Athens: The Delphic Oracle

Panorama Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Today, I visited the Delphic Oracle.  I asked her if there was anyone wiser than Socrates.  I just wanted to double check, to make sure.  Well, that’s what I’m going to tell my seven year old anyway. 😉

There’s so much to say about the importance of this site for the history of philosophy…  I think it might take more than one blog post.  The Delphic Temple of Apollo is in the mountains, roughly 2-3 days’ walk from Athens.  In the ancient world, the journey there was like a sort of pilgrimage.  Apollo was the god of prophecy and his priestess and oracle, known as the Pythia, was arguably the most important women in the whole of classical Greece.  People travelled to Delphi to ask the Oracle a question and she was known for giving cryptic answers that came true in unexpected ways – just ask Oedipus.

Temple of ApolloFor philosophers, though, the most important event was when Chaerephon, the childhood friend of Socrates, asked the Delphic Oracle “Is any man wiser than Socrates?”  She replied “Of all men Socrates is most wise.”  Chaerephon was a bit of a character and the very fact he dared pose this question to the oracle seems to have been a cause for controversy.  When it’s mentioned during Socrates’ trial both Plato and Xenophon suggest that the jury of 500 Athenians reacted with uproar and had to be calmed down.  This is the version of the question and pronouncement in Diogenes Laertius, which is similar to Plato’s account in the Apology.

However, Xenophon gives a slightly different version in which the oracle says not only that Socrates is most wise of all men but also that he is more free and just than other men.

Once, when Chaerephon made an inquiry about me in Delphi, Apollo replied – and there were many witnesses – that I was the most free, just and wise [sophron] of all people. (Xenophon, Apology)

Socrates explains in this dialogue, in paradoxical fashion, that he is most free because he is less enslaved to bodily desires and does not accept gifts or payments, which would indebt him to others.  He says that he is most just because he accepts his immediate circumstances, having no need for anything more than he already has.  And he is most wise because he is always seeking to learn about everything good.  Notice that, ironically, Socrates is “wise” because he’s a committed student rather than because he claims to be an expert teacher like the Sophists.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates likewise interpreted the oracle’s answer in a paradoxical manner, claiming that his philosophical method of questioning exposed that men lacked wisdom, at least with regard to the most important things in life.  He was only a tiny sliver wiser than anyone else because he realized that he knew nothing, whereas they presumptuously assumed that they had wisdom they didn’t really possess.

The Temple of Apollo where the oracle gave her pronouncements had several inscriptions.  The most famous, of course, was “Know thyself”, which became somewhat associated with Socrates’ philosophy.  In one of his dialogues, for instance, Xenophon portrays Socrates asking a young student of philosophy called Euthydemus “Have you ever been to Delphi?” (Memorabilia, 42.).  Euthydemus says he’s been twice so Socrates asks: “Did you notice somewhere on the temple the inscription ‘Know thyself’?” This leads to a discussion about the nature of self-knowledge.  Socrates asks Euthydemus whether he paid heed to the inscription at Delphi and tried to consider who he was. The youth says that he ignored it, though, because he took it for granted that he already knew who he was, at least as well as he grasped anything else in life.

However, Socrates asks “What must a man know in order to know himself?”  Surely not just his own name.  Must he not consider more deeply what sort of person he is and what his abilities are in life?  Someone buying a horse, says Socrates, doesn’t just settle for a superficial glance but checks whether the animal is docile or stubborn, strong or weak, fast or slow, and in general whether he’s useful as a horse or not.  So he concludes that a human being who doesn’t know his own abilities, in a similar fashion, is ignorant of himself and lacking in the sort of knowledge that the Delphic maxim advocates.

Socrates tells Euthydemus that it’s clear that men come to much good through self-knowledge and much harm through self-deception.  Someone who knows himself also knows what is useful for him to obtain and where his strengths and weaknesses lie.  As a result of that knowledge they’re more likely to prosper and flourish in life because they will refrain from doing things beyond their power, and avoid mistakes and failure.  On the other hand, those who are ignorant in this regard and self-deceived, not knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, do not know what they want or need.  Not knowing what benefits or harms them they don’t really understand their interactions with other people either.  They miss what is good for them and stumble into what is bad, live in dishonour, and appear ridiculous.

