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.

Aristippus and his companions after being shipwrecked, by A Zucchi (1768).

Aristippus was far more radical than the more famous Epicurus.

Ancient philosophy, for all its theoretical underpinnings, was above all an art of living, which aimed, through self-transformation, at controlling the passions, relieving suffering, and attaining wisdom. Philosophy was to the soul, or mind, as medicine is to the body, and the professional philosopher was, first and foremost, a healer of the soul. In the words of the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Unless the soul is cured, which cannot be done without philosophy, there will be no end to our miseries.” According to the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, “We must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason.”

This notion of philosophy as therapy, or an art of living, can be traced back to Socrates. After his heroic death by hemlock in 399 BCE, his nearest students ran off each with a different aspect of his teaching. While Plato and the Platonic Academy which he founded inherited his theoretical side, Antisthenes embraced his ethical or practical side, advocating an ascetic life of virtue and laying the foundations for the Cynic school. A third follower, Aristippus, had a very different take on their master’s ethics and established the Cyrenaic school, which taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, especially momentary pleasures and above all physical ones—a position far more radical than that eventually espoused by Epicurus.

The Life of Aristippus

Aristippus of Cyrene (435-356 BCE), who died before Epicurus was even born, emphasized present and physical pleasures over long-term pleasure or tranquillity. For Aristippus and his followers the Cyrenaics, pleasure meant not merely the absence of pain but positively making the most out of every moment.

Aristippus had been a follower of Socrates, and once had the temerity to tell him that he lived in Athens so as not to be embroiled in the politics of his native city—the kind of remark that turned other students of Socrates, notably Plato and Xenophon, against him. Aristippus was the first of the Socratics to take money for teaching. When he demanded five hundred drachmas out of a man for tutoring his son, the man protested, “For that much money, I could buy a slave!” “Go ahead” he replied, “then you’ll have two.”

Many saucy stories are told of Aristippus. One day, Diogenes the Cynic was washing the dirt from his vegetables, and, seeing him pass by, called out, “Had you learnt to make these your diet, you would have no need to pay court to kings.” “And you, Diogenes” he shot back, “had you learnt to associate with men, you would have no need to wash these vegetables.”

When someone chided him for his extravagance in catering, he retorted, “Wouldn’t you have bought this if you could have got it for three obols? Very well then, it is no longer I who am a lover of pleasure, but you who are a lover of money.”

When someone remarked that philosophers always seem to be at rich men’s doors, he replied, “Physicians are always calling on those who are sick, but no one on that account would prefer being sick to being a physician.”

When Dionysus I, the tyrant of Syracuse, asked him why he had come to his court, he said, “When I needed wisdom, I went to Socrates; but now that I am in need of money, I come to you.”

One time, Dionysus spat in his face. When someone reproached him for putting up with this, he said, “If fishermen are prepared to be drenched in seawater in order to catch a gudgeon, should I not be prepared to be sprayed with spittle in order to take a blenny?”

When Dionysus gave him his choice of three courtesans, he carried off all three, explaining, “Paris paid dearly for preferring one out of three.”

He was for a long time intimate with the courtesan Lais of Corinth, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in all of Greece.

The Cyrenaic School of Philosophy

But appearances, especially when it comes to the hedonists, can be deceptive. Aristippus was far from amoral. He simply believed that we ought to make the most out of every situation. Upon being criticised for his love of pleasure, he replied, “It is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without ever being worsted.” One time, as he entered the house of a courtesan, one of the lads with him blushed. Seeing this, he said, “It is not going in that is shameful, but being unable to come out.”

Vitruvius, in his treatise on architecture, relates the story of Aristippus’ shipwreck. Upon being cast ashore on Rhodes, he repaired to the city and made straight for the gymnasium, where he spoke so eloquently that the Rhodians provided for all his needs and all his companions’ needs. When his companions wished to return to their country and asked what message they might bear from him, he bade them say this: that children ought to be provided with property and resources of a kind that can swim with them even out of a shipwreck.

Despite having two sons, Aristippus designated his daughter Arete as his successor at the head of the Cyrenaic school, and it was Arete’s son, Aristippus the Younger, who formalized the principles of Cyrenaicism.

A number of later Cyrenaics departed from this canon; for instance, Theodorus the Atheist (c. 340-c. 250 BCE) emphasized mental over physical pleasures and defined the good as prudence and justice. Hegesias of Cyrene (fl. 290 BCE), who might have been influenced by Buddhist missionaries sent forth by Ashoka the Great, argued that, since happiness is impossible to achieve, the goal of living ought instead to be the avoidance of pain and trouble. According to Cicero, he wrote a book called Death by Starvation that persuaded so many people that death is preferable to life that Ptolemy II Philadelphus banned him from teaching in Alexandria.

