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Socrates on self-defense


Socrates (469-399 BCE) was a fifth-century Athenian philosopher whose critical reasoning set the standard for subsequent Western philosophy. Since he left no writings of his own, we must rely upon contemporary writers such as Aristophanes and Xenophon for information about his life and work.

His early years

As a pupil of Archelaus during his youth, Socrates showed a great deal of interest in the scientific theories of Anaxagoras, but he later abandoned his inquiries into the physical world and began an investigation unto the development of moral character.
Having served with some distinction as a soldier at Delium and Amphipolis during the Peloponnesian War, he dabbled in the political turmoil that consumed Athens after the War. Then he retired to work as a stonemason and raise his children with his wife, Xanthippe.
After inheriting a modest fortune from his father, the sculptor Sophroniscus, Socrates began to give full-time attention to inventing the practice of philosophical dialogue. For the rest of his life, Socrates devoted himself to free-wheeling discussions with the aristocratic young citizens of Athens, insistently questioning their unwarranted confidence in the truth of popular opinions, even though he often offered them no clear alternatives.
Unlike the professional Sophists of the time, Socrates did not accept payment for his work with students and many of them were fanatically loyal to him. However, their parents were often displeased with his influence on their children since he was a controversial political figure. Although the amnesty of 405 BCE prevented his prosecution for his political activities, an Athenian jury convicted him of corrupting the youth and interfering with the religion of the city and they sentenced him to death in 399 BCE. Accepting this outcome with remarkable grace, Socrates drank hemlock and died in the company of his friends and disciples.
Some of the best sources about Socrates' philosophical views are the early dialogues of his student Plato, who attempted to provide a faithful picture of the methods and teachings of the master. However, these writings more often expressed philosophical positions developed by Plato long after Socrates' death. 

His philosophy

Socrates thought that one should never return injustice for injustice or harm for harm. He reasoned that there is no difference between doing an injustice to a person and harming the person. In Crito, he argued that, even though he may be wrongly convicted, he would not try to escape from prison since he would be unjustly breaking the laws of Athens.
However, what about when defending oneself from an attack. These actions may cause harm, but would they be just. Socrates had faced self-defense situations when he served as a foot soldier in the Athenian army, so it may be assumed he had to wound or kill the enemy at some point. How did he deal with this dilemma?

His thoughts on harm

It appears Socrates believed that his actions during the war did not cause harm to the enemy. He believed that physically preventing an attack from succeeding provided the attacker with a greater good by preserving the attacker's psyche and thus was ultimately not harmful to the attacker. It appears Socrates was trying to rationalize how his actions agreed with his beliefs.
Socrates' definition of harm is not easily discerned since he never defined it, so we must try to discern his definition from writings by others about his thoughts. In the Apology, when Socrates argues with Meletus about corrupting the young, Socrates states that bad people do harmful things to their closest neighbors and that no one wants to be injured. Socrates thinks that if he corrupts those around him, he will likely be harmed in return by those he corrupted. Therefore, since he does not want to be harmed, either he does not corrupt or, if he corrupts, he does it unwillingly.
In the Protagoras, Socrates suggests that one seeks the maximum amount of benefit with the minimum amount of harm and that no one willingly seeks harm. Also, when faced with the choice of two harms, Socrates argues that no one would choose the greater harm when he could choose the lesser.
In the Apology, Socrates claims that, if you kill him, you will injure yourself more than you will injure him. Socrates believed that nothing would injure him, for a bad man is not permitted to injure anyone better than himself.
Socrates did not deny that someone could kill him, but he believed that the greater harm would be to the killer for unjustly taking a man's life. According to Socrates, one who unjustly kills is harmed more than the person who is unjustly killed. According to Socratic doctrine, harm is something that fails to maximize one's happiness over a lifetime and that, until one’s life ends, one cannot judge whether something that occurred during one's lifetime was good or harmful.  
Socrates argues that knowledge and virtue are so closely related that no person ever knowingly does evil, that all people invariably do what they believe to be best. Therefore, improper conduct can only be a result of our ignorance rather than a symptom of the weakness of the will.
For Socrates, harm, to oneself or another, consists of a failure to maximize happiness over a lifetime, given the circumstances. Thus, if we are to determine whether something is harmful, we must compare all the possible options on our bodies and psyches to determine which actions fail to maximize happiness.
Since Socrates thought there is no difference between doing an injustice to a person and harming the person, how would Socrates' thoughts relate to self-defense? If you harm an attacker while physically defending yourself, is it an injustice, and do you harm an attacker by physically defending yourself?

