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.

Conclusion

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)

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Socrates on Finding Jobs for Refugees

Xenophon records several examples of situations in which Socrates would help his friends to cope with difficulties. He was perceived as having a talent for giving sound practical advice. When someone had a problem that could be resolved by knowledge, he would try to educate them. When they faced practical obstacles he would encourage his friends to help one another in various ways. In this dialogue, Xenophon reports a conversation between Socrates and an otherwise unknown man called Aristarchus about how to deal with refugees (Memorabilia, 2.7).  I’ve paraphrased it below, and added a few brief comments for clarification.

The context is perhaps the democrat uprising against the Thirty Tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that ruled Athens for eight months. Xenophon is believed to have left Athens for good a couple of years after this event. A rebel army led by the naval officer Thrasybulus had captured the Piraeus and many democrat exiles rallied there before the final battle that overthrew the oligarchy of the Thirty, and restored democracy in Athens.

The Dialogue

One day, Socrates noticed that Aristarchus appeared rather despondent. “You look as though you were weighed down by something, Aristarchus”, he said. “You ought to share the burden with your friends; perhaps we could even help relieve you a little.” Aristarchus explains his problem. He says that since the “civil war” broke out, and many Athenians fled to the nearby port of Piraeus, a large number of female refugees have gathered under his roof. Including his sisters, nieces, and cousins, there are now fourteen women seeking shelter in his household. Aristarchus is in dire straits. His family can get nothing from their farm because the land has been seized by their opponents. They cannot raise any money from other properties they own because he says the city is practically deserted. There are no potential buyers for one’s belongings and it’s impossible even to raise a loan from anyone. He jokes that you’ve a better chance of finding money by searching for it on the streets than by applying for a loan. Aristarchus is clearly in despair and he says it is very painful to “stand by and watch one’s family die by degrees” because in such difficult circumstances he lacks the resources even to feed so many of them.

Having heard this, Socrates asks how another man, called Ceramon, is able not only to provide for his large household, and feed them, but also to make a profit and become rich, at the same time Aristarchus’ family are dying of want. This is typical Socrates: he often begins by questioning whether other people might respond to the same situation differently. Aristarchus says this is because Ceramon’s household is full of slaves whereas his own problem is supporting free people, his own relatives. Socrates asks whether the free people in Aristarchus’ household are better than the slaves in Ceramon’s. He says that he thinks they are. It’s a shame, muses Socrates, that Ceramon should actually be prospering because of the size of his household whereas Aristarchus is struggling because of his, despite believing them to be better people.

Well, says, Aristarchus, that’s surely because he’s supporting slaves who work for him as craftsmen whereas I’m supporting people who were born and raised in freedom. Socrates responds by asking what it means to be a craftsman or artisan. Aristarchus agrees with his suggestion that it obviously means someone who knows how to make something useful. Now Socrates brainstorms a list of examples… So is hulled barley useful? What about bread? Men and women’s coats, shirts, cloaks, or tunics? Aristarchus agrees that all of these things are very useful.

Well, says Socrates, don’t your guests know how to make any of these things? On the contrary, says Aristarchus, they presumably know how to make all of those. Don’t you know, says Socrates, that from one of these trades alone, hulling barley, Nausicydes supports not only himself and his servants but also a large number of pigs and cattle? He has so much to spare that he often carries out public services for the state as well. And didn’t you hear that Cyrebus maintains a whole household and lives in luxury just by baking bread? Then there’s Demeas of Collytus who makes a living by manufacturing cloaks, Meno who weaves blankets, and most of the Megarians earn their living making tunics.

That’s true, replies a hesitant Aristarchus, but these people all keep foreign slaves to do the work for them. They can force them to do whatever happens to be convenient to support the household but I’m dealing with free people, who are my relatives. Do you really think that just because they’re free born and related to you, exclaims Socrates, that they should do nothing but eat and sleep? What about other free people? Don’t you think that people who work and apply themselves energetically to doing something constructive have a better quality of life and aren’t they more fulfilled than those who do nothing useful? Or do you find that idleness and apathy help people to learn and improve, to gain physical health and fitness, and to prosper in life? Surely these female relatives of yours, asks Socrates, didn’t learn these arts because they regarded them as being of no practical benefit? Surely they learned them intending to practice them seriously in a manner that’s of benefit to themselves and others? So is it more sensible for humans to do no work at all or to occupy themselves useful in such things? And which person has more integrity: one who works or one who frets about how to obtain life’s necessities without working?

As things are right now, he adds, I would imagine that there’s no love lost between you and them. You feel that these women are imposing a great burden on you by seeking refuge in your home and they must be able to see that you’re growing irritated with them. So there’s a real danger that animosity will grow to replace your initial feelings of goodwill toward one another. However, if you encourage them to do work, you will naturally begin to feel more positively about their presence when you see that they’re doing something beneficial for you and they will grow more fond of you when they realize that you’re pleased to have them as your guests. Over time, you’ll feel more and more gratitude toward one another, and your relationship will improve – you’ll become good friends.

Now, of course, if the women in your household were forced into some dishonourable occupation in order to survive they might feel like their lives were not worth living anymore. However, as it stands, the work at which they’re already competent seems to be of the sort considered most respectable and appropriate for a woman. Moreover, people always do better, make faster progress, and take more enjoyment in work they understand well. So don’t hesitate to suggest this solution to them as it’s a course of action that will benefit both you and them. I’m sure they’ll be glad to comply. Aristarchus was convinced. He told Socrates that he thought that sounded like great advice. “Until now,” he said, “I’ve been too anxious to borrow because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it back but now I feel that I can justify a loan to get work started.”

Epilogue

Indeed, Xenophon tells us what happened afterwards. As a result of this conversation, he says Aristarchus obtained the capital required to purchase wool for the women. They would start work before breakfast and continue until supper, and became more cheerful as a result of their situation improving. Instead of looking askance at one another the two parties became better friends. The women came to look upon Aristarchus as their guardian, and he came to respect them for helping to support the household. Eventually, he went to visit Socrates and was delighted to tell him how well things had worked out. He jokes that although at first he was worried about putting them to work now the women criticize him for being the only person in the household who’s not weaving.

