Socrates’ Minimalist Philosophy

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By Josh Rueff on July 29, 2013

Many lives start in tragedy and end in tragedy.

Take Socrates for instance. He was born in the wake of destruction and war, in the city of Athens.

Athens was leveled by the Persians, it’s once beautiful architecture crumbled into dust.

His father was a stonemason, a high demand trade in the post-destruction city . They were a poor family living in a poor city, and that wasn’t the worst of it. Socrates wasn’t pretty.

Let me explain that a little bit.

The ancient Greeks valued the beauty and power of the human body more than most. Just look at any Grecian sculpture of the human figure. You can almost smell the vanity.

The aristocrats trained vigorously to sculpt their bodies for the gods, like neglected children hoping for attention.

Socrates watched as the young men trained for the Olympic games, muscles straining, oil glistening in the sun.

He envied their physique. How could he not? Greek Olympians were honored more than any occupation of any age, and the body that came with it was an undeniable perk.

Socrates wasn’t the only one watching the men as they competed.

The Athenian women also valued the glory and beauty of form.

Unnoticed, Socrates watched them all. They looked like the gods he chiseled out of stone.

His dad had plenty of stone, and he wanted Socrates to find a more respectable job. So he became a sculptor.

When life gives you lemons, throw them out and go find something better.

That’s what Socrates did.

As a  sculptor he carved the bodies of gods out of stone, bodies he would never have.

He was a short man, with an unenviable metabolism. He was poor, so training for the Olympics was not an option, even if it would help. Life had given him lemons, his soul confined in a homely body – Socrates was not pretty. And he was poor.

But of course that’s not where the story ends. It gets better.

Here’s the thing. Life always hands out lemons. That’s it’s job. Sometimes you’re given better things, but usually you have to take it for yourself. And this is the most important thing. Gaining more comes naturally when you learn to use what you already have.

In modern times, physical beauty is valued less than riches.

Where the Greeks strove and stressed over physical form, we obsess over our bank accounts.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to earn more money, just as there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be attractive.

The problem is when it becomes an object of stress or worry. Anything that causes unhealthy emotions should be eliminated, and that’s where minimalism shines.

A financial minimalist doesn’t have the stress of debt and unpaid bills.

A possessions minimalist doesn’t have to worry about the clutter of too much stuff.

The psychological minimalist doesn’t carry around unhealthy emotions.

What kind of minimalist do you think Socrates was? What kind of minimalist are you?

There’s a lot of crossover of course – it’s not like you have to be one or the other, in fact ideally, a person can be a minimalist in every capacity.

It’s impossible to evaluate every area of Socrates’ life, but

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lai Tzu said:

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

Without this mindset Socrates would have lived a miserable existence. His physique didn’t keep him from success but rather helped eliminate activities that would have kept him from becoming one of the most brilliant philosophers in history.

He learned to embrace what he had and even find the opportunity to achieve more with what life gave him to work with.

He didn’t have the looks and he didn’t have the riches – things considered to be the most important factors of success.

But whose name is repeated, thousands of years after his death? Was it the men who competed for glory in the Olympics? The lovely Venus’s and Aphrodite’s of Athens? No.

But Socrates, the humble, poor, and unattractive son of a stonemason, became a teacher. He was poor but his mind was a diamond, and he gave from the wealth of his mind freely. The funny thing about life is, when a person stops caring about the lemons life gives, the lemons go away. They are no longer relevant, so they’re either ignored, or not given. That leaves nothing but sweet opportunity.

Socrates’ opportunity for riches came late in life, and he reluctantly accepted the fortune of land, estate, and political power.

But he found fulfillment in a more permanent lifestyle based on philosophy and simplicity of lifestyle. He found joy where others could not.

He said:

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

So what does a life of minimalist happiness look like?

Admittedly, that’s different for each minimalist.

But for Socrates it had little to do with getting more – he found fulfillment enjoying what he had been given. And in the process, he naturally got more.

He died from self-inflicted Hemlock poisoning in prison. If you don’t know the story, he died on a matter of principle, and his last words, as the poison numbed his body, were: 

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

Not what I was expecting either.

But the man was honorable. Not many of the people honored by society today can say the same about themselves.

Some lives start in tragedy and end in tragedy. But the lessons we can learn from his life are priceless.