How did Socrates stop people from getting angry?

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The story goes that Socrates had a characterful friend called Chaerephon who went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. Astonishingly, the oracle replied that there was no one wiser, leaving Socrates, who knew only that he knew nothing, perplexed.

To discover the meaning of the oracle, Socrates questioned several supposedly wise people—first the politicians, and then the poets, and then the artisans—and in each case concluded: “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” Socrates was the wisest of all people not because he knew everything or anything, but because he knew what he did not know.

From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, “if he is not, showing him that he is not”. As a result, he acquired a reputation for wisdom and a following among young men of the richer classes, who began to imitate him. But he also earned the enmity of those whom he had exposed, and of those who stood beside them.

Plato paints the oracle story as the turning point in Socrates’ career. By validating his skeptical stance to the philosophers who came before, it gave him the confidence, and the impetus, to develop his own, distinct manner and method of doing philosophy.

But is the oracle story even true, or is it just another of Plato’s myths? The oracle story conveniently serves to frame Socrates, who had been put to death as a heretic and corrupter of youths, as having been on a noble, divinely inspired mission, attached by the gods to Athens as upon a great horse which “needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly”. In favour of the story being true is that it is also related by Xenophon, who knew Socrates well, although in his version the oracle replies that there is no one more just (rather than wiser) than Socrates.

The Socratic method

Plato might also have intended the oracle story as a sort of origin myth for the Socratic method, or method of elenchus. Although Socrates may have perfected the method of elenchus, it is unlikely that he originated a mode of conversation that seems so naturally and fundamentally human. For instance, in Plato’s Parmenides, Parmenides himself uses the method of elenchus on Socrates to undermine Plato’s Theory of the Forms. But it remains that while the sophists of his day tried to make a show of their knowledge, Socrates tried to make a show of his and everyone else’s ignorance.

The method of elenchus, especially as employed by Socrates, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept such as justice or virtue with the aim of exposing a contradiction in their initial assumptions and provoking a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept, and, in due course, to a shared recognition that it eludes our understanding—and hence that we know far less than we thought we did.

With our initial dogmatism transmuted into a state of puzzlement and suspended judgement, we are ready to become much more open and subtle thinkers—assuming, of course, that we have not first become angry and resentful.

Socratic irony

To have our understanding of a moral concept undermined is also to have our values undermined, and, with that, our sense of self.

To manage their anger and other feelings, and to keep them talking, Socrates often flattered his interlocutors while himself playing the fool. In the Orator, Cicero esteems that, “for irony and dissimulation”, Socrates “far excelled all other men in the wit and genius which he displayed”. Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines Socratic irony with brio as “Socrates’ irritating tendency to praise his hearers while undermining them, or to disparage his own superior abilities while manifesting them.”

Here is an example of Socratic irony from Plato’s Meno, so pushed as to be almost parodic:

Had I the command of you as well as of myself, Meno, I would not have enquired whether virtue is given by instruction or not, until we had first ascertained what it is. But as you think only of controlling me who am your slave, and never of controlling yourself, —such being your notion of freedom, I must yield to you, for you are irresistible.

The technique resembles that used by the TV character Lieutenant Columbo to trap villains. One of the few miscreants who can see through Columbo’s fumbling and forgetful façade is the husband-killer Leslie Williams:

LW: You know, Columbo, you’re almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks.

Columbo: Me? Tricks?

LW: The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the uh, homey anecdotes about the family: the wife, you know?

Columbo: Really?

LW: Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along. But it’s always the jugular that he’s after.

Despite its pitfalls, and its underhandedness, the Socratic method remains popular in education, especially at its acme, and has also been severally adapted for psychotherapy. In the 1990s, during an institutional audit at the University of Oxford, a team of external assessors met the philosophers and asked about recent developments to their teaching methods. The question was met with a stunned silence, finally broken by Christopher Peacocke, the then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics, who observed that Socrates had discovered the right way to teach philosophy more than two thousand years ago and that nobody since had been able to significantly improve upon it.

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

The Stoic Seneca on fame and fortune.

The Suicide of Seneca, by M Dominguez Sánchez. Seneca was forced to kill himself after his ambition brought him too close to the emperor Nero.

To be ambitious is to seek out achievement not for the sake of achievement itself, which is to be high reaching, but for the sake of distinguishing ourselves from others. Were we the last person on earth, it would make little sense to be ambitious. In the words of the Roman Stoic Seneca, “Ambition, luxury, and caprice need a stage; you will cure them if you keep them from being viewed.”

