Socrates on Finding Jobs for Refugees

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

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

The Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

What books to read next on Stoicism

Mock up of books by StoicsPeople sometimes ask what books on Stoicism to read next after they’ve read the “Big Three”: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Of course, opinions are going to vary about this.  There are lots of things we could suggest reading.  Setting aside modern books on the subject, though, these are the first six I normally recommend…

Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions

You don’t need to read the whole book.  The long chapter on Zeno contains a summary of early Stoic teachings.   However, you may want to read the whole of books six (Cynicism) and seven (Stoicism).  This contains second or third hand information summarized from earlier texts in the 3rd century AD by a biographer who wasn’t himself a Stoic or even a philosopher.  Nevertheless it remains one of our most important sources for information on the teachings of the early Greek Stoic school.

The Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Musonius was the teacher of Epictetus and reputedly the most important philosopher of his lifetime.  He was the mentor of key members of the Stoic Opposition.  A collection of his lectures and several fragments still survive today, which are similar in some ways to the teachings of Epictetus.  If you like Epictetus, you should certainly read this, although it’s really an essential source for anyone interested in Stoicism.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates

Our other major source for information on Socrates, beside Plato.  Xenophon paints a simpler and more Stoic picture of Socrates’ philosophy.  It was reputedly hearing a reading of Book Two that inspired Zeno to become a philosopher and ultimately to found the Stoic School.  That part of the Memorabilia contains Socrates’ version of a famous oration by the Sophist Prodicus, called The Choice of Hercules, which was designed as an exhortation for young men to embrace philosophy as a way of life and places considerable emphasis on self-mastery.  Xenophon’s version of Socrates is more concerned with the virtue of self-discipline and it’s easy to see this as an important influence on Stoicism.

Plato’s Apology

We could cite all of the works of Plato as relevant but the dialogue that seems to have most influenced the Stoics is the Apology.  The concluding sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook, for example, paraphrases from it.  It provides a vivid example of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy and his courage facing execution but there’s also considerable discussion of his attitudes toward death and positive teachings about morality, which coincide very closely with later Stoic teachings.  Death is neither good nor evil and it’s important to overcome our fear of dying; wisdom and virtue are the highest goods and we should never value things like wealth more highly than them.  Stoic-sounding teachings can be found in many other Platonic dialogues – including the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Meno and Republic – but the Apology is the best place to start looking.

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

Cato is one of the less well-known Stoics because we don’t have any writings by him today but he was a great hero of the Roman Republic because he defied the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Our best account of him comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which is a biography but contains several interesting anecdotes about his character and values, although not much philosophy.  If you’re interested in Stoicism, though, you should know about Cato, and also about the Stoic Opposition, which followed later, under the principate.

Cicero’s De Finibus

Cicero was an Academic philosopher but he had studied philosophy at Athens and was exceptionally well-read on the subject and very familiar with the teachings of Stoicism.  He’s also quite sympathetic toward the Stoics, though not one himself, so his writings provide one of our most important sources for early and middle Stoicism.  Stoicism is mentioned, or is an influence, throughout many of his works, but the most important is undoubtedly De Finibus, which portrays Cato the Younger summarizing early Stoic ethical teachings, which Cicero compares critically with those of the Epicureans and Academics.  This is our most systematic account of Stoic ethics, so it’s extremely valuable in providing a context for the more conversational and fragmented version we obtain from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Honourable Mentions

It should go without saying that this is the tip of the iceberg.  There are many other ancient texts of relevance to Stoicism.  Xenophon’s Symposium and Apology are also very important as are all of the Platonic dialogues and many other writings by non-Stoics such as Cicero and Plutarch.  There are many fragments from early Stoic texts available in several compilations.  There are also less well-known Stoic texts, which still survive today, like the Greek Theology of Cornutus and the Pharsalia of Lucan.  The poems of Horace also contain many Stoic influences.  The Roman histories are also extremely valuable, especially in relation to understanding the life of Marcus Aurelius.  My goal here isn’t to provide a survey of everything, though, just a quick introduction to the texts I normally advise people to read first, after finishing Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Why I don’t allow Trolling in my Stoicism Group

Stoic AwardEvery few weeks someone will post a comment in my Stoicism Facebook group that goes something along the lines of “If you guys are into Stoicism then I don’t see why you should censor posts just because they’re offensive.”  Or they might just say “Suck it up” or  “You guys aren’t real Stoics, you’re all just f*** snowflakes” or words to that effect.