“You should tell them the story about the dog,” said Socrates. They say that back when animals could talk a sheep said to its shepherd: “I don’t understand. We sheep provide you with wool and lambs and cheese but you give us nothing except grass to eat. The dog gives you nothing but you treat him as if he’s special, and share your own meals with him.” The dog overheard and replied: “Quite right too! I am the one to whom you owe your safety. I protect you from being stolen by men or seized by wolves. If I didn’t keep watch over the flock you wouldn’t even be able to graze in peace for fear of being killed.” When they heard this argument, says Socrates, even the sheep admitted that the dog deserved his privileges. So you should tell the women who are guests in your home that you’re like the dog in that story, guarding them and taking care of them. That should remind them that it’s through your goodwill that they’re able to live and work in safety, and be happy.”

New Course: How to Live Like Socrates

Announcing the launch of a major new online course about the life and philosophy of Socrates.

Learn how to develop your self-awareness and emotional resilience, with my new 4 week intro to Socrates and philosophy as a way of life.

I’m delighted to announce that my brand new course on the life and philosophy of Socrates is launching over the next few days.  How to Live Like Socrates is a four week e-learning course, which can be completed either following a schedule with other students or at your own pace.  Click the button below to learn more…

This course is about the life and philosophy of Socrates, the quintessential Greek philosopher! Join me as we apply modern psychological methods and Socratic wisdom to problems of everyday living. We’ll be exploring Socrates’ life and philosophy as guides to self-improvement, drawing on elements of cognitive-behavioural psychology to help us make use of his ideas. If you want to learn how to approach life like Socrates, this is the place to start. (And relax, it’s risk free: you have 30 day from date of purchase money-back satisfaction guarantee.)

What did previous students say?

Here are some examples of feedback comments from students who recently completed my brief Crash Course on Socrates:

“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 easy to understand. Big thanks.” – Francis Chan

“Amazing and deeply inspiring lecture about my favorite philosopher. What a meaningful way to start a day, thank you so much, Mr. Robertson… I’m looking forward to any other lectures you make no matter the topics.” – Noemi Wasserbauer

“Excellent introduction to the life and teachings of Socrates. Thank you, Donald!” – Cristian Martin

“Thank you Donald, for your dedication to uncovering truths from ancient philosophy that can be applied to any person in the 21st century. Your work on the history of CBT has literally saved me from myself and my quality of life has improved as a direct result of the wisdom that you have passed on to us. I will gladly recommend your work to anybody that I can.” – Dan Berrones

“Well-written. I teach a ‘critical thinking’ course… This would be a good supplement to that or to any introductory course in philosophy.” – Justin Kitchen

“Brilliant. Wonderful content, clearly delivered. Thanks Donald.” – insearchoftheway

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

The Stoic Socrates: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies

Socrates billboardThere’s a remarkable series of passages in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is portrayed describing four reasons why wise men don’t allow themselves to indulge in excessive grief when faced with misfortune.  We can also view these as four cognitive (thinking) strategies for coping with adversity, and building emotional resilience.  These appear to foreshadow Stoic advice for coping with adversity or themes found in the Hellenistic “consolation” (consolatio) literature written by both Stoics and Platonists, most notably including Seneca and Plutarch.   (If you want to learn more about Socrates, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on his life and philosophy.)

This first comes up in Book 3 of the Republic, where Socrates argues that the heroes depicted in tragic poetry often provide people with negative role models, insofar as they’re made to give pitiful speeches lamenting their misfortune to excess (387d-388d).  He says that a good man doesn’t regard death as a catastrophic thing for someone to suffer, even the death of one of his friends.  A wise man, therefore, will not grieve as terribly over the loss of his loved ones as tragic heroes did such as, say, Achilles.  The wise and good man is surely someone as self-sufficient as can be, Socrates says, and the least dependent on others of all men.  So to lose his son, brother, possessions, or any such thing, would seem less dreadful to the wise and good man than it would to other people.  Therefore, concludes Socrates, he will give way to lamentation less and bear misfortune more calmly and quietly than others.  He doesn’t, though, say that the wise man would not grieve or lament at all.

The idea that good (or wise) men somehow cope better than others with misfortune is finally picked back up again in Book 10 of the Republic (603e-604d).  Socrates now appears to claim, unsurprisingly, that training in philosophy can contribute to emotional resilience.  He begins by recalling his earlier assertion that a good man who has the misfortune to lose his son, or anything else dear to him, will bear the loss with greater equanimity than others would.  Although such a man cannot help feeling sorrow, he will moderate his sorrow.  There is, he says, a “principle of law and reason” in man that bids him resist being overwhelmed by the feeling of misfortune, although grief pulls him in the other direction.  (He then proceeds to use this observation in order to provide support for Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, which the Stoics rejected, and which was probably an alien notion to the real Socrates.)

Socrates claims that the intellect of the wise and good man is willing to follow the law of reason, which tells us it is best to be patient in the face of suffering.  He adds that reason (or presumably also philosophy) tells us that we should not give way to impatience for the following reasons:

  1. There is no way to be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad for us.  (Many of our greatest setbacks in life turn out to be for the best, and they’re often opportunities or blessings in disguise, but what matters most is whether we respond wisely or foolishly to events.)
  2. We gain nothing by taking misfortunes badly, grieving overmuch simply adds another layer to our problem.
  3. No human affairs are of great importance anyway, in the grand scheme of things, so they’re not worth taking seriously enough to get highly upset about them.
  4. Grief actually stands in the way and prevents us from exercising reason, the very thing that would help us most when faced with adversity.

Socrates elaborates upon the last point by saying that the thing most required when facing misfortune is that we take counsel with ourselves and deliberate rationally about the problem, “as we would the fall of the dice”.  We should plan the best response under the circumstances, or as psychologists today often say we should employ a rational problem-solving response.