By contrast, those who have self-knowledge achieve their goals more easily in life and are honoured by other men.  People respect them and those who lack understanding themselves turn to them for advice and protection.  So those who truly know themselves are loved, says Socrates, for their wisdom.   Euthydemus asks how he can begin learning this self-knowledge.  Socrates tells him to begin by questioning which things in life are good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on.  This soon leads Euthydemus into confusion (aporia).  However, we’re told by Xenophon:

Now many of those who were brought to this pass by Socrates, never went near him again and were regarded by him as mere blockheads. But Euthydemus guessed that he would never be of much account unless he spent as much time as possible with Socrates. Henceforward, unless obliged to absent himself, he never left him, and even began to adopt some of his practices. Socrates, for his part, seeing how it was with him, avoided worrying him, and began to expound very plainly and clearly the knowledge that he thought most needful and the practices that he held to be most excellent.

 

Athens: Visiting Plato’s Academy

Plato's Academy signToday I visited the archeological site of Plato’s Academy.  Around twelve years after the execution of Socrates, Plato founded a philosophical school in the suburb of Athens known as the Academy, after which it took its name.  His school must have consisted of one or more lecture halls.  It was located in public grounds, basically a sort of park, that consisted mainly of a gymnasium with a wrestling school and various shrines and other buildings. Women were not allowed into the grounds of ancient Greek gymnasia but it’s said that two women disguised themselves as men in order to attend Plato’s lectures there.

Ruins at Plato's AcademyThe grounds are now referred to as the “Academy Park”, although originally it was known simply as the Academy, and the philosophical school later came to adopt the same name.  One theory is that the name originally meant “far away deme” or suburb, as it was located outside the ancient city walls of Athens.  (Later a story evolved that it was named after a hero called Academus.)

Plato hermThere’s a nice herm (statue) of Plato close to the park.  Two years ago a small “digital museum” was created nearby, which I also visited.  There’s a short film showing several local people who talk about how economically depressed the area is and that the site of the Academy was neglected until recently because many people didn’t even realize its significance.   One older man said something like “There used to be factories here and now we have thirty hairdressers and thirty pharmacies, and that’s about all.”  In the grounds of the Academy Park, where the ruins are located, children were playing, two guys lurking awkwardly beside the ruined palaestra (wrestling school) were drinking beer and smoking a pipe, and a middle-aged woman on a bench nearby, who looked very dishevelled, was talking to herself.  There’s a bit of litter and graffiti but it’s not too bad.  Still, it made me a little sad to see some of these locations.  On the other hand, the beautiful Acropolis Museum built in 2009 is arguably a much better example of how Greece’s cultural heritage can best be preserved.

Stoics at the Academy

Plato's Academy RuinsPlato’s most famous student at the Academy was Aristotle but after Plato’s death it was his cousin, Speusippus, who became the next head of the school, known as a “scholarch”.  He was succeeded by Xenocrates of Chalcedon.  We’re told that Xenocrates more would retire into himself, in private contemplation, several times each day, and that he assigned whole hour each day to silence.  Xenocrates was succeeded, in turn, by Polemo, who experienced a sort of conversion after hearing him speak.

In his youth [Polemo] was so profligate and dissipated that he actually carried about with him money to procure the immediate gratification of his desires, and would even keep sums concealed in lanes and alleys. Even in the Academy a piece of three obols was found close to a pillar, where he had buried it for the same purpose. And one day, by agreement with his young friends, he burst into the school of Xenocrates quite drunk, with a garland on his head. Xenocrates, however, without being at all disturbed, went on with his discourse as before, the subject being temperance. The lad, as he listened, by degrees was taken in the toils. He became so industrious as to surpass all the other scholars, and rose to be himself head of the school…  (Diogenes Laertius)

Although Polemo got into some trouble as a young man, through philosophy he later acquired a reputation for having such an unshakeably calm demeanour that he sounds like a true precursor of the Stoics.

…from the time when he began to study philosophy, he acquired such strength of character as always to maintain the same unruffled calm of demeanour. Nay more, he never lost control of his voice. This in fact accounts for the fascination which he exercised over Crantor.  Certain it is that, when a mad dog bit him in the back of his thigh, he did not even turn pale, but remained undisturbed by all the clamour which arose in the city at the news of what had happened.

