Interviews Philosophy Podcasts Socrates Stoicism

Conversation with Massimo Pigliucci about Stoicism and Socrates

The latest podcast episode of my podcast, brand new today, is a conversation with Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic and The Quest for Character. I’ve known Massimo for years and wanted to talk to him about how he first became interested in Stoicism, whether his views had changed, his interest in Skepticism and anti-pseudoscience, as well as what his new book says about Socrates, Alcibiades, good leadership, and the development of character.

You can download from Substack Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and many other hosts.

Massimo Pigliucci on Socrates, Stoicism and Leadership Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life Podcast

In this episode, I chat with Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, part of the team responsible for the Modern Stoicism organization, and author of several books on philosophy, including How to be a Stoic and, more recently, The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches us about Our Search for Good Leaders.  Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.Topics covered include…* How Massimo first got into philosophy, and into Stoicism * What he learned from writing How to be a Stoic* How he has changed his mind about aspects of Stoicism* The Modern Stoicism org and the modern resurgence of interest in Stoicism? * Why doesn’t there seem to be as much interest in Epicureanism or other ancient schools of philosophy among the general public? * What's The Quest for Character about? * Why write about Socrates and Alcibiades? * What potential do you think Socrates saw in Alcibiades? * What do you think Alcibiades’ biggest flaws were and what was his biggest mistake in life? * Would it have turned out differently if a Stoic like Epictetus had been Alcibiades’ tutor? * To what extent good character, or virtue, can be taught* How we could be doing a better job of teaching virtue today Thank you for reading Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life. This post is public so feel free to share it. Get full access to Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life at donaldrobertson.substack.com/subscribe
Courses Socrates

Enroll now for How to Live Like Socrates – Live from Athens

I am delighted to announce that I will be running my elearning course How to Live Like Socrates, which lasts four weeks, starting on Sunday 4th September. Enroll now if you want to join us! I will be delivering the webinars live from Athens, the birthplace of Socrates!

This is the first time I’ve run the course in over two years. It used to run 2-3 times per year but I’ve been busy writings books. I am currently working on a new book about Socrates. So some of that original material will find itself into the course this time around!

Donald Robertson Signature
Donald at the Acropolis in Athens

Events Socrates

Register Now for “How to Think Like Socrates!”

Our virtual conference on the Socratic Method will take place on 27th August, so make sure you register now.

How to Think Like Socrates

Virtual conference on reasoning like a Greek philosopher

If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy and the Socratic Method can help us think more clearly and live better lives today, this is the online event for you!

When you register you’ll have the option to donate an amount of your choosing (or even nothing).* All proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be provided afterwards if you book your tickets now.

What’s it all about?

We bring together a special program of world-class thinkers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.

Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the Socratic Method, including effective and practical advice and strategies to think critically, reason more clearly, and protect yourself against misleading information and sophistry.


  • Opening Keynote: “Socrates and Alcibiades: How to Think About Statesmanship”, Massimo Pigliucci, author of How To Be Good: What Socrates Can Teach Us About the Art of Living Well (30 min)
  • “Socrates as Cognitive Therapist”, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, president of Plato’s Academy Centre (20 min)
  • “Socrates and Civility”, Alexandra O. Hudson, author of Against Politeness (20 min)
  • “How to Question Like Socrates”, Christopher Phillips, PhD, author of Socrates Cafe and Soul of Goodness, founder of SocratesCafe.com (20 min)
  • “Cognitive Therapy and Socratic Self-Doubt”, R. Trent Codd, III, CBT Counseling Centers; Co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors (20 min)
  • “Street Epistemology: How to Think about Thinking”, Anthony Magnabosco, Executive Director of Street Epistemology International (20 min)
  • “Self-Socratic Method for Personal Growth”, Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP psychologist and co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors (20 min)
  • Closing Keynote: “The Socratic Method”, Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic and The Socratic Method (30 min)
  • Q&A with Panel (20 min)

NB: Details may be subject to change without prior notification.

Who will be hosting?

Our hosts will be Donald Robertson, the president of the Plato’s Academy Centre, and Anya Leonard, the founder and director of the Classical Wisdom website.

About Plato’s Academy Centre

The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.