We mustn’t, like children who have taken a fall, he says, keep hold of the part hurt and waste our time wailing.  Instead, we should train our minds to apply the psychological remedy as quickly as possible, healing what is sickly, fixing the problem, and banishing our cries of sorrow through the healing art.  That’s easily recognizable as a description of what we call today “emotional resilience”, or the ability to rebound after experiencing some misfortune.  That is how we should meet the attacks of fortune and not by indulging those irrational emotions, agrees Glaucon, his interlocutor.  On the other hand, those who indulge their unruly passions never tire of recalling troubles and lamenting over them, says Socrates, in an irrational, useless, and even cowardly manner.  That sounds like a description of what we would call “morbid rumination” in modern psychotherapy.

We might compare these reasons or cognitive strategies to four exercises found in Stoic literature:

  1. Remembering that external things, beyond our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but rather indifferent with regard to the goal of life.
  2. Contemplating the consequences of responding rationally versus passionately, which I call Stoic “functional analysis”.
  3. Grasping events from a broader and more comprehensive perspective, such as the “View from Above”.
  4. Asking ourselves what “What virtue has nature given me to deal with this?”, bearing in mind that the virtues of courage and moderation, which we praise in others, are designed to limit the emotion of fear and unruly desires, in accord with reason.

The foundation of this argument in Plato’s Republic, though, is undoubtedly the first of these, which amounts to the argument that external things are neither good nor bad in themselves, but should be viewed as indifferent.  What matters is whether we make use of them wisely or foolishly.  That basic notion crops up several times throughout the Socratic literature and becomes central to Stoic therapy of the passions.

Three Strategies of the Stoic Socrates

When confronted by the troubling behaviour of others, there were three main strategies or ideas that Socrates employed, which were later assimilated into Stoic philosophy.  (If you want to learn more, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on Socrates.)

1. Other people’s behaviour is indifferent

Socrates liked to remind himself and others that external events, including the actions of others, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but only insofar as we respond to them wisely or foolishly.   Events that are neither good nor bad are indifferent.  For example, he explains to his eldest son Lamprocles that the notorious tongue-lashings they receive from Socrates’ wife Xanthippe are no worse than those delivered by actors on the stage.  But one actor is not upset when another yells abuse at him.  So the behaviour in itself is indifferent, it’s our interpretation of it that upsets us, and we should remind ourselves of that.

2. Nobody does evil willingly

Socrates famously argued that no man does evil knowingly, which means he cannot do it willingly.  Everyone believes what he is doing to be right, he says, in other words he does what he does for the sake of achieving what he considers to be good for himself.  Socrates therefore argued that when people act viciously or unjustly it’s because they’re making an error of judgement about the course of action that will lead to their own good.  Realizing this we should pity the unjust, if anything, rather than feeling anger toward them.  They’re making the same sort of mistakes that children often make before they’ve learned to see beyond the misleading initial impressions we have of certain things.

3. Other people provide us with an opportunity to exercise our own virtue

Once we realize that other people’s actions are neither good nor bad and that injustice is due to ignorance, it becomes apparent that what matters most is whether our own response is good or bad.  Challenging situations, where our initial impressions are potentially upsetting, give us an opportunity to exercise wisdom and virtue, and doing so repeatedly strengthens our own character.  Socrates was often asked by his friends why he put up with Xanthippe scolding him, throwing cold water over him, and even ripping the shirt from his back in the street.  Socrates said that the best trainers choose to work with spirited horses knowing that by doing so they improve their own skills and become more confident dealing with whatever type of horses they may encounter in the future.  (Xanthippe’s name means yellow or golden horse in Greek.)

In the same way, Socrates said that putting up with Xanthippe was good training to strengthen his own character.  He knew that she was a good wife and mother, fundamentally, it was just that her quick temper sometimes created a negative appearance but he considered that misleading and saw beyond it.  Socrates liked to say that as small children we at first fear others wearing scary masks (think Halloween costumes).  When we realize that underneath the mask, it’s just other children having fun, the fear is eliminated.  He said we should view other events in the same way as adults, treating our initial impressions like bugbear masks.  The wise man pauses to remove the mask, examining what’s really behind it rationally, and thus his fears are often eliminated by greater knowledge and understanding of the truth.

Was Socrates a Real Person? and Other Questions

Socrates Wanted PosterI’ve noticed over the years that a surprising number of people out there are unsure whether Socrates actually existed or not.  Some people who aren’t familiar with the classics are just curious about the evidence, which is understandable.  Some people have the vague idea that he’s perhaps a character created by Plato.  There are a few people on the Internet who seem utterly convinced he’s a completely fictional character, though.

Quick note: If you’ve got about fifteen minutes to spare and want to learn more about Socrates then I would highly recommend taking a look at the Crash Course on Socrates I built for that purpose.  It’s completely free of charge and designed for complete newcomers.

Anyway, before we get into the evidence, here are are some of Google’s results for the most commonly searched questions about Socrates.  Sure enough, “Was Socrates a real person?” and “Was Socrates real?” are up there.  So are some more surprising questions and some most students of classics would probably expect to find.  I’m going to comment briefly on them all below:

Socrates Google Results

Did Socrates Questions

Was Socrates a real person?

Yes.  At least no modern scholars really question the fact he existed.  Socrates was a very well-known figure at Athens during his own lifetime and his execution in 399 BC catapulted him into even greater and more lasting fame.  We obviously can’t go back and check but because of the nature of the evidence that survives someone would have to be unusually skeptical to believe he never existed.  We don’t have any surviving writings by Socrates, although as we’ll see below he reputedly did write some poetry.  So what evidence do we possess?