We’re told that he withdrew from society and confined himself to the Garden of the Academy (the surrounding park) where his students built themselves little huts so they could live near the Shrine of the Muses and the lecture hall of the Academy, where they went to hear Polemo speak.

Ruins at Plato's AcademyZeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was originally (and perhaps mainly) a Cynic philosopher, although he also studied at other schools of Athenian philosophy, including spending ten years attending Plato’s Academy, under Xenocrates and later Polemo.  We’re told that even when Zeno was making progress as a philosopher himself, he was so free from conceit that he would still go to the Academy to study there under Xenocrates and later Polemo. Polemo made the jibe that Zeno was sneaking into the grounds of the Academy through the garden door, stealing their teachings and giving them “a Phoenician make-up.”

Enrollment Starts Today for How to Live Like Socrates (Live from Athens)

Socrates Quote

Enrollment begins today for the new version of How to Live Like Socrates, my four-week long e-learning course taking a deep dive into the life and philosophy of Socrates.  This time, though, it will be live from Athens, the home of Socrates!

To reward followers of my blog, I’ve created a special link that will allow you to receive 20% discount off the course price.  Just click on the button below or any of the other links in this post and your coupon code (SOCRATES20P) will automatically be applied.

Prison of SocratesI’ve been in Athens for a few weeks doing more research for the course –and taking a few photos!  I’ll be delivering Live Like Socrates from Athens too, including the live webinars.  To learn more just follow the links and you’ll get access to full details of the course.  You can also preview the welcome video, and read an overview of the course content.

Feedback from previous students who completed the pilot version of this course was very positive.  You can scroll to the end of this post to read their comments as well as the average satisfaction ratings (broken down into “clarity”, “impact” and “feasibility”) from their course evaluation forms.  The course is continually being revised and you’ll have lifetime access to the content as well as future updates.  Right now, I’m hoping to add more information on Socrates’ relationship with the Sophists and I’m working on a new comic strip illustration with our graphic designer Rocio de Torres –so stay tuned!

The course has a 30-day satisfaction guarantee.  If you change your mind within 30 days of your purchase, just let me know and we’ll refund your course fees in full.  So that makes booking completely risk-free!

Why not come and join us as we learn to live like Socrates – live from the heart of Athens…

Looking forward to meeting you on the course,

Donald Robertson Signature

What Previous Students Said

I gather structured feedback from course participants and analyze the data before revising my courses each time I run them.  For the initial pilot version of this course, satisfaction ratings were as follows.

  • Clarity of materials 4.7 out of 5.
  • Impact of content (how helpful) 4.6 out of 5.
  • Feasibility of courseware (how easy was the site to use) 4.6 out of 5.

Here are some feedback comments from students as well…

To really get a deeper perspective on how to live life with true vigor and taste it’s fullness, it is necessary to embrace, embody and savor the life and times of Socrates. This course has left no stone unturned as it presents the depth and magnitude along with the magnificence – in exploring Socrates and his place in human history. The pilot light has been lit inside of me…  – Melville Richard Alexander

One of the great things about Donald Robertson’s courses is that they never end. They are available to us forever (or at least as long as Donald is able to keep them posted). As with “How to think like a Roman emperor” I will be going back to this course when the spirit moves me. Each time I will discover something new. In the process of learning more about Socrates I learned more about me. Would I recommend this course? Yes, without hesitation. If you find it a bit much to “complete” in four weeks (I did) don’t worry. The material is there and the instructor is wonderfully accessible. – Wilfred Allan

Donald Robertson’s course has greatly increased my knowledge of the renowned ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates is such a central figure in Hellenistic Philosophy that understanding him is essential to knowing about the entire field. Robertson’s course has great depth, with multiple videos, texts to read, ponder, and discuss, weekly webinars, and enough background and optional material to further add to my knowledge and provide material that I plan to reread and explore. Very well done! – Marc Deshaies

I really enjoyed the course. I have been a fan of Socrates ever since I learnt about him years ago, but I know now that I was really ignorant about him and have lots to learn still. This is a great start. I look forward to more. Thank you Donald! – Pauline Enright

I’ve really enjoyed this course, thanks for putting it together, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to move through it at my own pace looping back to the challenging exercises, putting it down when other commitments took more or my time and picking it up again when I could. I’d recommend it, no question. – Steve Powell

I highly recommend this course. Reading Socrates without the biographical and historical background made me wonder what of significant value he was. Now knowing about his military, political,and social interactions gave me greater respect for him and the classical philosophy heritage. Demystifying the Socratic dialogues was very helpful. – Michael Schepak

How to Live Like Socrates: Live from Athens!

