There’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:
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.)
We gain nothing by taking misfortunes badly, grieving overmuch simply adds another layer to our problem.
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.
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:
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.
Contemplating the consequences of responding rationally versus passionately, which I call Stoic “functional analysis”.
Grasping events from a broader and more comprehensive perspective, such as the “View from Above”.
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.
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.
I’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:
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.
Socrates 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.
According 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.
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.
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:
The behaviour of Xanthippe is in itself indifferent and harmless.
Xanthippe does good things, which are of greater importance, such as providing Socrates with children and caring for them.
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.
Introducing my new online mini-course about the life and teachings of Socrates, which is completely free of charge and designed for newcomers who want to learn more about his philosophy.
Welcome to my brand new mini-course on the life and philosophy of Socrates, one of my favourite philosophers!
This is a totally free of charge online course, which I’ve kept short and sweet for newcomers. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to complete, although there are loads of bonus materials included if you want to learn more. So please take a look at the main page to find out more and feel free to share it with your friends online.
My video on the life and philosophy of Socrates, with full transcript
My favourite Socratic quotations from Diogenes Laertius, Xenophon, and Plato
A short quiz on the life and opinions of Socrates
A recommended reading list for those who want to learn more
Socrates was a hugely important figure for the ancient Stoics. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Zeno then asked where men like Socrates were to be found, which led him to become a follower of the Cynic Crates of Thebes. In other words, Zeno apparently became a Cynic in order to learn how to emulate Socrates. However, according to another story, Zeno’s father, a seafaring merchant, often went to Athens and brought home many books about Socrates for Zeno while he was still a boy. His student Sphaerus reputedly wrote three volumes about Lycurgus, the legendary Spartan lawmaker, and Socrates. Later, Posidonius in his book on Ethics would point to the moral progress made by Socrates, Antisthenes, and Diogenes the Cynic, as evidence that virtue exists and presumably can be taught.
Emulation of Socrates as a role model was clearly central to Roman Stoicism, perhaps because of Zeno’s interest in him. Musonius Rufus refers to Socrates several times, in the surviving lectures, as a suitable role model for Stoics and this perhaps helps to explain the emphasis placed on Socrates’ example by Musonius’ famous student Epictetus. We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect. However, they were also critical of Plato’s version of Socratic philosophy. They probably believed, with some justification, that the “real” Socrates had focused more on ethics as a guide to daily life and espoused a simpler and less metaphysical philosophy than Plato’s Academy, more akin to the Socrates of Xenophon’s dialogues. For instance, the Socratic dialogues to which Epictetus particularly likes to refer are:
The Symposium of Xenophon, which he twice tells his students to go and read
Plato’s Apology and Crito, depicting the trial and imprisonment of Socrates
Other sources such as the writings of Antisthenes were available to Zeno and his followers in the early Greek Stoa and their view of Socrates was reputedly as the ultimate source of the Cynic-Stoic tradition, via his student Antisthenes. The Stoic use of Socrates is therefore a complex subject. This article just aims to present most of the passages referring to Socrates from the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and to intersperse some brief commentary.
If you want a scholarly analysis of Stoicism in relation to Socratic philosophy, you might enjoy reading A.A. Long’s excellent Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (20014). If you’re interested in reading more sayings and anecdotes feel free to download the e-book I created containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius, called The Life and Opinions of Socrates.
One of the most famous sentences in The Handbook is immediately followed by the less well-known example of Socrates’ noble death. The “good death” of Socrates was particularly important to Stoics, who seemed content to accept Plato’s early dialogues as providing an acceptable account of his trial and execution.
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. (5)
Another fundamental Stoic technique involves emulation of a wise man or moral exemplar, e.g., literally asking yourself “What would Socrates or Zeno do?” Note that here Socrates and Zeno are presented as the two most obvious examples of a Stoic role model. Did Zeno likewise ask himself what Socrates would do and seek to emulate his example?
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. (33)
Socrates here is presented as having attained, or come close to, the goal of life, by dedicating himself to living consistently in accord with reason, synonymous for the Stoics with their slogan of “living in agreement with Nature”. Note that again, Epictetus’ students are directly instructed to emulate Socrates (more even than Zeno).
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. (51)
The Handbook even concludes with a pair of famous quotes from the last days of Socrates. The first refers to acceptance of fate and the second to indifference to even the most extreme form of physical harm, Socrates’ execution. Anytus and Meletus were two of the three men who brought charges against Socrates. Cassius Dio tells us that Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, a movement greatly admired by Epictetus, used to paraphrase this by saying “Nero can harm me but he cannot kill me.” Thrasea was apparently a student and friend of Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus. Nero eventually executed Thrasea. This closing passage of the Handbook may perhaps have been read by some as an indirect allusion to Thrasea, paying tribute to him, or maybe it was a favourite quote also of Musonius.
And the third also: O Crito, if so it pleases the Gods, so let it be [Crito]; Anytus and Melitus are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me [Apology]. (53)
Fragments from Epictetus
Xanthippe was Socrates’ notoriously troublesome wife. A slight variation of this anecdote is also told by Diogenes Laertius: “He had invited some rich men and, when Xanthippe said she felt ashamed of the dinner, ‘Never mind,” said he, “for if they are reasonable they will put up with it, and if they are good for nothing, we shall not trouble ourselves about them.’” It’s there immediately followed by the remark: “He would say that the rest of the world lived to eat, while he himself ate to live.”
