Socrates the Warrior


Socrates looked more like a Satyr

Socrates, whom the world knows as the father of Western philosophy, was a beast. He had a high view of physical training and fitness and was the type of person that would perhaps make even Chuck Norris stop and think.

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.

Source: Socrates (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Yet inwardly he was a calm, thoughtful, and of course highly learned man. One of his most memorable traits is the fortitude he exuded when under the extreme pressure of battle. In Plato’s Symposium Alcibiades praises this fortitude of Socrates on the battlefield:

…I could not help wondering at his natural temperance and self-restraint and manliness. I never imagined that I could have met with a man such as he is in wisdom and endurance. His endurance was simply marvelous when, being cut off from our supplies, we were compelled to go without food—on such occasions, which often happen in time of war, he was superior not only to me but to everybody. There was no one to be compared with him. His fortitude in enduring the cold was also surprising…Socrates with his bare feet on the ice and in his ordinary dress marched better than the other soldiers who had shoes…

I will also tell—and indeed I am bound to tell—of his courage in battle, for who but saved my life? Now this was the engagement in which I received the prize of valor, for I was wounded and he would not leave me, but he rescued me and my arms. He ought to have received the prize of valor…but he was more eager than the generals that I and not he should have the prize.

There you might see him…stalking like a pelican, and rolling his eyes, calmly contemplating enemies…and making very intelligible to anybody, even from a distance, that whoever attacked him would be likely to meet with stout resistance and in this way he and his companion escaped, for this is the sort of man who is never touched in war. Only those who are running away headlong are pursued.

Source: Burger, Michael. Sources for the History of Western Civilization: From Antiquity to the Mid-Eighteenth Century. Second ed. Vol. I. U of Toronto, 2015. 121-122.

Socrates knew how to wield a real sword just as much as he knew how to wield a philosophical one. Alcibiades was astonished at how “absolutely unlike any other human being” he was. The underlying substance of the warrior spirit is illuminated throughout Alcibiades’ praise of Socrates and clearly shows that it has nothing to do with violence, anger, or aggression. Or even good looks for that matter.