Sometimes they’re just messing around and being facetious – or just plain trolling the group.  Sometimes, though, I think people actually do mean this sincerely, although on closer inspection the reasoning behind this obviously doesn’t make any sense at all.  I’ve responded to this a few times in detail, explaining why I think they’re mistaken but I think the time has come to write a short blog post so I can just share the link rather than reinvent the wheel and explain the following points every time this idea comes up.

The beautiful and good person neither fights with anyone nor, as much as they are able, permits others to fight… – Epictetus, Discourses 4.5

So here are my reasons for not allowing people to be verbally abusive or insulting toward other group members in my Stoicism forum:

  1. Not everyone in the group is a Stoic.  As I write there are over 40,000 people in my group.  They’re all ages (from 13 up), different genders, nationalities, and from different cultures and religions.  And they’re not all Stoics.  Some are Epicureans, or Buddhists, or existentialists or Nietzscheans or whatever.  Some of them are just people vaguely interested in Stoicism who want to learn a bit more.  So the premise of the argument above that everyone in the group is Stoic is obviously false.
  2. No Stoics are perfect Sages.  The Stoics said that the Sage is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix, which according to legend was born every 500 years.   So there probably aren’t any in our group.  The Stoics admitted they were all imperfect and fallible, even the founders of the school.  So all Stoics sometimes falter and get upset about things because they’re human beings and not perfect Sages.  That doesn’t stop them aspiring to inch closer to that ideal, though.
  3. Even Sages have feelings.  It’s a popular misconception that Stoicism is unemotional and that the ideal is to have no feelings or never to get upset.  The Stoics actually had a sophisticated psychological theory that clearly distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary emotional reactions to events.  So even if we did have a perfect Sage in the group they would still potentially experience propatheiai or automatic flashes of emotional in response to certain things being said or done.   It’s natural that they’d prefer not to have to expose themselves to that repeatedly when they’re trying to have a discussion if it potentially gets in the way.
  4. It’s not about hurting feelings.  The main reason for preventing verbal abuse isn’t to protect someone’s feelings, actually.  As moderator, it’s more about the fact it disrupts the group and prevents people from being able to discuss things rationally.  It would be as if we were trying to have a philosophy seminar and someone ran into the room, jumped on the table and started screaming random insults.  You say “Um, can you maybe stop, or leave?”  And they say “Ha!  You bunch of snowflakes, I thought you were meant to be Stoics – see how I’ve managed to upset you all, frauds!” or whatever.  Well, nobody is actually crying.  The most upset person in the room is probably the crazy person standing screaming on the table.  Everyone else is too busy thinking “What a nutcase!” to take it personally.   It’s the same with trolling.  Nobody really cares.  The irony is that trolls get upset really easily themselves and that’s probably why they assume everyone else is a “Snowflake”.  It’s classic psychological projection.   The real reason for banning them or asking them to leave is just so that everyone else can get on with what they’re trying to discuss without distraction.
  5. It’s not ethical.  Stoicism is a virtue ethic.  The goal of life is to be virtuous and that includes acting with justice, fairness, and kindness toward others, regardless of their race or gender or religion.  (Stoics are ethical cosmopolitans.)  So screaming abuse at people online flies completely in the face of Stoic ethics.  It’s definitely not the sort of behaviour ancient Stoics were talking about when they said that people should act honourably and with affection toward other human beings.  So it’s part of Stoic ethics that we would both avoid acting like this ourselves and, within reason and where nothing prevents us, politely discourage other people from behaving in a vicious and aggressive manner, although whether they do or not is ultimately outside of our control.  (It’s what Stoics call a “preferred indifferent”, something they don’t get upset about but would gently attempt to prevent or change.)

So there you go, if you’ve got to the end of this hopefully it’s at least given you something to think about.  The ground rules of my forum prohibit verbal abuse against other group members and these are the reasons for that policy.  Hope you understand and please treat other people with respect.  Thank you.

New Course: How to Live Like Socrates

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

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

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

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

What did previous students say?

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

“Thank you, Donald! Your presentation on Socrates was excellent as an introduction and it’s well worth the short amount of time required to learn of the influences Socrates had on the ancient world, as well as modern societies in the West.” – Bill Hewitson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism and Parenting (Stoic Mums and Dads)

Poppy

I have a seven year old daughter and since she was born I’ve been interested in how Stoicism relates to parenting.  People sometimes ask me if there’s anything “out there” on Stoicism for parents.  There are a growing number of resources online so I thought it was time to do a blog post listing some of them in one place, for convenience.  Please let me know of any articles or other resources that I’ve missed and I’ll try to add them to this post!