Xanthippe was blaming Socrates, because he was making small preparation for receiving his friends: but Socrates said, If they are our friends, they will not care about it; and if they are not, we shall care nothing about them.
Archelaus was reputedly one of the teachers of Socrates. Epictetus uses this anecdote to make a point about playing the role well that Fate has assigned to us, even if we’re in beggar’s rags.
When Archelaus was sending for Socrates to make him rich, Socrates told the messengers to return this answer: At Athens four measures (choenices) of meal are sold for one obolus (the sixth of a drachme), and the fountains run with water: if what I have is not enough (sufficient) for me, yet I am sufficient for what I have, and so it becomes sufficient for me.
Several times, Epictetus mentions Socrates and Diogenes together as role models for his students. However, Epictetus mentions Socrates more often in The Discourses than any other individual, about twice as often, for instance, as he mentions Diogenes the Cynic, or four times as often as Zeno.
This saying about being a citizen of the cosmos (cosmopolitan) is also attributed to Diogenes the Cynic but several ancient sources, like Epictetus here, suggest it originated with Socrates himself.
If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world (κόσμιος). (1.9)
Socrates again is portrayed as someone who believes strongly in mankind’s kinship with the gods, a teaching probably emphasized in the Greek Mystery Religions. Socrates must have been perceived here as alluding figuratively to his own reputation as a war hero. He famously distinguished himself in several major battles of the Peloponnesian War. Epictetus uses Socrates’ trial to make a point about identifying with our (divine) capacity for reason, with the wellbeing of our moral character, rather than merely with the preservation of our body.
How did Socrates behave with respect to these matters? Why, in what other way than a man ought to do who was convinced that he was a kinsman of the gods? “If you say to me now,” said Socrates to his judges, “we will acquit you on the condition that you no longer discourse in the way in which you have hitherto discoursed, nor trouble either our young or our old men, I shall answer, you make yourselves ridiculous by thinking that, if one of our commanders has appointed me to a certain post, it is my duty to keep and maintain it, and to resolve to die a thousand times rather than desert it; but if God has put us in any place and way of life, we ought to desert it.” Socrates speaks like a man who is really a kinsman of the gods. But we think about ourselves, as if we were only stomachs, and intestines, and shameful parts; we fear, we desire; we flatter those who are able to help us in these matters, and we fear them also. (1.9)
Wherever we go we are enslaved or imprisoned by our passions, as long as we don’t accept events that befall us with indifference, viewing virtue as the only true good. Socrates, paradoxically, was free through imprisoned, because he accepted his Fate with indifference.
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. (1.12)
Epictetus, who also taught dialectic to his students, here reminds them of the importance Socrates placed on defining concepts, particularly the virtues. Note that he refers to the Socrates’ of Xenophon’s dialogues rather than Plato’s.
And who is it that has written that the examination of names is the beginning of education? And does not Socrates say so? And of whom does Xenophon write, that he began with the examination of names, what each name signified? (1.17)
The notion of being like a stone, indifferent to insults, is found in other sources. This passage may allude to the now lost anecdote also mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, in which Socrates was stripped of his cloak in public by Xanthippe, his shrewish wife. Socrates had “one face” because he was relatively indifferent to external events and his mood didn’t fluctuate depending on his external fortune. This constancy of character was greatly admired by the Stoics.
For what is it to be reviled? Stand by a stone and revile it; and what will you gain? If then a man listens like a stone, what profit is there to the reviler? But if the reviler has as a stepping-stone (or ladder) the weakness of him who is reviled, then he accomplishes something.—Strip him.—What do you mean by him?— Lay hold of his garment, strip it off. I have insulted you. Much good may it do you. This was the practice of Socrates: this was the reason why he always had one face. (1.25)
Attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty is the beginning of Stoic philosophy. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Epictetus directly links this to the Stoic notion of training in self-awareness and recognition of our own character flaws.
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 at present, if men cannot swallow even a morsel, they buy whole volumes and attempt to devour them; and this is the reason why they vomit them up or suffer indigestion: and then come gripings, defluxes, and fevers. Such men ought to consider what their ability is. In theory it is easy to convince an ignorant person; but in the affairs of real life no one offers himself to be convinced, and we hate the man who has convinced us. But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (1.28)
Epictetus famously said that being shackled is an impediment to the leg but not to our mind, or moral choice. He tells his students to apply this way of speaking more generally, and here is an example in relation to Socrates. We should not say that Socrates was imprisoned or poisoned but rather that these things were done to his body, whereas his mind was free insofar as it chose to remain indifferent. (This doesn’t entail a Platonic sort of mind-body dualism, a metaphysical view, but rather a more practical contrast between the passivity of the body and the freedom of our conscious mental activity.) He concludes this passage with the famous pair of quotes placed at the end of The Handbook.
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.” (1.29)
Marcus and Epictetus both like to refer to this figure of speech from Socrates, where fear of death and similar anxieties are compared to the fear small children have of people wearing scary masks. As adults we should be able to remove the mask, look behind it, and realize there’s nothing of which to be afraid. “As a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face…“ The mask corresponds for Epictetus with our value judgement that something is evil but the Stoic should suspend that judgement (remove the mask) and view externals objectively, with indifference.
