Minimalists in History: Greek Philosopher Socrates

mt hood from lost lake - socrates

“We are told that Socrates, though indifferent to wine, could, on occasion, drink more than anybody else, without ever becoming intoxicated. It was not drinking that he condemned, but pleasure in drinking. In like manner, the philosopher must not care for the pleasures of love, or for costly raiment, or sandals, or other adornments of the person.”

– A History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell

Socrates, considered one of the founders of western philosophy, was born around 470 BCE, in Athens, Greece. It’s believed that he began his career as a stonemason, then worked as a citizen-soldier. Some say he taught philosophy for pay; others say he taught without compensation.

Either way, he didn’t lecture as most teachers do. Instead, he used what we now call the Socratic method, questioning his students to draw out their knowledge.

In 399 BCE, he was convicted of “denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the young.” He was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning.

We don’t have any of his writings. In fact, it’s believed that he didn’t write anything at all. We base our knowledge about Socrates on what his students (mostly Plato and Xenophon) wrote. Scholars think some of the statements are fairly accurate. Others, not so much. The later Plato dialogues, for instance, are thought to be Plato’s own philosophy.

Also, comic playwright Aristophanes wrote a play, The Clouds, mocking Socrates as an unkempt buffoon. The unkempt part is certainly true, as Socrates was known for his lack of interest in external appearances, wandering around unwashed and wearing old clothes.

“[T]hough simple in his habits and independent of all material pleasures, [he] never made a fetish of this independence, nor allowed it to degenerate into a harsh asceticism.”

– A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, by W.T. Stace

Socrates’ main focus was on how to live a good and virtuous life. He was one of the first to argue that ideas should take priority over things, and that virtue is more important than wealth.

  • “O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” (Plato’s Apology)
  • “I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private.” (Plato’s Apology)
  • “You, Antiphon, would seem to suggest that happiness consists of luxury and extravagance; I hold a different creed. To have no wants at all is, to my mind, an attribute of Godhead; to have as few wants as possible the nearest approach to Godhead; and as that which is divine is mightiest, so that is next mightiest which comes closest to the divine.” (Xenophon’s Memorabilia)

Diogenes Laërtius, a third century biographer of ancient Greek philosophers, says of Socrates in Lives of Eminent Philosophers:

  • “Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!'”
  • “He prided himself on his plain living, and never asked a fee from anyone. He used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods in that he had the fewest wants.”
  • “There is, he said, only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance; wealth and good birth bring their possessor no dignity, but on the contrary evil.”

Are you wondering why I’ve left out your favorite Socrates quotes? I’ve been unable to find sources for these popular minimalist sayings attributed to Socrates:

  • “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
  • “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

These may be a couple of the many fake quotes making the rounds of the Internet. I’m not sure, though, since I’m no Socratic scholar, so if you happen to know the original source, please let me know.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.