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.
In ancient philosophy the term “eclecticism” normally refers to philosophers who don’t adhere to a particular school of thought but borrow concepts and theories from multiple sources. In particular, the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, the teacher of Cicero, introduced an eclectic approach to the Platonic Academy, which attempted to assimilate elements of Stoic and Aristotelian thought into Platonism.
However, when people today talk about eclecticism they often just mean a more general notion of combining different philosophical elements. The Stoic school itself was originally “eclectic” in this sense. When Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, he found himself at a bookseller’s stall and allegedly read Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. (Possibly the section in which Socrates’ relates the parable called The Choice of Hercules, developed by his friend, the Sophist Prodicus.) According to other accounts, though, Zeno had already read the Dialogues of Plato in his youth.
Zeno was originally a wealthy Phoenician dye merchant who reputedly lost his fortune at sea, and was shipwrecked near Athens. The story goes that Zeno consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told to “take on the colour of dead men”, which he interpreted as meaning he should study the philosophers of previous generations.
After reading about Socrates, Zeno turned to the bookseller and asked where he could meet such a man. The Cynic Crates of Thebes was walking past at that moment, and the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno, who became his follower for many years as a result. Crates had been the student of Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism. Diogenes in turn was allegedly inspired by one of Socrates’ closest and most highly-regarded followers, Antisthenes. (Although modern scholars doubt Diogenes could have actually met Antisthenes, it’s quite possible he encountered his writings and perhaps even some of his followers.)
Hence, in the ancient world, authors such as Diogenes Laertius, claimed that the Stoic school founded by Zeno descended directly from Socrates via Antisthenes, and the Cynics Diogenes and Crates. This is sometimes called the “Cynic-Stoic succession” theory. Antisthenes was sometimes even referred to as the founder of Cynicism in the ancient world – he was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon (“Absolute Dog”) and taught at the Cynosarges (“White Dog”) gymnasium.
We’re also told that Zeno studied in the Platonic Academy, under the famous scholarchs Xenocrates and Polemo. The Cynics did not teach Physics or Logic and it seems that Zeno felt this was a serious omission, which he could rectify by attending other more “academic” philosophical lectures. Nevertheless, we also know that Zeno attacked Plato’s philosophy, particularly in his Republic, a critique of Plato’s book of the same name.
We also know, however, that Zeno studied under philosophers of another Socratic sect: the Megarians and the associated Dialecticians. The Megarian school specialised in logic and was founded by Euclid of Megara, another one of Socrates’ circle. The head of the Megarian school in Zeno’s day, Stilpo, was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his time. We find references to him and to Megarian Logic scattered throughout the surviving Stoic literature. Zeno also appears to have studied with another famous Megarian called Diodorus Cronus. Although the Megarians were particularly renowned for their Logic, they also had influential ethical teachings, which may have resembled those of the Cynics and other Socratic sects in holding that virtue is the only true good.
Zeno therefore studied under the main figures of all three major surviving Socratic sects of his day. Xenophon, whose Memorabilia Zeno had read, greatly admired Antisthenes. Like the Stoics, the Cynics believed that virtue was the only true good. Antisthenes also appears to have believed this, and perhaps to have attributed it to Socrates. Likewise, Xenophon appears to suggest this was Socrates’ ethical philosophy. There are some indications that this was also the position of the Megarian school, and possibly they too derived it from Socrates. The Stoics therefore possibly believed that the doctrine that became associated with them, that virtue is the only true good, was derived ultimately from Socrates himself, via most of his followers, with the notable exception of Plato, who portrays Socrates saying this in some of his earlier Dialogues, but equivocates elsewhere. The Platonic Academy later became associated with the doctrine that virtue is the highest but not the only good, and that the good life is composed of virtue in combination with bodily and external goods, which was also the position of the Aristotelian school.
On some accounts, Zeno is surprisingly silent about Aristotle. However, Plutarch claims that Zeno was heavily critical of the Peripatetic school. Aristotle stood somewhat outside of the Socratic tradition, and Zeno apparently did not choose to study in the Lyceum. The early Stoics generally appear relatively uninterested in Aristotle’s philosophy.