First of all, several credible descriptions of his life and character survive today and were written by authors who were his contemporaries.  We have dozens of dialogues written by two of his students, Plato and Xenophon, which portray him doing philosophy and include many details about his life.  The playwright Aristophanes, who also knew him in person, satirizes him in three surviving plays, which were well-known during his lifetime: The Clouds, The Frogs, and The Birds.  These were performed at annual Athenian festivals at which plays competed for prizes, and were undoubtedly well-known at the time.  The Frogs took first prize at the Lenaia festival and The Birds second prize at the Dionysia festival.  The Clouds came last when it was performed at the latter festival but was then widely-circulated in a revised manuscript form.  We also have surviving references to Socrates from at least four other comic playwrights: Eupolis, Emeipsias, Theopompus, and one who is anonymous.  We also have fragments about Socrates from the speeches of two Athenian orators: Isocrates and Aeschines.  John Ferguson’s excellent Socrates: a Source Book (1970) contains these and many other passages from a variety of ancient authors who mention Socrates by name.

Socrates, in the aftermath of his execution, was pretty much the most famous person in Greece.  Many dialogues portraying him circulated at the time.  It would be very surprising indeed if these were all referring to a fictional character and even if they were, we’d expect other authors, especially those who viewed Socrates and his followers less favourably, to point this out.  It’s clear that his existence was taken for granted by all the ancient authors who mention him, though.  The main details of his life, such as the fact that he was executed, were clearly taken for granted as well, although there was an ancient rumour that in some of his dialogues Plato (sometimes but not always) used Socrates to express his own ideas, such as the famous Theory of Forms and his tripartite division of the soul.  It’s generally agreed that Plato did this to some extent although the scope and extent of it is uncertain.  Most scholars divide his dialogues into early, middle, and late periods and accept that the early ones are more accurate representations of Socrates whereas the middle and late ones often use Socrates as a mouthpiece for Plato’s own metaphysical ideas.  Diogenes Laertius, an ancient biographer of philosophers, wrote:

They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.

However, the Lysis is usually classed as one of Plato’s early dialogues.  Xenophon’s dialogues are perhaps more faithful to the real Socrates.  He makes no mention of the Theory of Forms, which is usually thought to come from Plato rather than Socrates.

There are numerous brief references to Socrates throughout the writings of the philosopher Aristotle, who was fifteen when Socrates was executed.  Aristotle couldn’t have met Socrates himself because he only moved to Athens a few years after his death but he would certainly have met many people who had known Socrates in person.   Aristotle also attests that the Theory of Forms came from Plato and not Socrates.  Aristotle sometimes writes “the Socrates” (a common Greek convention) and at other times just “Socrates” – some modern scholars believe that when he uses the former he’s referring to the semi-true portrayal of Socrates in Plato’s middle and later dialogues.

In addition to Plato and Xenophon, Socrates also had several more followers who were well-known teachers or prolific writers, such as Antisthenes, Aristippus of Cyrene, Phaedo of Elis, and Euclid of Megara.  None of their writings survive but the existence of these and other “Socratic Schools” after his death provides additional, perhaps circumstantial, evidence, and many remarks about Socrates that survive today were attributed to them.  Only roughly 1% of classical literature survives today so we often find references in the ancient works that do survive to earlier authors whose texts are now lost.  There are therefore also numerous additional references to Socrates in the writings of pagan and Christian authors, throughout the following centuries, who are often alluding to early Greek literature that is lost to us now.

For example, I’ve also seen the claim online that no official documents relating to Socrates’ life exist.  Actually, this isn’t true.  Many centuries after his death, albeit in a biography of Socrates based on much earlier sources, Diogenes Laertius writes:

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: “This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.”

So that does purport to be a fragment from an official document relating to the trial, which is plausible.  The various details it contains are all consistent with a variety of earlier sources.  With later sources like these we have to be cautious but they’re often just reproducing passages from earlier writings that survived down to their own time but not to ours.

So there’s no (reasonable) doubt that Socrates was a real person, although there’s some doubt over the reliability of information about his life and teachings.  This even has a name: it is known as the Socratic problem.  It’s a complex question but historians and philosophers have ways of trying to evaluate the available information.  For example, where several ancient authors appear to corroborate each other we can infer that what they’re saying is probably true.  It also helps that our sources are quite independent from one another another include authors from different orientations – poets, orators, philosophers – with views toward him ranging from very favourable to openly satirical, even hostile.

Was Socrates religious?

Yes.  He observed the same religious customs as most other Athenian citizens.  He seems to have had a particular affinity for the god Apollo, whose Oracle at Delphi reputedly pronounced that nobody was wiser than Socrates thereby inspiring him to find his vocation as a philosopher.  He had views of a religious nature that many Athenians saw as controversial, particularly his claim to have a “divine sign” (daimonion), like an inner voice or conscience, that guided him away from doing certain things.  Sometimes he was portrayed as raising questions skeptically about particular aspects of religion, such as whether there’s an afterlife, but he’s typically portrayed as quite pious in his religious beliefs.

Was Socrates guilty?

We don’t know.  The question is complicated by the fact that the charges against him were somewhat ambiguous and described in slightly different language by Plato and Xenophon in their accounts of his trial (Apology) and in Diogenes’ Laertius’ account of the indictment (see above).  The jury of 500 male Athenian citizens reputedly found him guilty by 280 votes to 220.  However, it’s widely believed that his trial was really about something else.  Socrates may have provoked hostility because of his skeptical questioning of powerful Athenian figures, or implied criticism of them, as well as his perceived political leanings, the behaviour of two of his notorious students (Alcibiades and Critias) and other aspects of his life.  There was an amnesty in effect at Athens at this time against many political charges, following the overthrow of a brutal oligarchic regime known as the Thirty Tyrants, set up by the Spartans after the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War.   So Socrates’ trial actually raises some very complex historical questions, which scholars have wrestled over throughout the years.  Athenian courts at this time were easily swayed by orators whipping up their prejudices, as well as by bribes and threats, so it’s difficult to know how much faith to put in the jury.  The charges are vague enough that it’s hard to be sure how the jury would have interpreted them.  For example, scholars today have different views about what specifically they had in mind by “corrupting the youth” and “impiety” or “introducing new deities”.  Even at the time, there may have been an element of subjectivity in determining whether someone’s actions justified these charges or not.  Xenophon and Plato are perhaps biased, as his devoted students, but they were at pains to portray Socrates as a sincerely pious man who sought first and foremost to teach his students how to live virtuously and respect justice.