Confidence (courage) then ought to be employed against death, and caution against the fear of death. But now we do the contrary, and employ against death the attempt to escape; and to our opinion about it we employ carelessness, rashness and indifference. These things Socrates properly used to call tragic masks; for as to children masks appear terrible and fearful from inexperience, we also are affected in like manner by events (the things which happen in life) for no other reason than children are by masks. For what is a child? Ignorance. What is a child? Want of knowledge. For when a child knows these things, he is in no way inferior to us. What is death? A tragic mask. Turn it and examine it. See, it does not bite. (2.1)
Socrates said that philosophy was a preparation for dying, and the Stoics likewise consider philosophy to consist fundamentally in a preparation for meeting not just death but also all other forms of adversity. Living virtuously and in accord with reason involves preparing ourselves to face adversity with emotional resilience.
Therefore Socrates said to one who was reminding him to prepare for his trial, Do you not think then that I have been preparing for it all my life? By what kind of preparation? I have maintained that which was in my own power. How then? I have never done anything unjust either in my private or in my public life. (2.2)
This metaphor of Stoicism as a ball game appears to go right back to Chrysippus. The ball symbolizes any external, indifferent thing. Playing in a sportsmanlike manner represents virtue. We treat the ball is something of no real intrinsic value; it’s just a tool for exercising our skill in a sporting manner. Socrates is compared to a skillful player in the ball game, in terms of his handling of external events such as his trial and execution.
This is just what you will see those doing who play at ball skilfully. No one cares about the ball as being good or bad, but about throwing and catching it. In this therefore is the skill, in this the art, the quickness, the judgment, so that even if I spread out my lap I may not be able to catch it, and another, if I throw, may catch the ball. But if with perturbation and fear we receive or throw the ball, what kind of play is it then, and wherein shall a man be steady, and how shall a man see the order in the game? But one will say, Throw; or Do not throw; and another will say, You have thrown once. This is quarrelling, not play. Socrates then knew how to play at ball. How? By using pleasantry in the court where he was tried. Tell me, he says, Anytus, how do you say that I do not believe in God. The Daemons (δαίμονες), who are they, think you? Are they not sons of Gods, or compounded of gods and men? When Anytus admitted this, Socrates said, Who then, think you, can believe that there are mules (half asses), but not asses; and this he said as if he were playing at ball. And what was the ball in that case? Life, chains, banishment, a draught of poison, separation from wife and leaving children orphans. These were the things with which he was playing; but still he did play and threw the ball skilfully. So we should do: we must employ all the care of the players, but show the same indifference about the ball. For we ought by all means to apply our art to some external material, not as valuing the material, but, whatever it may be, showing our art in it. (2.5)
Epictetus refers several times to Socrates’ writing poetry while awaiting execution as an example of Stoic indifference.
And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison. (2.6)
Epictetus also likes to remind his students that the Socrates Method focused on trying to help the person with whom he was speaking during a philosophical debate to persuade themselves of the truth by exposing hidden contradictions in their thinking to them. Socrates didn’t force technical definitions on other people during debates but began with their own definitions. He didn’t lecture them but engaged with them in this more down-to-earth way, on their own terms. The Socratic Method was more like modern counselling or psychotherapy in this respect, arguably. Epictetus concludes by placing remarkable emphasis on Socrates’ ability to engage in friendly debate with others, avoiding arguments while nevertheless radically questioning their most cherished beliefs. Again, it’s notable that the Stoic students here are being instructed to read Xenophon’s Symposium rather than Plato’s.
How then did Socrates act? He used to compel his adversary in disputation to bear testimony to him, and he wanted no other witness. Therefore he could say, ‘I care not for other witnesses, but I am always satisfied with the evidence (testimony) of my adversary, and I do not ask the opinion of others, but only the opinion of him who is disputing with me.’ For he used to make the conclusions drawn from natural notions so plain that every man saw the contradiction (if it existed) and withdrew from it (thus): Does the envious man rejoice? By no means, but he is rather pained. Well, Do you think that envy is pain over evils? and what envy is there of evils? Therefore he made his adversary say that envy is pain over good things. Well then, would any man envy those who are nothing to him? By no means. Thus having completed the notion and distinctly fixed it he would go away without saying to his adversary, Define to me envy; and if the adversary had defined envy, he did not say, You have defined it badly, for the terms of the definition do not correspond to the thing defined—These are technical terms, and for this reason disagreeable and hardly intelligible to illiterate men, which terms we (philosophers) cannot lay aside. But that the illiterate man himself, who follows the appearances presented to him, should be able to concede any thing or reject it, we can never by the use of these terms move him to do. Accordingly being conscious of our own inability, we do not attempt the thing; at least such of us as have any caution do not. But the greater part and the rash, when they enter into such disputations, confuse themselves and confuse others; and finally abusing their adversaries and abused by them, they walk away. Now this was the first and chief peculiarity of Socrates, never to be irritated in argument, never to utter any thing abusive, any thing insulting, but to bear with abusive persons and to put an end to the quarrel. If you would know what great power he had in this way, read the Symposium of Xenophon, and you will see how many quarrels he put an end to. (2.12)
Here the “Platonic” relationship between Socrates and his young admirer Alcibiades is used to illustrate Stoic training in mastery of our sensual desires, and a comparison with Hercules, another Stoic role model is thrown in for good measure. It might seem surprising to us today that the Stoics would compare Socrates to Hercules, but they meant this quite seriously. (As an aside, athletes here are dismissed as training themselves in a “sorry” or trivial manner compared to philosophers.)