Those were the major Hellenistic influences on Stoicism. However, there are also many references to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Pythagoreanism in the surviving Stoic literature, particularly to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. We know that Zeno wrote a book on Pythagoreanism. So he may have studied Pythagorean writings when developing his conception of the Stoic philosophy.
It’s also generally believed that the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was important to Stoicism. There’s no evidence Zeno studied Heraclitus. However, Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book on Heraclitus. For all we know, though, Zeno may have also referred to Heraclitus in his own writings on Physics and that may be why Cleanthes chose to write about him.
These philosophies all influenced the development of Zeno’s original Stoic school, and they continue to be influential among Stoics right down to the Roman Imperial age. That’s probably because references to these different schools of philosophy were interspersed in the canonical Stoic writings, which subsequent generations of Stoics continued to read. As far as we’re aware, among other topics, Zeno wrote books on Plato (The Republic), Pythagoras (Pythagorean Questions), and Memorabilia of Crates the Cynic. He also wrote books on Homer and other poets.
These different philosophical and literary traditions influenced Stoicism in many ways. However, the Stoic curriculum combined the scholarly study of Physics, Ethics and Logic, probably influenced by the scope of the Platonic Academy. It’s sometimes said, crudely, that the Stoics derived their Ethics from the Cynics, their Logic from the Megarians, and their Physics from Heraclitus. They also appear to have been particularly known for taking the Cynic ethical doctrine that virtue is the only true good (perhaps shared with Antisthenes, Xenophon, and the Megarians) and reconciling it with the Platonic (and Aristotelian) doctrine that the good life consists in a combination of virtue, bodily, and external goods. They did this by introducing the novel concept that virtue consists in making proper selections between things of secondary value (axia), known as “preferred indifferents”.
Although Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, it’s sometimes held that the third head of the Stoa, Chrysippus, was in fact the most influential Stoic scholarch. He was by far the most prolific of the school’s founders, writing over 700 texts. Chrysippus modified the earlier doctrines of Zeno and Cleanthes significantly. It was traditionally claimed that he did so in order to defend them against an onslaught of criticism from the rival Epicurean and Academic schools, particularly from the Academic Skepticism of Arcesilaus, which was just being developed, prior to Arcesilaus being appointed head of the Academy.
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? (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4)
Most people think of Socrates (470-399 BC) as a balding, pot bellied, old philosopher, with a beard. People are often surprised to learn that Socrates was, in fact, also a decorated military hero, renowned among other army veterans for his courage on the battlefield, and for his extraordinary endurance and self-discipline. Some scholars believe that it was actually Socrates’ heroism at the Battle of Delium that catapulted him to fame in Athens.
Socrates served as an Athenian hoplite, and distinguished himself in several important battles during the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), in which Athens and its allies fought the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. We learn about Socrates’ military service mainly from the Dialogues of Plato and in Diogenes Laertius’ chapters on Socrates and Xenophon in Lives and Opinions. However, there are also allusions to Socrates’ conduct and character in the military to be found in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which contains many allusions to the Battle of Delium, the events of which it followed by merely a few months. The Suda, a 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia, likewise briefly states: “he campaigned against Amphipolis and Potidaea and fought in the battle of Delium”.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates himself cites his service as a hoplite, or armored infantryman, in the Athenian army during the extended siege of Potidaea (432 BC), the Athenian assault on Delium (424 BC) and the expedition to defend the Athenian colony of Amphipolis (422 BC). Socrates was an older soldier, aged between 38 and 48, when these particular battles took place. During his trial he mentions in passing that just as he considered it his duty to remain where he was stationed during these three battles, despite the risk of death, he also considered it his duty, following the Delphic Oracle’s guidance, to pursue philosophy even the face of opposition, persecution, and the risk of death by execution.
