What the Stoic Emperor Learned from the Athenian Philosopher
In 175 AD, probably for the first time in his life, in his mid-fifties, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, set foot in Athens. It was in fact a pilgrimage for him. During of the “War of Many Nations” he’d been fighting along the Danube frontier, he had taken a sacred oath that he would travel to Athens, if victorious, and be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Although these rites ended with initiation at the Temple of Demeter in nearby Eleusis, they began in the centre of Athens, outside the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, the ancient home of Stoic philosophy.
As Marcus stood upon the Stoa Poikile, he would have gazed across the Agora where Socrates once discussed philosophy, and where he was later put on trial, imprisoned, and executed. Beyond the Agora, Marcus would have seen the Temple of Athena known as the Parthenon. At that time a colossal statue of the goddess of wisdom looked down on Athens, from atop the Acropolis. Most of the drama of Socrates’ life had unfolded within the bounds of the Agora, under the gaze of Athena.
It must have been a humbling experience for Marcus to know that he was walking in Socrates’ footsteps. According to the Historia Augusta, the emperor had “ever on his lips” the saying attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Republic that “those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.”
Virtual conference on reasoning like a Greek philosopher
If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy and the Socratic Method can help us think more clearly and live better lives today, this is the online event for you!
Tickets now available on EventBrite. Payment is by donation, an amount of your choosing, and all proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be available afterwards to everyone booking tickets in advance.
We bring together a special program of world-class thinkers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.
Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the Socratic Method, including effective and practical advice and strategies to think critically, reason more clearly, and protect yourself against misleading information and sophistry.
“Socrates and Civility”, Alexandra O. Hudson, author of Against Politeness
“Cognitive Therapy and Socratic Self-Doubt”, R. Trent Codd, III, CBT Counseling Centers; Co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors
“Street Epistemology: How to Think about Thinking”, Anthony Magnabosco, Executive Director of Street Epistemology International
“Self-Socratic Method for Personal Growth”, Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP psychologist and co-author of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors
“Socrates as Cognitive Therapist”, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, president of Plato’s Academy Centre
Keynote: “The Socratic Method”, Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic and The Socratic Method
NB: Details may be subject to change without prior notification.
The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.
Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.
Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.
How much does it cost? We’re making it free to register, so it’s available to the widest possible audience, but you’ll have the opportunity to make a donation, amount of your choosing. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might normally cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events. *If you do not wish to donate anything whatsoever, you may contact us directly to apply for a free ticket or simply enter the promo code NODONATION when booking.
Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.
We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.
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
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.
[This is a draft of a story I wrote for my three-year old daughter, Poppy, because she keeps asking me to tell her more about Socrates.]
You are a sculptor, Socrates, and have made statues of our governors faultless in beauty. – Plato’s Republic, Book 7
Hundreds and hundreds of years 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, which means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself. So philosophers are always looking for wisdom.
Socrates’ daddy was a stonemason and sculptor called Sophroniscus, who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis. A stonemason is a man who cuts stone and a sculptor is a man who makes beautiful statues. When he was young, Socrates learned how to cut stone and make statues, just like his daddy. That’s what he did for a living and he became very good at it. Some people say he made a famous sculpture, a statue, of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.
Socrates tried very hard to make statues that were perfect. He wanted to show everyone what a totally wise and good person might look like. He believed that wisdom and goodness were beautiful but he wasn’t really happy with the statues he created. He felt something was missing. So he spoke to the other stonemasons because he wanted to learn from them but he found that although they made statues of people who were good, they couldn’t really explain to him what goodness was or how to learn about it. He said they had become like blocks of stone themselves because they lacked wisdom. They were looking outside at the statues too much rather than looking inside themselves.
Then Socrates had an idea. He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped making statues. He said he was amazed that the sculptors who tried so hard to make blocks of stone into statues of perfectly wise and good people didn’t know how to become wise or good people themselves. So he decided to stop sculpting stone and to begin sculpting himself, his own mind, his character, and to become wise and good. He was going to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues. Everyone thought this was funny because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at. He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his friend Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat! Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character. He liked to joke that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he would be the winner because he was more beautiful inside.
