BECK index

Greek Philosophers and Aristophanes

Empedocles and Socrates
Comedies of Aristophanes
Apollonius of Tyana

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Don't stir the fire with a knife.

Let no man by word or deed persuade you
To do or to say that which is not best for you.

I myself would wish neither;
but if it were necessary either to do wrong or to be wronged,
I should choose rather to be wronged than to do wrong.
Socrates in Plato, Gorgias 469

O that Love would you and me unite in endless harmony.
Aristophanes, The Acharnians 991

Greek religion from at least the time of Hesiod had a divinity called Peace (Irene), and in this cult animal sacrifices were not allowed. Peace was depicted in sculpture as the mother of Wealth (Plutus). Many of the religious cults of ancient Greece joined together in amphictyonic leagues in order to preserve peace by means of mediation and conciliation between the city states. They protected people and sacred places by maintaining neutrality in time of war. They had a religious authority, but the council was composed of representatives from the various cities, giving it a democratic or federalist structure as a confederation of states. The most important amphictyonic council was Delphi which served the Greek peninsula. The lonians of Asia Minor were in the Delian amphictyony. The Delphic council exercised judicial powers and could be used to arbitrate disagreements. Even when wars did break out, amphictyonic law prohibited member states from cutting off water supplies and burning down cities; those who disobeyed these rules were liable to be destroyed by total war.


Pythagoras lived during that sixth century BC which gave so many inspired religious leaders to humanity. He was born in Samos and traveled widely. Iamblichus in his Life of Pythagoras wrote that he studied with the Syrian Pherecydes as well as Anaximander and Thales. Later he attended Pherecydes when he was dying. Pythagoras visited Epimenides and the cave of Ida on the island of Crete. He was initiated into the mysteries of Greece and those of the Chaldaeans and Magi. He entered the sacred temples of Egypt, learned the Egyptian language, and gained the secret spiritual knowledge from the priests. When he returned to his homeland of Samos, he found it under the tyranny of Polycrates. So about 531 BC when he was about forty years old, Pythagoras went to Krotona in Italy, where he developed a constitution for the city. Sybaris with about 100,000 people was perhaps the largest Greek city state then. Often in conflict with Krotona, the two cities together destroyed the town of Siris in about 530 BC.

At Krotona in Italy Pythagoras found people most receptive to his mystical teachings. There he founded a school and religious community, which shared all things in common. His mystery school soon had about three hundred students, and many others came to listen to him but lived independently. When someone left the community after having given them their worldly goods, twice as much was returned. Managers took care of the material things. Though he never wrote anything himself and many of his teachings were secret, they were passed on by his disciples for generations. Based on these accounts, later biographers wrote that he could remember his past lives and even proved that he had fought in the Trojan War. Xenophanes told how Pythagoras stopped the whipping of a puppy, because he recognized the soul of a friend. He taught the immortality of the soul, which goes through many lives by reincarnating (metempsychosis). Many miracles and clairvoyant abilities were attributed to him, including having been at two distant places on the same day. It was said he never over-indulged his appetites nor did he punish anyone in anger.

He encouraged people to behave in such a way that they would turn their enemies into friends rather than turning friends into enemies. As those in the school held their possessions in common, he advised them to consider nothing their own. He warned people not to allow anyone to persuade them by words or action to do or say that which is not best for them, thus establishing the principle of individual conscience. He taught that humans are akin to the divine and that God does care about humans. For Pythagoras the most important thing in human life is the art of winning the soul to good. Virtue, health, all good and God are harmonious, and therefore all things are constructed according to the laws of harmony. Friendship is harmony and equality.

Later accounts claimed that his teachings helped to liberate many cities in southern Italy and Sicily. He taught the young to respect their elders and the adults to honor the gods. As he encouraged the control of desires, his main method was educational in developing the mind through learning. Instead of calling himself wise, he pursued wisdom through friendship and therefore called himself a philosopher, possibly the first to do so. Philia means friendship, and sophia means wisdom. Life, he said, is like the great games in which the best role is the spectator; most people hunt for gain or fame, but philosophers search for the truth.

Pythagoras urged the Krotonians to build a temple to the Muses, and he emphasized justice based on equality. Late in life Pythagoras married Theano and had a daughter Damo and a son Telauges. He and his wife both taught that intercourse within marriage did not make anyone impure so that they could enter a temple even on the same day. He advised women to love their husbands as much as they wanted and asked them not to consider that they had subjected their husbands whenever they yielded anything to them. Pythagoras especially urged the young to learn. Music was very important in his school and was used for healing; the advanced students also studied mathematics. Diet was also important for health, and those initiated abstained from animal foods, alcohol, and beans. He urged a simple life with a diet of uncooked fruits and vegetables and drinking only pure water as the best way to a healthy body and alert mind. He forbade the killing of animals. To be initiated, candidates had to be tested by the master's assessment of their characters; a long period of silence was required. Dressed in white for purity, each day they took solitary walks in the morning and in small groups in the afternoon. Calmness and gentleness were encouraged. They did not hunt nor associate with hunters or butchers. Pythagoras suggested reviewing the previous day upon awaking and before going to sleep at night.

Pythagoras taught that all life is akin, and so he believed in universal friendship; he did not worship at altars where animals were sacrificed. Pythagoreans became known for their close friendships and devotion to each other. He often taught through symbolism so that the deeper teachings were not given to the profane; scholars are still often baffled by many of his sayings. The inner meaning of some of his guidelines was explained by the classical writer Diogenes Laertius in his biography of Pythagoras.

