Socrates Stoicism

Video: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies from The Stoic Socrates

Socrates Stoicism

Video: The Choice of Hercules

Releasing a video today of me reciting The Choice of Hercules the famous speech of Prodicus, retold by Socrates, which inspired Zeno to embrace the life of a philosopher and then to go on and found the Stoic school.




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.


Courses Socrates

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

Courses Socrates

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.


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 Stoicism

Athens: The Sophists, 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.

Socrates Stoicism

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

Socrates Stoicism

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.

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 tempting to wonder whether 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.  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 historical connection and probably 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.  Women were strictly prohibited from entering the grounds of gymnasia, although it’s not clear whether some may have been permitted to go to the Stoa Poikile, given that the Stoics appear to advocate teaching philosophy to women.  (There’s a story that two women attended Plato’s Academy but had to disguise themselves as men to do so.)  Then again, women generally seem to have had limited access to the agora as well.  The Stoa Poikile was presumably a more open and public location than a philosophical school built in the grounds of a gymnasium, though.  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.

Courses Socrates

Free Mini-Course on Socrates

Socrates billboardI designed my Crash Course on Socrates to be a fairly concise introduction to his life and philosophy.  It only takes about fifteen minutes to complete.

You’ll learn the basics and hopefully a few things even students of philosophy and the classics might not have heard before.  My goal was to make sure there’s something for everyone.

It includes a video, quiz, favourite quotes, recommended reading, and other resources.  All completely free of charge.

Thank you, Donald! Your presentation on Socrates was excellent as an introduction and it’s well worth the short amount of time required to learn of the influences Socrates had on the ancient world, as well as modern societies in the West. 🙂 – Bill Hewitson

Concise and enlightening resource, Socrates was such an important catalyst for western philosophical thinking. – Andrew Cowan

Amazing and deeply inspiring lecture about my favorite philosopher. 🙂 What a meaningful way to start a day, thank you so much, Mr. Robertson. – Noemi Wasserbauer

I will never look at the market in the same way again. – Bob Vermoolen

Reviews Socrates

Socrates versus Roger Stone

Stone's Rules Book CoverNB: This articles a rough draft.  I’m still working on it but I wanted to put it out there on my blog anyway. 😉

This is an article about Greek philosophy and contemporary US politics. Recently, I’ve started looking more closely at the views expressed by certain political figures and comparing them with the ethical teachings of ancient philosophy. They don’t necessarily have to be people whose politics I agree with. My own views are basically centre-left (democratic socialist) but I prefer to look at what people who are politically conservative have written. I don’t hold opinions about politics strongly wherever there’s room for uncertainty and debate, although I do hold some moral values that have political implications. Stoicism has taught me to remain emotionally detached from questions about which external states-of-affairs are preferable to which. For instance, I believe that a broadly state-run NHS is preferable to the privatization of British healthcare services.  Nevertheless, if a health economist showed me solid evidence and a rational argument to persuade me otherwise I’d happily change my mind.

Once, it’s said, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school heard a pretentious young man exclaim that he disagreed with everything the (long-deceased) philosopher Antisthenes had written. It’s easy to make yourself seem clever by dismissing something out of hand or doing a hatchet-job on the author. However, Zeno asked him what there was of value to be learned from reading Antisthenes. The young man, caught off guard, said “I don’t know.” Zeno asked him why he wasn’t ashamed to be picking holes in a philosopher’s writings without having first taken care to identify what might be good in his works and worth knowing. That’s not unlike what philosophers call the Principle of Charity today. We arguably gain more benefit from reading a book if we look for the good bits first. Otherwise, if we indulge in criticism straight away, we risk missing what’s most important entirely. So it was with that in mind that I decided to read Stone’s Rules, the latest book from political strategist, and Trump-loyalist, Roger Stone.

Get me Roger Stone!

Stone’s story is now permanently entwined with that of President Trump. Stone claims he started calling on Trump to put himself forward as a presidential candidate back in 1988, although Donald wasn’t interested at first. “I launched the idea of Donald J. Trump for President”, he says. However, he later qualifies this by saying,

Those who claim I elected Trump are wrong. Trump elected Trump—he’s persistent, driven to succeed, clever, stubborn, and deeply patriotic. I am, however, among a handful who saw his potential for national leadership and the presidency.

Roger Stone Nixon TattooStone is a specialist in negative campaigning. His political career began way back in 1972 when, aged twenty, he joined Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign team. Nixon became his lifelong hero. Indeed, Stone collects Nixon memorabilia and actually has a large tattoo of the former president’s face on his back. However, after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Stone was left with a reputation as a professional “dirty trickster”. He successfully turned this into a selling-point, though, and survived to have a long, albeit controversial, career in politics. In the 1980s he worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and formed the political consulting firm Black, Manafort and Stone, along with Charlie Black and Paul Manafort.