  1. Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.
  2. Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.
  3. How much does it cost? We’re making it free to register, so it’s available to the widest possible audience, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a donation, amount of your choosing. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might normally cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events. *If you do not wish to donate anything whatsoever, you may contact us directly to apply for a free ticket or simply enter the promo code NODONATION when booking.
  4. Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.


We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.

Events Socrates

Announcing: Socratic Method Virtual Conference

How to Think Like Socrates

Virtual conference on reasoning like a Greek philosopher

If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy and the Socratic Method can help us think more clearly and live better lives today, this is the online event for you!

Tickets now available on EventBrite. Payment is by donation, an amount of your choosing, and all proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be available afterwards to everyone booking tickets in advance.

What’s it all about?

We bring together a special program of world-class thinkers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.

Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the Socratic Method, including effective and practical advice and strategies to think critically, reason more clearly, and protect yourself against misleading information and sophistry.


  • “Socrates and Civility”, Alexandra O. Hudson, author of Against Politeness
  • “Cognitive Therapy and Socratic Self-Doubt”, R. Trent Codd, III, CBT Counseling Centers; Co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors
  • “Street Epistemology: How to Think about Thinking”, Anthony Magnabosco, Executive Director of Street Epistemology International
  • “Self-Socratic Method for Personal Growth”, Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP psychologist and co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors
  • “Socrates as Cognitive Therapist”, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, president of Plato’s Academy Centre
  • Keynote: “The Socratic Method”, Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic and The Socratic Method

NB: Details may be subject to change without prior notification.

About Plato’s Academy Centre

The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.


Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.

Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.

How much does it cost? We’re making it free to register, so it’s available to the widest possible audience, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a donation, amount of your choosing. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might normally cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events. *If you do not wish to donate anything whatsoever, you may contact us directly to apply for a free ticket or simply enter the promo code NODONATION when booking.

Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.


We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.

Socratic Method Virtual Event
Socrates Stoicism

Interview with Ward Farnsworth

Thought you might be interested in today’s latest article from The Plato’s Academy Centre, this new interview with Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practising Stoic and The Socratic Method.

…the Socratic style of thought is what our culture needs right now. It’s an antidote to social media and to the toxic state of our politics.

Ward Farnsworth

Ward talks in this interview about his love of the Socratic Method and the influence of Socrates on the Stoics. Read the Interview

You’ll find dozens of articles about philosophy and its modern applications now on our new website, which launched officially at the start of the year. If you’re interested, you can also find details of how to support us in our project to bring philosophy back to the grounds of the Plato’s Academy in Athens.

Finally, stay tuned for details, including program of speakers, coming very soon for our inaugural virtual conference in May this year!


Donald Robertson

Socrates Stoicism

The Stoic Philosophy of Michael Cohen?

Today I was trying to write an article discussing my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius when something caught my attention.  It was the story of a lone figure facing his destiny in court.  One of the historic turning points following a period of intense political turmoil.  He speaks in paradoxical language about wisdom, virtue, freedom, and the meaning of life…

No, it wasn’t Socrates in Plato’s Apology.  It was Michael Cohen, aka Donald Trump’s erstwhile fixer and (sort of) lawyer.  As I was listening to the news today, I realized, to my surprise, that Cohen’s sentencing statement contained references to a way of looking at events that resembled the ancient doctrines of Socratic and Stoic philosophy. 

In case you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the past couple of years, the news is that Cohen has pled guilty to eight criminal charges: five counts of tax evasion, one count of making an excessive campaign contribution, one count of causing an unlawful corporate campaign contribution and one of making false statements to a federally insured bank.  Today (12th Dec) was his day in court to be sentenced and also his big chance to summon up all of his rhetorical powers and try get himself out of the pickle he’s in. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Cohen’s sentencing statement gets off on a philosophical footing.  It opens with a famous quotation from Viktor Frankl, the author and existential psychotherapist, who survived the Nazi concentration camps:

I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to, the personal ones to me and those involving the President of the United States of America. Viktor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he wrote, “There are forces beyond your control that can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Michael Cohen

Frankl didn’t seem to realize this but the Stoics had already made this one of the central principles of their philosophy.  “It’s not things that upset us,” said Epictetus, the most famous of all Roman Stoic teachers, “but our judgements about them.”  According to the Stoics, and Frankl, we’re not free to control the events that befall us but we are free to decide how to respond, and how we think about them.  Apparently this is also Cohen’s philosophy and he wanted to make that clear to the judge, his family, and everyone else who was listening, presumably up to and including President Trump whom Cohen has implicated in some of these crimes.  Cohen’s words here allude to the fact this has already led to the current President of the USA being named in court filings as an unindicted co-conspirator.  That’s possibly about as close as a sitting president can get to actually being indicted for a federal crime. 