Don't stir the fire with a knife:
don't stir the passions or the swelling pride of the great.
Don't step over the beam of a balance:
don't overstep the bounds of equity and justice.
Don't sit down on your bushel:
have the same care of today and the future,
a bushel being the day's ration.
By not eating your heart he meant
not wasting your life in troubles and pains.
By saying do not turn around when you go abroad,
he meant to advise those who are departing this life
not to set their hearts' desire on living
nor to be too much attracted by the pleasures of this life.1

Often someone might play the lyre while others sang, and poetry might be recited. Pythagoras discovered the mathematical relationships of the notes on the scale as well as the theorem for right triangles named after him (although the Babylonians knew it long before). Pythagoras taught harmony in all things which meant concord in friendship and justice in politics. He and his disciples often helped to settle disputes by arbitration or mediation. Pythagoras did not believe in chance or luck but that divine providence guided all things. Thus he warned against being attached to personal wishes but instead recommended asking for the will of the gods. He taught the immortality of the soul and found nothing strange about one of his students having had a dream in which he conversed with his deceased father. Pythagoras carried on the teachings of the Orphic mysteries as well as those of the Egyptian priests. Yet more than anyone before him, Pythagoras combined the spiritual teachings with the pursuit of knowledge and science.

He believed that the soul has a divine source and is immortal; its proceeding through a series of lifetimes implies that evolution is the law of spiritual life. He taught that living creatures are reproduced from one another by germination and that there is no spontaneous generation from earth. Upon returning home Pythagoras suggested asking, "Where did I trespass? What did I achieve? And what duties did I leave unfulfilled?"2 Pythagoras may have been the first to use the term cosmos to imply that the entire universe has order, which he taught could be understood by mathematics. He taught that number is the law of the universe, while unity is the law of God. Plato credited Pythagoras with teaching a way of life, and many of Plato's ideas can be traced back to Pythagoras. The analysis of the psyche by its three components of the appetites, emotions, and the mind whose respective virtues are temperance, courage, and wisdom as well as the justice and friendship that harmonize all of them was probably first formally taught by Pythagoras. He taught that the seat of the soul extends from the heart to the brain.

Pythagoras found himself in the middle of a conflict when there was a revolution in Sybaris in 510 BC. Telys took power as king and got the Sybarites to confiscate the estates and exile five hundred of the wealthiest citizens who took refuge in Krotona. Telys sent ambassadors threatening war unless Krotona gave up the exiles, which would have meant certain death for them. According to Diodorus of Sicily, Pythagoras persuaded the Krotonians to protect the suppliants, whom they had granted political asylum. In the ensuing war Krotona, with the help of the greatest athlete in Greece Milon and perhaps the Spartan prince Dorieus, defeated the far larger Sybarite forces, killed many, and destroyed Sybaris by flooding it with the Krathis River.

Eventually the aristocratic and esoteric ways of the Pythagoreans aroused animosity. According to Iamblichus, after Sybaris was captured, the multitudes grew resentful that the land was not divided by lot. Ninon accused the Pythagoreans of opposing democracy and led an attack against them, expelling them from Krotona. Another version is that a prominent Krotonian named Cylon was refused admission into the community because he was violent and tyrannical. Frustrated Cylon and his followers set fire to their residence, and many Pythagoreans may have died in the fire or were killed afterward. According to Porphyry, Pythagoras escaped and fled to Metapontum, where he starved himself to death.

Pythagorean teachings were quite influential in classical Greece. Empedocles who lived in the fifth century BC studied Pythagorean doctrine with Telauges, the son of Pythagoras. When Empedocles published his poetry and made the teachings public, the Pythagoreans decided to exclude poets. Later on Plato was also excommunicated for revealing the esoteric doctrines. Empedocles considered himself a god, and it was said that he performed healings, prophecies, and miracles. In his two poems, On Nature and Purifications, he taught that there are two principles in the universe-Love and Strife-and that everyone is always following one or the other. The golden age is when people are following the law of love, friendship, and concord. In the golden age love is even extended to animals, and all of life coexists in peace and harmony. He also believed that the soul is divine and immortal and that it may spend many lifetimes following Strife until the rule of Love is learned. Empedocles cried out, "Will you not stop discordant bloodshed? Do you not see that in reckless folly you are devouring each other?"3 Since humanity is one family, it is like a father slaughtering his son and like children eating the flesh of their parents.

Socrates on Justice

Socrates (469-399 BC) took the cue for his life-long search for wisdom from the Delphic oracle which declared that no one was wiser than Socrates. He tried to find someone who was wiser but came to realize that God alone is wise and that the oracle had recognized him for knowing this truth. Socrates was a great teacher although he never claimed to be such nor did he accept money for his conversation. He spent his entire life in the city of Athens except when he served as a citizen soldier on the military expeditions to Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium. He was praised for his courage by the general Laches after he fought off foes during their retreat at Delium, and Alcibiades said that Socrates saved his life at Potidaea and then encouraged the generals to give the prize of valor to the officer Alcibiades rather than himself. Obviously Socrates was not a pacifist, but he stands out for his zealous love of justice and obedience to his own conscience.

He struggled for justice as a private citizen because he felt that if he had become a public statesman, he would probably have been put to death even sooner. However, when his tribe was serving as Prytanes, it became his duty to preside over the Athenian Senate. This assembly attempted to put on trial together the naval commanders who had not buried the dead after their victory at Arginusae. Socrates believed that this was clearly illegal-first to group them together, second not to allow them time to prepare their defense, and third because the popular assembly was not a court and had no right to condemn to death. Socrates went against strong popular opinion of the time and flatly refused to support the illegality. Even though orators threatened to impeach and arrest him, Socrates decided that it would be better for him to run the risk for the sake of the law and justice rather than participate in the injustice out of fear of imprisonment and death. The six men were condemned and executed, even though the illegality was generally recognized afterwards. This occurred under a democratic government.