Go to Socrates and see him lying down with Alcibiades, and mocking his beauty: consider what a victory he at last found that he had gained over himself; what an Olympian victory; in what number he stood from Hercules; so that, by the Gods, one may justly salute him, Hail, wondrous man, you who have conquered not these sorry boxers and pancratiasts, nor yet those who are like them, the gladiators. (2.18)
We return to the theme of Socrates trusting in his interlocutors’ ability to refute themselves, through use of the Socratic Method. The method consists in exposing contradictions in the other party’s beliefs, through careful questioning, like a cross-examination in a court of law, rather than simply lecturing them.
For this reason Socrates also trusting to this power used to say, I am used to call no other witness of what I say, but I am always satisfied with him with whom I am discussing, and I ask him to give his opinion and call him as a witness, and though he is only one, he is sufficient in the place of all. For Socrates knew by what the rational soul is moved, just like a pair of scales, and then it must incline, whether it chooses or not. Show the rational governing faculty a contradiction, and it will withdraw from it; but if you do not show it, rather blame yourself than him who is not persuaded. (2.26)
Even the greatest teacher has bad students. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Not even Socrates persuaded everyone he spoke with. (Also, trivial ideas gain more agreement while more radical and important ones often meet with a more hostile reception – think of the scorn poured for years upon Charles Darwin’s claims.) Nevertheless, Socrates believed it was his duty to attempt to enlighten others through the use of his method of philosophy. The comparison between the wise man and the bull who defends the herd here may be an allusion to the portrayal of mankind as a herd of cattle in the Republic of Zeno.
Did Socrates persuade all his hearers to take care of themselves? Not the thousandth part. But however, after he had been placed in this position by the deity, as he himself says, he never left it. But what does he say even to his judges? “If you acquit me on these conditions that I no longer do that which I do now, I will not consent and I will not desist; but I will go up both to young and to old, and, to speak plainly, to every man whom I meet, and I will ask the questions which I ask now; and most particularly will I do this to you my fellow citizens, because you are more nearly related to me.” —Are you so curious, Socrates, and such a busybody? and how does it concern you how we act? and what is it that you say? Being of the same community and of the same kin, you neglect yourself, and show yourself a bad citizen to the state, and a bad kinsman to your kinsmen, and a bad neighbour to your neighbours. Who then are you?— Here it is a great thing to say, “I am he whose duty it is to take care of men; for it is not every little heifer which dares to resist a lion; but if the bull comes up and resists him, say to the bull, if you choose, ‘and who are you, and what business have you here?’” Man, in every kind there is produced something which excels; in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not then say to that which excels, Who then are you? If you do, it will find a voice in some way and say, I am such a thing as the purple in a garment: do not expect me to be like the others, or blame my nature that it has made me different from the rest of men. (3.1)
Socrates was not concerned with refined language or theoretical speculations, in contrast with Sophists and metaphysicians. His only real concern was the genuine cultivation of virtue, the practical application of ethics to our daily lives.
But what does Socrates say? As one man, he says, is pleased with improving his land, another with improving his horse, so I am daily pleased in observing that I am growing better. Better in what? in using nice little words? Man, do not say that. In little matters of speculation (θεωρήματα)? what are you saying?— And indeed I do not see what else there is on which philosophers employ their time. — Does it seem nothing to you to have never found fault with any person, neither with God nor man? to have blamed nobody? to carry the same face always in going out and coming in? This is what Socrates knew, and yet he never said that he knew any thing or taught anything. But if any man asked for nice little words or little speculations, he would carry him to Protagoras or to Hippias; and if any man came to ask for potherbs, he would carry him to the gardener. Who then among you ‘has this purpose (motive to action)? for if indeed you had it, you would both be content in sickness, and in hunger, and in death. If any among you has been in love with a charming girl, he knows that I say what is true. (3.5)
Socrates led by his example. Stoics likewise teach others primarily by aiming to provide them with a living example of virtue. Note that Marcus praises his teachers for providing with examples of what it means for a man to live in accord with Nature. This obviously contrasts with the Sophists who taught by lecturing and wouldn’t normally be held up as living examples of virtue in this way. We should change ourselves first before attempting to change others. Epictetus here alludes to the Stoic and Socratic doctrine that virtue is its own reward.
Make us imitators of yourself, as Socrates made men imitators of himself. For he was like a governor of men, who made them subject to him their desires, their aversion, their movements towards an object and their turning away from it. — Do this: do not do this: if you do not obey, I will throw you into prison. — This is not governing men like rational animals. But I (say): As Zeus has ordained, so act: if you do not act so, you will feel the penalty, you will be punished.—What will be the punishment? Nothing else than not having done your duty: you will lose the character of fidelity, modesty, propriety. Do not look for greater penalties than these. (3.7)
Epictetus’ “Discipline of Assent”, again linked to Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living. But here Epictetus suggests that means that an unexamined thought (impression) is not worth accepting. Stoics should check every impression first and foremost to see if it conflates value judgements with externals, is it an Objective Representation (phantasia kataleptike) free from value judgements that we project onto external things? He says physical exercise can serve as moral exercise, as long as it’s not carried out for external goals like vanity. The difference between training in a gym to improve our character and training to look good.