Black, Manafort and Stone’s first client was, in fact, Donald Trump. Later, in the 1990s, Stone began working with Trump in a variety of other capacities. In 2000, he was appointed campaign manager for Trump’s first, albeit abortive, presidential campaign. Trump sought the nomination for the Reform Party but quit during the presidential primaries. It wasn’t surprising then that Stone later served as an advisor to Trump during the initial stages of his 2016 presidential campaign. He resigned in August 2015, although Trump said that he had been fired. However, Stone continued to support Trump and according to some reports to serve in an informal capacity as one of his political advisors. Stone and several of his associates have now come under the scrutiny of the Mueller investigation, mainly due to Stone’s communications with Julian Assange of Wikileaks and a team of hackers using the online identity Guccifer 2.0, who were revealed to be acting as agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU).

Roger Stone JokerStone’s a difficult man to describe. He revels in controversy. For example, he posed for a photo shoot dressed as the Joker from Batman. I find that, paradoxically, people who aren’t very familiar with him often assume that others are “attacking” him when in fact they’re just repeating his own claims. He became more widely-known outside of political circles in the summer of 2017 when the Netflix documentary Get me Roger Stone was released.  The film is structured around ten of Stone’s “rules” for success in life and politics.

Roger Stone's Rules PosterThis idea was then expanded into his new book Stone’s Rules: How to Win at Politics, Business, and Style (2018).  The blurb compares Stone to a combination of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. However, the book actually consists of 140 rules, described in a few paragraphs each, written in a fairly casual and often humorous style. There are many short anecdotes about Nixon and other US politicians. As the title suggests, some of the rules are more about succeeding in life, some are more specific to politics. A considerable number of them are about sartorial advice, such as Rule #18: “White shirt + tan face = confidence” or Rule #36, which claims “Brown is the color of shit”. He also includes his mother’s recipe for pasta sauce (or rather “Sunday Gravy”). There are instructions on how to prepare martinis just like Nixon did – who, according to Stone, used to say of them, “More than one of these and you want to beat your wife.”

In the book’s foreword, political commentator Tucker Carlson of Fox News acclaims Stone “the premier troublemaker of our time” and “the Michael Jordan of electoral mischief”. However, Carlson also describes his friend as “wise” and “on the level”. Stone is happy to celebrate his notoriety as the “high priest of political mischief”, “slash-and-burn Republican black bag election tamperer” with “a long history of bare-knuckle politics” and the title “Jedi Master of the negative campaign”.

Why Socrates?

Stone himself believes that “To understand the future, you must study the past” (Rule #4: “Past is fucking prologue”) and that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. So I want to approach his rules for life from the perspective of ancient Greek philosophy, which began addressing similar ideas almost two and a half thousand years ago, in the time of Socrates.  Some of the underlying assumptions about the best way to live, or to govern, haven’t changed much. Stone’s Rule #69 likewise acknowledges that “everything is recycled” in the political arena:

All the ideas today’s politicians present to the voters are simply recycled versions of the same basic formulae that have been employed by political hucksters and power-accumulating government careerists for nearly a century.

Indeed, the arguments Socrates and the Stoics deployed against ancient Sophists address difference of value so fundamental that they’re still just as relevant today. Stone’s rules contain several echoes themselves of perennial philosophical debates about the best way to approach life. Sometimes he says things that resemble Socrates or the Stoics and sometimes he sounds more like their opponents the Sophists. So let’s have a look at a few key examples…

Make Your Own Luck

Stone’s Rule #5 quite simply advises “make your own luck”. This is a sound piece of age-old wisdom. Socrates likewise argues, in the Euthydemus, that wisdom is man’s greatest gift because it allows him to turn bad fortune into good. In Plato’s Republic, Book Ten, Socrates also says that unlike the majority of people the true philosopher isn’t perturbed by apparent setbacks. He realizes that we can never be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad in the long-run – there are many reversals of fortune in life. If we stop to complain about every apparent setback, we do ourselves more harm than good. In these passages, Socrates sounds very much like a forerunner of the Stoics. For example, Epictetus, the most famous Roman Stoic teacher would later say that wisdom, like the magic wand of Hermes, has the power to turn everything it touches into gold – he means that the wise man knows how to turn apparent misfortune to his advantage.

Stone’s Rule #60 is his version of the wand of Hermes: “Sometimes you’ve got to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.”