During the oligarchic government of the Thirty, Socrates was summoned and ordered with four other men to bring in Leon from Salamis to be put to death. Socrates later explained that the Thirty gave these commands to people in order to implicate as many as possible in their crimes. Socrates again risked death rather than do something unjust or unholy, as even the strong arm of that oppressive government could not frighten him into doing wrong. Although the other four men went to Salamis and fetched Leon, Socrates went directly home; he might have forfeited his life if the government of the Thirty had not been shortly thrown out of power.

Finally Socrates was put to death by those who resented his criticisms and feared his spiritual influence on others, particularly the youth. He would not agree to stop his pursuit of wisdom and justice as he saw them, and in his trial he courted death and was given that sentence. Although given an opportunity to escape from prison, Socrates chose to obey the law-even though in this case it meant his own execution-rather than to run away like a coward. In Plato's Crito dialog Socrates argues that it is never correct to wrong or retaliate by returning evil after having suffered evil. The first well-known martyr of recorded history and the first philosopher known to have been executed by a state, Socrates positively worked for good and did not resist with any form of violence the evil threats and actions taken against him.

Socrates often discussed justice and how the ideal state would operate both for the individual and in society. He countered the traditional idea that we ought to help our friends and harm our enemies by showing that justice never does wrong or harm; therefore to be just we must not harm anyone. Since justice is a virtue of balance, health, and harmony, and since virtue leads to true happiness, then it is wise for us to be just. Justice is good and healthy for the individual soul and for society, while injustice is a spiritual cancer for both. Only one thing is worse than committing wrong and that is to fail to correct the wrong. Thus Socrates implied that we not only ought to refrain from unjust actions, but that it is also essential to the health of our society that we work to correct any injustices that may be occurring. In addition to his personal example, the way that Socrates endeavored to do this was by educating people to follow justice above all. In his conversations he continually worked to bring more awareness to the other speakers on whatever topic was being discussed. Yet he always allowed them their freedom of choice as he assisted them in looking at new viewpoints.

Socrates often discussed the topic of justice. Xenophon recollected a long conversation he had with Hippias on justice, in which Hippias comments that Socrates is still talking about the same old things. Hippias boasts that he can say something new about justice, and Socrates is eager to hear. However, Hippias complains that Socrates is always questioning others, and he challenges him to give his own account. Socrates begins by mentioning that his own deeds are just, but Hippias asks him for a definition. Socrates declares that "what is lawful is just." The discussion shows that this means the laws made by the citizens as covenants or agreements with each other, even though some break them. The just person who obeys these laws and keeps one's agreements is the most trustworthy. However, Socrates does not limit justice to public laws but includes also "unwritten laws," which must not have been made by persons because they are shared by various cultures which speak different languages. Hippias suggests that God made these laws for people, for the first one is to revere the gods. Socrates adds the duty of honoring one's parents and the prohibition against incest. Hippias disagrees with the latter because he finds that some transgress it. However, Socrates points out that those who do cannot escape punishment. Another duty, that of returning benefits, is also broken, but such persons suffer the gradual loss of friends. In conclusion, Socrates suggests that the gods ordain what is just, and therefore even the gods "accept the identification of the just and the lawful." Apparently Socrates taught the universal principle of law based on divine will as the best system for justice.

Defending himself before the jury in Plato's Apology, Socrates declares that justice is more important than death, and he cites the case of Achilles. Socrates had a deep conviction in the ultimate justice of life as indicated by his statement: "I believe it is not God's will that a better person be injured by a worse." Socrates refers here to a substantial injury to his soul, not mere loss of civil rights, banishment, or even death. Rather he warned his accusers that the law of justice would bring punishment upon them for condemning an innocent man. Socrates also refused to bring in his family to make an emotional plea, because it would be an attempt to sway the judges to grant favors. This is not the duty of a good judge; instead he exhorted them to judge according to the laws. In the Crito he maintains his conviction that it is just and best to obey the law, even though it means his own execution. Socrates discussed justice in situations where others, such as Crito, might have thought other considerations were more important, because for Socrates justice was apparently most important.

In Plato's Gorgias Socrates discusses justice in relation to rhetoric, which only attempts to make things appear just. Socrates takes the martyr's position that it is better to suffer injustice than to do it; for doing injustice injures the soul, while suffering injustice purifies it. Socrates believes that all happiness consists of education and justice. He shows that it is actually worse for the wrong-doer not to be punished, since punishment is the justice which cures the soul. The soul is more valuable than the body; therefore keeping it in balance through justice is more important than physical pain and will lead to true happiness. Justice prevents wrong-doing from becoming a chronic cancer of the soul. The best use of rhetoric, then, is to reveal to a person his own injustice so that it may be quickly corrected.

If virtue is happiness, and vice is misery, then the greatest evil that can happen to someone is to do wrong and not be corrected for it by punishment. Thus it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Ultimately this love of goodness can transcend even the fear of death. Socrates concludes the discussion with an account of the judgment which occurs after death when the soul has departed from the body. The judges in the other world pay no attention to what the body had been like or the social status, but they look only at the quality of the soul and its actions. The wicked are sent to be punished in Tartarus, and the virtuous go to the Islands of the Blessed. This was Socrates' way of explaining that ultimately the gods are just, and every soul gets its due.

Plato's Republic begins as an investigation of what justice is. The definitions of Simonides that justice is paying one's debts and being truthful are refuted by Socrates by means of exceptional cases, although a better dialectician might have been able to make the distinctions necessary to rescue these definitions. Socrates, however, is clearing the way for a more comprehensive search. He also refutes the common idea that justice is to benefit one's friends and harm one's enemies by showing it is unjust to injure anyone.