So he gave up being a stonemason and a sculptor and instead of doing his daddy’s job he decided to switch to doing his mummy’s job instead. Socrates’ mummy was a midwife. When a lady has a baby inside her tummy, a midwife is another lady who helps her give birth, so the baby can come out of her tummy and ride around in its pram. Socrates said he had become a midwife just like his mummy but he didn’t help ladies with babies in their tummies to give birth to them… He helped people, men and women, with ideas inside them to give birth to those ideas, so they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them.
Socrates helped people to give birth to 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 leaders and politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is wisdom?” Socrates said that if you can learn what it means to be a good person you’ll become wise and live a good life. He always pretended he didn’t know the answers. Some people say, though, that by patiently asking lots of difficult questions, helping other people to give birth to ideas, and listening carefully to what they said, Socrates became wise himself and he lived a good life. People still remember him today, even though he died a very long time ago.
Xenophon wrote that his friend and teacher, Socrates, faced the death-sentence with absolute serenity and fortitude, and that it was “generally agreed that no one in the memory of man has ever met his death more nobly” (Memorabilia, 4.8). We’ve already mentioned the events surrounding the trial and execution of Socrates. The Stoics undoubtedly treat this as the example par excellence of a “good death”. In reading about Socrates’ preparing to meet his death, in a sense, we accompany him and prepare ourselves for our own deaths.
Plato wasn’t there himself but, in an eponymous dialogue, portrays Socrates’ friend Phaedo recounting his astonishment at the philosopher’s composure during his final hours. “Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity, for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear” (Phaedo, 58e). So what did Socrates do? Well, he acted normally. He saw his persecutors, the men responsible for his death, as simply misguided rather than hateful. The Enchiridion of Epictetus makes a point of concluding with a remarkable quotation attributed to him: “Anytus and Meletus [who brought the charges] can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” (Obi-wan Kenobi echoes this in the movie Star Wars!)
In prison, awaiting execution, Socrates spent his final hours debating amiably with his friends about philosophy. Given the proximity of his own demise, he chose to explore the question of what happens to the soul after death, coolly examining several possibilities while keeping an open mind, tolerant of uncertainty. More importantly, he explains his view that philosophy is essentially a lifelong “meditation on death” (melete thanatou), as the reason for his surprising indifference. He says that those who practice philosophy in the right way are constantly training for death, and true philosophers fear dying least of all men (Phaedo, 67e). The “contemplation of death” therefore emerged right at the most dramatic moment in the birth of Western philosophy, spoken at the heart of what Socrates called his philosophical swansong. When the time came, he calmly drank the poison and waited to die, something he’d clearly reconciled himself to, and faced with supreme equanimity and an attitude of philosophical curiosity.
This is the first book to explore in detail the relationship between modern psychotherapy, especially REBT and CBT, and traditional Socratic philosophy, particularly Stoicism. According to Karnac’s website, it’s currently their most popular book on CBT. Amazon report it’s most popular among people who buy Prof. Paul Gilbert’s book The Compassionate Mind (2010) and Prof. William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009).
Several reviews of The Philosophy of CBT have already appeared online and it currently has a five-star rating on Amazon, where one reviewer writes,
“I’ll be honest… I wasn’t originally going to buy this book because although I am very interested in all things CBT I didn’t think I was at all interested in Philosophy. I decided to buy it anyway because I have a huge respect for the author, and other publications of his which I have read have all been superbly written…
“Donald always impresses with his in-depth knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, his subject areas. This book is no exception… he has taken a really interesting area and communicated the material with clarity and insight. I would certainly recommend this book to anybody interested in, or involved with CBT as a book thoroughly worth reading and keeping on the bookshelf!”
We’re pleased with how well it’s doing so far and have created this website/blog about it where you can watch a video interview and read excerpts from the book and reviews about it, as well as related articles.
I hope you’ll enjoy the articles and consider delving into the book to find out more about how Socratic philosophy informs the theory and practice of modern psychotherapy.
Author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) The Discovery of Hypnosis: The Complete Writings of James Braid (2009) The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy (due out soon)