In Plato’s Laches, the eponymous general is portrayed as describing an eyewitness account of Socrates’ exceptional service in the Battle of Delium. In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades likewise describes witnessing Socrates’ courage in the battles of Potidaea and Delium. We have a brief mention of Socrates’ service from Xenophon but also a longer portrayal of Socrates discussing military training and tactics, in a manner indicative of his past experience. It’s clear from the surviving writings that Socrates was famous among Athenians for his military endurance, self-discipline, and courage on the battlefield. He is also portrayed as an experienced veteran, whose opinions on military matters are valued by his younger followers.
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. (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1)
Socrates’ Military Attire
The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his staff [bakteria] 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. (Lives and Opinions)
Diogenes Laertius suggests that Socrates, Antisthenes, and the subsequent Cynic philosophers wore a light grey cloak (tribon), made from undyed wool or linen, and carried a staff (bakteria). These appear to the resemble the “Spartan staff and cloak”, which Plutarch describes as well-known symbols of the Spartan military. The staff used by Socrates and the Cynics was typically called a bakteria, which is the same word used to describe the staff carried by Spartan officers, and used to beat helot slaves and discipline their subordinates.
We don’t know much about Socrates’ use of the staff. However, it plays an important role in anecdotes about his follower Antisthenes and the Cynics. According to legend, Antisthenes went barefoot and wore only the cloak, which he doubled over to use as a blanket in winter. He reputedly taught this to Diogenes the Cynic (although modern scholars doubt they actually met) and it became particularly associated with the Cynic tradition. We are repeatedly told that Socrates also went barefoot, although we don’t know if he doubled his cloak in a similar manner.
According to one story, the Cynic staff was originally used as a walking stack by Diogenes but later to defend himself against scoundrels. We’re also told repeatedly about Antisthenes and Diogenes beating followers and onlookers with their staffs, to make a point. Again, we don’t hear anything about Socrates behaving in this manner, although there is a curious anecdote about him meeting the Athenian general Xenophon for the first time, in which Socrates blocks Xenophon’s path by holding his bakteria across a narrow alleyway.
Socrates’ Military Endurance
Plato’s account of Socrates focuses on his reputation for exceptional endurance (karteria) in the army, as well as his bravery and self-discipline. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates freezes in deep meditation en route to a drinking party (the ‘symposium’ of the title). The host, Agathon, and the other guests, are left waiting; a slave is sent and returns reporting:
“Socrates is here, but he’s gone off to the neighbour’s porch. He’s standing there and won’t come in even though I called him several times.”
Agathon gives the order, “Go back and bring him in!” but Socrates’ companion, Aristodemus, objects:
“No, no, leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands frozen, wherever he happens to be.”
Socrates eventually arrives when the meal is halfway finished, at which Agathon chides him:
“Socrates, come lie down next to me. Who knows, if I touch you, I may catch a bit of the enlightenment (sophia) that came to you under my neighbour’s porch. It’s clear you’ve seen the light. If you hadn’t you’d still be standing there!”
Toward the end of the symposium, the drunken Alcibiades arrives. He begins a speech singing the praises of his beloved mentor, describing how the middle-aged Socrates exhibited surprising sexual restraint by continually spurning his advances, even when he went so far as slipping naked into bed with him. Alcibiades was at this time a youth, famous for his beauty.
Alcibiades continues by describing various events which he observed during their military service together, in the battles of Potidaea (432 BC) and Delium (424 BC). During battle of Potidea Socrates was awarded the ‘prize of pre-eminent valour’, which he declined in preference that it should belong to Alcibiades, who later (c. 416 BC) rose to the rank of Athenian general. (According to some accounts, though, Socrates was overlooked by the generals in favour of Alcibiades.) This may be connected with the fact that Socrates reputedly saved the life of Alcibiades at Potidea.
Despite his age, Socrates appeared to be hardier and tougher than any other soldier. He walked barefoot on ice, and in bitter cold wore only the customary grey, light woollen cloak of the ancient philosophers. When supplies were lost he seemed impervious to hunger. He wasn’t partial to drink, but he could drink any man under the table, seemingly unaffected by alcohol. We are also told that several times when Athens was rife with plague, Socrates was the only citizen unaffected by illness. The Athenian troops at Potidaea were also affected by a plague, which Socrates presumably avoided. The curious incident on the way to the Symposium is portrayed as typical of Socrates and illustrative of his behaviour, particularly his endurance, during his military service.