Hello from Athens!  

Earlier this year, I launched my brand new e-learning course called How to Live Like Socrates, which follows a similar format to my How to Think Like a Roman Emperor course on Marcus Aurelius.  How to Live Like Socrates is running again and enrollment opens in a couple of days, so I wanted to share some news…

Theatre of Dionysus

Following the annual Modern Stoicism conference in London, I flew to Greece.  I’ll be presenting How to Live Like Socrates this October online live from Athens!  The opportunity came up so I jumped at the chance and all of a sudden, well, it’s happening…  Students take part from all over the world but this time they’ll be watching as I do the live webinars from the home of Socrates himself.  That’s a picture I took recently of the Theatre of Dionysus where Aristophanes’ The Clouds, a famous satire mocking Socrates, probably had its first performance.

Prison of SocratesThis is me beside what the Greek ministry of culture like to call the “Prison of Socrates”.  Although there’s no evidence it’s where he was actually held awaiting execution, it’s still a very interesting archeological location and it can help bring to life the story of his last days.  Did you know that Socrates spent his time writing poetry in prison?  He wanted to put the fables of Aesop in verse.

Anyway, if you’re interested in Socrates then why not come along and join us as we work through his teachings and their practical implications for modern-day life.  I’ll be engaging participants in discussion about the life and philosophy of Socrates, and broadcasting my live weekly webinars from Athens this time.  You can find more information on my e-learning site.  There are some comments from students who did the pilot version of the course below.

LyceumHere’s another picture I took recently.  You’ve probably heard of the Lyceum where Aristotle taught philosophy.  But did you know that two or three generations earlier famous Sophists, like Protagoras and Prodicus, used to lecture at the Lyceum?  Socrates would frequently spend the day there discussing philosophy with them and their followers.  Some of the ruins have been found are now an important archeological site in Athens.

I’ll be available if you have any questions.  If you want a taster, by the way, try my free ten-minute Crash Course on Socrates, and let me know what you think.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

What Previous Students Said

I gather structured feedback from course participants and analyze the data before revising my courses each time I run them.  For the initial pilot version of this course, satisfaction ratings were as follows.

  • Clarity of materials 4.7 out of 5.
  • Impact of content (how helpful) 4.6 out of 5.
  • Feasibility of courseware (how easy was the site to use) 4.6 out of 5.

Here are some feedback comments from students as well…

To really get a deeper perspective on how to live life with true vigor and taste it’s fullness, it is necessary to embrace, embody and savor the life and times of Socrates. This course has left no stone unturned as it presents the depth and magnitude along with the magnificence – in exploring Socrates and his place in human history. The pilot light has been lit inside of me…  – Melville Richard Alexander

One of the great things about Donald Robertson’s courses is that they never end. They are available to us forever (or at least as long as Donald is able to keep them posted). As with “How to think like a Roman emperor” I will be going back to this course when the spirit moves me. Each time I will discover something new. In the process of learning more about Socrates I learned more about me. Would I recommend this course? Yes, without hesitation. If you find it a bit much to “complete” in four weeks (I did) don’t worry. The material is there and the instructor is wonderfully accessible. – Wilfred Allan

Donald Robertson’s course has greatly increased my knowledge of the renowned ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates is such a central figure in Hellenistic Philosophy that understanding him is essential to knowing about the entire field. Robertson’s course has great depth, with multiple videos, texts to read, ponder, and discuss, weekly webinars, and enough background and optional material to further add to my knowledge and provide material that I plan to reread and explore. Very well done! – Marc Deshaies