In politics and in life, you play the cards you are dealt. Sometimes you have to take your greatest disadvantage and turn it into a plus. Lyndon Johnson called it “changing chicken shit into chicken salad.”

According to Stone, Donald Trump particularly exemplifies this philosophy of life. Likewise, Rule #13 “Never quit” cites Donald Trump, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon as exemplars of psychological resilience and persistence in the face of setbacks. Stone quotes Nixon as saying “A man is not finished when he is defeated, he is only finished when he quits.”

Stone also admires G. Gordon Liddy who lived by Nietzsche’s maxim “That which does not kill me can only make me stronger.” Liddy might appear a surprising choice of role model. He was the man who, under orders from Nixon, led the Watergate burglary of the DNC headquarters, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for doing so. Stone’s right to say, though, that in many cases “Today’s defeat can plant the seeds of tomorrow’s victory.” For example, as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I often heard clients tell me that, paradoxically, losing their job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Psychological endurance isn’t a virtue in itself, though, as Socrates points out in the Laches and elsewhere. It really only deserves praise when it’s in the service of something good rather than evil. Crooks can be very resilient. Toughness in the service of vice is arguably just another form of weakness.

Hate Trumps Love

Rule #54 “Hate is a stronger motivator than love” appears to be one of the fundamental premises of Stone’s entire political philosophy. It’s the basis of his favourite strategy: negative campaigning. Hatred is, he thinks, the most powerful motive incentivizing voters in US elections:

Only a candy-ass would think otherwise. People feel satisfied when there is something they can vote FOR. They feel exhilarated when there is something—or someone—they can vote AGAINST. Just ask President Hillary Clinton about all of the people who rushed out to vote FOR her.

Stone argues that Trump’s central campaign theme was extremely positive “Make America Great Again” but that he was nevertheless “the beneficiary, and an extraordinarily deft amplifier, of a deep, and frankly much-deserved, loathing” for Hillary Clinton.

Do-gooders and disingenuous leftists who decry the politics of fear and negativism are simply denying the reality of human nature, and only fooling themselves. Emotions cannot simply be erased or ignored, and to believe they can is a suicidally-naive approach to political competition.

There’s undoubtedly some truth in this but is it the whole truth? Stone’s Rule #52 “Don’t get mad; get even” arguably hints at a contradictory observation about human nature:

Be aggressive but don’t get angry. Nixon would get angry and issue illegal orders then reverse them when he calmed down.

So why isn’t the same true of voters?  Hatred and anger are certainly powerful motivators but so are fear and regret. When people act out of hatred they’re not usually thinking rationally about the wider implications or long-term consequences of their actions: it’s more of a knee-jerk response. That often leads to a pendulum swing when the negative consequences of decisions motivated by anger become apparent.  Perhaps, just like Nixon, voters might act out of anger (as a result of negative campaigning) but then come to regret their decision once they’ve calmed down again.

The danger of negative campaigning is that in voting against someone they have been encouraged to hate voters end up electing someone else, not on the basis of merit or competence, but just because they symbolize opposition to the hate figure. That can backfire dramatically, though, if it turns out the winning candidate’s shortcomings have been overlooked. Indeed, as we’re about to see, Stone is quite candid about employing his trademark negative campaigning strategy to create a smokescreen and divert attention away from potentially damaging criticism of his allies.

The Big Lie

Stone’s Rule #47 “The Big Lie Technique”.

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.

Arguably, a classic example of this would be the “birtherist” conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya in order to cast doubt on his eligibility to serve as US president. Stone previously stated in an interview that although he didn’t plant the idea of birtherism in Donald Trump’s mind he did encourage him to keep spreading it. However, although Stone proudly advocates this technique it obviously doesn’t serve his interests to place examples of his own handiwork under the spotlight so he doesn’t actually mention birtherism anywhere in his book.

Instead, he focuses on the claim that the Democrats propounded a “Big Lie” by claiming that the Russian state helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and that Stone himself had played a role by colluding with Wikileaks. So despite  writing about his mastery of this art in this book he’s also claiming that his enemies are the ones really perpetrating it. Of course, you can’t credibly admit that you’re telling Big Lies and then, in the next breath, go on to accuse your opponents of doing so unless you back that up with some pretty compelling evidence. Stone’s assumption, though, is that enough people won’t notice or don’t care about that. In some respects, he may be right.

