The ancient Greek philosopher and war hero
By Donald Robertson and Mick Mulroy
[Socrates] was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war, he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly.Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1
The Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War was fought between the two most powerful city-states in ancient Greece, namely Athens and Sparta, and their allies, known as the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, respectively. During this time, the Mediterranean region was engulfed in one of history’s longest and most brutal wars, spanning almost three decades. At the outbreak of the war, in 431 BC, Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher, was aged forty, and would already have seen intermittent military service as a citizen-soldier, fighting in minor conflicts since his early twenties.
At the outset of the Peloponnesian War, Athens, Greece’s dominant naval power, and Sparta, with her legendary infantry, were evenly matched adversaries. However, Persia’s involvement and the growing confidence of the Spartan navy, led to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian fleet by the Spartan general Lysander, at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC. The city of Athens was blockaded and, before long, forced to surrender, leaving Sparta as the controlling power in Greece. With both Athens and Sparta significantly weakened, though, during the 4th century BC, the way was clear for a new power, the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, to rise and gradually take their place.
Socrates the Soldier
At the end of his life, Socrates cited his military service, and reputation for bravery, during his trial, as recounted in Plato’s Apology. The experiences he had in war clearly shaped his perception of the world, and his philosophy.
At eighteen, he would have taken the sacred oath of the Ephebic College, through which he received his basic training:
I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and our hearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey whoever is in authority and submit to the established laws and all others which the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defense, single-handed or with the support of all. I will honor the religion of my fathers. Let the gods be my witness, Agraulus, Enyalius, Ares, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone.
During these years, Socrates learned to serve as a heavy infantryman or hoplite, using the sword and spear as a member of the phalanx, the standard Athenian military unit. His weapons and equipment would have weighed around 66 pounds. He had to travel great distances bearing these, with little sleep, camped outside in the elements, eating basic soldier’s rations, just to engage the enemy in brutal physical combat where few would escape injury or death.
Socrates went on to become a veteran of at least three major battles of the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, he was well-known in Athens not only as a philosopher but also, to some extent, as a war hero. His circle of friends included several military veterans and elected generals. Indeed, Xenophon and Plato, our two main sources, both portray Socrates being consulted by the officer class about military questions, including training, strategy, and tactics.
He saved the life of a young officer (and future general) called Alcibiades, who had been wounded during the Battle of Potidaea. As a consequence, Socrates was nominated for the “prize of pre-eminent valor” but declined to accept the award. He was also known for protecting general Laches, who had been unhorsed during the retreat from the Battle of Delium, when the Athenians were being sorely harassed by the enemy. Laches reputedly commented on the high regard he had for Socrates “ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger and gave a proof of your valor such as only the man of merit can give.”
All three major battles in which Socrates participated ended in defeat for Athens. According to Plato, nevertheless, Alcibiades said of Socrates’ courage: “when you behave as he did, then the enemy does not even touch you; instead, they pursue those who turn in headlong flight.” Laches is likewise portrayed as saying that if every man under his command at Delium had fought as bravely as Socrates, their enemy would have erected no victory statues. Xenophon, another famous general, said that Socrates was the most disciplined man he knew in terms of his appetites, that he had built up his endurance of extreme hot and cold weather, and other such hardships, and had learned to be self-sufficient and content with minimal possessions.
The last major battle he fought was at Amphipolis, in northern Greece, in 422 BC. Socrates, by this time, was aged forty-eight, and still trekking over hills with heavy weapons and armor, to stand his ground in the phalanx, alongside much younger men. He appears to have been the type of soldier who would be selected as a centurion in the Roman army, or a Ranger or Green Beret today – he would be a perfect Sergeant Major. Socrates became the most famous philosopher in history, though, and his reputation as a thinker, therefore, eclipsed his renown as a warrior. We remember him as a philosopher rather than a soldier. Perhaps it should be as a philosopher-soldier, though. How, indeed, might Socrates’ experience as a soldier have shaped his views as a philosopher?
Socrates was renowned for his mental and physical endurance. He was said to be stronger than most men. He could go longer than anyone without food, water, or rest. He would even volunteer to take other soldiers’ watches, so they could get some sleep. He was obviously a natural leader and set an example for the younger infantrymen to emulate. Socrates thought it should be self-evident that true leaders require self-control. A military officer, for example, who is easily swayed by desire, cannot be trusted, for that reason, to act consistently in accord with his knowledge and expertise. However, “just as those who do not exercise their bodies cannot carry out their physical duties, so those who do not exercise their characters”, by developing self-control, “cannot carry out their moral duties.”
It was also Socrates’ belief, though, according to Xenophon, that self-discipline itself is a question of knowledge and that those of us who lack self-control invariably also lack a sort of wisdom. Temperance, or moderation, comes from having a clear understanding of what is good for us. He said that “all men have a choice between various courses, and choose and follow the one which they think is most to their advantage.” We must train ourselves to look beyond appearances at the underlying reality, to see more clearly what is in our own interest and in the interests of our society.
During his trial, for alleged impiety and corrupting the youth (by teaching them philosophy), Socrates brought up his military service. He reminded the jurymen that he had stood his ground in the phalanx, under the command of the elected generals, facing mortal danger alongside his fellow hoplites at Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis. Nobody questioned his bravery or honor when risking his life in this way. Some people, however, thought it was ridiculous for Socrates to risk his life in court by insisting on practicing philosophy. Socrates told them that the opposite was true.
He believed that the god Apollo, whose commandment was “know thyself,” had, like a general, given him orders that he was duty-bound to obey. His mission was to question his fellow Athenians about the nature of wisdom and virtue. It would be even more dishonorable and ridiculous for him now to desert that post. What point was there risking his life to defend the city of Athens against Sparta if he was not prepared to do the same to preserve the moral character of the city he loved and the citizens within its walls? In other words, Socrates’ military service had taught him to risk his life for the sake of his moral values. Back in civilian life, this actually brought him into conflict with powerful political figures, and it came to a head because he was willing to risk his own safety as an individual in the name of justice to preserve the moral integrity of the city.
Socrates was fascinated by the concept of courage and discussed it in depth with several Athenian generals in Plato’s Laches. Did his experience of military service contribute to his questions about the nature of courage? When Socrates asks Laches for a definition of courage, he begins by offering a conventional Greek military example: that it consists in standing one’s ground, i.e., remaining in phalanx formation, when facing the enemy. He’s describing what courage among infantrymen looks like from the perspective of an external observer, such as their commanding officer.
Socrates questions this narrow definition very thoroughly and arrives at an alternative account focused more on mental attitude: courage is knowing what it is and is not appropriate to fear. In Plato’s Apology, after mentioning his military service, Socrates likewise goes on to raise some very radical questions about whether or not it is wise to fear death. He said that only a fool would embrace a known evil in order to evade something whose dangers are unknown. He, therefore, arrived at the typically paradoxical conclusion that we should be more afraid of committing injustice than we are of our own death. When the jurymen voted in favor of the death sentence at his trial, he reputedly said that his accusers, Anytus and Meletus, could kill him but they could not harm him. He meant that although they could take away his life, they could never take away his honor.
About the Authors
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, on the board of directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a co-founder of End Child Soldiering, and the co-founder of the Lobo Institute. He writes and speaks often on Stoicism. For other publications please visit here.
Donald J. Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural therapist and writer, living in Athens, Greece, and Ontario, Canada. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.