Cyrenaicism died out within a century to be replaced by Epicureanism.

Read my related article on Epicurus, The Arithmetics of Pleasure.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.

The Stoic emperor never intended his work for publication. So why did he write it?

After the three Flavian emperors—Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian—came the “Five Good Emperors” of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and our man Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 CE). These emperors, wrote Machiavelli, “had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the goodwill of their subjects, and the attachment of the Senate.” Whereas Vespasian and Domitian had persecuted philosophers, Hadrian and Antoninus had courted them—until Marcus crossed over to the other side.

In Plato’s Republic (c. 375 BCE), Socrates says that his vision of the ideal state could not exist “until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy… then only will our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.” Here he was at last, more than five hundred years later, rarer even than the Egyptian phoenix, the fabled philosopher king—and not just any vassal or kinglet, but the Emperor of Rome.

In the latter years of his life, Marcus kept a journal, now called the Meditations, which has miraculously come down to us, and through which we might enter the mind of the philosopher-king. The twelve books of the Meditations do not present any chronological or thematic order but consist of a variety of unrelated reflections that seem to have been written for Marcus’ own benefit: for strength, for guidance, and for self-improvement—for example, “To speak to the Senate—or anyone—in the right tone, without being overbearing. To choose the right words.” This touching intimacy, and the epigrammatic character of many of his reflections, have ensured the appeal and perennial popularity of the work.

The first book, in which Marcus reflects with gratitude on what he has learned from various relatives and mentors, stands out from the rest as being more structured and autobiographical. He concludes this first book by thanking the gods that “when I became interested in philosophy, I didn’t fall into the hands of charlatans, and didn’t get bogged down in writing treatises, or become absorbed by logic-chopping, or preoccupied with physics.” The influence of the Stoic teacher Epictetus, here and elsewhere, is easy enough to discern.

It is unlikely that Marcus intended his thoughts for publication, or, even, for anyone’s eyes except his own. The “you” that he often uses is not a generic “you,” but him addressing himself—for example, “When you look at yourself, see any of the emperors… Then let it hit you: Where are they now?”

In one place, he refers to the Stoics in the third person: “Things are wrapped in such a veil of mystery that many good philosophers have found it impossible to make sense of them. Even the Stoics have trouble.” This suggests that he did not consider himself a Stoic, or even a philosopher, but merely a friend or student of philosophy.

Whatever the case, he clearly held the Stoics, and Epictetus, in the highest regard, and endeavoured all his life to live up to their precepts. In the Discourses, Epictetus advises the reader to rehearse and write down Stoic responses to life’s challenges. This embedding of Stoic principles, this turning of theory into practice, is what Marcus appears to be doing in and by the Meditations.

This kind of reflective journaling is not original to Epictetus. In On Anger, the Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) says that he acquired the habit from his teacher Sextius, who would nightly ask himself: “Which of your ills did you heal today? Which vice did you resist? In what aspect are you better?” “Your anger,” says Seneca, “will cease and become more controllable if it knows that every day it must come before a judge.”

Is there anything finer, then, than this habit of scrutinizing the entire day? What sort of sleep follows this self-examination—how peaceful, how deep and free… I exercise this jurisdiction daily and plead my case before myself. When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent… I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.

According to Epictetus, students of Stoicism ought to be trained in three areas, or disciplines, if they are to become good and virtuous and happy: desire, action, and assent. This pedagogy is echoed by Marcus when he writes, “Wipe out imagination: check desire: extinguish appetite: keep the ruling faculty in its own power.” That Marcus’ principal themes break down around the three disciplines supports the notion that the work represents his attempt to apply and embed the precepts of Stoicism.

And it’s surprising how Christian, or proto-Christian, he can sometimes sound—for example, when he writes: “God sees all our souls freed from their fleshy containers, stripped clean of their bark, cleansed of their grime. He grasps with his intelligence alone what was poured and channelled from himself into them. If you learn to do the same, you can avoid a great deal of distress. When you see through the flesh that covers you, will you be unsettled by clothing, mansions, celebrity—the painted sets, the costume cupboard?” Christian persecutions in fact increased during Marcus’ reign, although that probably had little to do with him.

Who discovered the Meditations after the death of Marcus? Who copied it? Who disseminated it? We may never find out. The first categorical mention of the Meditations, after more than four centuries of radio silence, is from the late ninth or early tenth century. In 1558, the German scholar Wilhelm Xylander translated the work into Latin, after which it came to assume its place in the Western canon.

After Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China from 2003 to 2013, revealed that he had read it over a hundred times, it became a surprise bestseller in China too. How fitting, then, that the first recorded Roman embassy to China, at that time under the Hans, arrived in 166, in the reign of Marcus.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.