The Battle of Potidaea (432 BC)
The Athenians sent a force to attack the rebellious city of Potidaea, a former tribute-paying ally. They ended up laying siege to its defences for three years. This was one of the events that instigated the Peloponnesian War. We don’t know how long Socrates served in this campaign but it may have been for the duration of the siege, which lasted two or three years, ending in 430/429 BC. The Athenians were cut off from their supplies and suffered considerable hardship as a result. There was an outbreak of plague among them at one point, which does not seem to have affected Socrates.
Socrates was probably already becoming famous as a philosopher by this point. He was a messmate and friend of the young Alcibiades, a ward of the great Athenian statesman and general Pericles, who would later rise to the rank of Athenian general himself. From what we know, it appears Socrates was already viewed as a competent and courageous hoplite. During one intense battle, the Athenian lines broke, and their troops began to scatter in retreat. Alcibiades was wounded but Socrates single-handedly rescued him and saved his life.
Plato set The Charmides the day after Socrates returned from Potidaea where he says little about the conflict except referring to Socrates’ long absence from Athens on military service and the fact that on the journey home some of Socrates’ friends had been slain in skirmishes. (Charmides was a mere boy when Socrates left Athens and is now a young man, implying he has been gone for several years with the army.) Plato portrays Socrates being quizzed about the campaign by the excited Athenian youths who meet him on his return. However, he doesn’t appear to want to say much about the war and artfully shifts the conversation instead back to philosophical inquiry. Plato appears to assume that Socrates is well-known as a philosopher by this date and has established his trademark method of questioning. If correct, he must already have been known as a philosopher (perhaps long) before 432 BC when he left Athens to serve in the army attacking Potidaea, aged around 38.
Of the Battle of Potidaea, Diogenes Laertius wrote,
[Socrates] served at Potidaea, where he had gone by sea, as land communications were interrupted by the war. While there he is said to have remained a whole night without changing his position, and to have won the prize of valour. But he resigned it to Alcibiades, for whom he cherished the tenderest affection, according to Aristippus in the fourth book of his treatise On the Luxury of the Ancients. (Diogenes Laertius)
Likewise, Plato portrays Alcibiades’ account of Socrates at the battles of Potidaea and Delium.
And in combat, if you want to hear about it – for it is just to credit him with this once when there was a battle for which the generals gave me the prize of excellence, no other human being saved me but he; for he was not willing to leave me wounded, but saved both myself and my weapons. And even then, Socrates, asked the generals to offer me the prize of excellence. And in this too you will not blame me and say that I lie; but as a matter of fact, when the generals looked to my rank and wanted to offer me the prize of excellence, you [Socrates] proved more eager than the generals that I take it rather than yourself. (Symposium)
Plutarch also describes this incident:
While still a stripling, he served as a soldier in the campaign of Potidaea, and had Socrates for his tent-mate and comrade in action. A fierce battle took place, wherein both of them distinguished themselves; but when Alcibiades fell wounded, it was Socrates who stood over him and defended him, and with the most conspicuous bravery saved him, armour and all. The prize of valour fell to Socrates, of course, on the justest calculation; but the generals, owing to the high position of Alcibiades, were manifestly anxious to give him the glory of it. Socrates, therefore, wishing to increase his pupil’s honourable ambitions, led all the rest in bearing witness to his bravery, and in begging that the crown and the suit of armour be given to him. (Lives)
Alcibiades also describes in Plato’s Symposium how, during the Potidaea campaign, Socrates would enter meditative trances to the amazement of his fellow soldiers. He begins by using a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, comparing Socrates to the Ithacan king, adventurer, and general Odysseus.