Jainism and Socrates

Jainism is an Indian philosophy whose believers believe one should never use violence against another living creature, so they believe that physically defending oneself is harmful to the attacker. Applying Jainism reasoning to Socratic principles, we get:
  • Since the psyche is more important than the body, ruining the psyche by doing injustice is more harmful than ruining the body.
  • Defending yourself harms the attacker.
  • There is no difference between doing an injustice and doing harm.
  • Doing injustice to an attacker ruins my psyche, while not defending myself ruins my body.
  • Since no one wants to be harmed, I should not harm the attacker and thus preserve my psyche, even if it means sacrificing my body.
Since Socrates makes no differentiation between harm and injury, and since physically defending oneself would probably injure the attacker, it follows that physical defense would be harmful. Then Socrates, being opposed to harming another person, would be opposed to physically defending oneself.
As could be predicted, few people share Socrates’ principles of non-retaliation. Some of the most noted are Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King who are commonly supposed to have been against any use of physical force. 
A problem with supposing that Socrates' principles of non-retaliation are Jainism in nature is that, if Socrates believed that one should never use any physical force against another person, his actions as a foot soldier would seem to prove otherwise. In the Platonic corpus, Socrates is mentioned as distinguishing himself in the battles of Potidaea and Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades claims that, during the retreat from Delium, Socrates made it plain from quite a distance away that, if attacked, he would defend himself vigorously.
The Jainism interpretation of Socrates’ principles of non-retaliation does not conform to the facts about Socrates' life or his notion about what constitutes harm. For if Socrates were to endorse the Jainism interpretation, he would be compelled to repudiate his earlier service in the Athenian army, which he never did. Moreover, the Jainism interpretation appears to deny the Socratic account of harm by assuming that, in all circumstances of self-defense, one harms the attacker. Yet, if the attacker is facing the ruination of his psyche by committing an injustice, it is not at all clear that preventing him from doing so, even at the expense of injuring his body, is harming him.
Another view is that when one uses physical force against an unjust attacker, it is not considered harm since the force is just. This just force interpretation picks up where the Jainism interpretation runs into problems. It claims that when physically defending oneself, one is not harming the attacker, even when physically damaging the attacker, if the attacker is trying to commit an injustice or cause harm. Thus, one is not doing anything unjust by physically defending oneself, nor is one harming the attacker.
Two objections could be made against the claim that Socrates' actions would be inconsistent with his principles if he used physical force during the war. It could be argued that Socrates never actually had to fight to distinguish himself in war; he might have distinguished himself without fighting, such as by saving lives. However, if this were true, Laches would probably not have praised Socrates since, if other soldiers had behaved in this manner, the defeat of the enemy at Delium would have never occurred.
Socrates could have developed his belief that one should not use physical force after his military service ended. However, Socrates claimed to have held these principles for a long time. Alcibiades describes Socrates as a thoroughly ethical man long before they served at Delium.
One might ask; how can injuring an attacker not be harmful to him? To answer this, we must remember two things:
  • Although, if given the opportunity, Socrates would have preferred to convince an attacker that his attack was unjust in a self-defense situation, there are only two options: either defend yourself or suffer the unjust attack.
  • For Socrates, harm consists of comparing the various available options. Those options that fail to maximize a person's happiness over a lifetime are harms. 
Since Socrates believes that the psyche is more precious than the body, ruining one's psyche by doing injustice is worse than ruining the body. So, if it comes down to whether one should ruin an attacker’s body by injuring it or ruin an attacker’s psyche by doing an injustice, the harmful option is to not defend yourself and thus injure the attacker’s psyche.
Therefore, according to Socrates' theory of harm, if the attack is unjust, then physically wounding the attacker, perhaps even killing him, is not harmful since life is not worth living with a corrupt psyche. If one believes he is not doing anything unjust, it follows that he believes he is also not doing anything harmful.
Socrates thought that his physically engaging the enemy was unjust, but because he felt a stronger obligation to do as the state commanded, he did what he believed to be the lesser injustice. From the Apology, we see that Socrates believed that the dictates of the state do not take precedence over the dictates of justice. When commanded by the thirty tyrants to arrest Leon, Socrates disobeys, fails to explain his refusal to the tyrants, and simply goes home. However, he tells the jury that he did not arrest Leon because he believed it to be an unjust act and that "it mattered all the world to me that I should do nothing unjust or unholy."
However, there was a problem with his reasoning in that, given Thucydides[RH1] ' account of the origin the Peloponnesian War, there is some good evidence that the war was caused, in part, by Athens perpetuating aggression on her neighbors, thus breaking a peace treaty with Sparta. Therefore, it appears the war may have been unjust, and that Socrates may have fought on the unjust side of the war.
As a philosopher, Socrates philosophized, which pretty much means he spent his time coming up with reasons to justify his beliefs and behaviors. When attacked, a philosopher wants to defend himself against the attack, so he is not harmed, but when he also believes in non-violence–he is faced with a dilemma. To justify defending against the attack and possibly killing the attacker, the philosopher reasons that the attacker is better off dead than having to spend a lifetime feeling guilty about committing an injustice.
For the rest of us, self-defense is simple—if you attack us, we will defend ourselves—and, if you die in the process, too bad.


  • Butler. J. (2001). Socrates Defending Himself: Never Return Harm for Harm.
  • Kemerling, G. (2002). Philosophy Pages.  [Online]. Available: [2006, March 2].
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