Meditation VII.66 - The Strange Man Socrates - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
How do we know if Telauges was not superior in character to Socrates?1 For it is not enough that Socrates died a more noble death,2 and disputed more skilfully with the sophists,3 and passed the night in the cold with more endurance,4 and that when he was bid to arrest Leon of Salamis, he considered it more noble to refuse,5 and that he walked in a swaggering way in the streets - though as to this fact one may have great doubts if it was true.6 But we ought to inquire, what kind of a soul it was that Socrates possessed,7 and if he was able to be content with being just towards men and women and pious toward the gods,8 neither idly vexed on account of human villainy,9 nor yet making himself a slave to anyone's ignorance,10 nor receiving as strange anything that fell to his share out of the universal, nor enduring it as intolerable,11 nor allowing his understanding to sympathize with the affects of the miserable flesh.12
(1) Telauges (ca. 500 BC) was a Pythagorean philosopher and, according to tradition, the son of Pythagoras and Theano and a man of great virtue.
(2) The events leading up to the death of Socrates are chronicled in Plato's Apology.
(3) The sophists were professional teachers who charged for their services. In this era the term is used pejoratively in the same sense that we may refer today to "spin doctors."
(4) According to tradition Socrates once spent an entire cold night gazing out to sea engrossed in thought dressed in only a cloak.
(5) Leon of Salamis was a historical figure, mentioned in Plato's Apology. He was put to death for crimes he had not committed. In the Apology, Socrates argues that he fears committing injustice more than he fears death. In the Apology he accounts how he disobeyed orders to arrest Leon of Salamis who he knew to be innocent:
When the oligarchy was established, the Thirty summoned me to the Hall, along with four others, and ordered us to bring Leon from Salamis, that he might be executed. They gave many other orders to many people, in order to implicate as many as possible in their [i.e., the Thirty's] guilt. Then I showed again, not in words but in action, that, if it's not crude of me to say so, death is something I couldn't care less about, but that my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious. That government, as powerful as it was, did not frighten me into any wrongdoing. When we left the Hall, the other four went to Salamis and brought in Leon, but I went home. I might have been put to death for this, had not the government fallen shortly afterwards.
(6) The following extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes several elements of Socrates' "Strangeness" including a reference to his "swagger:"
Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates' time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man's political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant. He didn't change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night. Something was peculiar about his gait as well, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance. He was impervious to the effects of alcohol and cold, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow soldiers on campaign.
(7) In Stoicism the soul is what makes us human. Stoics are indifferent toward the body and its affects.
(8) The phrase makes reference to both Stoic (justice) and Roman (piety toward the gods) virtues.
(9) Being "vexed" or annoyed with anyone is a violation of one of the so-called Stoic "commandments" discussed in Meditation VIII.08 (in the book).
(10) Ignorance generally refers to those who do not live according to nature and as a consequence commit injustices. The presumption is that anyone who was aware of the natural law - upon which the moral law is constructed - would act in the right way. The duty of the Stoic is to teach those who live in ignorance. Situations in which ignorance occur actually provide the Stoic with an opportunity to act virtuously by bringing truth to those who are unaware.
(11) the Stoic not only accepts what life brings, but presumes that what we are, and whatever situations we experience, are exactly what nature intends for us.
(12) Again the Stoic is indifferent to the "affects of the flesh." The body is not what defines us. We are defined rather by our innate intelligence which comes to us from the universal intelligence. This intelligence - identified with the soul - is impervious to harm, and invulnerable to mistake when unimpeded by the emotional and physical influences of the body. The purpose of meditation is to enter the mind in ways in which this process can occur.
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.