“So much for that! But you should hear what else he did during that same campaign, ‘The exploit our strong-hearted hero dared to do.’ One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood in the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the Sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.” (Symposium)
The Battle of Delium (424 BC)
Five years after the siege of Potidaea ended, Delium was the first full-scale hoplite battle of the whole Peloponnesian War, and it has also been called the bloodiest. The Athenian army fortified the sanctuary of Apollo Delium with a wooden palisade, in an attempt to create a stronghold in the heart Boeotia, which was hostile territory close to Athens. (This was presumably a sacrilegious act.) Before long, a superior Theban force attacked and the Athenians were somehow thrown into disarray, at one point attacking and killing dozens of their own men by mistake. They were forced to make a chaotic retreat, abandoning the small garrison trapped inside the sanctuary walls. The men left in the building were then attacked by the Theban army using some novel “flame-blowing” siege engine, which burned their fortifications to the ground, scattering the garrison within. Some of the Athenians who had been left behind were apparently burned alive inside the sanctuary. According to Thucydides, nearly 500 Boeotians fell and nearly 1,000 Athenians were killed, including their general. This was a humiliating and troublesome military disaster for the Athenians and it occurred close to their own borders.
Plato portrays the Athenian general Laches, in the dialogue of the same name, commending Socrates for his bravery as follows:
[…] I have seen him maintaining, not only his father’s, but also his country’s name. He was my companion in the retreat from Delium, and I can tell you that if others had only been like him, the honour of our country would have been upheld, and the great defeat would never have occurred. (Laches)
Laches later says to Socrates that although he has never heard him discuss philosophy he would be delighted to be questioned by him about virtue:
So high is the opinion which I have entertained of you ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger, and gave a proof of your valour such as only the man of merit can give. (Laches)
Plato puts the following words in the mouth of Alcibiades:
Furthermore, men, it was worthwhile to behold Socrates when the army retreated in flight from Delium; for I happened to be there on horseback and he was a hoplite. The soldiers were then in rout, and while he and Laches were retreating together, I came upon them by chance. And as soon as I saw them, I at once urged the two of them to take heart, and I said I would not leave them behind.
I had an even finer opportunity to observe Socrates there than I had had at Potidaea, for I was less in fear because I was on horseback. First of all, how much more sensible he was than Laches; and secondly, it was my opinion, Aristophanes (and this point is yours); that walking there just as he does here in Athens, ‘stalking like a pelican, his eyes darting from side to side,’ quietly on the lookout for friends and foes, he made it plain to everyone even at a great distance that if one touches this real man, he will defend himself vigorously. Consequently, he went away safely, both he and his comrade; for when you behave in war as he did, then they just about do not even touch you; instead they pursue those who turn in headlong flight. (Symposium)
Plutarch mentions this incident, adding some details:
On another occasion, in the rout of the Athenians which followed the battle of Delium, Alcibiades, on horseback, saw Socrates retreating on foot with a small company, and would not pass him by, but rode by his side and defended him, though the enemy were pressing them hard and slaying many. This, however, was a later incident. (Lives)
Of Delium, Diogenes Laertius wrote,
[…] and when in the battle of Delium Xenophon had fallen from his horse, he [Socrates] stepped in and saved his life. For in the general flight of the Athenians he personally retired at his ease, quietly turning round from time to time and ready to defend himself in case he were attacked. (Lives and Opinions)
This is either a mistake or he’s referring to another Xenophon because Socrates’ follower of that name would only have been eight years old at the time. Alternatively, if Diogenes or a copyist simply has the name wrong, he could perhaps be thinking either of the time Socrates saved Alcibiades, although that was probably at Potidaea, or possibly of Socrates’ defence of the Athenian general Laches at Delium, if he had been unhorsed.
The Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC)
Socrates was a military veteran, approximately 48 years old, with a well-known reputation for his exceptional endurance and courage when the battle of Amphipolis took place. As far as we know, this was his last battle. Diogenes Laertius sounds impressed that he was hardy enough to take to the field once again as a hoplite, despite his age.
He took care to exercise his body and kept in good condition. At all events he served on the expedition to Amphipolis. (Lives and Opinions)
Two years after the Battle of Delium, the Athenians undertook a military expedition to recapture the town of Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in Thrace that had been taken by the Spartans shortly after the Athenian defeat at Delium. However, the campaign failed.