Socrates refutes Thrasymachus' notion that injustice is better than justice by describing how complete injustice arouses hatred and is totally incompetent; even a gang of thieves has to be somewhat fair and cooperative among themselves in order to be successful. On the other hand, "justice brings oneness of mind and love." The just are wiser, better, and more capable of action. Socrates has made it clear that justice is better than injustice, but he is not yet satisfied that he knows what justice is.

Now Glaucon asks Socrates to show that justice is not only good for its consequences such as rewards and reputation, but is good for itself alone even without these other things. Socrates is pleased to accept the challenge, as he is delighted to discuss justice over and over. Plato's Republic is supposed to describe the ideal state, but there is a critical turning point in the discussion when Socrates and the others disagree on the best state; Socrates willingly follows Glaucon and others who wish to create a "luxurious" state. Socrates has suggested a simple life-style, which would be harmonious and peaceful; but it soon becomes clear that a state, which wants more than it is able to produce and fairly trade for, will have to take over the land and goods of its neighbors. Such a luxurious and feverish state must be prepared for war and maintain a strong military force. Certainly such a military state, which takes advantage of other states by force of arms, is suffering from the disease of injustice, and using resources to support the army makes it even worse. Yet Socrates clearly perceived that the origin of such an imperialist state can be found in the greed of its citizens, who desire more than their fair share of the goods the world is able to produce. The terrible irony is that the misdirection of human resources into the military reduces the amount of constructive goods and increases the suffering from destructive conflicts between states. Thus much of the Republic is really a discussion of such a militaristic state.

Socrates does describe the good judge. The training of the judge is not exactly analogous to the training of the physician. The physician benefits from having experience himself with diseases, but it is better for the judge to keep his soul pure of moral corruption. He should not know evil from practice but from long observation of the evil nature in others. For Socrates it was fundamental that a judge be a good person. Finally when Socrates has shown that the soul as akin to the eternal and that the divine is in its best condition by itself when it is virtuous and just, the challenge has been answered. Then the rewards can be added also. The gods love those who are just; in the long run the just fare better, and the unjust end up suffering. Socrates caps his discussion of justice with a tale of the other world and the rewards and purgation which follow the judgment after death. From the perspective of the soul, to be just is to be blessed, and to be unjust is to suffer.

Comedies of Aristophanes

Tragically the heroic battles that the Greeks fought in self-defense against the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BC were later followed by the Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta and their respective allies. The earlier plays of Euripides seem to promote Athenian imperialism; but as the war dragged on, his tragedies criticized war more and more. However, the comedy writer Aristophanes satirized the war and called for peace from the beginning of the long war. In 427 BC when the first comedy of Aristophanes was produced, he was below the legal age of 18; so he was probably born in or soon after 445 BC. He wrote about forty plays in as many years, but only eleven still exist. He was an Athenian citizen whose family owned land on Aegina. His second play, The Babylonians, satirized the demagogue Cleon and portrayed the allies of Athens as slaves of Athenian imperialism, causing Cleon to bring charges against him. He must have been acquitted because he continued to satirize Cleon the next year. In The Acharnians, produced in 425 BC, he complained the politician had lied, slandered, and abused him nearly to death.

Despite its strong criticism of Athens' current war with Sparta, The Acharnians won first prize. Dicaeopolis, whose name means "just city," is waiting for the assembly to begin; but the Prytanes as usual are late, and he says they do not care one jot for peace. He intends to interrupt the speakers who do not speak of peace and complains when a man who only wants peace is dragged away. Dicaeopolis gives eight drachmas to an ambassador to make peace for him and his family with the Lacedaemonians. Amphitheus is attacked for carrying treaties in the countryside where the vineyards have been cut down, but he brings a five-year treaty, a ten-year one, and one for thirty years for Dicaeopolis to taste. The first smells of tar and naval preparations and the second of embassies as though allies are hanging back; but the third of nectar and ambrosia he takes with pleasure to release himself from the war. Happily he tells his wife that the six weary years of absence are over because he has a private treaty.

The Acharnians, however, pelt him with stones for making the treaty and call him a traitor, hating him worse than Cleon. Dicaeopolis argues that their enemies are not entirely wrong, as the Spartans have suffered wrongs from the Athenians. He offers to debate the issue with his head on the chopping block. He notes how the Athenians love to hear themselves praised by some intriguer, while they are bought and sold. Dicaeopolis goes to Euripides to get some rags to wear. The Acharnians become divided between him and Lamachus, who represents the military. Dicaeopolis wants to vomit in the crested helmet, but they debate. Lamachus goes off to fight the Peloponnesians, while Dicaeopolis trades with the Megarians and Boeotians. This is against the war boycott for which he may be turned in by an informer, but he tries to sell an informer as Athens' latest product. The chorus praises reconciliation and love, which unites all in endless harmony; the truce of Dicaeopolis becomes a valued commodity. In the final feast the harshness of military life and equipment is contrasted to tasty food, wine, and pleasant female company. Lamachus goes off to be wounded by a lance, while Dicaeopolis goes away with two girls to make love. This comedy is a powerful protest against the war and a call for a peace treaty.

The Knights was presented the next year a few months after Demosthenes initiated and Cleon exploited the successful Athenian attack on Peloponnesian Sphacteria. Cleon had become so popular and powerful that no one would make a mask of his face, and Aristophanes had to play the part himself using only makeup. The Paphlagonian tanner represents Cleon, while the masks of the other two slaves of Demos, whose name means "people," depict the Athenian generals Demosthenes and Nicias. Demosthenes tells how Paphlagon has won over the master not only by making his boots but by licking them as well. Demosthenes says that when he cooked up the Spartan dish at Pylos (Sphacteria), the tanner took it to the master as his own; he also accuses Paphlagon of collecting protection money. Demosthenes gets Nicias to steal Paphlagon's oracles, and they discover that a sausage peddler will supplant him. So they persuade the sausageman to go into politics so that he can step on the senate, fire the generals, and f--- around in the Prytaneum; his eyes can take in from Caria to Carthage, and he can buy and sell everything.