What Cohen seems to be trying to say here is that his willingness to voluntarily plead guilty should prove that he’s now taking full ownership for the crimes he committed.  (Although, that said, a lot of people believe there are plenty of other crimes he could have pled guilty to but hasn’t.)

That’s just the beginning, though.  Cohen immediately follows up the quote from Viktor Frankl with a philosophical paradox worthy of Socrates himself:

Your Honor, this may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life. The irony is today is the day I am getting my freedom back as you sit at the bench and you contemplate my fate.

Michael Cohen

He’s implying that by finally taking responsibility for his crimes, and confessing them publicly in court, he’s made his life mean something once again.  Paradoxically, the day they sentence him to prison, he says, will be the day he regains his existential freedom.  This was the part that caught my attention when I heard it on the news.  Cohen’s saying that true freedom comes from within.  Even the most powerful ruler in the world can be imprisoned by his own passions and vices, if he’s a tyrant.  On the other hand, even though he’s chained and thrown in prison, a wise man can achieve true freedom, within his own mind, by liberating himself from falsehood and embracing the truth.  

Whether he realized it or not, Cohen is actually uttering one of the famous paradoxes of Stoic philosophy.  Only the wise man is really free and everyone else is enslaved.  Even when the wise man is imprisoned by a tyrant or sentenced to death like Socrates, he is still freer than everyone else, including his oppressors.  The man who is bitter, though, and hates his situation in life, is in a prison of his own making, even though he might be serving at the court of a great king, who lives in a fine palace.

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. […] 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. 


Indeed, Cohen goes on to make it clear that from the day he entered Trump’s service until this very moment, when he publicly disowns him in court by confessing to the crimes they committed together, he’s been living in a psychological prison of his own making.

I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired. In fact, I now know that there is little to be admired. I want to be clear. I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today, and it was my own weakness, and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light. It is for these reasons I chose to participate in the illicit act of the President rather than to listen to my own inner voice which should have warned me that the campaign finance violations that I later pled guilty to were insidious.

Michael Cohen

It turns out that like Socrates, Cohen has an “inner voice” or daimonion that warns him not to undertake certain actions.  Socrates listened to his when it told him not to accept favours from the powerful and thereby make himself indebted to them.  Cohen says his mistake, by contrast, was to ignore his own inner voice and go down the “path of darkness” by agreeing to commit various crimes on behalf of Donald Trump.

Trump keeps calling Cohen weak, because he’s flipped and turned witness against his former boss.  However, in another paradox worthy of Socrates and the Stoics, Cohen agrees that he was “weak” but only in the past when he was acting the tough guy as Trump’s fixer.  

Recently, the President Tweeted a statement calling me weak, and he was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass. My weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump, and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands. I have already spent years living a personal and mental incarceration, which no matter what is decided today, owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I really am.  

Michael Cohen

Cohen is saying that true weakness consists in acting viciously, through moral blindness.  True strength consists in freeing yourself from mental and emotional imprisonment by taking responsibility for your actions, and speaking the truth about them when it matters.  Cohen is saying that whereas he previously thought strength meant being a “loyal soldier to the President” he now realizes that was actually just weakness, and true strength would have consisted in finding the courage to say no to Trump and exposing his crimes much earlier, for the sake of his country.

Cohen promised the judge that he would stay on the straight and narrow road going forward: “I now know that every action I take in the future has to be well thought out and with honorable intention because I wish to leave no room for future mistakes in my life.”  He apologized to his family and the people of the United States in general, for his lying to them, but he didn’t actually apologize to Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal, or the other women who were direct victims of his actions on behalf of Donald Trump.  