One of the main reasons Stone gives for using the Big Lie is to create a smokescreen to defend yourself against criticism. Stone’s Rule #41 “Attack, attack, attack – never defend” and #42 “Let no attack go unanswered” hammer home the point that the best form of defence is attack. Stone’s argument is that, in life generally but especially in politics, if you try to defend yourself against criticisms rationally you simply risk educating more people about the accusations against you. Mud sticks. So instead launch a “devastating” counter-attack to divert attention away from the charges against you, and ignore them or at least say as little as possible in rebuttal of them. It doesn’t matter, of course, whether the criticisms you face are actually valid or not. Hence, Stone’s Rule #81 “Never Admit Mistakes”. He mentions briefly in passing that people will probably say that’s what he’s doing in response to the allegations that he colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign but he denies this and focuses instead on claiming that it’s all part of a Democrat / Deep State conspiracy against him.

In a nutshell, Stone believes that if someone attacks you in politics you should focus on attacking their character even more aggressively than they’ve attacked yours, and avoid having to defend yourself rationally. This is what philosophers call the ad hominem fallacy, being deployed as a deliberate rhetorical strategy. It’s also similar to the fallacy of “Whataboutism” or changing the subject – Never mind Russian collusion what about Hillary’s email server?! The hope is that everyone will forget about the criticisms made against you and focus on the allegations, true or false, that you’re making against your opponents.  If it works, you’ve thrown them off your trail completely and instead sent them down an endless rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Of course, that doesn’t prove you’re innocent, it just diverts attention away from the problem by changing the subject. Try that one in court: “Never mind that I robbed a bank what about the judge – everyone knows he’s a Communist and I heard he’s also the head of a weird sex cult!”

However, as Jon Meacham says “Lies are good starters but they’re not good finishers.” The truth usually comes out eventually. Stone is probably right that, rhetorically, it’s a very powerful strategy to attack the character of your critics instead of answering their criticism. However, that won’t keep working forever. Sooner or later your credibility will begin to wane as a result and people will stop taking you seriously, just like the proverbial boy who cried wolf. It might take months, or it might take years, even decades, but the more “Big Lies” you tell the more people will eventually begin to question your credibility.

Worse, although the Big Lie strategy may work quite well in the political arena, at least in the short-term, it has the potential to come back to haunt you in the law courts. For instance, some reports suggest that Stone is likely facing indictment as part of the Russia investigation. What would happen if the prosecution chose to read certain passages from this book aloud before a judge and jury? Once you admit to using deceit on a massive scale to deflect criticism, and never admitting to wrongdoing as a matter of principle, how can anyone ever again trust anything you try to say in your own defense?  What goes around comes around.

Book One of Plato’s Republic features a Sophist called Thrasymachus (literally “fierce fighter”).  Stone sometimes sounds a bit like him.  Thrasymachus adopts the cynical position that justice is for losers and that true wisdom is possessed by those courageous enough to become unjust, by lying, cheating, and getting away with it.  He particularly admires tyrants, who hold absolute political power and can do what they want.  He looks down on the sheep who bleat about morality as naive simpletons.  Might is right, in other words.  The honest and just man, he thinks, is bound to be exploited by the dishonest and unjust.  Socrates claims that the unjust seek power because they want to gain from it.  However, truly good men do not seek political power for its own sake but are more often motivated by the desire not to allow tyrants to rule.

Socrates doesn’t say this explicitly but he strongly implies the view that the motivation of good and honest people to become involved in politics will wax and wane, reaching its peak in response to the threat of tyrants seizing power.  History, in other words, may consist of a pendulum swinging between periods of political complacency, when corrupt leaders are allowed to take power, and periods of moral outrage when the people realize they’ve been duped and become motivated to set things right.

Thrasymachus is convinced that the unjust are always stronger than the just.  However, Socrates argues that injustice breeds division and hostility, creating enemies within and without the state over time.  Justice, by contrast, breeds harmony and friendship, and creates stronger alliances, although we might add that justice often moves more slowly than injustice.  So although the unjust may prevail in the short term, over time their power is bound to crumble as they increasingly find their associates turning against them.  Their problem is that they can’t really trust anyone.

Hypocrisy is Bad

Stone’s Rule #84 says “Hypocrisy is what gets you”, so he actually does recognize the danger of losing credibility. However, throughout the book he refers countless times to the deliberate use of hypocrisy, insincerity and deceit. For example, Stone’s Rule #55 “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em”:

This technique was one of Dick Nixon’s best. The veteran political pugilist would praise his opponent’s sincerity and commend the opponent’s genuine belief in what are, nonetheless, terrible ideas and repugnant ideologies. […] “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em—makes the hit seem more reasonable and even-handed, and thus more effective,” said the Trickster.

Likewise, Stone’s Rule #39 “Wear your cockade inside your hat” by which he means that it can be advantageous to conceal your true affiliations from everyone except your allies. He writes “sometimes it is best to cloak your real political intentions, so you are able to accomplish more without being under suspicion.”  But once you’ve told everyone that, in a book, you’ve kind of let the cat out of the bag haven’t you?