We have two accounts of Socrates’ defence from his students, as noted above, but no real account of the prosecution case.  So, unfortunately, it’s really impossible to give a decisive “yes” or “no” answer to this question, although most of us today are sympathetic enough to Socrates that we tend to be inclined to view him as innocent and the charges against him as trumped up by people who had a grudge against him.

Was Socrates vegetarian?

Probably not.  Most ancient Athenians ate little meat anyway.  In Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates does propose a vegetarian diet for the ideal state.  There are versions of this circulated on the Internet by pro-vegetarian groups, which significantly modify the original text.

They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves […] of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them. (Republic, 372b-e)

Then he goes on to consider the consequences of a more luxurious life, including rearing animals for human consumption, as a potential cause of war of the need to acquire more territory.  However, the Republic, with the possible exception of Book 1, contains many instances where Plato is believed to be using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas or those derived from other philosophers such as the Pythagoreans.  So we can’t be certain these were really thoughts the real Socrates expressed  and it arguably sounds more like Plato is talking through him.

The argument against eating meat here is also somewhat vague.  It’s not that it’s inherently unhealthy or unethical but rather that combined with indulgence in other luxuries it might require expansion of the state bringing its citizens into conflict with neighbours.  You could read him as saying it’s not wrong to eat meat, it’s just that they can’t afford to let it become a habit.  The translator (of another edition) Prof. Paul Shorey comments on the passage above:

The unwholesomeness of this diet for the ordinary man proves nothing for Plato’s [or Socrates’] alleged vegetarianism. The Athenians ate but little meat.

By contrast, Xenophon, who’s often believed to portray a less adulterate version of Socrates, puts forward the familiar Argument from Design for the existence of a provident God.  Regarding non-human (“lower”) animals:

“Yes,” replied Socrates, “and is it not evident that they too receive life and food for the sake of man? For what creature reaps so many benefits as man from goats and sheep and horses and oxen and asses and the other animals? He owes more to them, in my opinion, than to the fruits of the earth. At the least they are not less valuable to him for food and commerce; in fact a large portion of mankind does not use the products [i.e., plants] of the earth for food, but lives on the milk and cheese and flesh they get from live stock.” (Memorabilia, 4.3)

In other words, Socrates is here portrayed as arguing that animals were create by God to provide humans with food, and other resources.

Was Socrates’ death tragic?

Not really.  It would depend on your definition of “tragedy” but Socrates is consistently portrayed as accepting his death and viewing it with indifference.  It’s easy to see how a modern reader would view it as tragic and Plato does portray his wife and friends as distressed but the point of the accounts that survive is that Socrates remained thoroughly unperturbed.  Xenophon was also at pains to emphasize that Socrates was very old, aged seventy, for an Athenian man at that time, and felt that he’d lived a long enough life already.

Was Socrates a student of Plato?

No.  It’s the other way round.  Plato was a student of Socrates.

Was Socrates rich?

No.  How much wealth he had is uncertain.  In Plato’s Apology he says he can afford one mina for the fine, which would be roughly 3 months’ earnings for a craftsman like a sculptor (maybe the equivalent of $15,000).  Then his more-affluent friends offer to club together and increase it to 30 minae on his behalf.  (Roughly seven and half year’s income – maybe $450,000.)

It’s often noted that Socrates could afford to buy his own armour and weapons to serve as a hoplite or heavy infantryman in the Athenian army.  That would be normal for a middle-class citizen such as a craftsman and reputedly Socrates followed his father’s trade, at first, and worked as a stonemason and sculptor.  On the other hand, he’s consistently portrayed as living a very modest life or even as having the appearance of a beggar.

There were, undoubtedly, people much worse off than him, though, and he apparently enjoyed the patronage of a number of very wealthy friends.  I would say that overall, it seems likely that Socrates lived a very modest life and was of humble means relative to other middle-class Athenians, although he probably often dined at the houses of wealthy friends and enjoyed their hospitality.  As far as I’m aware there’s no mention of him owning any slaves.  He was, however, able to support a wife (possibly two wives) and three children.  Diogenes Laertius says that he invested money and collected interest.  Aristippus, the first of Socrates’ students to charge a fee for teaching philosophy, defended this by saying that although Socrates didn’t charge he had several wealthy friends (such as Crito and Alcibiades) who supported him by sending him gifts, although he often returned some if it was more than he needed.

Was Socrates illiterate?

No.  We’re told by Plato that Socrates turned some Fables of Aesop into poems while in prison.  There was also a widespread rumour, apparently started during his lifetime, that Socrates somehow assisted the tragedian Euripides in writing some of his plays.  He was clearly very well-read, frequently quoting Homer and other poets as well as the earlier natural philosophers.  He refers several times to how cheaply valuable texts can be purchased in the stalls around the agora.  Xenophon also portrays him writing words on the ground, and sorting them into two columns, in one of his dialogues (Memorabilia, 4.2).

In Plato’s Apology he says that as a young man he obtained all the writings of the Milesian philosopher Anaxagoras and devoured their contents.  Xenophon even portrays Socrates saying that he would frequently read the books of wise men aloud to his friends.

And in company with my friends, I open and read from beginning to end the books in which the wise men of past times have written down and bequeathed to us their treasures; and when we see anything good, we take it for ourselves; and we regard our mutual friendship as great gain.’ (Memorabilia, 1.6)

So there are multiple references to him reading and writing from at least two different contemporary sources.

Did Socrates teach Aristotle?

No.  Aristotle was fifteen when Socrates died, and only arrived in Athens, where Socrates lived his whole life, a few years after his execution.   Plato, however, who had been a student of Socrates, became Aristotle’s teacher.  Aristotle reputedly studied in Plato’s Academy for twenty years.

Did Socrates die?

Yes.  Unless perhaps you believe in the immortality of the soul, which he is sometimes portrayed as saying he believes.  Obviously he died in the normal sense, though.  He was executed by the Athenian court in 399 BC.  He’s definitely not still around!

Did Socrates tutor Alexander the Great?