I found this statement fascinating.  It left me with a lot of unanswered questions, though.  Did he even write it himself?  Does he really mean all the things he said today in court?  I recently wrote an article about Socrates, the Stoics and Roger Stone, another of Trump’s associates whose time in the spotlight is presumably coming up very soon.  Stone has made a career out of being a self-described political “dirty trickster” and revels in his infamy.  In his recent book, he brags shamelessly about his use of the “Big Lie” technique pioneered by the Nazi propagandists:

Erroneously attributed to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, the “big lie” manipulation technique was actually first described in detail by Adolf Hitler himself. […] Nonetheless, the tactic of creating a lie so bold, massive, and even so monstrous that it takes on a life of its own, is alive and well all through American politics and news media. Make it big, keep it simple, repeat it enough times, and people will believe it.

Roger Stone

For all we know, Cohen shares the same shamelessly cynical philosophy of life, which Stone implies was the key to Trump’s electoral success.  I’d like to think Cohen’s more sincere and, for instance, he really meant his closing words:

Most all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States. You deserve to know the truth and lying to you was unjust. I want to thank you, your Honor, for all the time I’m sure you’ve committed to this matter and the consideration that you have given to my future. […] And I thank you, your Honor, I am truly sorry, and I promise I will be better. 

Michael Cohen

The judge didn’t seem persuaded, though.  He sentenced Cohen to three years in federal prison, which could have been worse but still clearly wasn’t the news for which he or his lawyers had been hoping.  Cohen said he was ready to take responsibility for his crimes, though, and accept his fate.  The real test of his newfound Stoicism therefore will be whether, as Epictetus puts it, he can write poetry contentedly while serving time inside.

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

Books Socrates Stoicism

Book Review: Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? by Piotr Stankievicz

Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity is a new book by Piotr Stankievicz, a Polish poet and philosopher.  He’s also a member of the Modern Stoicism team responsible for organizing Stoicon and Stoic Week.

Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? tackles the question of whether Stoicism, as a philosophy of life is actually incompatible with artistic creativity, as some people assume. For example, Nietzsche is quoted in one of the book’s epigraphs:

[For those] whose work is of the spirit […] it would be the loss of losses to be deprived of their subtle irritability and be awarded in its place a hard Stoic hedgehog skin.

Nietzsche really excels at misunderstanding the Stoics, and he appears to have had, at best, a very superficial acquaintance with the philosophy and its surviving texts. The ancient Stoics don’t use this “hedgehog” phrase but they do repeatedly explain that their goal is not to be like a man made of stone or iron, with a hard heart. Even the ideal Stoic Sage still experiences feelings, such as irritation, but he’s not overwhelmed by them and he chooses not to indulge or perpetuate unhealthy passions.

Nevertheless, people do frequently question whether Stoicism is compatible with creativity or not. This question is related to a broader one about whether the ideal of “happiness” (eudaimonia) conflicts with artistic creativity. We all agree that great artists are often unhappy people, the argument begins, and so to be truly creative one must suffer and be unhappy, comes the conclusion – although, on closer inspection, it should be obvious this is a non sequitur.  Another of the book’s epigraphs provides a clear example of this sort of fallacious reasoning from the pseudo-intellectual provocateur Slavoj Žižek: “The root of all human creativity lies in pursuit of unhappiness.” It’s the familiar cliche of the tortured artist, but turned by Žižek into a ludicrous overgeneralization.

Stankievicz’s book seeks to critically evaluate this assumption.  It opens with a foreword by Lawrence Becker, who sadly passed away not long before I began writing this review. Becker makes it clear that he agrees with the central claim of the book: that there is no inherent conflict between Stoic philosophy and the human capacity for creativity.

Stoic Attitudes Toward the Arts

I think Stankiewicz interprets the ancient Stoics as holding a more negative attitude toward the arts than I detect in their surviving writings. My own interpretation would be that the Stoics were very wary of the persuasive power of the arts, especially rhetoric. However, it seems to me that they were nevertheless more interested in the arts, and had more to say about them, than most other schools of ancient philosophy.  Often the Stoics drew direct inspiration from philosophical wisdom expressed in poetry.  For example, the Handbook of Epictetus concludes with a series of quotes, including the following one from Euripides: 

But whoso nobly yields unto necessity,
We hold him wise, and skill’d in things divine.

