[Socrates] was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly. — Epictetus
Most people have heard of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher. However, few of us visualize him as a soldier, despite the fact that it’s known for certain that he was one. Socrates served as a Greek hoplite or heavy infantryman. He was no ordinary soldier, though, as we’ll see.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel called Verissimus, about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I’m also organizing a virtual conference called Stoicon-x Military, the first event of its kind. Individuals from different branches of the armed forces, in different countries, will be describing what Stoicism has taught them. The men and women I’ve worked with in the military are often fascinated by the fact that Socrates served as a hoplite but they’ve never actually seen this depicted. So I commissioned a team of artists to design a special poster for the event, showing Socrates in armour, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
Social anxiety is the generic term that psychologists use to describe nerves about public speaking and other interpersonal situations. When I was a teenager, I was very anxious about speaking. I remember asking my older sister, Sheila, to call an employer for me about a job interview because I was too nervous to do it myself. Over the years, it got much better, but the susceptibility to that form of anxiety often never disappears completely.
Many years later, I trained as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and ended up working with people suffering from a range of severe anxiety disorders, including what we call Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia. I learned that there are many hundreds of scientific research studies on social anxiety that tell us how it works. Modern research has actually shown us how to treat social anxiety very effectively. However, it also shows that some very common self-help techniques can potentially do more harm than good.
One of the most well-established findings in the entire field of psychotherapy research is that most anxiety abates naturally, given the right conditions. For example, animal phobias are often considered the simplest and purest form of anxiety. If you take someone who has a snake phobia and throw them in a room with snakes what will happen to their heart rate? Within thirty seconds, it will approximately double, from about 70bpm to about 140bpm. But what happens next?
Most clients with severe anxiety will actually be temporarily stumped by that question. They want to say it will get worse, or some catastrophe will happen, although they realise that can’t be right. What goes up must come down. If they wait, their heart rate will normally start to reduce. So how long does that take? It normally takes anything from five to thirty minutes for heart rate to go from its peak level back down to something approaching the normal resting level.
There are several forthcoming virtual conferences on Stoicism, which you might be interested to know about. These are all nonprofit events, organized by volunteers. So please help spread the word by sharing the links with friends or groups online.
Marcus Aurelius Anniversary Conference
Virtual conference on the life and Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, open to everyone, in honour of the 1900th anniversary of his birth. Sun 25th April, 12pm EST. See the EventBrite Listing for tickets and more information.
Stoicon-x Military Conference: Courage, Honor, and Stoicism
Virtual conference on Stoicism and the military, open to everyone to attend. Sat 15th May (Armed Forces Day in the US). See the EventBrite Listing for tickets and more information.
Practical Paths to Flourishing: Stoicon-x Women Virtual Event
Join us to learn how ancient Stoic teachings and practice can help you live a flourishing life of mindfulness, creativity, and care. Saturday 5th June, 10am EST. See the EventBrite Listing for tickets and more information.
One of the most celebrated physicians and medical researchers of the ancient world, Galen of Pergamon, wrote a book about mental illness, called On Passions and Errors of the Soul. The passion considered most dangerous by Galen and other ancient writers is anger. That’s because anger is, in a sense, the most interpersonal of emotions. It poses a threat not only to the angry individuals themselves but to others around them, and even to society as a whole.
Galen’s most striking case study for anger is that of the Emperor Hadrian, who had a violent temper tantrum one day because an unlucky slave did something to annoy him. Hadrian was writing at the time and happened to have a stylus in his hand — the Roman equivalent of a fountain pen. In a moment of madness, he stabbed the slave right in the eye with it, blinding him. Later, when Hadrian had calmed down, and was feeling highly ashamed of himself, he summoned the man and asked what he could do to make amends. The slave was silent for quite a long time but eventually found the courage to speak frankly to the emperor: “All I want”, he said, “is my eye back.”
The consequences of anger are often very destructive. Sometimes they cannot be reversed. Even the most powerful man in the world may be unable to undo the harm he’s done in a fit of violent rage.
The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was extremely well-read. Indeed, he urges himself several times in The Meditations, his personal notebook of philosophical reflections, to set aside his reading and focus on improving his character instead. He was clearly a bit of a bookworm. So what exactly did he like to read?