There’s undoubtedly some truth to the idea that deceit can be expedient in politics and Big Lies can have powerful effects. However, these aren’t qualities we normally praise or admire in other people, which makes it hypocritical to adopt them ourselves. That might work in the short-term but, once again, in the longer-term more and more people are likely to figure out what’s going on and you risk losing credibility as a result.  If your philosophy is based on deceit you also run the risk of surrounding yourself with fair-weather friends who share similarly ruthless values.  So you better hope that when a crisis looms they don’t just decide it’s expedient to throw you under the bus to save their own skin.  For instance, that’s typically what happens when defendants agree to plea bargains and turn state’s evidence against their erstwhile “friends” during criminal investigations.


Stone prefaces his rules by explaining:

To me, it all comes down to WINNING. It comes down to using any and every legal means available to achieve victory for my friends and allies, and to inflict crushing, ignominious defeat on my opponents and, yes, enemies.

I can’t read this without thinking of Conan the Barbarian who, when asked what is best in life, replies: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” I doubt Stone would object to the comparison. He describes his book as a “compendium of rules for war” and “the style manual for a ‘master of the universe’”.

So from the outset winning is everything. Although, a couple of pages later in Rule #1 he also says “There is no shame in losing. There is only shame in failing to strive, in never trying at all.” That attitude interests me because it’s more consistent with the values espoused by Socrates and the Stoics. If we invest too much value in outward success then we inevitably place our happiness, to some extent, in the hands of fate. The philosophers thought wisdom and resilience came from avoiding that and learning to place more importance on our own character and less on the outcome of our actions. It’s one thing to aim at a particular outcome, such as winning an election. It’s another thing to make it so all-important that we’re willing to sacrifice our own integrity in pursuit of it. That’s a recipe for neurosis because it makes our emotions depend upon events that are never entirely up to us. Stone’s good off to a good start with Rule #1 and it should make us wonder what would have happened if he’d developed that thought further and incorporated it into a more rounded philosophy of life.

That’s how the book begins. It concludes with Stone’s Rule #140 “He who laughs last laughs heartiest”:

I will often wait years to take my revenge, hiding in the tall grass, my stiletto at the ready, waiting patiently until you think I have forgotten or forgiven a past slight and then, when you least expect it, I will spring from the underbrush and plunge a dagger up under your ribcage. So if you have fucked me, even if it was years ago, don’t think yourself safe.

That brought to my mind something his hero Richard Nixon once said:

“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

Those are the words of Nixon giving instructions to his aides about the appointment of a new commissioner of internal revenue, caught on tape in the Oval Office on May 13, 1971. As part of this attempt to persecute his opponents, Nixon later handed his notorious “Enemies List”, containing 576 names in its revised version, to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He assumed political power was a weapon to be wielded, a way of harming his enemies and helping his friends.

Nixon’s words happen to echo an ancient Greek definition of justice as “helping your friends and harming your enemies”, which Socrates vigorously attempted to refute nearly two and a half thousand years ago. In Book One of Plato’s Republic, Socrates basically points out that to genuinely harm your enemies, by definition, is to make them worse than they are already. Just making them weaker by removing certain external advantages such as wealth, friends, or status doesn’t necessarily harm them deep down. As Stone himself conceded: the wise man can “make chicken shit into chicken soup” and turn setbacks into opportunities. We can only really harm others, according to Socrates, by corrupting their character and turning them into foolish and vicious people, if that’s even possible. He concluded that, paradoxically, the wise man will actually help both his friends and his enemies. That doesn’t mean giving his enemies external advantages, which would be foolish because they’d probably use them against us other others. Rather it means educating them and helping them to become wiser and better individuals, perhaps one day becoming our friends instead of our enemies as a result. Of course that’s idealistic, but it’s arguably a much healthier goal than simple revenge.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I think the future of American politics should perhaps involve greater bipartisanship.  People would do better to try to understand their political enemies, in my view, rather than simply attack them.  The law of retaliation (lex talionis) is “an eye for an eye” but as Gandhi reputedly said, that leaves the whole world blind. Socrates argues that revenge harms us more than it does our enemies because it degrades our character and tricks us into investing far too much importance in external things. I’ll therefore leave the last word to him:

“Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. Be careful though, Crito, that by agreeing with this you do not agree to something you do not believe. For I know that there are few who believe this or ever will. Now those who believe it, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but they must necessarily disdain one another because of their opinions. You should therefore consider very carefully whether you agree and share in this opinion. Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.” (Crito, 49c)