There are many such quotes scattered throughout the surviving Stoic writings: Homer and Euripides perhaps being their favourite poets. 

However, the Stoics also made use of tragic poetry in a somewhat more paradoxical way.  Plato had argued that plays should be banned from the ideal republic, in part because tragic characters such as Achilles and Oedipus set a bad example by irrationally overreacting to various misfortunes.  The Stoics, by contrast, appear more willing to engage constructively with the tragedies.  However, they do so by viewing them as though they were case studies in psychopathology rather than as providing role models for emulation.  The tragic heroes are viewed as causing their own suffering because of the misplaced values they hold.  The Stoics thereby salvage the tragedies by reading them more critically.  

Stankievicz, adopting a more negative view of the Stoics’ attitude toward the arts, writes that we have “direct, explicit and abundant textual evidence that the ancient Stoics expressed reluctance, aversion and even open hostility to art.”

Marcus Aurelius pithily sums up performances “in the amphitheater and such places” as “wearisome” and includes them in a lowly company of “the idle business of show, plays on the stage, flocks of sheep […] a bone cast to little dogs, a bit of bread into fish-ponds, laborings of ants an burden-carrying.” Another juxtaposition is even more straightforward: “Neither tragic actor nor whore.” Marcus’ disdain of theater closely parallels Epictetus’ advice that “it is not necessary to go to the theatres often.”

I’m not sure these remarks are actually all intended to express hostility, or even aversion, to art, though. It seems to me that when Marcus refers to performances in the amphitheater he’s talking about the gladiatorial games, to which the histories document his aversion. When he refers to human affairs, viewed from a cosmic perspective, as being like “plays on the stage”, it seems to me that’s no more a criticism of theatre than when we call someone a “drama queen” today.   Perhaps Marcus didn’t attend theatrical performances often but he did attend them sometimes, when in Rome, and from his letters to Fronto we can see that he clearly enjoyed reading poetry.

Stankievicz also quotes Henryk Elzenberg saying that Marcus Aurelius completely lacked artistry.  That strikes me  as a very odd and untrue remark.  Marcus had learned to paint as a teenager – he was actually introduced to philosophy by his painting master. There are clearly passages in The Meditations that exhibit an artist’s eye, e.g., his references to the beauty to be found in imperfections such as the foam on the mouth of a wild boar, the wrinkles in roaring lion’s forehead, the lines on the face of an elderly man or woman, and the cracks on the crust of a loaf of bread. (Perhaps these were things he’d painted in his youth.) Marcus also lead a troupe of dancers in his youth: the College of the Salii or leaping priests.  He presumably had this experience in mind in those passages where he refers to dancing. 

Marcus received extensive training in both Greek and Latin rhetoric from the two leading teachers of his day: Herodes Atticus and Marcus Cornelius Fronto.  Indeed, there are several passages in The Meditations that clearly show Marcus’ talent as a writer (2.17, for example).  Moreover, Marcus was highly praised by Fronto for the eloquence of his speeches.  So I find it difficult to classify him as someone entirely lacking in artistry or harbouring a general aversion to the arts.  His relationship with the arts seems more nuanced than this would imply.

The ancient Stoics in general cannot be said to have been entirely averse to the arts.  The Stoa Poikile itself has been described as resembling an art gallery. Its wall was adorned with four huge paintings by some of the finest painters of the time. It was against the backdrop of these great works of art that Zeno and later Stoics lectured, discussed philosophy, and presumably read aloud from their various writings on poetry, rhetoric, aesthetics and painting. For example, Zeno wrote five volumes on Homer, a book titled Of the Reading of Poetry and even a Handbook of Rhetoric.  Cleanthes wrote The Hymn to Zeus and other pieces of poetry.  He also wrote a book on Homer, and one titled On Beauty.  The poet Aratus, whose Phenomena survives today, was also a student of Zeno.  Chrysippus was actually mocked for quoting Euripides so extensively that he reproduced nearly the entire text of The Medea in his own writings.  He also wrote a book titled Against the Touching up of Paintings, one On Poems, and two volumes called On the Right Way of reading Poetry, as well as four volumes on rhetoric.