First, though, I thought I’d say a little bit about kids’ books…  Poppy is only seven but we discuss philosophy a lot.  She loves the Percy Jackson movies and so I’ve told her lots of stories about Greek mythology.  There are lots of great kids’ books available.  She particularly likes the Early Myths series by Simon Spence.   Her favourite Greek legends are about Hercules and she’s heard them hundreds of times!

Talking about Greek myths led to stories about Greek philosophers.  Most of the best anecdotes are about Diogenes the Cynic (not all suitable for kids!) and Socrates.  There are some great kids books available on Diogenes (Poppy calls him “the Dog”) and Socrates by M.D. Usher.  There’s also a great series of books for small children called Little Stoics.  Poppy watches Kids YouTube and she told me one day that she wanted to make her own videos.  So we started doing some book reviews.  She’s done videos on Diogenes by M.D. Usher and the Little Stoics series.  We’re hoping to do another soon on M.D. Usher’s Wise Guy, about Socrates.

Articles / Video / Podcasts

Here are some article from the Modern Stoicism blog Stoicism Today:

Some more articles from the web:

One of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues has Socrates talking to his eldest son Lamprocles about his relationship with his mother.  I wrote an article analyzing the philosophical content from a Stoic perspective.

Parenting: What Socrates Said

People often ask about Marcus Aurelius’ relationship with his son Commodus, so I wrote a fairly detailed article discussing this from a historical perspective.

Why did Marcus Aurelius Allow Commodus to Succeed Him?

Groups and Blogs

The Stoic Socrates: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Strategies of the Stoic Socrates

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

1. Other people’s behaviour is indifferent

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

2. Nobody does evil willingly

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

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

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

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

Help Support the Modern Stoicism Non-Profit Organization

Hi everyone,

Today we set up a new Patreon page for Modern Stoicism Ltd., the non-profit organization that puts  on Stoic Week and the annual Stoicon conference.  Modern Stoicism is an international philanthropic organization run by a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers.

I was one of the original members who joined the project in 2012, when it was started by Christopher Gill, professor emeritus of Ancient Thought at Exeter University in England.  Since then our organization has grown exponentially.  Some of the best-known authors in the field of Stoicism have been involved in our team or have spoken at our conferences.  Stoic Week, our original online course, has grown from 700 participants in its first year to 7,000 last year!  I was asked to organize the Stoicon conference last year in Toronto, which attracted 400 attendees from around the world.

Become a Patron!

Here are just some of the Modern Stoicism organization’s activities:

  • The annual Stoic Week online course, in which 7,000 people participated last year.
  • The Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) research project, testing the effectiveness of training in core Stoic psychological strategies, in which thousands of people have participated around the world.
  • The Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) research project, which gathers and analyzes data on Stoic questionnaires in order to make comparisons with established psychological measures.
  • The Stoicism Today blog, edited by Greg Sadler, which contains over 500 articles on Stoicism from people all over the world, applying Stoic principles in different walks of life.
  • The annual Stoicon conference on Stoicism in modern life, which took place in Toronto last year, attended by four hundred people from around the world, and is an opportunity for people engaged in Stoicism as a way of life to hear from leading academics in the field.
  • The annual Stoicon-x mini-conferences, which take place around the world each year, giving newer speakers an opportunity to discuss Stoicism with a wider audience.
  • Publishing books containing articles from our contributors as well as detailed online reports explaining our research findings.

It may surprise you to know that Modern Stoicism does not receive any ongoing funding.  As the organization has grown, and reached more people, its expenses have also grown.  We’ve managed to raise money in the past by charging for conference tickets or accepting sponsorship from individuals via PayPal.  However, it would certainly help us to continue our work  if we could raise a little bit more money, on a consistent basis.

You can now help by visiting our new Patreon page and becoming a patron or sponsor of the organization.

As always, thanks for your support,

Donald Robertson Signature

PS. Here’s a video of our original workshop at Exeter University, back in 2012.

Was Socrates a Real Person? and Other Questions

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

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

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

Socrates Google Results

Did Socrates Questions

Was Socrates a real person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Socrates religious?

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

Was Socrates guilty?

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

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

Was Socrates vegetarian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Socrates’ death tragic?

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

Was Socrates a student of Plato?

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

Was Socrates rich?

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

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

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

Was Socrates illiterate?

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

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

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

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

Did Socrates teach Aristotle?

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

Did Socrates die?

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

Did Socrates tutor Alexander the Great?

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

Did Socrates live a good life?

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

Did Socrates get married?

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

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