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? And finally whatever means are applied to the body by those who exercise it, if they tend in any way towards desire and aversion, they also may be fit means of exercise; but if they are for display, they are the indications of one who has turned himself towards something external and who is hunting for something else and who looks for spectators who will say, Oh the great man. For this reason Apollonius said well, When you intend to exercise yourself for your own advantage, and you are thirsty from heat, take in a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out and tell nobody. (3.12)
In this passage, Epictetus appears to be referring to the Socratic Method or elenchus (confutation) as a powerful means for overcoming arrogance, and revealing our deficiencies by exposing the contradictions in our thinking.
You must root out of men these two things, arrogance (pride) and distrust. Arrogance then is the opinion that you want nothing (are deficient in nothing): but distrust is the opinion that you cannot be happy when so many circumstances surround you. Arrogance is removed by confutation; and Socrates was the first who practised this. And (to know) that the thing is not impossible inquire and seek. This search will do you no harm; and in a manner this is philosophizing, to seek how it is possible to employ desire and aversion (ἐκκλίσει) without impediment. (3.14)
Epictetus wants to say that Socrates and Diogenes, his two favourite role models, were uniquely suited by their respective characters for different roles in life, assigned to them by Nature herself.
But not even wisdom perhaps is enough to enable a man to take care of youths: a man must have also a certain readiness and fitness for this purpose, and a certain quality of body, and above all things he must have God to advise him to occupy this office, as God advised Socrates to occupy the place of one who confutes error, Diogenes the office of royalty and reproof, and the office of teaching precepts. (3.21)
This striking passages attributes to Socrates an implicit message like the Biblical quo vadis – “Where goest thou?” Socrates is like a messenger whose role is to remind us that our true goal in life lies within our own souls and that we should not be distracted by external things.
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? (3.22)
Epictetus mentions at least twice the notion that Socrates loved his children with a peculiar kind of philosophical detachment. This is similar to his advice that we should love our wives and children while remembering that tomorrow they may die, i.e., to love without attachment. He refers in passing to Socrates’ public service as a “senator” (a member of the Athenian boule or citizen council) and as a hoplite in the Athenian army.
Did not Socrates love his own children? He did; but it was as a free man, as one who remembered that he must first be a friend to the gods. For this reason he violated nothing which was becoming to a good man, neither in making his defence nor by fixing a penalty on himself, nor even in the former part of his life when he was a senator or when he was a soldier. (3.24)
Again, compare “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” Socrates’ moral character was not harmed by his execution, although we may say that his body was harmed. However, his accusers (and here his judges) harmed their own moral character by their unjust actions against him.
Socrates then did not fare badly?—No; but his judges and his accusers did. (4.1)
Again, although Socrates loved his wife and children, he did not allow this to compromise his moral character. He had a country but thought of himself as a citizen of the whole cosmos. Socrates’ military service is mentioned again as well as his refusal to comply with the unlawful order to arrest Leon of Salamis. Epictetus reflects on Socrates’ attitude toward his sentence and his refusal of Crito’s offer to help him escape from the prison. Epictetus makes the striking claim that through the example of his noble death, like a martyr for philosophy, Socrates continues to be useful to mankind even though he is long dead.
And that you may not think that I show you the example of a man who is a solitary person, who has neither wife nor children, nor country, nor friends nor kinsmen, by whom he could be bent and drawn in various directions, take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly; and when he was sent by the tyrants to seize Leon, he did not even deliberate about the matter, because he thought that it was a base action, and he knew that he must die (for his refusal), if it so happened. And what difference did that make to him? for he intended to preserve something else, not his poor flesh, but his fidelity, his honourable character. These are things which could not be assailed nor brought into subjection. Then when he was obliged to speak in defence of his life, did he behave like a man who had children, who had a wife? No, but he behaved like a man who has neither. And what did he do when he was (ordered) to drink the poison, and when he had the power of escaping from prison, and when Crito said to him, Escape for the sake of your children, what did Socrates say? did he consider the power of escape as an unexpected gain? By no means: he considered what was fit and proper; but the rest he did not even look at or take into the reckoning. For he did not choose, he said, to save his poor body, but to save that which is increased and saved by doing what is just, and is impaired and destroyed by doing what is unjust. Socrates will not save his life by a base act; he who would not put the Athenians to the vote when they clamoured that he should do so, he who refused to obey the tyrants, he who discoursed in such a manner about virtue and right behaviour. It is not possible to save such a man’s life by base acts, but he is saved by dying, not by running away. For the good actor also preserves his character by stopping when he ought to stop, better than when he goes on acting beyond the proper time. What then shall the children of Socrates do? “If,” said Socrates, “I had gone off to Thessaly, would you have taken care of them; and if I depart to the world below, will there be no man to take care of them?” See how he gives to death a gentle name and mocks it. But if you and I had been in his place, we should have immediately answered as philosophers that those who act unjustly must be repaid in the same way, and we should have added, “I shall be useful to many, if my life is saved, and if I die, I shall be useful to no man.” For, if it had been necessary, we should have made our escape by slipping through a small hole. And how in that case should we have been useful to any man? for where would they have been then staying? or if we were useful to men while we were alive, should we not have been much more useful to them by dying when we ought to die, and as we ought? And now Socrates being dead, no less useful to men, and even more useful, is the remembrance of that which he did or said when he was alive. Think of these things, these opinions, these words: look to these examples, if you would be free, if you desire the thing according to its worth. (4.1)
Once again, Epictetus repeats the unusual observation that Socrates provides an example of someone who does not engage in quarrels, despite asking penetrating questions and speaking the truth plainly.