I really enjoyed the course. I have been a fan of Socrates ever since I learnt about him years ago, but I know now that I was really ignorant about him and have lots to learn still. This is a great start. I look forward to more. Thank you Donald! – Pauline Enright

I’ve really enjoyed this course, thanks for putting it together, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to move through it at my own pace looping back to the challenging exercises, putting it down when other commitments took more or my time and picking it up again when I could. I’d recommend it, no question. – Steve Powell

I highly recommend this course. Reading Socrates without the biographical and historical background made me wonder what of significant value he was. Now knowing about his military, political,and social interactions gave me greater respect for him and the classical philosophy heritage. Demystifying the Socratic dialogues was very helpful. – Michael Schepak

Socrates and the Stoics at the Lyceum

LyceumToday I visited the ruins of the Lyceum palaestra, or wrestling school, in Athens.  Pomegranate trees grow around the edge of the archeological site and there were butterflies.  (These are some of my photos of the site.)  The Lyceum was named after Apollo Lyceus, Apollo “the wolf-god”, to whom the whole area was dedicated.  He seems to have been a rural version of the god, who helped shepherds protect their flocks from wolves.  Historians aren’t sure of its exact boundaries but the area known as the Lyceum was quite large, lay just outside the city wall to the east of Athens, and encompassed a gymnasium, running track, religious shrines, various other buildings, and extensive gardens where visitors could walk in the shade provided by the trees.

We normally associate the Lyceum with Aristotle.  After initially studying at Plato’s Academy, Aristotle parted ways with Plato.  He then left Athens and on his return, in 335 BC, finding that the Academy had a new head, Xenocrates, he rented some rooms at the Lyceum and founded a school there.  It was also called the “Peripatetic” (walking, or strolling) school because he allegedly used to lecture while walking around the grounds of the Lyceum.  Diogenes Laertius says that Aristotle lectured there for thirteen years before retiring to Chalcis in 321-322 BC.

LyceumHowever, philosophers had been teaching at the Lyceum long before Aristotle set up his school there.  According to Plato, two or three generations before Aristotle, Sophists including Protagoras and Prodicus, the two most famous among them, used to lecture and give speeches at the Lyceum.  It seems that Socrates would also frequently spend his days there discussing philosophy with the Sophists and others.  And as we’ll see, the Stoics would later teach there as well.

Socrates and the Sophists at the Lyceum

According to Diogenes Laertius, the first famous Sophist, Protagoras, gave a public reading of his controversial book On the Gods at the Lyceum, at least according to some accounts.   (Or some say it was read in public by one of his students.)

As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.

That caused some controversy as you can imagine.  We’re told that, incensed by these words, the Athenians expelled Protagoras and burnt his writings in the agora, the city centre or marketplace of Athens.

However, according to Plato, Socrates would often walk to the Lyceum to discuss philosophy with the Sophists teaching there.  Socrates mentions being on his way to the Lyceum in Plato’s Lysis, returning from it in the Euthyphro, and in the Euthydemus he recounts a conversation he had there with two young Sophists.

Crito: Who was the person, Socrates, with whom you were talking yesterday at the Lyceum? There was such a crowd around you that I could not get within hearing, but I caught a sight of him over their heads, and I made out, as I thought, that he was a stranger with whom you were talking: who was he? […]
Socrates: He whom you mean, Crito, is Euthydemus; and on my left hand there was his brother Dionysodorus, who also took part in the conversation.
Crito: Neither of them are known to me, Socrates; they are a new importation of Sophists, as I should imagine. Of what country are they, and what is their line of wisdom? (Euthydemus)

In the pseudo-Platonic dialogue called the Eryxias, Critias is saying that if an intemperate man cannot refrain from over-indulging in food and drink, and other pleasures, then, paradoxically, it’s better for him to be poor than rich so that he can’t gratify his unhealthy desires.  In other words, as the Stoics later argued, money is neither good nor bad in itself, but can be used either well by the wise or badly by the foolish.  Socrates says that he heard the famous Sophist Prodicus using the same argument the day before in the Lyceum:

I heard that very argument used in the Lyceum yesterday by a wise man, Prodicus of Ceos; but the audience thought that he was talking mere nonsense, and no one could be persuaded that he was speaking the truth. And when at last a certain talkative young gentleman came in, and, taking his seat, began to laugh and jeer at Prodicus, tormenting him and demanding an explanation of his argument, he gained the ear of the audience far more than Prodicus. (Eryxias)

At the end of Plato’s Symposium, when everyone else is drunk and has fallen asleep, we’re told that Socrates leaves early in the morning to spend the rest of his day at the Lyceum, presumably discussing philosophy:

Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home. (Symposium)

So long before Aristotle’s time, the Lyceum was associated with the Sophists and later with Socrates, who liked to go there to talk with them and their students.  What about the Stoics, though?

