After a post in Donald Robertson’s facebook group on meditation sucked me into a comment thread, I noted a statement by my friend Yannos that piqued my interest. In discussing the topic, I had mentioned that there’s no account of sitting or breathing meditation in the Stoic corpus, like we see in Buddhism, for example. Yannos commented something like, “No, they were standing.” I had not heard anything like this before.
In speaking with him privately, he gave me some reading homework to do. In Plato’s Symposium there are two accounts of instances in which Socrates in engaged in a behavior which seems to be a meditation or a trance of some sort, and in both he’s standing still. It’s also clear that he’s not praying, as in the one account he prays afterwards. I tend to go to Xenophon for my Socrates-reading, and (perhaps embarrassingly) haven’t read too much of Plato.
Time to correct that, it seems.
Socrates invites his friend Aristodemus to a dinner party which is hosted by Agathon. Along the way, Socrates begins to lag behind, and he waves his friend onward. Upon arriving to the house, he takes up a post at the neighbor’s porch, and stands meditating. Aristodemus enters the house, and Agathon asks where Socrates is, and sends a servant to collect the man. When asked by the servant to come in, he refuses. When the servant reports the happening, Agathon orders him to continue to pester Socrates until he comes in, at which point Aristodemus intervenes and asks the host to let Socrates be, as this is a habit of his which he does frequently, regardless of time and place; and that he will be along shortly. Agathon agrees to do this. A short time later, proving Aristodemus correct, Socrates enters. The mark of wisdom is clearly visible to Agathon, who asks Socrates to share it with him. Socrates declines, and says that if such a thing were possible, to shift wisdom from one to another as a wick will move a liquid, he would. But alas, it is not so.
Two things are worthy of note here, the first is that in this state, at least in the beginning, Socrates can and does interact with others. He speaks to Aristodemus and to the servant of Agathon. The second being that this occured frequently enough for others to know of it as a habit of his. It is a practice or exercise which Socrates engages in often.
Plat. Sym. 220c
Alcibiades tells the dinner guests of another such time Socrates stood, but this was not short venture as the one of early this evening. At Potidaea, in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates “joined his thoughts with himself” (συνεννοήσας), and stood still from morning, through lunch and the evening, and all through the night until the next morning. Alcibiades states that we would not give up, suggesting a commitment to the process despite outside pressures. It was such a sight, that others brought their bedrolls outside to watch. In the morning, he greeted the sun with prayers for the new day.
In this instance, Socrates stood for 24 hours in this practice. Most translations will say that Socrates was “thinking over some problem/issue,” but Yannos showed me that the word in question is συνεννοήσας, “συν+ ἐν + νοέω, from νοῦς” so I’ve used ‘joined his thoughts with himself.’ For folks interested, the other Greek words in question to discuss this activity in Plato are: συννενοέω, σκοπέω, φροντίζω τι, and προσέχω τὸν νοῦν. As Yannos noted, “All this is done while standing and away from everybody else (ἀναχωρήσας).”
From the words above, we can look at some English words which help us see what Socrates is doing inside, he’s turning his thoughts inward, examining himself, contemplating, inspecting, looking out for something, etc. His practice involves him standing, sometime shortly, other times for a very long time, and engaging in this work. He stands away, so it’s personal, but he does it wherever he happens to be, so it’s not private, and it is without concern for time or the events of others, so it is not a public display. I hope this delimits the practice somewhat. Additional, this Greek Word Study Tool is useful as you can look up words in their full, inflected form without knowing the nominative/dictionary form.
In the beginning, at least, Socrates can and does speak to others. Later he seems to ignore other people, but it’s unclear to me whether he cannot, or simply does not do so. In the Alcibiades passage, his commitment to seeing the practice through is evident. Alcibiades states that Socrates would not give up, and he stood there contemplating for a day and a night. Quite a mental and physical feat.
Neither passage tells us what Socrates has gained from the practice, we only see it through the eyes of others like the three mentioned before. I have not found much scholarly discussion on this topic. This paper, which is partially on topic for us and partially off, states that the event is a trance. I’m not convinced this is the case. It seems to me to be a meditative and contemplative exercise, but I could be misconstruing what’s meant by trance as the author uses it. Also, in my preliminary readings, I came across a Google-scan of an old book which I cannot now find again, where the author laments that this passages is an example of many scholars cramming their own ideas into ancient texts, eisegisis (a word Chris Fisher recently taught me). This book notes two sources, one who uses this passage to state that this is evidence Socrates was a Pythagorean mystic, and another who uses it to claim that Socrates was figure of Science (with a capital S, clearly). It’s worth noting that this is a real and present risk in the kind of work we’re engaged in here, so the reminder is timely and helpful.
It does seem fair to me that this practice can be classed as a “spiritual exercise” as Hadot would label it, and that it could be a valid practice for contemporary Stoics of any stripe. For me, this sort of evidence, while a bit thin, is an interesting line of investigation which I prefer to porting over a practice from some other school or religion. I will be making use of it in the coming weeks and months, and will report back any findings of note.
Normally, I would detail a plan or instructions for others. But as I’m writing this before engaging in a long-term experiment with the practice, I think that such a thing will be a future post after some experimenting is done. So, I apologize for the lack, mea culpa. If you decided to add this Socratic Meditation to your practice of Stoicism, please report back in the comments.