The wise and good man neither himself fights with any person, nor does he allow another, so far as he can prevent it. And an example of this as well as of all other things is proposed to us in the life of Socrates, who not only himself on all occasions avoided fights (quarrels), but would not allow even others to quarrel. See in Xenophon’s Symposium how many quarrels he settled, how further he endured Thrasymachus and Polus and Callicles; how he tolerated his wife, and how he tolerated his son who attempted to confute him and to cavil with him. For he remembered well that no man has in his power another man’s ruling principle. He wished therefore for nothing else than that which was his own. And what is this? Not that this or that man may act according to nature; for that is a thing which belongs to another; but that while others are doing their own acts, as they choose, he may nevertheless be in a condition conformable to nature and live in it, only doing what is his own to the end that others also may be in a state conformable to nature. (4.5)
Xanthippe, his notoriously ill-tempered wife, is again cited as an example of Socrates’ patience and endurance, along with his wayward son. The story was that Alcibiades sent Socrates a fine cake, which Xanthippe trampled underfoot, to which he remarked only that she’d spoiled her own share. These are used as examples of Stoic indifference to external things.
Remembering this Socrates managed his own house and endured a very ill tempered wife [Xanthippe] and a foolish (ungrateful?) son. For in what did she show her bad temper? In pouring water on his head as much as she liked, and in trampling on the cake (sent to Socrates). And what is this to me, if I think that these things are nothing to me? (4.5)
Epictetus refers once again to Socrates’ saying from Crito about acceptance of his fate. Socrates’ goal was to free his own mind to follow reason, and not to gain praise for lecturing in public, like a Sophist. Again, his writing of poetry while awaiting execution is used as an example of his indifference.
Or how will you still be able to say as Socrates did, If so it pleases God, so let it be? Do you think that Socrates if he had been eager to pass his leisure in the Lyceum or in the Academy and to discourse daily with the young men, would have readily served in military expeditions so often as he did; and would he not have lamented and groaned, Wretch that I am; I must now be miserable here, when I might be sunning myself in the Lyceum? Why, was this your business, to sun yourself? And is it not your business to be happy, to be free from hindrance, free from impediment? And could he still have been Socrates, if he had lamented in this way: how would he still have been able to write Paeans in his prison? (4.4)
Some of Marcus’ references to Socrates appear to be derived from Epictetus. Complicating things, only four of the eight Discourses of Epictetus survive today but Marcus appears to have also read the ones lost to us. So he may be alluding at times to discussions of Socrates by Epictetus in some of the lost discourses.
Antoninus Pius is compared to Socrates in terms of his ability to either enjoy or abstain from (to take or leave) the sort of things other people tend to indulge in too much – “All things in moderation”. This could be a reference to Plato’s Symposium or to the Memorabilia or Symposium of Xenophon.
And that might be applied to him [Antoninus Pius] which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus. (1.16)
Marcus mentions in passing his reflection on the fact that “lice” killed Socrates and that we should likewise be prepared for death, something that comes even to the greatest and wisest among us (3.3). Marcus attributes to Socrates the idea that philosophy trains us to separate the mind from externals, which is a central aspect of Stoic psychological training.
But if nothing appears to be better than the deity which is planted in thee, which has subjected to itself all thy appetites, and carefully examines all the impressions, and, as Socrates said, has detached itself from the persuasions of sense, and has submitted itself to the gods, and cares for mankind; if thou findest everything else smaller and of less value than this, give place to nothing else, for if thou dost once diverge and incline to it, thou wilt no longer without distraction be able to give the preference to that good thing which is thy proper possession and thy own; for it is not right that anything of any other kind, such as praise from the many, or power, or enjoyment of pleasure, should come into competition with that which is rationally and politically or practically good. (3.6)
In those two passages, Marcus lists Socrates along with other great philosophers and interestingly sets Epictetus beside him, reflecting on their mortality.
[…] so many noble philosophers, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates [are now dead and gone]. (6.47)
How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus has time already swallowed up! (7.19)
Marcus refers, like Epictetus, to the incident where Socrates refused the unlawful order to arrest Leon of Salamis, mentioned in Plato’s Apology. Nevertheless, we can’t judge someone’s virtue purely by looking at their actions, we have to understand their underlying motives and attitudes as well.
