Stoicism and Memorial Day (2021)

In the United States, military personnel who have died in the line of duty are commemorated on Memorial Day (May 31st).

This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on how one should place “duty”—the exercise of virtue in accordance with one’s role—above one’s life (which is merely a preferred indifference).

Also, if we visit gravesites and memorials,  this day gives us an extra opportunity to reflect on our shared mortality.

This is reminiscent of how we commemorate Socrates this month (May) and next (June) every year. He was himself a veteran of the Peloponnesian War, but it is clear that he believed his true duty consisted in urging his fellow Athenians to love wisdom and pursue virtue. Here is an excerpt from Socrates’s defense speech that he gave during his trial on May 16th, 399 BCE, in which he explained why he would not desist in his philosophical occupation:

“Men of Athens, I respect and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and while I live and am able to continue, I shall never give up philosophy or stop exhorting you and pointing out the truth to any one of you whom I may meet, saying in my accustomed way: “Most excellent man, are you who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” And if any of you argues the point, and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once, nor shall I go away, but I shall question and examine and cross-examine him, and if I find that he does not possess virtue, but says he does, I shall rebuke him for scorning the things that are of most importance and caring more for what is of less worth. This I shall do to whomever I meet, young and old, foreigner and citizen, but most to the citizens, inasmuch as you are more nearly related to me. For know that the god commands me to do this, and I believe that no greater good ever came to pass in the city than my service to the god. For I go about doing nothing else than urging you, young and old, not to care for your persons or your property more than for the perfection of your souls, or even so much; and I tell you that virtue does not come from money, but from virtue comes money and all other good things to man, both to the individual and to the state. If by saying these things I corrupt the youth, these things must be injurious; but if anyone asserts that I say other things than these, he says what is untrue”

Plato’s Apology of Socrates 29d-30b

Socrates was ultimately convicted of being an impious and corrupting influence. And his defiant tack seemed to have forced his prosecutors and jury to select the maximum sentence of death.

He was eventually killed on June 15th after 30 days in prison. Until his last hour, according to those who were present, he continued to “obey God” (you may read “obey Nature” or “obey Reason”) and continued to carry out his “service” by talking about virtue with his friends (see Plato’s Phaedo). Thus, he did not die a veteran but in active service, which is why I think it especially appropriate to remember him this time of year.

I hope this inspires you to spend time reflecting on your own duty and mortality by reading accounts of these discussions here:

—Justin K.


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