Socrates the hoplite

An earlier post considered the Melian massacre and the Athenian conduct of war during the Peloponnesian War (link). Since we know that Socrates served as an armored infantry soldier during that war (a hoplite), it is reasonable to ask whether Socrates would have carried out atrocious orders involving the execution of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, and other acts of retaliation and punishment against the enemies of Athens.

In particular, would Socrates the hoplite have obeyed the order to slaughter the innocent? Ancient historian Mark Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the known context of Athenian warfare and Socrates’ military history, and concludes that Socrates did not express moral opposition to these acts of war (link). Anderson argues at length that Socrates was a hoplite during exactly these kinds of campaigns of retaliation, and that he never expressed any moral objection to them. Against the arguments of Gregory Vlastos and other scholars of Athenian philosophy, Anderson argues that the historical record of Socrates’ military service is fairly clear, and it is evident that his participation was voluntary, courageous, extended, and supportive. Anderson argues on the basis of these facts that Socrates did not offer moral objections to this dimension of Athenian military strategy.

Consider first the argument by Gregory Vlastos that Socrates offered a “moral revolution” on these topics. Vlastos is one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated scholars of ancient philosophy, and his book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a much-respected study of Socrates. 

Much of the book is relevant to the question considered earlier of the changing nature of morals and values over time (link). Vlastos appears to accept the view advocated several times here that humanity creates its moral framework through long human experience. Here is what Vlastos writes about the morality of a time and place:

By the morality of a society I understand those norms of right and wrong, rules of conduct or excellences of character, publicly acknowledged within it, whose function it is to foster human wellbeing. The sense of justice centers in the concern that those norms be applied impartially. (179)

Here is a clear expression of the idea that values are created over time rather than discovered as timeless truths.

Protagoras in that speech propounds a comprehensive theory of the origins of culture which views all cultural institutions, including morality, as inventions through which men win the struggle for existence against wild beasts. (187)

Further, Vlastos believes that Socrates was one of those thinkers who succeeded in challenging and changing the moral culture of his time. According to Vlastos, Socrates rejected retaliation on very strong philosophical grounds. And this would involve the rejection of the strategy of exterminating the populations of cities in rebellion against Athens.

Vlastos’ central aim is to show that Socrates rejected the Athenian moral idea of retaliation against those who have wronged you (lex talionis). This traditional Athenian view of the moral acceptability of retaliation comes to bear in concrete detail when, as reported by Thycydides, the Athenian Assembly of citizens is asked to consider the extermination of Mytilene for rebellion (exactly the fate that befell Melos several years later):

… that rebellious Mytilene, now subdued, should be exterminated, all its adult males executed without trial, and all its women and children sold into slavery. In the speech for the proposal Cleon invokes justice on its behalf and, as we might expect, it is the justice of the talio. (184)

Vlastos works hard to distinguish between punishment and revenge: punishment is morally justified, whereas revenge is motivated by abiding hate. “The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism” (187).

Crucially, Vlastos believes that Socrates alone among his contemporaries recognizes the moral repugnancy of revenge. “So far as we know, the first Greek to grasp in full generality this simple and absolutely fundamental moral truth is Socrates” (190).

So how does Vlastos understand Socrates’ moral reasoning when it comes to retaliation? He focuses on Socrates’ arguments in the Crito. There Vlastos singles out two moral conclusions:

II. “Therefore, we should never return an injustice.”

IV. “Therefore, we should never return evil for evil [to anyone].” (194)

So, Vlastos concludes, for Socrates, retaliation in the case of personal actions is always unjust and wrong. And this would imply, if appropriate equivalence could be maintained, that retaliation against Mytilene as was proposed to the Assembly, or against Melos, as was carried out, was wholly unjust and immoral. But there is a catch: Vlastos is not entirely convinced that what is wrong for the individual Athenian is also wrong for the state. As a philosopher and a man, Socrates cannot support the resolution to retaliate against Mytilene; indeed, he cannot be a party to the deliberation (195). But it is not clear that Socrates takes the additional step: if the state decides to retaliate against Mytilene or Melos, it lacks the authority to do so. Socrates does not invoke a duty of civil disobedience upon himself as a citizen; he does not assert that as a citizen he can challenge the state’s right to take actions it has duly deliberated.

So there we have Vlastos’s argument for Socrates’ moral philosophy when it comes to doing good, acting justly, and exacting retaliation. Can we conclude, then, that Socrates the hoplite would have rejected Cleon’s authority, duly authorized by the Citizen’s Assembly, to execute the male citizens of Mytilene or Melos?