The Stoics at the Lyceum

After Zeno, the founder of Stoicism died, the Athenians honoured him with an official decree, which Diogenes Laertius quotes in full.   Curiously, it was permanently inscribed on two stone pillars installed at the Academy and the Lyceum, the homes of the Platonic and Aristotelian schools respectively.

Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people – and may it turn out well – to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost. And that for the making of the crown and the building of the tomb, the people shall now elect five commissioners from all Athenians, and the Secretary of State shall inscribe this decree on two stone pillars and it shall be lawful for him to set up one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum. And that the magistrate presiding over the administration shall apportion the expense incurred upon the pillars, that all may know that the Athenian people honour the good both in their life and after their death. Thraso of the deme Anacaea, Philocles of Peiraeus, Phaedrus of Anaphlystus, Medon of Acharnae, Micythus of Sypalettus, and Dion of Paeania have been elected commissioners for the making of the crown and the building. (Diogenes Laertius)

We’re also told that after Zeno’s death, the third head of the Stoic school, Chrysippus, actually lectured at the Lyceum, presumably in addition to speaking at the Stoa Poikile, the traditional home of the Stoic school.

Demetrius above mentioned is also our authority for the statement that Chrysippus was the first who ventured to hold a lecture-class in the open air in the Lyceum. (Diogenes Laertius)

It’s not clear what Diogenes Laertius means.  Perhaps that previous philosophers had either spoken to small groups while walking there or lectured inside buildings whereas Chrysippus was the first to hold formal lectures publicly in the grounds of Lyceum.  It’s possible, though, that he means Chrysippus was the first Stoic to hold lectures at the Lyceum, which by that time was mainly associated with the Aristotelian school, but certainly not off-limits to other philosophers.

Centuries later, the last famous Stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, would formally reintroduce a chair of philosophy at the Lyceum, after visiting Athens, a few years before his death.

Athens: Visiting the “Prison of Socrates”

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

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

What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly. (Discourses, 1.12)

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

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

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

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

How strange then that Socrates should have been so treated by the Athenians. Slave, why do you say Socrates? Speak of the thing as it is: how strange that the poor body of Socrates should have been carried off and dragged to prison by stronger men, and that any one should have given hemlock to the poor body of Socrates, and that it should breathe out the life. Do these things seem strange, do they seem unjust, do you on account of these things blame God? Had Socrates then no equivalent for these things? Where then for him was the nature of good? Whom shall we listen to, you or him? And what does Socrates say? Anytus and Melitus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me: and further, he says, “If it so pleases God, so let it be.” (Discourses, 1.29)

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

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

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

Prison of Socrates

Athens Day One: The Stoa Poikile

Stoa Poikile my PhotoI arrived in Athens last night so this morning I decided to head straight for the Stoa Poikile, the home of Stoicism.  A Greek stoa is a colonnade: basically a row of columns supporting a roof.  The Stoa Poikile had a wall on one side giving shade, so it’s described as a portico or a plain old “porch”.  It’s also a bit like the ancient equivalent of what we might call a covered “arcade” today.  Stoa Poikile literally just means “painted porch” therefore.  It was so called because of the highly-regarded paintings that adorned the wall.  It was originally called the Porch of Peisianax, after the Athenian statesman who commissioned it in the 5th century BC.  (That’s my Photo of the Stoa Poikile in Athens, the other photos in this post are from the web.)

