Socrates: Philosopher-Warrior

Submitted by TiN

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates compares himself to Achilles, the hero of the Iliad , who preferred
honor in death to disgrace in life. Leo Strauss, the great scholar of classical political philosophy, discusses the comparison in his study of the Apology and Crito, noting, “The principle applying equally to Achilles and Socrates is this: “Wherever someone stations himself believing that it is best or is stationed by a commander, there he must, as it seems to me, remain and run risks, in no way taking into account taking either death or anything else before disgrace.” With this principle Socrates expresses the martial 1 virtues of courage, steadfastness, and fortitude. The recognition, by your friends and comrades, of those virtues in you is honor.

Courage, the virtue that makes possible the practice of other virtues even when surrounded by the vicious, emerges from the spirited part of the soul, the part of the soul that rises to anger in the face of injustice, the part of the soul analogous to the warrior caste in the city. In the Republic the philosopher king emerges from the city’s warrior caste who train as far as their individual nature allows towards the philosophical way of life. In other words, before a man can become a philosopher he must have a warrior’s nature, and receive a warrior’s education. Socrates compares himself to Achilles because he is a warrior like Achilles . The philosophical way of life is built upon the warriors way of life.

Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul, presented in the Republic, and found throughout the Indo-European tradition, 2 explains the argument in the Apology: the martial virtues undergird the pursuit of philosophy and the philosophical way of life.

Plato’s Republic is at once a spiritual manual studying the human soul and the method of its ascent to the Good, and a political treatise studying the just city. The human soul and the human city are properly ordered as reflections of one another–each caste of the city is found in every human soul to a greater or lesser degree and the proper ordering of the human soul is reflected and reinforced in the proper ordering of the human city. Thus political philosophy must be the study of human nature and the human soul.

The Republic begins as an investigation into the nature of justice and the good in the soul– at the level of the individual. As the dialogue proceeds, Socrates and his interlocutors enlarge the scope of their study from justice in the human soul to justice in the city. Socrates reasons that since “a city is larger than a single man…there will be more justice in the larger thing, and it will be easier to discern.” By examining the city coming into being, Socrates argues they will also be able to see justice and injustice coming to be as well and this in turn will provide a plan for ordering the individual soul and the larger body politic.

Socrates begins to describe why and how a city would come into existence. Men come together to create cities because “none of us is individually self-sufficient.” We all have needs that we can’t satisfy alone so we come together and form a settlement. Socrates says that the “[the city’s] real creator will be our need.”

A division of labor arises based on men’s needs and individuals’ natural abilities and talents to do different kinds of necessary work, “each of us is somewhat different in nature from others, one being suited to one job, another to another.” In addition to the differences in natural talents and abilities, men will be better if they specialize and practice one job.

A city that can make the necessary tools for its farmers and carpenters, and the like will need to be a pretty large settlement especially if it will produce meat. The city will likely need to export and import goods. It will need markets for the distribution of the goods and services produced at home, and imported from abroad; it will need merchants and retailers to organize the exchange of goods in the market. And finally the city will need men who are not very capable of much besides hard labor and they will be wage earners and they will have limited political rights.

Once Socrates has described the city’s system of production and exchange he goes on to describe the city’s patterns of consumption. His friend Glaucon interrupts and points out, “you make the people feast without any relishes.” In response Socrates adds spices and desserts to the menu. This is his description of a healthy city. Sex will be within marriage. The reproduction of children will be determined by the family’s means. The family will have enough to satisfy its basic needs with a few relishes like salt and desserts. Production and exchange will be determined by these minimal necessary needs.

Glaucon says that Socrates’ description is fine “for a city of pigs.” Socrates asks what is missing and Glaucon says, “What is conventional.” In other words, the citizens will require many more luxuries. The addition of luxuries is the basis for the transition from a healthy city to a “feverish city.” The feverish city will have “perfume, pastry, and prostitutes.” It will require more painting and embroidery, gold and ivory, all sorts of entertainments, many more servants, and more meat and hence more land, “we must now increase it in size and population and fill it with a multitude of things that go beyond the necessary for a city…” In the healthy city human appetites were minimized and kept within the bounds of necessary desires. In the feverish city production and exchange are determined by unbounded human appetite. The feverish city must expand. This requires war. War issues from the demand for luxuries.

It is likely that neighboring cities have also abandoned health and given themselves over to the “endless acquisition of money.” Since war and defense are now necessary, a class of men whose natural ability, talents, and training makes them warriors or “guardians” will also be necessary. Just as some men are fit to be merchants, and some men are fitted to hard labor, some men are fitted to war and defense. It is out of the guardian class that the proper rulers of the city will emerge.

In order to discern the nature of the guardians Socrates compares the “nature of a noble puppy” to the nature of a “well-born” young man: “Well, surely both of them need sharp sense, speed to catch what they perceive, and, finally strength if they have to fight it out with what they have caught.” Socrates also mentions “courage, if they are to fight well” and further that one cannot be courageous “if not spirited.” So the body of the guardian must be well built, fast and strong, and the soul must be spirited.