Mark Anderson thinks not. In fact, he finds Vlastos’ treatment of Socrates’ moral ideas about massacre to be fundamentally flawed. It is unpersuasive because it is entirely based on the philosophical texts without serious attention to historical details documenting what is known about the military career that Socrates experienced as a hoplite. Socrates’ military experience was entirely voluntary — Anderson suggests that he must have had to struggle to be selected as a hoplite, given his age and poverty — and extensive, taking years of his life. Further, Anderson claims that Vlastos makes major and consequential errors about the nature of Socrates’ military life (274). And Anderson rejects Vlastos’ contention that Socrates had achieved a major moral revolution through his statement in Crito that one must never do injustice (275). In particular, he rejects the idea advanced by Vlastos in an earlier essay that “not doing injustice” has the implication of rejecting traditional Athenian “military culture” by Socrates (Gregory Vlastos, 1974, “Socrates on Political Obedience and Disobedience,” The Yale review 63:4).

[Vlastos] argues that Socrates would have refused to participate, for two reasons: first, the proposed punishment was unprecedented in its ferocity, nearly genocidal, and barbaric (Vlastos 1974, 33); second, it was indiscriminate inasmuch as it condemned the innocent democrats along with the renegade oligarchs. Vlastos concludes that Socrates, had he been commanded to do so, would have declined even to relay the orders to those charged with carrying out the executions (Vlastos 1974, 33-34).

But Anderson argues two important points: first, that Socrates did in fact participate as a hoplite in campaigns in which exactly these sorts of mass killings occurred; and second, that Socrates never expressed moral objection or dissent to these actions, whether in the Platonic dialogues or in other historical sources about Socrates.

Hardly a passive observer, Socrates actively supported Athens’ imperial war effort. As we shall see, he willingly fought with some of the men and on some of the very campaigns that the standard accounts assure us he would have condemned. Moreover, the extent of his military activity is much wider than anyone has recognized. The relevant evidence demonstrates that Socrates fought in many more battles than the three that are commonly acknowledged. On the Potidaean campaign alone he may have seen action at Therme, Pydna, Beroea, and Strepsa. Before returning to Athens he probably served at Spartolus and ‘other places’ (Thucydides ii 70.4). On the Amphipolitan expedition he served possibly at Mende, definitely (for a time, though perhaps for a very brief time only) at Scione, then at Torone, Gale, Singus, Mecyherna, Thyssus, Cleonae, Acroathos, Olophyxus, Stageira, Bormiscus, Galepsos, and Trailus. (277)

There is a record of Socrates on this [Potidaea] campaign. We know that during the long siege he stood out among the soldiers as something of an eccentric (Symp. 21ge-220e). We hear nothing, however, of his standing out as a moral revolutionary suggestively questioning his comrades about the justice of Pericles’ military aggression. That Socrates, so far as we know, raised no objections to serving on this campaign suggests that neither militarism nor imperialism violated his conception of the noble and good life. (279-280)

Socrates served in Cleon’s army, and he supported Cleon. But here is Cleon’s record of massacre:

Cleon was ruthless; he was brutal to rebellious cities; but Athens needed him. The empire in the north was crumbling; much of Thrace was in open rebellion. The Athenians were livid (iv 122.5, 123.3). The punishment from which they had spared the citizens of Mytilene they imposed upon the defeated Scionians, at Cleon’s insistence. They retaliated against Torone almost as severely. Thucydides did not record the sufferings of the many other cities that fell to Cleon’s army, but we may be sure that they too felt the bronze edge of the lex talionis. (281)

When Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 153-154 declare that Socrates never actively supported Athens’ ‘evil’ acts, they do so expressly in connection with the Athenians’ treatment of Scione. But Socrates may very well have been with the contingent that stormed Scione in the summer of 423. Or he may have sailed with Cleon the following summer. Either way, he served at Scione and he arrived there in full knowledge of the campaign’s objectives; he knew that the men were to be executed and the women and children enslaved. Thus the assertion that Socrates never participated in Athens’ ‘evil actions’ cannot be correct. If he were under a legal obligation to serve on these campaigns, then Brickhouse and Smith have gone wrong again. If, as I believe, he served willingly and eagerly, their error is compounded. (282)

In other words, it is Anderson’s contention that Socrates was an active participant in Cleon’s campaigns of retaliation against cities in rebellion, involving the massacre of the men and the enslavement of the women and children. And further, there is no record of moral objections raised by Socrates to these actions — viewed at close hand as a combatant — in any of the Socratic corpus. This implies, to Anderson anyway, that Socrates did not have a moral objection to these military and imperial tactics.

This is a densely argued and damning portrait of Socrates as soldier-citizen-philosopher. Anderson makes a compelling case that Socrates did not rebel against the prevailing Athenian military culture, he did not reject massacre and enslavement as instruments of retaliation in war, and he did not act on the basis of a moral theory of just war — Athenian or any other. “Nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates give any indication that he had moral objections to hoplite warfare. To the contrary, in the Protagoras he says it is ‘noble’ and ‘good’ to go to war” (287). “Socrates fought such battles and was such a man. He did not fight at Marathon himself, of course; but he stood proudly in the long line of hoplites that stretched back to those who did. He identified with these men and accepted that their way–the way of the hoplite–led most nearly to the good life” (288).

To our question above, then, it seems as though there is a reasonably clear answer: in his life choices and in his words, Socrates the hoplite did indeed support the campaigns of slaughter that we would today regard as atrocities.

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