Among the generals at this battle was Thucydides, the famous Greek historian. He was responsible for shipping in reinforcements for the Athenians but failed to get them on the field in time to make a difference. The Athenians therefore tried Thucydides for incompetence and exiled him for twenty years as punishment. However, we know nothing more about Socrates’ role in the battle.
Xenophon was himself a young soldier, who later rose to the rank of general. It’s surprising perhaps that he does not say more about Socrates’ military service.
Again, concerning Justice he did not hide his opinion, but proclaimed it by his actions. All his private conduct was lawful and helpful: to public authority he rendered such scrupulous obedience in all that the laws required, both in civil life and in military service, that he was a pattern of good discipline to all. (Memorabilia, 4.4.1)
In the Memorabilia, Xenophon portrays Socrates saying,
Which will find soldiering the easier task, he who cannot exist without expensive food or he who is content with what he can get? Which when besieged will surrender first, he who wants what is very hard to come by or he who can make shift with whatever is at hand? (Memorabilia, 1.6.9)
Then in his Apology, Xenophon refers to the siege of Athens during the last year of the Peloponnesian War.
Or for this, that during the siege, while others were commiserating their lot, I got along without feeling the pinch of poverty any worse than when the city’s prosperity was at its height? Or for this, that while other men get their delicacies in the markets and pay a high price for them, I devise more pleasurable ones from the resources of my soul, with no expenditure of money? And now, if no one can convict me of misstatement in all that I have said of myself, do I not unquestionably merit praise from both gods and men? (Apology, 1.18)
Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, claim that the Stoic school descended from Socrates in the following succession: Socrates taught Antisthenes, who inspired Diogenes the Cynic, who taught Crates of Thebes, the mentor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. This is called the Cynic-Stoic succession.
See my earlier article for a description of the passages in Xenophon’s Symposium depicting Antisthenes’ character and his philosophy.
Aside from Xenophon, one of our best accounts of Antisthenes comes from the chapter about him in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which this article explores in detail.
We’re told Antisthenes (445 – 356 BC) was an Athenian, although he was not of pure Attic blood. He distinguished himself, as a young man, at the second battle of Tanagra, during the Peloponnesian War, and was praised by Socrates for his bravery in battle. Whereas other Athenians sneered at the fact his mother was a barbarian, from Thrace, Socrates defended him and appears to have thought very highly of him.
At first he was a student of the Sophist Gorgias, from whom he learned an elegant rhetorical style. He became a teacher and gathered a following of students at an early age. Later he became one of the most prominent followers of Socrates, whom he actually told his students to attach themselves to instead. He was also highly-regarded by the Athenian general Xenophon, another close friend of Socrates. Xenophon was about fifteen years his junior so it’s possible they may have fought together in some of the same battles. Socrates himself was a decorated war hero. So perhaps these three men may have bonded over their common debt to the military way of life.
Antisthenes was about twenty-five years younger than Socrates. He and Xenophon undoubtedly both looked up to Socrates as an older veteran, renowned for his courage in battle. Diogenes Laertius says that the most distinguished of the followers of Socrates were Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato. Plato was about the same age as Xenophon. Of the three, only Antisthenes seems to have been present at Socrates’ trial and execution; Plato, though present at the trial, was absent at Socrates’ death due to illness, whereas Xenophon was away on military service. Antisthenes is also said to have sought justice against the men who brought Socrates to trial on false charges.
Antisthenes is held responsible for the exile of Anytus and the execution of Meletus. For he fell in with some youths from Pontus whom the fame of Socrates had brought to Athens, and he led them off to Anytus, whom he ironically declared to be wiser than Socrates; whereupon (it is said) those about him with much indignation drove Anytus out of the city. (Diogenes Laertius)
According to legend, Antisthenes and Plato did not get along and often criticized each other’s philosophies. Xenophon likewise was said to have become estranged from Plato. Antisthenes taunted him for being arrogant, comparing him to a proud, showy horse. It’s sometimes thought that Xenophon’s account of Socrates was more faithful, whereas Plato embellished his Socratic dialogues with his own ideas and notions derived from Pythagoreanism.
