Socrates at War

Not content with discussing courage, Socrates also demonstrated it on the battlefield.

While discussing philosophy in the public square, Socrates would also have been training as a hoplite, a heavily armed foot soldier that fought in the close phalanx formation. Practicing maneuvers in heavy armor would have developed his strength and agility. The pyrrhike war dance, so ancient as to have been performed by Achilles around the burning pyre of Patroclus, is described by Plato in the Laws, and involved imitating movements of attack and defense “in a direct and manly style.”

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates proudly tells the jury that, just as he did not desert his post at the battles of Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis for fear of dying, so he will not now abandon the life of the philosopher. The earlier of the three battles, the Battle of Potidaea, took place in 432 B.C.E., when Socrates would have been around 38 years old, suggesting that he may also have taken part in other, earlier campaigns.

Unlike predecessors such as Pythagoras and Empedocles, who had a pacifist outlook, Socrates did not particularly question warfare, which he looked upon as his patriotic duty. However, he did refuse to carry out unjust orders, and, like Jesus four centuries later, rejected the ancestral law of retaliation, stating, in the Crito, that “we ought not retaliate or render evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.” In the Laws, Plato goes further still, arguing that war ought only to be waged for the sake of peace.

The Battle of Potidaea

The siege of Potidaea, a city-state that had rebelled against Athens, lasted until 429. In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and took the hardships of the campaign “much better than anyone in the whole army.” At the same time, no one enjoyed a festival more than he did; if compelled, he could drink everyone under the table, yet no one had ever seen him drunk.

During a severe frost, he marched barefoot and, even then, outdid his shod comrades, who “looked daggers at him because he seemed to despise them.” Although Socrates had saved his life, it is Alcibiades, on account of his birth and rank, who received the prize for valour. When Alcibiades remonstrated with the generals that the prize ought to go to Socrates, he was more eager than anyone that Alcibiades should have it.

The Battle of Delium

The Battle of Delium, in Boetia, took place in 424, about five years after Potidaea, and ended in a costly defeat for Athens. In Plato’s Laches, the general Laches says that Socrates was his companion in the retreat from Delium, and that if only others could have been like him, “the honour of our country would have been upheld, and the great defeat would never have occurred.” In tribute to his valour at Delium, Laches invites Socrates to teach and contradict him as much as he likes, without regard for his superior age and rank.

During the retreat from Delium, Alcibiades, who was on horseback, chanced upon Socrates and Laches. In Plato’s Symposium, he says that, even in retreating, Socrates appeared so calm and confident and imposing that no one dared attack him or his companions, preferring instead to pursue those who had turned in headlong fight.

The Battle of Amphipolis

The Battle of Amphipolis took place in 422, two years after the Battle of Delium when Socrates would have been around 48 years old—very old for a shield-carrying hoplite. The year before, Aristophanes had staged a comedy, The Clouds, which lampooned Socrates as a subversive atheist, and it is possible that Socrates’ notoriety, especially among ordinary people, rested as much on his bravery in battle as on his more intellectual pursuits.

At Amphipolis, Athens was once again routed, but the deaths of Kleon on the Athenian side and Brasidas on the Spartan side prepared the ground for the Peace of Nicias and, for Socrates, a return to the philosophy of the street.

Socrates and Plato on Courage

In the Laches, also known as On Courage, the general Nicias concludes that courage amounts to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other sphere and situation. Socrates says that if Nicias means that courage is knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope, then courage is very rare among men, while animals could never be called “courageous” but at most “fearless”—as ordinary language use seems to confirm. Nicias concurs, adding that the same is also true of children: “Or do you really suppose I call all children courageous, who fear nothing because they have no sense?”

Socrates next proposes to investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear, he says, arises from anticipated evil things, but not from evil things that have happened or that are happening; hope, in contrast, arises from anticipated good things, or, at least, anticipated non-evil things or less evil things.

But, in any field of study, there is not one science of the future, one science of the past, and one science of the present: knowledge of the past, present, and future are all the same type of knowledge. Therefore, courage is not merely knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful, but knowledge of all things, including those that are in the past and in the present. A person who had such knowledge could not be said to be lacking in courage, but neither could she be said to be lacking in any of the other virtues— justice, temperance, and piety.

Socrates points out that, in trying to define courage, he, Laches, and Nicias, have succeeded in defining virtue herself. Virtue is knowledge, which is why people with some measure of one virtue usually have a similar measure of the other virtues and of virtue in general—a thesis known as the Unity of the Virtues.

Laches and Nicias are suitably impressed, but Socrates insists that he does not as yet fully understand the nature of either courage or virtue.

In the Laches, then, Socrates defines courage as knowledge or knowledge of the good. But knowledge of the good is not enough. What we also need is the Socratic strength to persevere with our conviction through pleasures, desires, and, above all, fears. Thus, in the Republic, the mature Plato redefines courage as “the conservation of the conviction …. about fearful things.”

It’s quite a thought that, had Socrates fallen in battle, we today would be living in different minds.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.