial data from the questionnaires.  This word cloud shows the main reasons people gave for taking part:

SMRT 2018 Word Cloud68.5% of participants are male and 30.5% female.

SMRT 2018 Gender

Most participants were aged 26-55.

SMRT 2018 Ages

When asked where they live the top five responses from participants were:

  1. United States 37.2%
  2. United Kingdom 22.5%
  3. Canada 7.8%
  4. Australia 3.5%
  5. Germany 3.1%

31.8% said they had no knowledge of Stoicism or would describe themselves as novices.  58.8% had never taken part in SMRT or Stoic Week before.  However, 26.9% had taken part in SMRT or Stoic Week “more than five” times already.  So there’s both a lot of newcomers and a lot of people who repeat these courses more or less every year.  45.7% of participants said that they didn’t consider themselves Stoics or weren’t sure, whereas the rest identified themselves as being Stoics to some degree.

We have a lot of other data from responses to the SPANE and Satisfaction with Life questionnaires, and Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) but I’ll leave that for another article.

Order Your Signed Copy of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorSome of you have have contacted me about obtaining signed copies of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.  I’m pleased to announce that you can now order your copy by phone or email from Ben McNally’s bookstore and they will ship it to you as soon as it’s available.

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Donald Robertson Signature

Socrates and Theodote the Courtesan

Salome Jens as Theodote
Salome Jens as Theodote in the play Barefoot in Athens.

Xenophon says that for a time an exceptionally beautiful courtesan (hetaira) called Theodote lived in Athens, who had attracted a lot of attention.  She had become something of a celebrity, highly sought after as a model for painters.  One of his friends mentioned to Socrates that her beauty was “beyond description”.  Socrates replied that in that case they should pay her a visit in person because no clear idea can be formed about what is beyond description from a mere verbal description, such as hearsay provides.

The friends went and observed Theodote as she was posing, partially clothed, for an artist.  Socrates started a conversation by asking, in typically paradoxical fashion, whether the men should be more grateful to Theodote for allowing them to gaze upon her beauty or whether she should be more grateful to them for admiring her.  “I suggest that, if the display has been more to her advantage, she ought to be grateful to us, and if it is more to ours, we ought to be grateful to her.”  He then argues that whereas Theodote enjoys their admiration and will later benefit from them spreading word of her beauty, they will go away with their passions inflamed, suffering from desire.  So he concludes: “The natural inference from this is that we are performing the service and she is receiving it.”  Theodote seems amused and jokes that in that case she should indeed be grateful for them gawping at her.

Theodote was clearly doing well for herself.  She was dressed in fine clothing, as was her mother, and the several maids who attended her.  Moreover, the house in which they resided was very lavish.  Socrates asks her how she supports herself in such fine style and Theodote replies “If anyone gets friendly with me and wants to be generous, that’s how I get my living.”  Xenophon leaves this unsaid but Socrates himself was apparently supported by a small group of wealthy patrons.  The similarities between Theodote’s situation and his own appear to be on his mind as he continues:

Good heavens, it’s a splendid asset to have a flock of friends – much better than having a flock of sheep and goats and cattle.  But tell me, do you leave it to chance whether a friend wings his way toward you, like a fly, or do you devise something yourself?

Thedote says she doesn’t know what he means.  Spiders spin webs to catch flies and humans likewise set traps to snare rabbits and other animals, says Socrates.  However, friends are the most valuable prey of all and therefore require a more subtle hunting method.  Nevertheless, he also says that Theodote could support herself by attracting friends even more naturally than a spider spinning a web to catch flies.

Socrates explains how hunters use different types of dogs to sniff out hares and chase them down and set up nets to entangle them.  He says Theodote should provide herself with a human hound who would track down “men of wealth and good taste” and drive them into her nets.  “Nets!”, she exclaims.  “What nets have I got?”

One, certainly which is very close-enfolding: your body. And in it is your mind, which teaches you how to look charming and talk gaily, and tells you that you must give a warm welcome to an attentive lover, but bolt the door against a selfish one; that, if a lover falls ill, you must look after him devotedly; that, if he has a stroke of luck, you must share his pleasure enthusiastically; and that, if he cares for you deeply, you must gratify him wholeheartedly. As for loving, I am sure that you know how to love not only passively, but with real affection; and you convince your lovers that you are fond of them, I know, not by words but by deeds.

Socrates is describing the arts of love employed by a sophisticated courtesan.  Theodote, however, denies using any such methods, perhaps feeling it makes her appear somewhat manipulative.  Socrates therefore responds:

Then again it’s much better to keep one’s human relationships natural and right. You can’t capture or keep a friend by force; but by showing the creature kindness and giving it pleasure, you can both catch it and keep it by you.