The sausage-man wonders if he should learn how to govern the people first, but Demosthenes assures him he already has the requisite abilities from sausage-making. The knights will support him, and they begin to attack Paphlagon for bribery. The sausage-man can out-yell Cleon, and they rail at each other, the former routing him in the duel of abuse. The sausage-man has beaten the senate by telling them where they can get cheap anchovies which distracts them from caring about peace even more than Cleon. The sausage-seller accuses Cleon of using the war to conceal his corruption. Demos is won over and asks for his ring as steward back from Cleon. Demos seems to be aware his servants are robbing him, but then he says he forces them with a judgment to vomit it back up. Finally the sausage-maker reveals himself as Agoracritus and gives the truce of thirty years in the form of a beautiful woman to Demos to take into the country. Once again Aristophanes has called for the replacement of the war-mongering and corrupt demagogue with an enduring peace.

While Athens and Sparta were negotiating the peace of Nicias in 421 BC, Aristophanes' Peace won second prize. Trygaeus is a farmer, who has his servants feeding a giant dung-beetle so that he can fly up to heaven to see Zeus about the war and peace. He intends to pursue him at law as a traitor selling Greece to the Medes. First he meets Hermes, who tells him the gods have moved higher to get away from the fighting of the Greeks and their prayers. There have been opportunities for peace; but when the Laconians have the advantage, they want the Athenians to suffer more. When it went the other way, the Spartans came with peace proposals; then Athens would not listen as long as they held Pylos. The goddess Peace has been thrown into a deep pit, while War is preparing to grind up the Greek cities in a large mortar. Trygaeus asks him not to throw in the Attic honey; but he has no pestle because Cleon and the Spartan general Brasidas have both recently died. Although Zeus has decreed death for anyone caught digging up Peace, Trygaeus and the chorus of farmers bribe Hermes with gold cups and with great effort manage to excavate Peace.

Hermes notices that those who make crested helmets, pikes, and swords are quite unhappy, while Trygaeus tells the farmers to return to their fields and till the earth; the sickle-maker is overjoyed. Hermes explains that Peace began to be lost when Pheidias was exiled and his friend Pericles became afraid and sparked conflict with the Megarian decree that grew into a hurricane of war. After Athens took Pylos, three times Peace came to them with truces they repulsed. Now with Peace revived, Trygaeus asks the beautiful Theoria to take off her clothes, and nude she is given to the senate. The play concludes joyfully in celebration and feasting, because now in peace they can make love at their ease on their farms. The armorer and lancemaker are unhappy, but Trygaeus buys spears at a discount to use as vine-props. This marvelous play affirms the joys of peace.

After Athens was badly defeated in the foolish Sicilian disaster, Aristophanes produced perhaps the greatest of the peace protest plays in 411 BC with Lysistrata. In this bawdy comedy Lysistrata has organized the women of Athens and other cities to insist their men make peace. Representatives arrive from Anagyra, Sparta, and Corinth. They are frustrated because one husband has been in Thrace for five months, and the Spartan is always taking his shield back to the wars. Lysistrata proposes that they must refrain from sex with men until peace is made. By dressing in transparent gowns they will get their mates' tools up and then refuse them. Even if forced, they will not cooperate so as to remove the real pleasure. Already the older women are seizing the citadel of the Acropolis. The women take an oath to have nothing to do with their lovers or husbands voluntarily, and they seal it by drinking wine. Lampito goes off to organize the Spartan women.

The elderly men of Athens come to the Acropolis with torches, but instead of fighting fire with fire, the women use water to douse the men and their firebrands. When the men try to break into the Acropolis, Lysistrata comes out and says what is needed is not bolts and bars but common sense. Each Scythian who tries to arrest her is met by another woman, and they fall back in terror dirtying themselves. Lysistrata says they have seized the treasury to stop the war; the women intend to administer it just as they do their household expenses. Their first principle is no war, and they will save the men whether they like it or not. So far the women have been ignored when they asked for peace, as the men went from one war madness to another while telling the women to stick to their weaving. Now the women have decided to save Greece by disentangling the various cities. They have suffered the loss of their sons, and the best young men and their husbands are not available for the pleasures of love. However, Lysistrata soon finds that the women want to lay too, and some are trying to escape the protest action; but she persuades them that the men want them just as much.

The husband of Myrrhiné arrives looking for her. His erection goes unsatisfied as she continues to tease him and delay undressing until he agrees to make a sound treaty to end the war. The magistrate and the Lacedaemonian herald have similar protrusions under their clothes, as Lampito has instigated the women of Sparta. The beautiful goddess of Peace appears in the nude, as Lysistrata complains how the men cut each other's throats and sack Hellenic cities. She reminds the Laconians how Cimon marched to help them against Messenia, and she recalls for the Athenians how the Laconians helped fight off the Thessalians and the tyranny of Hippias. The lusty men, seeing beautiful Peace, agree to the treaty, and the women invite them to a feast. The magistrate notes how sober envoys are always picking quarrels with each other. In his comedy at least Aristophanes has got the ancient Greeks to make love not war.