No.  Alexander wasn’t even born until a couple of generations after Socrates died.  Aristotle, however, is believed to have been a tutor to Alexander the Great.

Did Socrates live a good life?

That’s a matter of personal opinion but I would say yes.  The whole point of his philosophy was to live a good life, which he equated with living wisely and virtuously, even if he was poor and faced hostility from others.

Did Socrates get married?

Yes.  He had a notorious shrew of a wife called Xanthippe and three sons.  Plato says that as he awaited execution, in prison, Xanthippe was holding one of their children in her arms, so presumably he was an infant or thereabouts, and Xanthippe is therefore generally taken to have been about thirty years younger than Socrates.  Just to complicate things, though, Diogenes Laertius wrote:

Aristotle says that he [Socrates] married two wives: his first wife was Xanthippe, by whom he had a son, Lamprocles; his second wife was Myrto, the daughter of Aristides the Just, whom he took without a dowry. By her he had Sophroniscus and Menexenus. Others make Myrto his first wife; while some writers, including Satyrus and Hieronymus of Rhodes, affirm that they were both his wives at the same time. For they say that the Athenians were short of men and, wishing to increase the population, passed a decree permitting a citizen to marry one Athenian woman and have children by another; and that Socrates accordingly did so.

Three Ideas the Stoics Learned from Socrates

Life of Socrates CoverSocrates was a hugely important precursor of ancient Stoicism. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Emulation of Socrates as a role model was clearly central to later Stoicism and perhaps goes right back to Zeno himself. Epictetus makes far more references to Socrates than to any other philosopher.  We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect.

In this article, I’ll look at three key ways in which Socrates inspired Stoicism.  See my longer article on Socrates in Stoicism for more information, and lots more examples, though.

You may also be interested in my new Crash Course on Socrates. It’s completely free of charge and only takes about twenty minutes to complete:

1. It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. (Encheiridion, 5)

This is probably Epictetus’ most famous quote.  It was often taught to clients in Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and early Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  Many people think of it as distinctly Stoic.  However, it’s a recurring theme in the Socratic dialogues.  As it’s found both in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, it’s likely to have come from Socrates himself.  Indeed, as you can see, Epictetus immediately follows this by using Socrates as an example.  Epictetus notes that death cannot be intrinsically frightening because Socrates, and others, are not afraid of death.

Socrates employed the same simple little argument himself.  If everyone doesn’t have the same emotional reaction to an event then the way we feel is probably determined by the way we think about it.  For example, in Book One of The Republic, Plato portrays Socrates discussing old age with his elderly friend Cephalus.  Cephalus notes that most people tend to complain about old age being a cause for misery but he disagrees, and he quotes a famous saying from Sophocles to show he disagreed as well.  So Socrates and Cephalus jointly conclude that what matters is how we think about it, as those who approach old age with a positive attitude live with greater calm and happiness, like Cephalus.

Socrates himself was remarkably indifferent to the notorious temper tantrums of his young wife, Xanthippe.  In one of Xenophon’s dialogues, he’s shown giving his eldest son, Lamprocles, advice about how to remain calm when his mother is being difficult.  Socrates refers to the fact that actors aren’t upset when, on stage, other actors scream and yell abuse at them.  Although Xanthippe has a sharp tongue, Lamprocles has no doubt that she loves him, and Socrates draws his attention to the fact he’s responding to the superficial impression her behaviour creates rather than to his knowledge of her good intentions.  It’s not the other person’s behaviour that upsets us, he explains, but the way we think about it.

2. Model the behaviour of wise men

When you are going to meet with any person, and particularly one of those who are considered to be in a superior condition, place before yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will have no difficulty in making a proper use of the occasion. (Encheiridion, 33)

Epictetus often advises his students to contemplate the behaviour of role models and to emulate them, particularly that of Socrates.  However, this practice also comes from Socrates himself.  Xenophon, for example, places great emphasis on the way that Socrates improved the character of others by the example he set in his own life.  He even goes so far as to say that the memory of Socrates continued to help improve others after his death:

Indeed, even to recall him now that he is gone is no small help to those who were his habitual companions and who accept his views. (Memorabilia, 4.1)

Socrates frequently advises his students to seek out wise and virtuous individuals as friends.  He clearly believes that good friends are far more important in life than possessions or money.  That’s because he believed that we can learn most by sharing the company of good people and observing their behaviour.  Socrates usually claimed to lack knowledge of virtue himself, and his attempts to arrive at verbal definitions of the virtues often end inconclusively.  Nevertheless, he believed that virtue could be acquired by emulating the example set by others:

As for his views about what is right, so far from concealing them, he demonstrated them by his actions. (Memorabilia, 4.4)

3. The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates in this way became perfect, in all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet a Socrates, ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates. (Encheiridion, 51)

The Stoics believed that we should live mindfully, paying continual attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty (hegemonikon).  This is also derived from their interpretation of Socrates.  The Stoics place considerable emphasis on our ability to admit our weaknesses and fallibility, by reflecting on and criticizing our own character, in a constructive manner, in order to continually improve ourselves.

This then is the beginning of philosophy, a man’s perception of the state of his ruling faculty; for when a man knows that it is weak, then he will not employ it on things of the greatest difficulty. […] But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (Discourses, 1.28)

Epictetus relates this to what he called The Discipline of Assent, through which Stoics train themselves to question their initial impressions of things, and to suspend strong value judgements of the kind that cause emotional distress.

The third topic concerns the assents, which is related to the things which are persuasive and attractive. For as Socrates said, we ought not to live a life without examination, so we ought not to accept an appearance without examination, but we should say, Wait, let me see what you are and whence you come; like the watch at night (who says) Show me the pass (the Roman tessera). Have you the signal from nature which the appearance that may be accepted ought to have? (Discourses, 3.12)

The signal from nature that he’s talking about is what the Stoics call an “Objective Representation” (phantasia kataleptike).  They basically meant that we should ensure we’re viewing events in an objective and matter-of-fact way, without projecting our (strong) value judgements onto them.  In particular, they sought to avoid confusing external things –such as health, wealth, and reputation – with the highest good, and goal of life, which the Stoics, and apparently also Socrates, identified with virtue (arete).