Poikile Stoa CafeThe part of the Athenian agora where it was located is now an archeological site in the middle of the city, although there’s not a whole lot to see there except the rubble walls of lots of ancient Athenian shops and many ruined wells, descending into the river that runs below.  There’s a bar situated beside and above the ruins, the Poikile Stoa, which is named after the ancient Stoa Poikile.  There wasn’t a lot of philosophy going on inside, though.  There was an assortment of classical paintings.

Stoa Poikile RuinsI asked the barman where exactly the ruined foundations of the Stoa Poikile were among the rubble below.  His version of the story was that the archeologists originally believed they’d found it but it turned out just to be the wall of another shop.  So they don’t know exactly where it is.  He said they know it must be somewhere nearby so they want to tear down his bar and “keep dig, dig, dig” underneath.  He was a bit annoyed about this and, pointing down toward the rubble, he ruefully observed: “Where you gonna drink beer?  You can’t drink beer in this, eh?”  Another young Greek at a table nearby having a drink with a young woman added: “We’re Greeks but we don’t know anything about history anymore; nobody cares”, shrugging and shaking his head sadly.  Someone else told me that the Stoa Poikile is there alright but they heard only a third of its ruined foundations remain.  (By some accounts the picture here shows what’s left of the Stoa Poikile beside the ruins of some nearby shops.)

Stoa of AttalusAnyway, there’s not much to see down there anymore.  Although the nearby reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalus, another colonnade, probably looked fairly similar to the one we’re after. (It’s shown in this picture.) Perhaps so little remaining of the Stoa Poikile is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that even great architecture eventually crumbles, disappears, and is forgotten.

Anyway, we know that Zeno chose this as the home of his school, who were at first called Zenonians and later became known simply as the Stoics after the stoa where they gathered.  There are a few notable things about that…

Stories about the Stoa

The Stoa Poikile was a public building, a sort of porch offering protection from the sun.  The Cynics reputedly slept on such porches and it’s at least possible that Zeno, who had been a Cynic himself for many years, may have slept here at some point in his life, perhaps before founding his school there.  It’s very public and situated among the shops on the edge of the Athenian agora, precisely where Socrates used to mingle with craftsmen discussing philosophy.  Zeno was undoubtedly aware of that similarity and perhaps saw himself as teaching in public as Socrates had done before him.  By contrast, other schools of philosophy were typically located in gymnasia, or public spaces set aside for exercise and training, away from the hubbub of the marketplace.  Some have even seen the name “Stoic” as implying something like “philosophy of the street”.

Moreover, whereas other schools were named after their founders, such as Pythagoreanism or Epicureanism, the Stoics rejected this notion.  I think that’s because the Stoics insisted that none of them, not even Zeno, were perfectly wise.  Unlike the Pythagoreans and Epicureans, who did consider their founders to be perfect sages, the Stoics didn’t memorize Zeno’s teachings by rote learning.  Instead they were encouraged to employ the Socratic method and think for themselves, something we tend to think of now as a hallmark of true philosophy.  Zeno, incidentally, used to pace rapidly up and down the length of the Stoa Poikile while discoursing on philosophy, according to Diogenes Laertius, “his object being to keep the spot clear of a concourse of idlers”.

The Stoa Poikile was, in a sense, a sort of Athenian art gallery.  Its wall was decorated with four large plates painted by Micon of Athens, Polygnotos of Thasos, and perhaps others.  They depict:

  1. The mythic battle between Theseus and the Amazons, a scene which may have been in Cleanthes’ mind, the second head of the Stoa, when he wrote that virtue is the same in men and women
  2. The legendary fall of Troy to the Greeks led by Agamemnon, after its defences had been breached by the Stoic hero Odysseus using the “Trojan Horse” trick
  3. The real, historical Battle of Oenoe where the Athenians defeated the Spartans, although the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans for their self-discipline
  4. The historical Battle of Marathon (490 BC) where the Athenians won a great victory against the Persian army, during the reign of King Darius I

So Zeno lectured in front of these four huge paintings depicting various real and imaginary battles.  Possibly Epictetus was influenced by something the early Greek Stoics had said about the Amazonomachy scene dominating the location of their school, for instance, in Discourse 2.16.  He tells his own Stoic students “nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica” but that instead of defeating monsters and barbarians to clear the region around Athens, they should clear away the evil things within themselves, such as sadness, fear, desire, envy, and intemperance, etc.  Epictetus also brings up the Trojan War several times, such as at Discourses 1.28 when he says:

When was Achilles ruined? Was it when Patroclus died? Not so. But it happened when he began to be angry, when he wept for a girl, when he forgot that he was at Troy not to get mistresses, but to fight. These things are the ruin of men, this is being besieged, this is the destruction of cities, when right opinions are destroyed, when they are corrupted.