The line of Cynic philosophers goes back to a disciple of Socrates named Antisthenes, who emulated his hardihood and disregard of feeling. Antisthenes, who was about twenty years younger than Socrates and about twenty years older than Plato, lived in the Peiraeus and walked the five miles each day to hear Socrates. He considered the most necessary part of learning getting rid of having anything to unlearn. He said it was a royal privilege to do good and be called evil. He pointed to Heracles and Cyrus to show that pain could be a good thing. Antisthenes said he would rather be mad than feel pleasure. He had few students because he used a silver rod to eject them, and he criticized them the way a physician treats a patient. He preferred crows who eat the dead to flatterers who devour the living. He believed those who would be immortal ought to live justly and piously, and states are doomed when they cannot distinguish the good from the bad. Antisthenes criticized Plato for his pride. He maintained that virtue had to do with actions not words. The wise are guided by virtue and not by laws of the state. The good deserve to be loved, and virtue cannot be taken away and is the same for men and women.

Diogenes lived to be over eighty and died about the same time as Alexander in 323 BC. Diogenes was the son of a banker in Sinope, and both were banished for adulterating the coinage, which Diogenes admitted later. In Athens, Antisthenes tried to discourage Diogenes, but Diogenes persisted by offering his head to the staff of Antisthenes, saying, "Strike, for you will find no wood hard enough to keep me away from you, so long as I think you've something to say."4 Antisthenes then accepted him as a pupil, and Diogenes began a simple life. Wandering and begging for his food, Diogenes used any place he could find for eating, sleeping, conversing, or any other purpose. He found that the Athenians had provided him with places to live in the portico of Zeus and the hall of the processions. To inure himself to hardship he would roll in hot sand in the summer and embrace snow-covered statues in the winter. Diogenes found that despising pleasure itself could be most pleasurable once one was accustomed to it. When begging charity in his poverty, Diogenes asked them to give to him if they have given to anyone else; or if they had not, to begin with him. The love of money he called the mother-city of all evils.

Diogenes scorned the school of Euclides as colic, Plato's lectures as a waste of time, and Dionysian performances as peep-shows for fools. Demagogues he called lackeys of the mob. When he observed philosophers and physicians, he called humans the most intelligent animal; but seeing diviners puffed up by wealth, he thought no animal more silly. Once Diogenes trampled on the carpets of Plato, saying he was trampling on his pride; but Plato replied that Diogenes had a different kind of pride. When Plato was applauded for defining humans as featherless bipeds, Diogenes plucked a fowl and took it to Plato's lecture room as "Plato's person." Diogenes mocked Plato's ideas of tablehood and cuphood, and he considered himself a Socrates gone mad.

One day Diogenes lit a lamp and went around saying he was seeking a person, a story that later became a search for an honest person. Diogenes wondered at the grammarians who investigate the ills of Odysseus but are ignorant of their own, or the musicians who tune their lyres but leave the dispositions of their souls discordant, or at orators who make a fuss about justice in their speeches but never practice it, or the avaricious who criticize money while being so fond of it. He got angry at those who sacrificed to the gods for health and feasted to their own health's detriment. One day when a child drank out of his hands, he threw away his cup, because a child had surpassed him in plainness of living. He reasoned that all things belong to the gods; the wise are friends of the gods; since friends have all things in common, all things belong to the wise. Diogenes opposed fortune with courage, convention with nature, and passion with reason. When someone complained that he was not adapted to the study of philosophy, Diogenes asked why he lived, if he did not care to live well. Diogenes held that education is a controlling grace to the young, consolation to the old, wealth to the poor, and an ornament to the rich. Diogenes believed that the most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech.

When Athenians urged him to become initiated so that he would enjoy a special privilege in the other world, Diogenes thought it ludicrous that this could cause those of no account to live in the Isles of the Blessed. Observing a religious purification, he asked the priest if he knew that he could no more get rid of errors of conduct by sprinkling than he could so correct errors of grammar. He reproached people for praying for what they thought was good instead of what is truly good. Diogenes often insisted that the gods had given humans everything they need to live easily, but they wanted honeycakes and ointments and other such things. When he saw temple officials leading away someone for stealing a bowl that belonged to the treasurers, Diogenes commented that the great thieves were leading away the little thief.

When strangers asked to see Demosthenes, Diogenes pointed him out with his middle finger and called him the demagogue of Athens. He noted how much difference a finger could make in human attitudes. After the battle of Charonea, Diogenes was taken and dragged off to Philip, who asked him who he was. Diogenes replied that he was a spy on his insatiable greed, for which he was admired and set free. Alexander said that if he had not been Alexander he would have liked to have been Diogenes. When Diogenes was sunning himself in the Craneum, Alexander came and stood over him saying that he could have anything he wished. Diogenes simply asked Alexander to move out of his sunlight. Alexander said that he was Alexander, the great king, and he said that he was Diogenes, the hound. Asked why he was called that, Diogenes replied that he fawned on those who gave him anything, yelped at those who refused, and put his teeth into rascals. When Alexander asked him if he was not afraid of him, Diogenes asked if Alexander was a good thing or a bad thing. Alexander said he was a good thing, and Diogenes asked who is afraid of the good.

Asked where he was from one time, Diogenes said that he was a citizen of the world, perhaps the first use of the term "cosmopolitan." He believed that the only true commonwealth is as wide as the universe, and he advocated the community of wives with no marriage other than consenting union by persuasion. Children thus would also be held in common.

When Diogenes was captured and put up for sale as a slave and was asked what he could do, he said he could govern people and told the crier to announce for someone who wanted to purchase a master for himself. He told the Corinthian Xeniades, who bought him, that he must obey him as though he were a physician, and he educated his children. Xeniades entrusted his whole house to him and said that a good spirit had entered his house. Finally Diogenes died either from eating raw octopus, being bitten by a dog, or from holding his breath.