It is his duty then to be able with a loud voice, if the occasion should arise, and appearing on the tragic stage to say like Socrates: Men, whither are you hurrying, what are you doing, wretches? like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without? (Discourses, 3.22)

We can only live wisely, though, by continually reflecting on the way we’re employing reason in daily life, from moment to moment.

Parenting: What Socrates Said

Xanthippe Socrates British MuseumAccording to legend, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after reading Book Two of Xenophon’s famous Memorabilia of Socrates. The second chapter of this book portrays Socrates engaging in a short Socratic dialogue with his own son, Lamprocles.   It may have been a conversation Xenophon actually witnessed, or heard about from Socrates.  It gives us some interesting insights into Socrates’ attitudes toward parenting and his relationship with his own son.

Socrates had three sons, by his notoriously hot-tempered wife Xanthippe, of whom Lamprocles was the eldest.  Lamprocles was a young boy when Socrates was executed; two younger brothers, Menexenus and Sophroniscus, were still small children, at least one of them carried by Xanthippe like a baby.

According to Xenophon, Socrates one day noticed that Lamprocles was becoming increasingly irritable with Xanthippe, his mother.  So he decided to employ the Socratic method of questioning to help improve his son’s relationship with her.   Socrates’ method consists mainly in asking questions, although he sometimes ends up offering practical advice on what to do if the other person gets stuck.  I’ve paraphrased the discussion below, and inserted a few comments, although I’ve stayed very close to the original dialogue.

Part One: Katharsis

Socrates begins by asking his son, Lamprocles, what we typically mean when call someone ungrateful.  He asks “What do people do to earn this name?”  Lamprocles says that we call someone ungrateful if they’ve been treated well and could show gratitude in return but don’t.  Socrates asks him if that means ingratitude is a bad thing and Lamprocles agrees that it is.  So from the outset they have both agreed this definition as common ground upon which to begin working.

Then Socrates asks a trickier question: Could it perhaps be that it’s wrong to show ingratitude toward our friends but right to show ingratitude to our enemies?  He asks that question, incidentally, because Lamprocles would have been familiar with a Greek saying that a good man helps his friends and harms his enemies, which Socrates thought was a very wrong-headed way of understanding justice.

Lamprocles says he’s thought about this already and disagrees with it, perhaps because he’s heard Socrates’ criticisms of this view.  (We can almost imagine him thinking “Hmmm… I’ve heard this one before.”) So instead the boy says that whether someone is a friend or an enemy, either way, as long as we’ve received a favour from them then we should show them gratitude in return.  They both agree that being ungrateful to anyone, friend or enemy, who does you favour would be the height of injustice.  Socrates asks if that means that the greater a favour someone receives without showing gratitude in return, the more unjust they are being, and his son agrees.

Well, says Socrates, what greater favour could there be than that shown by parents to their children?  Parents benefit their children by having them and giving them their very existence.  So every other good thing they can possibly experience depends upon that fact.   My six-year-old daughter Poppy’s comment on this is that it’s like saying we should be grateful to the man who built our house because we can eat in it and watch television and sleep, and it gives us the space to do other good things.  Indeed, Socrates says, most people believe that their own life is so valuable that they would do anything to hang on to it.  The greatest crimes were punished by the death sentence in Athens because everyone assumed life was the most precious thing and nobody wanted to lose it.  (Of course, elsewhere Socrates himself questions whether death is an evil and there’s a hint of irony here because we all know he later receives the death penalty from an Athenian court himself.)

Socrates reminds Lamprocles that parents sacrifice a lot because they want to have children.  Mothers carry around the weight of the baby inside them for months and then, in ancient Greece, they actually risk their own lives in giving birth to them.  Socrates mother, Phaenarete, was reputedly a midwife, an esteemed middle-class profession in Athens.  His empathy with mothers here, surprising for a man of his time, perhaps hints at Phaenarete’s influence on him.  Once a baby is born, he says, its mother feeds it and cares for it, even though it has never done her any favours.  The baby doesn’t even know anything about its parents yet but still receives their care and attention.  For years, the mother has to go through all sorts of drudgery, day and night, rearing her infant without knowing whether she’ll ever receive any gratitude in return.  Not only do the parents care for the child by clothing and feeding them but they also try to educate them.  They try to share any knowledge with them that they think might be important.  If they think it would be better taught by someone else, they pay for teachers and coaches as well.  So there are lots of reasons to grateful, at least to a typical conscientious mother like Xanthippe.

This sounds like it’s at risk of turning into a bit of a finger-wagging sermon on being grateful to your mother for everything she’s sacrificed, etc., although maybe quite a reasonable and articulate one.  Lamprocles isn’t convinced, though.  He says, “Well, all that might be true, but nevertheless you can’t expect anyone to put up with her temper!”  He’s trying to say that negates everything else.  This leads Socrates into an interesting examination of how to cope with difficult people.  If it’s much easier to deal with Xanthippe’s temper than their son assumes then he’s got no reason to be ungrateful to her, given everything else she’s done for him.  Her sharp-tongue becomes something trivial.  Indeed, elsewhere we’re told that even when she threw cold water over Socrates or tore the shirt from his back in public, he just shrugged it off with indifference.

Next Socrates asks the odd-sounding question: Is it harder to bear with the ferocity of a wild beast or with that of your own mother?  Lamprocles say “With a mother, if she’s like mine!”  That’s interesting and perhaps the key point at stake for them both.  Lamprocles is half-joking.  When people are half-joking about what upsets them, that’s often a signal.  It often means they’ve said something that they believe emotionally although they realize logically that it can’t actually be true.  We often use humour to mask the contradictions in our thinking.  Socrates doesn’t let his son off the hook, though…

He asks: Has your mother ever injured you by biting or kicking, like wild animals do?  “Of course not”, says the boy, “but she says things you wouldn’t want to put up with every day of the week.”  Socrates points out that his son has actually been doing things all his life that worry and upset his mother, so he should remember it cuts both ways.  “Yes,” says Lamprocles, “but I’ve never said or done anything to make her ashamed of me.”