How do we know if Telauges was not superior in character to Socrates? For it is not enough that Socrates died a more noble death, and disputed more skilfully with the sophists, and passed the night in the cold with more endurance, and that when he was bid to arrest Leon of Salamis, he considered it more noble to refuse, and that he walked in a swaggering way in the streets—though as to this fact one may have great doubts if it was true. But we ought to inquire what kind of a soul it was that Socrates possessed, and if he was able to be content with being just towards men and pious towards the gods, neither idly vexed on account of men’s villainy, nor yet making himself a slave to any man’s ignorance, nor receiving as strange anything that fell to his share out of the universal, nor enduring it as intolerable, nor allowing his understanding to sympathize with the affects of the miserable flesh. (7.66)
Here Socrates is mentioned alongside Heraclitus (again) and Diogenes as examples of a great philosopher.
Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Pompey, what are they in comparison with Diogenes and Heraclitus and Socrates? For they were acquainted with things, and their causes [forms], and their matter, and the ruling principles of these men were the same [or conformable to their pursuits]. But as to the others, how many things had they to care for, and to how many things were they slaves! (8.3)
Marcus recalls one of Epictetus’ favourite sayings from Socrates about our fear of death being like children who are spooked by those dressed in frightening masks.
Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae,—bugbears to frighten children. (11.23)
Socrates’ avoids indebting himself to others who offer him favours.
Socrates excused himself to Perdiccas for not going to him, saying, It is because I would not perish by the worst of all ends; that is, I would not receive a favor and then be unable to return it. (11.25)
This seems to be related to the anecdote, now lost, which Epictetus mentions in passing, where Xanthippe apparently stripped Socrates of his clothing.
Consider what a man Socrates was when he dressed himself in a skin, after Xanthippe had taken his cloak and gone out, and what Socrates said to his friends who were ashamed of him and drew back from him when they saw him dressed thus. (11.28)
The two following passages appear to run together and may be quotes from Epictetus about Socrates. The question of our own sanity is of peculiar importance because all other questions depend upon our ability to reason clearly. This is a snippet showing Socrates using the elenchic method to expose a contradiction between the beliefs of his interlocutors and their actions. They do not seek to achieve sanity and reason because they assume they already have it but then if they are indeed perfectly sane and rational why do they fight and quarrel with one another?
The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter, but about being mad or not. Socrates used to say, What do you want, souls of rational men or irrational?—Souls of rational men.—Of what rational men, sound or unsound?—Sound.—Why then do you not seek for them?—Because we have them.—Why then do you fight and quarrel? (11.38-39)
If you’re interested in reading more sayings and anecdotes feel free to download the e-book I created containing excerpts from Diogenes Laertius, called The Life and Opinions of Socrates.
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius is one of our main sources of anecdotes about ancient Greek philosophy. It was written around the first half the 3rd century AD but draws heavily on earlier sources. The information Diogenes gives us isn’t always reliable. Nevertheless, he remains one of our most important sources for information on many of these schools of philosophy.
There are ten volumes, each containing chapters dedicated to a different group of philosophers. Diogenes dedicated the second volume to Socrates, including several of his predecessors and the main philosophers in his circle of followers. However, Plato gets a chapter to himself and Antisthenes is included in the chapter on Cynicism.
I have just created a new e-book that contains the chapter on Socrates and four of his most influential students: Antisthenes, Aristippus, Xenophon, and Plato. You’re welcome to download a free copy from my e-learning site. It comes in EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF formats.
Here are some of the most interesting quotes from the chapters mentioned above:
He is nearest the gods who has fewest wants.
He used to say it was strange that, if you asked a man how many sheep he had, he could easily tell you the precise number; whereas he could not name his friends or say how many he had, so slight was the value he set upon them.
There is, he said, only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance; wealth and good birth bring their possessor no dignity, but on the contrary evil.
And, being once asked in what consisted the virtue of a young man, he said, “In doing nothing to excess.”
He had invited some rich men and, when Xanthippe said she felt ashamed of the dinner, “Never mind,” said he, “for if they are reasonable they will put up with it, and if they are good for nothing, we shall not trouble ourselves about them.”
He would say that the rest of the world lived to eat, while he himself ate to live.
To one who said, “You are condemned by the Athenians to die,” he made answer, “So are they, by nature.”
To one who said, “Don’t you find so-and-so very offensive?” his reply was, “No, for it takes two to make a quarrel.”
When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”
He used to say, as we learn from Hecato in his Anecdotes, that it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.
When he was asked what advantage had accrued to him from philosophy, his answer was, “The ability to hold converse with myself.”
Being asked what he had gained from philosophy, he replied, “The ability to feel at ease in any society.”
It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.”
Being asked how Socrates died, he answered, “As I would wish to die myself.”
The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his stick to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question, “And where do men become good and honourable?” Xenophon was fairly puzzled; “Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and learn.” From that time onward he was a pupil of Socrates.
On this occasion Xenophon is said to have been sacrificing, with a chaplet on his head, which he removed when his son’s death was announced. But afterwards, upon learning that he had fallen gloriously, he replaced the chaplet on his head. Some say that he did not even shed tears, but exclaimed, “I knew my son was mortal.”
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.
A story is told that Plato once saw some one playing at dice and rebuked him. And, upon his protesting that he played for a trifle only, “But the habit,” rejoined Plato, “is not a trifle.”
One day, when Xenocrates had come in, Plato asked him to chastise his slave, since he was unable to do it himself because he was in a passion. Further, it is alleged that he said to one of his slaves, “I would have given you a flogging, had I not been in a passion.”