Theodote is much happier to agree with this way of putting things.  Socrates translates his advice into the following practical guideline.  When people care for you, you should only make such demands of them as they can satisfy without too much trouble.  You should then seek to repay them for their favours.  In this way, they will become attached to you and continue to love you in the longer-term, acting with generosity toward you.  And you’ll please them the most if you bestow your favours on them only when they desire them enough to ask.

Hunger, said Socrates elsewhere, is the best relish, and here he repeats his view that we should only eat when genuinely hungry.  Likewise, he elsewhere says that sexual desire should only be satisfied when it arises naturally.  So his advice to Theodote appears to be that she shouldn’t give herself too readily to her clients for sex but rather allow their desire for her time to grow stronger, perhaps developing into love.  Theodote asks how exactly she’s supposed to arouse such hunger.  Socrates spells out that he’s telling her to behave more modestly and not to hint at offering sexual favours to her admirers until the right time, “holding back until their need is as great as possible”.

Eros and Aphrodite, with magic wheel

Theodote asks whether Socrates would help her to hunt for friends, an allusion to the fact he elsewhere refers to himself as being a sort of pimp.  He says he’d be pleased to do so, if she can persuade him, and Theodote replies “Then come and see me often.”  Socrates jokes, though, that it’s not easy for him to find the time because he’s busy with his own flock of admirers, “who will never let me leave them by day or night, because they are learning from me about love-charms and spells.”  This catches Theodote’s interest and she wants to learn about love charms from Socrates if he’s serious.

Socrates jokes that it’s because of his love spells that his faithful disciples Apollodorus and Antisthenes never leave his side, and Cebes and Simmias travel all the way from Thebes to visit him.  “You may be sure that these things don’t happen without a lot of love-charms and spells and magic wheels.”  (Magic wheels were a specific type of love charm invented by Aphrodite according to legend.)

Theodote asks Socrates to lend her his magic wheel so that she can spin it first of all to place him under her spell.  “Certainly not”, he replies, “I don’t want to be drawn to you; I want you to come to me.” Theodote says “Very well, I will, but mind to let me in.”  Socrates jokes that he will unless he has someone with him that he likes better.

Socrates is alluding throughout this dialogue to his claim to be a pimp or matchmaker for the virtuous.  He’s only willing to make introductions when he believes that someone genuinely deserves friends because of the potential for goodness that they exhibit, though. He’s also hinting, somewhat opaquely, at the notion, repeated elsewhere, that the most powerful love spell consists in actually showing love and kindness toward others.  Over four centuries later, Seneca mentions this Socratic definition of the most powerful love charm, although strangely he attributes it to a Stoic called Hecato:

If you ask how one can make oneself a friend quickly, I will tell you […].  Hecato, says: “I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation: ‘If you would be loved, love.’”

In Xenophon’s Symposium and Memorabilia, Socrates likewise talks about this idea that exhibiting love or friendship toward others works like a charm if we want to experience love in return.  It seems closely-related to his more general advice that we should be as we wish to appear in life.  If you want to appear lovable, and be loved by others, then you should actually make yourself deserving of their affection by taking the initiative and showing love and kindness toward them first.

New: Free Email Course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just launched a new email course about The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Enroll on The Meditations Email Course

It consists of weekly emails, each containing one passage from The Meditations with my comments underneath.  It’s basically an open-ended course.

Bonus: The first email contains links to a bundle of free resources including eBooks and downloads about Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy.

Marcus Quote

Jon Meacham on Marcus Aurelius

While I was researching my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I stumbled across a Newsweek article about Marcus Aurelius, from 2010, written by author and political commentator Jon Meacham.  Meacham won a Pulitzer prize in 2009 for his biography of US president Andrew Jackson.

Meacham’s article, A Case for Optimistic Stoicism, was inspired by the attempted Al Qaeda bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was bound from Amsterdam to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in the US.  I wanted to write a little about this article because I think it deserves to be read and because it seems to me that Meacham has actually understood the essence of Stoicism better than many others who have attempted to write about it.  Though he’s not a scholar of this particular subject he clearly “gets it” and the Stoic doctrine he gets is one that’s really quite central to the whole philosophy.

Meacham was reading the Gregory Hays translation of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius when he heard about the attack.  He was immediately struck by the relevance of Marcus’ Stoic reflections as America once again faced the renewed threat of terrorism.  In particular, the following words resonated with him at that moment:

If you’ve seen the present then you’ve seen everything—as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever.  The same substance, the same form. All of it.