Then Socrates says something very peculiar indeed: Do you think it’s harder for you to listen to the things your mother says than it is for actors in tragedies when they’re yelling abuse at one another?  (If I remember right, he uses the same argument somewhere else as well.)  We might think he’s come very close here to the familiar English adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  This profound indifference to criticism from others is an aspect of Socrates’ original philosophy that may have influenced Antisthenes and the Cynics, and later the Stoics.

Lamprocles quite naturally responds “That’s all well and good but actors in tragedies don’t actually believe that those verbally abusing them intend to punish or harm them.” They’re just pretending, playing a role on the sage.  It’s make-believe.  This is where Socrates finally reveals his hand, though.  “Yes and you do get angry with your mother,” he says, “even though you know well enough that she doesn’t intend to harm you either, any more than the the performers arguing on stage mean to harm one another.”  Here Socrates is reminding Lamprocles of something he’s already acknowledged, which contradicts what he’s now trying to say.  Even though Xanthippe gets angry and can be argumentative, it’s not devoid of any kind intention.  Paradoxically, it’s because she loves her son and wants to do him good.  “Or do you imagine”, asks Socrates, “that she means to harm you?” Lamprocles acknowledges that she doesn’t.

Xanthippe wants to help her son. Socrates reminds Lamprocles that she always does her best to look after him when he’s sick, and tends to his every need.  She’s always praying to the gods for his welfare.  For Lamprocles to say that his mother is unbearable is therefore to say that what actually does him good is unbearable.  So, in a nutshell, it’s not someone’s words that should concern us, no matter how sharp-tongued they’re being, but their real underlying intentions.  As Lamprocles genuinely accepts that his mother doesn’t intend to harm him then why should he be bothered by her bluster?  He should remind himself that it’s just a misleading appearance like the actors yelling verbal abuse at one another on stage.  This recalls one of Socrates’ most famous analogies, when he elsewhere compares our fear of death to that of small children who are frightened by grotesque masks.  The wise man removes the mask and inspecting what’s behind it finds nothing terrifying.  He looks beyond surface appearances, and that’s what Lamprocles should learn to do when Xanthippe is screaming and shouting at him.

Lamprocles Diagram

Part Two: Functional Analysis

Socrates then shifts perspective, adopting a new line of argument.  The first part of the dialogue helps Lamprocles to question his initial impression that Xanthippe’s behaviour is awful or intolerable and to perceive it with greater indifference.  That’s a typical strategy in both Socratic philosophy and Stoicism.  Next, Socrates draws his son’s attention to the negative consequences of his old way of looking at things.  Again, this is a familiar strategy, both Socratic and Stoic.  Imagining the broader and longer-term consequences of some course of action is still used today as a way of evaluating it and building motivation to change.

Socrates asks: Do you think there’s anyone else in life who deserves your respect?  Lamprocles admits that there are, of course, people such as teachers, military officers, city officials, etc., whom it’s appropriate to respect and obey.  He also asks Lamprocles whether he wants to be liked by his neighbours.  “So that he may offer you a light for your fire when you need one,” says Socrates, “or contribute to your success and give you prompt and friendly help should you ever meet with misfortune.”  Take the example of a fellow traveller, or anyone else you might encounter, he adds.  Would it make no difference to you whether he became your friend or your enemy?  He asks if Lamprocles should care at all whether the people he meets in life want to help him or harm him.  He agrees that we should prefer people to have goodwill toward us, where possible.

So you think it’s worthwhile concerning yourself with whether strangers are friendly toward you, says Socrates, and yet not to be concerned for your relationship with your mother, who loves you more than anyone else does?  He mentions that the Athenian state doesn’t normally punish ingratitude but that people who show disregard for their parents are penalized and debarred from holding public office.  This is because such offices often involved offering traditional sacrifices to the gods, which requires someone known for possessing good character.  The Athenians didn’t trust men who disrespected their own parents.  Indeed, Socrates notes, even someone who fails to tend the graves of his dead parents might have that held as a serious charge against him when applying for public office.

So my son, Socrates concludes, if you’re prudent you’ll ask the gods to forgive you for any disregard you’ve shown toward your mother in the past, and you’ll take care that your fellow Athenians don’t observe you neglecting your parents in the future.  That’s a sure fire way to lose their respect and friendship, he adds, as they’re bound to conclude, if they think about it, that from someone who has shown ingratitude toward his own parents  nobody can expect to receive gratitude in return for doing them a favour.

Addenda

It’s worth mentioning that similar remarks about Xanthippe are attributed to Socrates by Diogenes Laertius.  We’re told that when she scolded him and then throw water over him, he merely joked about his indifference: “Did I not say that Xanthippe’s thunder would end in rain?”  Much like Lamprocles in the dialogue above, we’re told that Alcibiades, Socrates’ friend and military messmate, once complained to him that Xanthippe’s tongue-lashings were simply intolerable.  Socrates replied that like the rattling of a windlass (used to winch heavy weights, perhaps when Socrates worked as a stonemason) he’d simply grown used to it and didn’t notice it anymore.   Likewise, he asks “Do you not mind the cackling of geese?”  Alcibiades responds that he does not but that they furnish him with eggs and goslings to which Socrates replies “And Xanthippe is the mother of my children.”  That sounds a lot like the underlying argument presented to Lamprocles above.  Socrates also frequently states that in the same way trainers hone their skills by working with spirited horses, he strengthens his character and is better able to cope with other hardships by rehearsing his skills with Xanthippe.  (Which probably makes a play on the fact that her name means “Yellow Horse”.)

So there are three distinct aspects to this argument in total:

  1. The behaviour of Xanthippe is in itself indifferent and harmless.
  2. Xanthippe does good things, which are of greater importance, such as providing Socrates with children and caring for them.
  3. If Socrates approaches it wisely, her behaviour actually provides him with the opportunity to strengthen his character and attain greater virtue, which is a good.