Apollonius of Tyana

The main source for the life of Apollonius of Tyana is the biography by Philostratus. The work was requested by Empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, but it was not completed until after her death in 217. Philostratus used the letters of Apollonius, some of which survive, but his main source was the now lost memoirs by Damis of Nineveh, a devoted companion of Apollonius. Because of some historical inconsistencies, some scholars consider the adventurous travels to be more historical novel than biography. This is debatable, but the ethical teachings come across either way, though with more power to those believing in the authenticity of the inspired Pythagorean philosopher's experiences. During his life-time the sage was accused by the rival sophist Euphrates of being a charlatan or a wizard using evil magic. Philostratus stated that he ignored the lost work by Moeragenes which also criticized Apollonius because he was ignorant of many circumstances in his life. Philostratus wrote that the many letters of Apollonius dealt with the gods, customs, moral principles, and laws and that in all those areas he corrected the errors into which humans had fallen.

Philostratus described how his spirit announced he was the Egyptian god Proteus before his birth and that Apollonius was born in a meadow of flowers surrounded by swans in Tyana of Cappadocia. Since Philostratus wrote that Apollonius died in the reign of Nerva (96-98), if he lived to be a hundred as some said, it is likely he was born about the same time as Jesus or some years after. As a child, Apollonius moved to Aegae to live in the temple of Asclepius so that he could get a more peaceful and philosophic education. He studied with the Pythagorean Euxenus, but this man lived more like an Epicurean. Apollonius renounced the eating of flesh and the drinking of wine because they muddied the mind and the ether in the soul. Also he wore linen clothing instead of animal products. He believed in praying to the gods for what he deserved rather than presuming to tell the godhead what is best. When his father died, he buried his body next to his mother's and gave away most of his property to his brother and other relatives. He asked his older brother to advise him and cure him of his faults, and he would also teach his brother, who had led a riotous life.

Apollonius decided not to wed nor have any connection with women. He said his hardest work was the five years he spent in silence. Yet the young man could reproach others with a gesture or by a look, and his presence would often stop quarrels. He ended a famine at Aspendus by reprimanding grain-dealers for pretending the Earth was not the mother of all. When he began speaking again, his words were concise and powerful. Asked at Antioch how a sage should converse, Apollonius replied, "Like a law-giver, for it is the duty of the law-giver to deliver to the many the instructions of whose truth he has persuaded himself."5 When he told his seven followers that he was going to Babylon, only a shorthand writer and a calligraphist accompanied him. However, at Nineveh he met and was joined by Damis. Apollonius could understand all languages even those of animals. When crossing the Euphrates he was asked what he brought, and Apollonius said he had temperance, justice, virtue, continence, valor, and discipline. The feminine nouns were taken for slaves, but Apollonius said they are ladies of quality.

On the frontier of Babylon a satrap asked him why he was trespassing, but Apollonius said all the Earth is his. Nearing the king, they asked him if he thought the king lacked the virtues he brought. Apollonius answered no, but he would teach him to practice them if he had them. Apollonius declined expensive gifts, holding to his prayer to have little and want nothing. He pointed out to Damis that eunuchs did not have chastity, which consists of not yielding to passion when the impulse is felt. He explained that greed combined all the vices, because money was needed for various desires. The Babylonian king offered him ten gifts. Apollonius asked that the Eretrians be allowed to cultivate the earth, and the king ended his enmity and made them his friends. When a eunuch was caught loving a lady, Apollonius urged the king to let him live, for that would be a greater punishment than death. Asked about governing, he advised respecting many while confiding in few. In regard to Roman villages in his territory, Apollonius said it was a mistake to go to war even over large issues, and this one was paltry. Apollonius was not impressed by the king's great wealth and suggested that he spend it. Upon leaving, Apollonius hoped to bring back the gift of having become a better man.

At Taxila in India, Apollonius met a philosophic king who lived simply. Apollonius commended him for rating his friends more highly than gold and silver because of the blessings that result. The king told him he also shared his wealth with his enemies on his borders so that they protect his frontiers from invaders. Apollonius explained to Damis why drinking wine is damaging to divination. The king provided them with fresh camels and guides for their journey.

Further in India Apollonius met a group of sages led by Iarchas. Apollonius considered their lore more profound than his and came to learn. Observing that they knew everything, Apollonius asked them if they knew themselves also. They replied that they know everything, because they begin by knowing themselves. They considered themselves gods, because they are good men. Then they discussed the transmigration of souls and the Achaeans ruining Troy, though they felt talking so much about this war was the ruin of the Greeks. Iarchas noted that the Greeks seemed to think that abstaining from injustice constitutes justice, like Romans who do not sell justice or slaves that do not steal. He pointed out that Minos cruelly enslaved many people but is considered a judge in the underworld, while Tantalus suffers for having shared with his friends his immortality given him by the gods. Before returning to Ionia, Apollonius healed a demoniac and others.

Back in Ephesus, Apollonius discussed sharing things in common by people supporting each other, like the sparrow that tells his friends about the spilled grain. He taught that people ought to do what they understand best and what they best can do. He helped the people of Smyrna get rid of their demon plague. At Athens he criticized the lascivious dancing at the festival of Dionysus, and he refused to watch the gladiator shows. At Olympia, Apollonius discussed virtues such as wisdom, courage, and temperance. Although Musonius of Babylon was arrested in Rome because Nero suspected him of using magic, Apollonius went to Rome anyway. Some of his followers refused to go; he did not consider them cowards, though he hailed as philosophers those who rose above such fears. Apollonius taught the consul Telesinus. When asked what he prayed for, Apollonius replied that he prayed that the laws not be broken, that the wise may continue to be poor, but that others may be rich so long as they are so without fraud. Apollonius taught in public; he did not hover around the rich and powerful, though he welcomed talking to them just as much as he did to the common people. Seeing a bridegroom mourning his bride, Apollonius touched her and whispered to her; immediately she woke up from what seemed death and spoke.