Seneca wrote some excellent plays, several of which survive today, as Stankievicz elsewhere notes. Seneca’s nephew, Lucan, another Stoic, wrote the epic poem Pharsalia, about the Roman civil war, the text of which largely survives today. His friend Persius, another Stoic, wrote satires many of which survive. Other Roman poets, including Horace, were also students of Stoicism, and draw upon its ideas in their writings.

In other words, despite their reservations about conventional forms of rhetoric and the persuasive influence of the arts in general, the Stoics clearly encouraged their students to study Homer, Euripides, and other poets, and to learn their own somewhat plain and unaffected style of rhetoric.  (Although Stoic rhetoric was reputedly less polished than traditional styles, it did classify artistic distinction in the use of language as a virtue of speech.)  The Stoics themselves also wrote plays and poetry in a variety of styles.  

Elsewhere, Stankievicz quotes Seneca (and Cleanthes) expressing a positive attitude toward poetry that is employed for didactic purposes:

When salutary precepts are […] expressed in verse, they descend the readier into the hearts even of the unskillful. For, according to Cleanthes, as our breath gives a more clear and shrill sound when driven through the passage of a trumpet […] so our understandings are rendered more clear, when confined to the strict laws of a verse. The same things are heard with less attention, and affect us less, when delivered in prose or common discourse, than when decorated with poetical Numbers.

Perhaps it would have been interesting for him to have said a bit more about the Stoic use of tragic characters such as Medea for the purposes of teaching lessons about the passions.  We’ve seen that Chrysippus had a great deal to say about Euripides’ Medea, although his commentary is now lost.  However, Epictetus refers to the character several times and Seneca even wrote his own version of the tragedy.  So this play, in particular, seems to have had an enduring fascination for the Stoics.


Stankievicz considers several distinct “themes” or motivations for creating art and evaluates each in relation to Stoic philosophy:

  • Fame
  • Profit, e.g., financial gain
  • Preservation of the artistic object
  • The artist’s self-expression
  • Gathering together knowledge about the world or human nature (the “cognitive theme”)
  • Revolution, i.e., transforming the world
  • Making the world a better place (the “axiological theme”)
  • Restoring meaning to the artist’s own life (the “autotherapeutic theme”)
  • Teaching others (the “didactic theme”)

He draws two main conclusions. The first is that some understandings of the motivations behind artistic creativity listed above are compatible with the Stoic goal of life, whereas others are not.  More specifically:

Artistic creativity is incompatible with Stoicism if it is understood as means of seeking fame […], increasing the overall value of the universe […], preserving some element of the universe […], or expressing the individuality of the artist ([…] although the incompatibility is less evident here). On the other hand, artistic creativity is a legitimately Stoic endeavor if it is understood as means of seeking profit […], comprehending the world […], changing it ([…] this case is not fully unequivocal, though), or as means to teach people […]. Finally, there is no clear answer as to artistic creativity understood as autotherapy […]

His second major conclusion is that the Romantic conception of artistic creativity is definitely incompatible with Stoicism, although the “ordinary” conception of creativity is not. Stoics can be artistically creative but a Stoic could not, he thinks, ever be a Romantic poet. 

I’m not sure I follow his arguments for one or two of the specific “themes” or motivations (or his criticisms of what he dubs the “ascetic misconception” of Stoicism) but the two overall conclusions he draws about the compatibility of Stoicism and creativity seems reasonable.  My own view is that the ancient Stoics viewed creativity as good insofar as it’s in the service of wisdom and virtue.  They mainly use poetry either to illustrate wisdom sayings or to provide examples of the unhealthy passions, which they study critically from the perspective of their cognitive theory of psychopathology. 

I think anyone interested in philosophical aesthetics would find this book rewarding, especially if they’re also interested in Stoicism.  It raises some interesting questions, which I hope will inspire more discussion of these aspects of Stoic philosophy in the future.


Socrates the Pimp and the Celestial Art of Love

“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 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. So 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, Antisthenes appears mildly 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 beginning to sound like a slanderer. Socrates tactfully 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 were to praise him instead he’d be lying, and toadying, 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 Aphrodite 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.”


Socrates and Theodote the Courtesan

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”.

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.

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