The only problem is that the guardians could become ferocious and turn on those they are supposed to guard. There seems to be a paradox: warriors should be ferocious with enemies but then they also should be gentle with fellow citizens. The paradox is solved by the analogy with the noble puppy (similar to the idea of the “sheepdog”) who is gentle with his master and ferocious towards strangers. And this means that the dog has learned something: “so we shall be bold and assert that a human being too, if he is going to be gentle to his own and those known to him, must by nature be a philosopher and a lover of learning…then the man who’s going to be a fine and good guardian of the city for us will in his nature be a philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong.” The philosopher and the warrior are of one nature then –a lover of learning and wisdom, and spirited, swift, and strong– the only difference is not all guardians will become fully realized philosophers fit to rule as kings or aristocrats.

Socrates devises the myth of the metals as a way of explaining not only the caste structure of the city but the tripartite soul that the city reflects as well. The myth explains the social order: “when the god was forming you, he mixed gold into those of you who are capable of ruling, which is why they are the most honorable, silver into the auxiliaries; and iron and bronze into the farmers and other craftsmen.” And since the iron and bronze men are representative of the appetitive aspect of the soul, Socrates adds, “there is an oracle that the city will be ruined if it ever has an iron or bronze guardian.” The bronze men — workers, tradesmen, businessmen, merchants, money-chasers –must never rule in the city or the soul.

So the Republic provides a conception of the human soul’s tripartite structure that corresponds with the three main castes of the city: artisans and producers represented in the soul by the appetites, the warriors represented in the soul by the spirited aspect or the will, and the Philosopher King represented in the soul by reason. When each is properly ordered philosophy is enthroned in the soul and the city, and the spirited and appetitive aspect serve the superior function.

At the time of Socrates’ trial Athens was a democracy, the proper order was inverted, the oracle prophesying danger if bronze men rule had come to fruition. These men put philosophy itself on trial. Plato’s Apology , an account of Socrates’ defense before democratic Athens against charges of impiety, corrupting the youth, and sophistry, is an argument for the superiority of the philosophical way life against the way of life of the men ruled by their appetites: the bronze men. Socrates asks, “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of you eagerness to possess as much wealth reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”

When Socrates imagines an interlocutor asking if he is ashamed to be on trial for his life, Socrates makes the comparison with Achilles: “What you say is ignoble, fellow if you suppose that a man who is of even a little benefit should take into account the danger of living or dying, but not rather consider this alone whenever he acts: whether his actions are just or unjust, and the deeds of a good man or a bad. For according to your speech, those of the heroes who met their end at Troy would be inferior, especially the son of Thetis (Achilles). Rather than endure anything shameful, he despised danger so much that when his mother –a goddess–spoke to him as he was eager to kill Hector—something like this, as I suppose: ‘Son, if you avenge the murder of your comrade Patroclus and kill Hector, you yourself will die; for straightway,’ she says, ‘after Hector, your fate is ready at hand’—he, upon hearing this, belittled death and danger, fearing much more to live as a bad man and not to avenge his friends. ‘Straightway,’ he says, ‘may I die, after I inflict a penalty on the doer of injustice, so that I do not stay here ridiculous beside the curved ships, a burden on the land.’ Surely you do not suppose that he gave any thought to death and danger?”

Here Socrates should not be read metaphorically. Socrates is a literal warrior, and a guardian of the city. The spirited aspect of the soul and the virtue of courage are mobilized as the bulwarks supporting the philosophical life and the properly ordered city and soul. The argument is a matter of life and death and the stakes are the existence of philosophy in the city, and perhaps the existence of reason in men’s souls which needs to be aroused by an extrinsic force: “I am far now from making a defense speech on my own behalf, as someone might suppose. I do it rather on your behalf, so that you do not do something wrong concerning the gift of the god to you by voting to condemn me. For if you kill me, you will not easily discover another of my sort, who—even if it is rather ridiculous to say—has simply been set upon the city by the god, as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly. Just so, in fact, the god seems to me to have set me upon the city as someone of this sort: I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you, and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day. Someone else of this sort will certainly not easily arise for you, men.”

When considered in light of the tripartite soul and its reflection in the castes of the city, the speech above suggests that the execution of Socrates will be something akin to the destruction of reason in the human soul and writ large in the city as a whole.

Without a heroic courage in the face of death, Socrates would have been unable to defend philosophy and the philosophical way of life. Without courage and the spirited aspect of the soul philosophy cannot mature. The soul’s quest for the good and just come forth from its spirited portion; the part of the soul that is spontaneously angered in the face of injustice.

And so Socrates was a dispossessed king put on trial by men who were his inferiors in every way.

1 Strauss, Leo. The City and Man . The University of Chicago Press, 1964.
2 Dumezil, Georges. Destiny of the Warrior. The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
See also: Mason, William. American-Kshatriya

One Comment Add yours

  1. IKKI says:

    Excellent essay; among other things you’ve articulated the reason why, as much as I enjoy BAP ( see recent American Sun article ) and his various insights, I part company with him when it comes to ( his negative opinion of ) Plato.


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