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.
In addition to being a soldier it’s implied by Diogenes Laertius that Antisthenes wrestled. He was a famously tough and self-disciplined character. For example, he would walk barefoot over five miles every day to Athens and back again, from his home in the port city of Peiraeus, just to hear Socrates speak. (That would be a round trip of about three or four hours each day.)
Socrates did gently mock Antisthenes for a kind of inverse snobbery: taking too much pride in his own austerity. According to Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Socrates, when Antisthenes turned his cloak so that the tear in it became visible, Socrates said “I see your vanity through the tear in your cloak.”
It seems to be implied that after the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes was sought out by young men who wanted to learn philosophy from him, one of the most highly-regarded of the Socratic inner circle. However, he repelled students forcefully unless they were extremely persistent. He only accepted a handful.
To the question why he had but few disciples he replied, “Because I use a silver rod to eject them.” When he was asked why he was so bitter in reproving his pupils he replied, “Physicians are just the same with their patients.” (Diogenes Laertius)
He’s sometimes described as carrying a bakteria, the wooden rod or narrow staff used by Spartan officers to beat helot slaves and discipline subordinates.
One day an Athenian man was making a sacrifice to the gods when a small white dog dashed up and snatched away his offering. He chased the dog and it finally dropped the meat at a spot just outside the city gates of Athens. The man was alarmed but received an Oracle telling him to set up a temple to the god Hercules in the precise location where the dog had dropped the offering. He did so and the area, dedicated to Hercules, became known as the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”. Later a gymnasium was built there and that was where Antisthenes would teach philosophy. He too was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon, the “Absolute Dog”, and some ancient sources claim that he was ultimately the founder of the Cynic (“Dog”) tradition, made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Antisthenes wrote at least three books about Hercules, and it’s tempting to see his fascination with the figure of Hercules as inspired by the history of the area in which he taught.
Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, considered Antisthenes actually to be the founder of the Cynic tradition. Some even claimed that he taught Diogenes. However, most modern scholars believe that it’s impossible they could have met. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Diogenes would have heard of Antisthenes and would have been exposed to his philosophy. So it’s possible that he was the main precursor of the Cynic tradition and that his lifestyle and his writings, well-known at the time, influenced Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes Laertius, for example, says:
From Socrates he learned patient endurance, emulating his attitude of indifference [apatheia], and so became the founder of the Cynic way of life. He demonstrated that pain is a good thing by instancing the great Heracles and Cyrus, drawing the one example from the Greek world and the other from the barbarians.
Diogenes Laertius portrays Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics as sharing much in common. In addition to sharing the attitude of philosophical apatheia (indifference, or detachment) they also agreed that the fundamental goal of life was virtue:
They [the Cynics] hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the Goal to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Heracles: exactly like the Stoics. For indeed there is a certain close relationship between the two schools. Hence it has been said that Cynicism is a shortcut to virtue ; and after the same pattern did Zeno of Citium live his life.
They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.
They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Heracles, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.
Antisthenes made several witty and curt remarks, which could be interpreted as exhibiting as a form of the famous Cynic parrhesia, or frankness of speech.
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 walked barefoot and dressed in a single cloak, like the Cynics after him. Although, as we’ve seen, it’s unlikely to be true that they actually met, according to one legend, when Diogenes asked Antisthenes for a coat to keep out the cold, he taught him to fold his cloak around him double, so that he would only need one garment for both winter and summer.