Apollonius found the tales of Aesop more conducive to wisdom than poetry relating stories of outlandish passion, incestuous marriages, calumnies of the gods committing crimes and quarreling that lead jealous and ambitious people to imitate them. Aesop made use of humble stories that are clearly fictitious to teach great truths. Seeing the Colossus at Rhodes, Apollonius still believed that a person who loves wisdom in a sound and innocent spirit is much greater. At Alexandria, Apollonius met Vespasian, though he refused to go to Judea to see him, believing that land during the war was polluted both by what the inhabitants did and by what they suffered. Apollonius told Vespasian that in praying for a king that is just, temperate, and wise with legitimate sons he was praying for him. Vespasian explained why he felt justified in taking the throne from the drunkard Vitellius. Euphrates and Dion gave speeches saying that Vespasian should restore the republic; but Apollonius argued that a monarchical policy was a foregone conclusion and that Vespasian could rule with generosity and self-restraint, that his sons commanding the armies should not be made hostile, and that a government by a single man who is the best, providing welfare for all the people, is popular government.

Vespasian agreed with Apollonius and asked him to instruct him. Apollonius advised him to use his wealth to help the poor while making the wealth of the rich secure. He should be governed by law himself too by respecting the laws, and he should reverence the gods. He should discipline his two sons by threatening not to bequeath the throne to them so they will regard it as a reward rather than a heritage. He should use moderation and gradual change in suppressing pleasures, because it is not easy to convert an entire people suddenly to wisdom and temperance. Apollonius suggested limiting the pride and luxury of the freedmen and slaves assigned to the Emperor. Governors should be selected by merit rather than by lot, making sure they speak the language and have affinity with the people they rule. Later Apollonius wrote to Vespasian criticizing him for seriously enslaving the Greeks when even Nero playfully had respected their liberties.

Apollonius visited Ethiopia and expressed the wish that it would be splendid if wealth were held in less honor, and equality flourished a little more. He cited Aristides as an example of a just person, for he fixed the tribute to Athens on a fair basis and returned home in his same poor clothes; but after his death excessive valuations and heavy tributes imposed on the islands led to the Peloponnesian War. After Domitian put to death three vestal virgins for breaking their oaths, Apollonius publicly criticized the Emperor by praying for the purification of the unjust murders. At Smyrna, knowing that Nerva would soon become sovereign, Apollonius explained that tyrants cannot force destiny even by killing their adversaries. Even though Domitian was persecuting philosophers, Apollonius went to Rome to face his charges so that he could share the dangers of his friends. He believed that conscience is the perpetual companion of the sage who knows oneself, and thus he did not cower before what frightens many. Domitian ordered Apollonius arrested and brought into his presence. Apollonius consoled the other prisoners and defended Nerva before Domitian, declaring he was willing to endure all that he could inflict against his vile body while he pleaded the causes of those persons.

Apollonius accused Domitian of wronging philosophy, saying that philosophy is concerned about the Emperor if he does wrong. The indictment was reduced to four charges, and Apollonius answered them this way: 1) he wore peculiar clothes because he does not like to bother poor animals; 2) he is thought to be a god because people so honor persons thought to be good; 3) he predicted the plague in Ephesus because having a lighter diet he was the first to sense the danger; and 4) the charge that he sacrificed a boy for Nerva was easily refuted for lack of evidence and because Apollonius never even sacrificed animals. Domitian acquitted Apollonius of the charges. Apollonius told the Emperor that his miscreants were causing ruin in the cities, exiles in the islands, lamentation on the mainland, cowardice in his armies, and suspicion in the Senate. Then Apollonius vanished from the court and soon appeared to Demetrius and Damis at Dicaearchia.

Apollonius believed that God created all things with the motive of goodness. In a letter he asked those who professed to be his disciples to remain within their houses, abstain from bathing, kill no living creature nor eat flesh, and be exempt from the feelings of jealousy, spite, hatred, slander, and enmity in order to bear the names of free people. To Democrates he wrote that to show excessive anger over small offenses prevents offenders from distinguishing when they have offended in greater things. To others he wrote that a quick temper may blossom into madness, and anger not restrained and cured by social intercourse may become a physical disease. To his brothers he wrote that they must not feel envious, because the good deserve what they have, and the bad, even if they are prosperous, live badly. He criticized orators and lawyers for promoting hatred and feuds. While speaking at Ephesus, Apollonius clairvoyantly perceived the murder of Domitian and announced it to the people at the time it happened before news confirmed it. Nerva became emperor and sent for Apollonius to gain his advice; but the sage sent a letter to the new Emperor with Damis so that he could die alone.


1. Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras 8:18 tr. R. D. Hicks.
2. Ibid., 8:22.
3. Empedocles, quoted in Sextus Empiricus adv. math. 9:129 tr. Sanderson Beck.
4. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, tr. R. D. Hicks, 6:21.
5. Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1:17 tr. F. C. Conybeare.

Copyright © 2005 by Sanderson Beck

This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.

Prophets of Israel
Chinese Sages
Upanishads and Yoga
Mahavira and Buddha
Greek Philosophers and Aristophanes
Stoic Philosophers
Jesus and the Early Christians
Zarathushtra, Mani, and the Cathars
Sufis, Philosophers, and Nanak
Francesco and Bonaventure
Dante, Marsilius, and Petrarch
Magna Carta to Wyclif
Erasmus, Anabaptists, and Mennonites
International Law Pioneers
Quakers: Fox and Penn's Holy Experiment
Peace Plans of Rousseau, Bentham, and Kant
Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau
Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá on World Peace
Tolstoy on the Law of Love
Suffragettes and Women's Rights


Chronology of Peacemaking

BECK index