We have several Roman histories which discuss Marcus Aurelius’ life. These contain a few references to his literary interests. Indeed, one historian, Herodian, writes:
He was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us. — History of the Empire
The Historia Augusta portrays Marcus quoting the Roman poet Ennius:
The state of Rome is rooted in the men and manners of the olden time. — Ennius, Annales
We also have a cache of letters between his Latin rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, and several friends, mainly Marcus Aurelius himself. In it they mention in passing several Latin writers that Marcus has read, such as Cato the Elder, Cicero, Lucretius, and even Seneca. However, there are also several prominent references to literature in The Meditations, mainly to Greek tragedies. Marcus actually prefaces some of these quotations with the following explanation of their significance to him:
At first tragedies were brought on the stage as means of reminding men of the things which happen to them, and that it is according to nature for things to happen so, and that, if you are delighted with what is shown on the stage, you should not be troubled with that which takes place on the larger stage. For you see that these things must be accomplished thus, and that even they bear them who cry out, “O Cithaeron.” And, indeed, some things are said well by the dramatic writers, of which kind is the following especially… — Meditations, 11.6
‘Ah Cithaeron!’ is from Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. As we’ll see, though, by far the majority of the quotes Marcus incorporates in The Meditations are from the Greek tragedian Euripides.
Against being unemotional and the case for a “Passionate Stoicism”
I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all. — Seneca, Letters, 71
Stoicism has become a quite trendy over the past couple of decades. When I first began writing about it, roughly 25 years ago now, things were very different.
Until recently, there were very few popular books about the subject and they weren’t very widely-read. There were not many articles on websites. Now, though, new books and articles appear every day. That’s a good thing because Stoicism has a great deal to offer people. It’s the original philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading form of modern evidence-based psychotherapy. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a way of building emotional resilience, which may reduce the risk of developing anxiety or depression in the future.
Put bluntly, Stoicism is not the same thing as stoicism. Virtually all modern academics capitalize the name of the Greek philosophy to highlight the difference…
However, the downside is that when as idea becomes more and more popular it can become oversimplified and distorted. Often a good idea can become a victim of its own success. The glaring example of that with Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, is the widespread tendency for people to confuse it with stoicism (lowercase) the unemotional coping style. When people talk about lowercase stoicism they mean things like “have a stiff upper-lip”, “suck it up”, “boys don’t cry”, etc.
Every single “academy” in the world is named after the original Akademia of Athens. Founded by Plato after the execution of his teacher, Socrates, at the start of the 4th century BC, Plato’s Academy was the first major school of philosophy, the first academic institution. It’s one of the very foundation stones of Western civilization. For centuries, it was considered a centre of learning, and a beacon of light, throughout the Western world.
“What happened to it?”, people ask, “Where was it located?” and “Does Plato’s Academy still exist?”
I’m an author, writing about philosophy, who happens to live in Athens. So this topic comes up a lot for me in conversation. “What happened to it?”, people ask, “Where was it located?” and “Does Plato’s Academy still exist?” In a nutshell, it was destroyed by the Roman dictator Sulla in the 1st century BC. He gutted its buildings and tore down the surrounding trees to build his siege engines. The area in which it was once located is a public park today, containing some ruins, and so no, unfortunately, it’s no longer standing. However, maybe it’s not gone forever…
The philosopher Socrates once asked why all men praise liberty but so many neglect to acquire self-discipline. Without the virtue of temperance, he reasoned, none of us can truly become wise or free, as we’re bound to be misled and enslaved by our own passions. It was the Stoic school of philosophy, though, founded a century after Socrates’ death, which turned this simple insight into a whole way of life. Socrates taught that in order to attain wisdom, we must free ourselves from violent passions, such as greed and anger.
Today, although we cherish our freedoms more than ever, we’ve largely forgotten that they’re meaningless without the strength of character to make use of them well. For Stoics, the uncomplaining endurance required in Greek military training provided an obvious means of learning discipline. Perhaps for that reason, many of the greatest philosophers of antiquity were soldiers.