However, we also have the following anecdotes in Dio Chrysotom:
It was not long before [Diogenes] despised [all the philosophers at Athens] save Antisthenes, whom he cultivated, not so much from approval of the man himself as of the words he spoke, which he felt to be alone true and best adapted to help mankind. For when he contrasted the man Antisthenes with his words, he sometimes made this criticism, that the man himself was much weaker; and so in reproach he would call him a trumpet because he could not hear his own self, no matter how much noise he made. Antisthenes tolerated this banter of his since he greatly admired the man’s character; and so, in requital for being called a trumpet, he used to say that Diogenes was like the wasps, the buzz of whose wings is slight but the sting very sharp. (On Virtue)
Diogenes Laertius wrote “Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad”. Indeed, he seems to have been well-known for teaching that pleasure was bad. He famously said “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”. The Stoics differed from this in teaching that both pleasure and pain were merely indifferent, neither good nor bad. He also advocated a simple life. By seeking things that are easy to obtain we’re more likely to achieve contentment. He jokingly said, “We ought to make love to such women as will feel a proper gratitude”.
He practised indifference to the opinion of others. When told that Plato was criticizing him, he replied “It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of”. Marcus Aurelius quotes this saying in The Meditations (7.36). He advised that when men are slandered, they should endure it more courageously than if they were pelted with stones. (Which will perhaps remind us of the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”) Likewise, 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 someone said to him “Many men praise you”, he replied, “Why, what have I done wrong?” (He made a similar quip when praised by some men he considered scoundrels.) This appears to be an allusion to a theme in Socratic philosophy that says that praise is worthless, and maybe even pernicious, unless it comes from the wise and virtuous.
Diogenes Laertius summarized the main arguments of his philosophy as follows:
That virtue can be taught.
That only the virtuous are noble.
That virtue by itself is sufficient for happiness, since it needed nothing else except “the strength of a Socrates.”
That virtue is about action and does not require much eloquence or learning.
That the wise man is self-sufficient, for all the goods of others are his.
That, paradoxically, ill-repute and pain are good things because they provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our wisdom and virtue.
That the wise man is not guided by the established laws in his social conduct but by the law of virtue.
That the wise will marry in order to have children with suitable women.
That the wise man will not disdain to love, for only he knows who are worthy to be loved.
If this is accurate, it does seem virtually identical to the Cynic philosophy, at least in terms of these key points. It’s also very similar to Stoicism, except that Antisthenes and the Cynics view pain, hardship and disrepute as good things, insofar as they provide us with opportunities to learn virtue, like the Labours of Hercules. By contrast, the Stoics view these things as indifferent with regard to virtue, and not necessarily to be actively sought out in life.
Antisthenes said that “virtue is the same for women as for men.” This was the title of a book by the Stoic Cleanthes and based on two lectures that survive by the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the idea that women are as capable of learning philosophy as men was a long-standing feature of Stoicism, perhaps ultimately derived from Antisthenes.
Antisthenes was a very prolific writer. In fact some critics attacked him for writing too much about trifling things. His earlier training under the Sophist Gorgias seems to have taught him an elegant rhetorical style. However, one gets the impression his arguments were considered less learned and sophisticated than Plato’s. Diogenes Laertius says that in his day the collected writings of Antisthenes were preserved in ten volumes, each containing several texts. In total, he names the titles of over sixty individual texts attributed to Antisthenes.
These include dialogue, speeches, and other texts. The topics include rhetoric, the interpretation of poets, natural philosophy, law and economics, love and marriage, music, debate, education, knowledge, and also the virtues of courage and justice, and the nature of the good. Notably, perhaps, he wrote at least four books on Cyrus, three on Hercules, two on death or dying, and about eight on The Odyssey or characters probably derived from it (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Circe and the Cyclops) so these were perhaps some of his favourite themes. Two books entitled The Greater Heracles, or Of Strength, and Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength, may possibly have elaborated on what he meant by “Socratic strength”.
He also wrote about, or in response to, several historical and mythological figures: Cyrus, Aspasia, Satho, Theognis, Homer, Helen, Ajax, Calchas, Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Circe, the Cyclops, Hercules, Proteus, Amphiaraus, Archelaus, Midas, Orestes, Lysias, Isocrates, and the Sophists in general. He also wrote books on Menexenus, one of Socrates’ sons, and Alcibiades, his lover. One would presume he wrote about Socrates as well, although what and how much is unclear. His writings were popular and probably had an influence on generations of philosophers, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.