The dangers of ambition are threefold. First, we should be wary of what we wish for. In one of his letters, Seneca tells Lucilius: “In ordinary speech, we often say that we are overjoyed that one person was elected consul, or that another was married or his wife has given birth, events which, far from being causes of joy, are frequently the beginnings of future sorrow.” In general, the less we have, the freer, and richer, we are.

Second, ambition is future-focused; to live with ambition is to live in fear and anxiety while discounting the moment that is before us. Because ambition ties us to externals [things that are beyond our control], and, ultimately, to other people, it leaves us subject (and vulnerable) to them. As Seneca says, “Liberty does not come for free. If you value it highly, you must devalue everything else.”

Third, ambition is often destructive. Great leaders like Caesar, Pompey, and Marius who are driven by ambition are not even in control of themselves, and, as a result, end up doing terrible things: Marius led armies, but ambition led Marius. While these men were whirling down on the entire world, they themselves were in a whirl, just like tornadoes, which spin everything around because they themselves are spinning. No one becomes fortunate at the expense of another’s misfortune.

The purpose of work is not to further our own interests, even if it is only a house in the middle of the woods that we seek, but to help others and move humanity forward—which is, in any case, the best way of furthering ourselves. The highest wisdom is perhaps that it is not necessary to be ambitious to be high-reaching, or to feel alive. Indeed, it is often our petty ambitions that are holding us down.

If it is fame that we seek, we will have to adopt the misguided values of the majority: It is by skill in wrongdoing that one cultivates popular acclaim. You must make yourself like them: they will not approve of you unless they recognise you. Although we would be foolish to seek out fame, we might nonetheless fall into it by way of our good works, in which case we should utilise it for the greater good.

If it is wealth that we seek, we would do well to remember that wealth is not the answer to our problems, since there are many wealthy people who nonetheless feel wretched, and sometimes all the more wretched for being wealthy.

We suppose that wealth increases our pleasures, but the greatest pleasures are in any case simple and easy to obtain if only our mind is open to them. If anything, wealth removes us from our pleasures by habituating us to luxury and shifting our focus onto itself: He enjoys riches most who has least need of riches. While he is thinking about its increase, he is forgetting about its use.

Even allowing that wealth does increase our pleasures, pleasure is not the be-all and end-all, but, like wealth, distracts from our higher purpose, which is the work of the mind: Maecenas would have provided a fine example of Roman rhetoric, had he not been weakened, even castrated, by his great wealth.

Just as a horse ought to be judged on its speed rather than its harness, so a man ought to be judged on his mind rather than his property, because it is reason, and not wealth, that is the measure of a man. Many people have wealth in the same way that people are said to have a fever when it is in fact the fever that has hold of us. If our mind is diseased, what does it matter whether our sickbed is made of wood or gold?

Stoics, by virtue of their virtue, are predisposed to wealth, and, even without seeking it—especially without seeking it—may end up being very wealthy. There is no harm in being wealthy and occasionally enjoying wealth, so long as our money smells good and we are not tied to it.

Fame and fortune should never be our masters, but only ever our slaves.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

What we can still learn from Stoic cosmopolitanism.

Marcus Aurelius

The world during the Late Roman Republic had never been more cosmopolitan, owing in no small part to the influence of the Stoics.

Stoics such as Panaetius, who shuttled back and forth from Athens to Rome, Rutilius, who stood up for the inhabitants of Asia against his own countrymen, and the Syrian Posidonius, who moved from Athens to Rhodes to start a school that became the empire’s stopping place, were not Greeks or Romans so much as World Citizens.

The supranationalism of the Stoics went all the way back, at least, to Diogenes the Cynic (d. 323 BCE), who, upon being asked where he came from, declared, “I am a citizen of the world [Greek, cosmopolites],” a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term “cosmopolitan.”

“The eagle,” said the Stoic teacher Musonius, quoting Euripides, “can fly through all the air, and a noble man has all the earth as his fatherland.” The wise can make themselves at home anywhere, so that exile, to them, is not the punishment that it may seem. Indeed, one of several advantages of exile is that we are not dragged into political service by a country that only seems ours, or bothered by people who only seem to be our friends, or waylaid by petty relatives. Rutilius flourished so fulsomely in exile that he refused Sulla’s invitation to return to Rome.

Even Marcus Aurelius, as emperor, did not think of himself as merely Roman: “My city and state are Rome… But as a human being? The world. So for me, ‘good’ can only mean what’s good for both communities.”