Free download. I’ve just created a new e-book containing excerpts about the life and opinions of Socrates and his most prominent students, from Diogenes Laertius. It’s in EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF format. Feel free to comment and share your favourite quotes. I’ll be updating it in the future with additional notes. Enjoy! 🙂
This is the text of a ten-minute talk I gave about Socrates to an audience of people who were mostly new to philosophy…
My daughter, Poppy, is six years old. She loves Greek mythology. She’s Nova Scotia’s leading expert on Hercules and she loves Wonder Woman – an Amazonian princess created by Zeus. Poppy also loves Greek philosophy.
While we were walking round town, or on the bus, she used to constantly pull my sleeve saying “Daddy, tell me stories!” I don’t read fiction; I’ve only read about four novels in my entire life. So the only stories I knew were about Greek philosophy. And this is one of them…
A long, long, time ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens. His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived. He said he was just a “philosopher”, though. That word means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself. Philosophers are always seeking wisdom, like children, they’re always asking questions…
But Socrates wasn’t always a philosopher. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason and sculptor who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis. When he was a young boy, his father taught Socrates how to cut stone to make buildings and beautiful statues. That’s what he did for a living for many years and he became really good at it. Some people say he made a famous statue of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.
Socrates tried really hard to make his statues perfect. He wanted them to physically embody wisdom and virtue. He thought that would be the most beautiful and inspiring thing anyone could possibly create. He tried and tried but he was never happy with the results. He always felt something was missing. So he went to the older and more experienced sculptors, seeking their advice. He was disappointed, though.
They made very beautiful statues depicting virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline However they couldn’t really explain what these qualities were or where to learn them. Socrates said they had become like blocks of stone themselves: blockheads, lacking wisdom and self-awareness. He realised they were looking too much at the outside, at statues, rather than looking deep inside themselves. They were experts at creating the appearance of virtue but they didn’t really embody it in their own lives.
Then Socrates had a great idea. He did something that I’ve seen many therapy clients do over the years, and it often dramatically improves their lives… He quit his job. He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped sculpting stone and began sculpting himself instead, his own mind, his character, trying to develop wisdom and virtue. He wanted to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues. Everyone thought this was hilarious because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at. He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his student Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat! [Actually, a man and a horse in ancient Greece.] It’s not a compliment. Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character. He liked to say that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he should be the winner because his character was much more beautiful than theirs. His friends weren’t convinced; they weren’t sure if he was joking or serious.
Anyway he gave up being a sculptor and instead of doing his father’s job he decided to switch to doing his mother’s job instead. Now, Socrates’ mother was a midwife. But instead of helping pregnant women give birth to their babies… he wanted to become a midwife for wisdom… to help men and women alike to give birth to the ideas inside them, so that they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them. We call that “Socratic questioning”.
Socrates helped people to give birth to their ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good. He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is the essence of wisdom?” He asked lots of questions but he always pretended he didn’t know the answers. That’s called Socratic irony – the word “irony” actually means feigned ignorance. He used to say “I know only that I know nothing”, pleading ignorance, although he was much wiser than the people to whom he was talking. If you ask Poppy, she’ll explain that’s the secret of Socrates’ wisdom. He used to ask lots of questions, and then he’d listen really carefully to the answers people gave. That’s how he became the wisest man in history.
However, sometimes when you ask too many difficult questions to powerful and important people they get upset. That’s what happened to Socrates. He rocked the boat and they came after him. Two men called Anytus and Meletus [and perhaps a third called Lycon] put together a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates was found guilty and executed, forced to drink hemlock. But nearly two and a half thousand years later, we still remember the things he said…
Once, Socrates asked his friends “what is justice?” and it led to a really long and really famous conversation, which was described in Plato’s book The Republic. One of Socrates’ companions said justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies. Even in ancient Greece that was a popular idea – it’s the worldview of Donald Trump and countless other politicians, good guys versus bad guys. It makes sense. Help your friends; harm your enemies… Socrates said that was wrong, though. He said justice consists in helping your friends and helping your enemies. Everyone thought he was crazy.
So this was his argument… Wisdom is the most important thing in life. It’s much more valuable than material possessions. Why? Well, for example, wealth is only as good as the use we make of it. In the hands of a fool, money is used foolishly. In the hands of a wise man, money can be used wisely. So wealth is neither good nor bad in itself, what matters is the use we make of it. And to help someone is to do them good. So Socrates argued that if we really wanted to help people we would educate them and lead them toward wisdom rather than just giving them money, or other external things. And if our enemies genuinely become wise then they’ll cease to be our enemies and become our friends instead. So justice should consist in helping, or educating, both our friends and our enemies. Maybe that seems idealistic but I agree with Socrates.
So this is my take home message… It may surprise you, but the main lesson I learned from Socrates was forgiveness. We blame people when we don’t understand them. To understand all is to forgive all. And so the closer we get to wisdom, I believe, the more forgiving we become. Socrates even forgave Anytus and Meletus the two men who had him executed. Indeed, he said something truly remarkable at his trial: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” That’s how firmly he believed that the most important thing in life is our moral character, the one thing that nobody can ever take away from you unless you let them. So I hope that now you all know as much about Socratic wisdom as Poppy does.