Were scenes such as these, which he discusses with his Stoic students, also discussed by the early Greek Stoics while they paced up and  down before Polygnotus’ famous painting, which actually depicted the fall of Troy?

Given this visual backdrop to the Athenian Stoic school, it’s perhaps no surprise, indeed, that a range of both artistic and military metaphors find their way into Stoic writings  I like to imagine, for instance, that Zeno might have told his students that although the scenes of battle depicted looked realistic and showed graphic violence, no sane person was afraid of them, because they realize they’re just pictures (impressions) and not the things they represent, to borrow a phrase used centuries later by Epictetus.  That’s just speculation, of course.  Although, Marcus Aurelius, who painted himself and was actually first introduced to philosophy by his painting master, appears to be referring to visual aesthetics in the following remarkable passage:

And ears of corn bending towards the earth, and the wrinkled brows of a lion, and the foam dripping from the jaws of a wild boar, and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe, he will find scarcely anything which fails to please him in some way by its presence, even among those that arise as secondary effects. Such a person will view the gaping jaws of wild beasts in their physical reality with no less pleasure than the portrayals of them displayed by painters and sculptors, and he will be able to see in an old woman or old man a special kind of mature beauty, and to look on the youthful charms of his slave boys with chaste eyes. And one could cite many similar examples, which will not seem persuasive to everyone, but will only strike home with those who are genuinely familiar with nature and all her works. (Meditations, 3.2)

Note: Marcus says here that the Stoic wise man will regard the gaping jaws of ferocious beasts such as lions and wild boars with the same indifference that he views their depiction by artists and sculptors.  Could this remarkable idea go back to something Zeno may have said about the paintings on the porch  Marcus, of course, also says that “life is warfare”, a theme that may have occurred to Zeno and his students as they met each day to discuss philosophy before a backdrop depicting the carnage of ancient warfare.

Finally, Diogenes Laertius adds a shocking historical detail: “It was the spot where in the time of the Thirty 1,400 Athenian citizens had been put to death.”  If this is true, Zeno would have also known about it, and it therefore perhaps inspired some of the Stoic thoughts about the theme of death.  The Thirty Tyrants were basically a puppet oligarchic regime or junta installed over Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War by the victorious Spartans.  They were vastly unpopular because they soon turned to into brutal tyrants, rounding up and executing foreign residents (metics, immigrants) and democrats.  They carried out summary executions of the wealthy in order to line their own pockets by seizing their assets.  Zeno would have known that Critias, the head of the Thirty Tyrants, and a former pupil of Socrates, allegedly tried to pass a law banning his old teacher from discussing politics or philosophy, because he was criticizing the regime indirectly.  Socrates said that a good shepherd does not diminish thus the size of his flock, which Critias rightly took to be a criticism of the mass executions being carried out by him.   Socrates seems to have ignored this ban.  Critias then employed a tactic used on others and ordered Socrates to join a small posse to arrest and summarily execute an innocent man called Leon of Salamis, another foreign resident, perhaps with democrat sympathies.  Socrates simply refused.  Critias had hoped either to implicate him in his crimes or, if he refused, to be provided with a pretext for executing him, for disobeying a direct order.  However, the oligarchy was overthrown by a democrat uprising before they could have Socrates executed, so he got away by the skin of his teeth.

Anyway, Zeno was probably also aware that Socrates had risked his own life defying the orders of Critias and the Thirty Tyrants in this way.  This famous example of courage in the face of injustice, demonstrated by Socrates, was likely also in his mind as he lectured every day at the Stoa Poikile, the scene where such executions were carried out.  I was tempted to tell my barman friend that 1,400 ancient Athenians were summarily executed on the ruined porch underneath his establishment, probably by strangulation rather than hemlock like Socrates, but I’m not sure he would have wanted to know that.

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