Meacham sounded jaded by the “mindlessly divided” nature of the political response to the incident.  The same old finger-pointing and political point-scoring.  Politicians using a threat as an opportunity to squabble among themselves rather than addressing the real issues at stake.

He reasoned that threat is always present, lurking somewhere during times of apparent peace.  Americans were deluding themselves to think otherwise.  Crises are inevitable.  With The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his hands, Meacham could only wish that instead of the embarrassing display of Democrats and Republicans scrambling to opportunistically exploit the event Americans should learn, like the Roman emperor, to embrace a philosophy of optimistic Stoicism.

Meacham understands Marcus Aurelius.  He says that a proper grasp of the Stoic philosophy of The Meditations would require adopting a world view which calmly accepts the stubborn intransigence of human affairs, and their darker side, but also retains a hopeful sense of their possibilities.  Not just Stoic acceptance of a passive kind, as people sometimes assume, but an attitude of hopeful and determined action.  True Stoics balance resignation and calm realism, the Stoic Discipline of Desire, with relentless idealism and a serious commitment to moral principles, the Discipline of Action.  That paradox is the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.  Stoics quietly accept life’s misfortunes without complaint but they nevertheless remain committed to doing good, for the common welfare of mankind.

As Meacham notes, Marcus Aurelius wrote that human beings were made to help one another – a theme that he returns to many times throughout The Meditations.  The wise man, Marcus says, can be recognized by the affection he exhibits toward his neighbours, and through his humility and truthfulness.  The only true good is virtue, which leads to universally admired character traits such as justice, self-control, courage, and freedom.  The only true evil is vice, the opposite frame of mind.

Meacham also spots the Roman emperor’s striking remark that we cannot go around expecting to achieve Plato’s ideal republic in political life – it’s unrealistic to demand that we live in a Utopia.  Nevertheless, says Marcus, rather than simply abandoning our ideals – like so many people do when they become disillusioned with modern politics –the Stoics advise us to work toward justice and our political ideals more patiently.  We should accept the imperfections around us while maintaining our goal of making progress toward something far better, even if it’s only one small step at a time.  Indeed, Marcus says that this Stoic willingness to keep working steadily toward a beautiful ideal while nevertheless accepting reality warts and all, is the secret of fulfilment in human life.

Meacham realized as he watched the news that day that despite the duty of government to strive for its people’s safety, America was facing the horrifying reality of a war without end against enemies who could appear anywhere:

No matter how many camps we blow up, no matter how many operatives we kill or imprison, and certainly no matter how much screening we do at airports, we will never render America totally safe. No matter. We must press forward on all fronts. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. […] As Marcus Aurelius would understand, a never-ending war is not a war we should not fight: it is just a war that never ends. The sooner we accept this, the better.

That’s what I would simply describe as a philosophical attitude toward the stark reality of terrorism.  One type of folly denies the reality of these threats and buries its head in the sand.  Another type of folly accepts them but exaggerates our inability to cope and throws its arms up in the air in despair.  What people find so difficult about Stoicism is that it does neither of these foolish things.  Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius could walk and chew gum.  They could calmly accept adversity while nevertheless patiently fighting back against it, even though the odds seemed stacked against them or the battle seemed interminable.  Life, as Marcus said, is warfare.  It never ends.  The good man accepts this, without complaint, and he remains at his post anyway, standing guard against the enemy.

In 1712, Thomas Addison wrote a play called Cato, a Tragedy, which celebrated the great Roman Stoic hero, Cato of Utica.  It contains many Stoic themes including the striking lines:

Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius – we’ll deserve it.

George Washington was reputedly so inspired by this play that he had it staged for his army camped at Valley Forge.  That was the philosophy he felt they needed to inspire them.  We don’t give up just because we’re facing an overwhelming threat.  The goal of life isn’t to win, because that’s not always up to us, but rather to deserve to win, something eminently under our control.  We can be victorious over fortune in that respect, right now, even when engaged in a war without end.  As soon as we turn our back on the true goal, though, we’ve already lost everything for which it’s worth putting up a fight in the first place.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Don’t Miss Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is now enrolling and due to start on Sunday 25th November, when enrollment will close.  Every year we get people contacting us to say they missed the enrollment window so please don’t miss out!

SMRT is a FREE four-week course provided by Modern Stoicism, a nonprofit organization run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers.  It’s an intensive skills training approach to Stoicism.  Visit the website for more information.

Click the button below to enroll now or to learn more…

So far 2,544 people have registered in advance so we’re aiming to reach three thousand by Sunday.  We’ve been running SMRT since 2014 and it keeps on growing into a bigger event each year.  Last year we had about 1,800 participants so we’ve already gone way beyond that number this time round.

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