Why Egoism Is Self-Defeating

Stoic cosmopolitanism is rooted in the belief that all human beings form part of the same organism and that this organism, like each of its parts, is shot through with God. Some people indeed behave like cancers, but even they, if only they knew it, are doing the work of God. Just as our eyes, ears, and teeth each have a role to play in our body, so we, too, each have a role to play in society, even if it is only to serve as a warning to others.

“Kindly remember,” said Seneca, “that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”

To live selfishly is fundamentally self-defeating. To feel alive and happy, we need to have a sense of working with others, for others–because, like ants and bees, that is the kind of creature that we are. If we do not contribute to our community, we will feel disconnected and depressed. In a word, we will feel dead–and, in truth, might as well be.

Whatever good we do, said the emperor Marcus, we should do it quietly, without expecting anything in return, “as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.” Our reward will be our own, and much greater than any wealth or honour that might or might not be bestowed upon us: to lead and to have led a good life, to do and to have done what we were born to do.

Of course, human beings are not nearly as dependable as ants and bees. Some people will go rogue. They will behave badly or hide away at home. So much is to be expected and has been woven into the fabric of the world. To get angry or upset about it will only make matters worse, sometimes much worse.

We might even look upon bad behaviour as an opportunity. One day, a rascal who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent to him for punishment. But instead of having him whipped, Lycurgus [the legendary lawgiver of Sparta] educated him and then took him to the theatre. As the Spartans looked on in amazement, Lycurgus declared, “The person I received from you was unruly and violent. I return him to you a good man and proper citizen.”

Why Education Is Better Than Punishment

Socrates, the grandfather of the Stoics, famously said that people only do wrong because, in the moment, they think it is the right thing to do. At his trial, he argued that if he did corrupt the youth as charged, he must have done so unintentionally since he had always known that corrupting the youth, or indeed anyone, would have amounted to injuring himself. Therefore, if he did corrupt the youth, the city and its jurors would do better to educate rather than punish him.

In our dealings with other people, it is helpful to remember that, in their minds, they are only doing what they think is right or best. They, like us, are functioning at the limit of their understanding, because that is all that we can do, no more and (significantly) no less.

Sometimes, education is impractical or impossible. But even if we have to punish people, it should never be for revenge but only ever to improve behaviour. In an apocryphal story, Plato once began to strike a slave before suddenly staying his hand. When, hours later, a student came upon him still in this same awkward posture, he said, “I am punishing an angry man.” In a similar story, an angry Plato asked his nephew Speussipus to whip a disobedient slave on his behalf, explaining that a slave should not be in the control of one who is not even in control of himself.

If, for all our philosophy, we are still bent on revenge, we need not dirty our hands but simply leave it to fate and fortune, which tend to the side of the good. Death, if nothing before that, will answer to our grievances, and bury our enemies in the dust of their own insignificance.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

Nietzsche’s thought experiment to determine our own greatness.

Sisyphus, by Titian.

Possibly under the influence of Plato, who was himself influenced by Pythagoras, the Stoics held that the universe undergoes cycles, being periodically destroyed in a great conflagration [Greek, ekpyrosis] and then reborn, ad infinitum.

Because God, being perfectly rational, is bound to make the same choices, each cosmic cycle plays out similarly or even identically, so that the world as we know it, with us in it, existed in the previous cycle and will recur in the next.

In around 200 CE, the philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote: “[Chrysippus and the Stoics] hold that after the conflagration all the same things come to be again in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in the world…”

In his Letters, the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) tells Lucilius: “Things that vanish from our sight are merely stored away in the natural world: they cease to be, but they do not perish… the day will come again that will return us to the light. It is a day that many would refuse, except that we forget everything before returning.”

This concept of eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is even echoed in the Bible:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).

In the City of God Against the Pagans (426 CE), St. Augustine seeks to deny that these and other such verses refer to eternal return. If “the wicked walk in a circle,” says Augustine, “this is not because their life is to recur by means of these circles, which these philosophers imagine, but because the path in which their false doctrine now runs is circuitous.”

Enter Nietzsche

In the 19th century, Nietzsche used eternal return as a thought experiment, as perhaps the Stoics had done, to determine the degree to which our individual will is aligned with the will of the world.

How, asks Nietzsche, would we feel if a daemon visited us one night and told us that we will have to live out our life over and over again? Would we feel joy, or desperation?

In the chapter of Ecce Homo (1908) entitled, Why I Am so Clever, Nietzsche says, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati [love of fate]: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”

In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus compares the human condition to the plight of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Ephyra who was punished for resisting the gods by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. Camus concludes, “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

Or, in those wonderful words of Virgil, “The only hope for the doomed is no hope at all.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.