The Xanthippe, Part 3

Part III

Socrates:  Well then, Xanthippe, now  that we have silenced this childish ruffian--would that we could do the same to Anna and all her teachers and disciples--we can talk like adults.  We are not random strangers, we Athenians, but fellow citizens in a commonwealth founded by the goddess Athena and the earthborn king  Erechtheus and unified by Poseidon's son, the hero Theseus.  The bones of heroes are buried on our territory, and their spirits and the ghosts of our ancestors watch over us, but more important than these heroes and ghosts are the nomoi, the traditional laws and customs that preside over our marriages and births and the rearing and education of our children.  They make us who we are, and without them we are mere beasts--as this young hooligan would like to be.  Everyone, even a Scythian slave, has some dim awareness of this, as he dreams of returning home to see his mother once again before he dies.  These sophists, who prate about being individuals--these little professors sponging off the city and pretending to a wisdom they shall never have--they think that by denying the obvious, they are being clever.  Why not tell people to fertilize their fields with  wine and oil and grain and save the horse manure for the table?

As rational people we start, not with some wild speculation, but with what we know to be true and then proceed to extrapolate from the known.  Any man that denies the bonds of loyalty to family, kin, and country, is not only a fool, but no man at all.  In uttering such inanities, he excludes himself from civilized discourse.  If some day the Nomoi of Athens should tell me, through the mouths of a jury, that I must die for the crime of turning out students like this one here, then I shall go to my death, cheerful in the knowledge of my own innocence and happy in obedience to my people and their laws.

Xanthippe:  So, the commonwealth makes the citizens and not the citizens the commonwealth.  Does this mean, dear husband, that you agree with me and are now saying that the bailout is right and proper?

Socrates: By no means, my dear wife.  We have only established two basic principles so far, and we are a long way from any conclusion.

Xanthippe:  What principles are those?

Socrates: First, that a moral obligation to a group of people does not necessarily entail a political obligation, and, second, that our moral obligations cannot be reduced to this foolish and self-refuting theory of "subjective value."

Pheidippides:  For the sake of argument--and keeping what teeth remain to me--I'll concede 'foolish,' oh gentle teacher, but why self-refuting?

Socrates:  Did it never occur to you or to your mentor Anna  that the theory must be applied to the theory itself, that is, that subjective value is simply a subjective value to you but not necessarily to anyone else.  Since I don't accept this theory or any other similar theory [here Socrates, by divine intuition, is rejecting Kant's Categorical Imperative], then I could proceed to agree with my failed student Critias, namely, that I can do with you exactly what I want--I'm thinking of chopping you up and using you for fishbait:  You're more like a worm than a philosopher.

Pheidippides:  But wait, oh wise and noble teacher, there is another principle we students of Anna adhere to, and this one you will surely agree with:  that it is always wrong to commit aggression. Since no one wants to be attacked, he should not attack.

Socrates: I by no means do agree, and you cannot really believe in such a principle.  Your theory excludes anything of the kind.  Non-aggression is just another one of your subjective values, which Critias and I don't accept.  If all values are simply subjective, then so is the value of non-aggression.  Sorry, you're fishbait.  Now, then, back to the bailout.  What would you say, then, Xanthippe, do we Athenians as a people and as a city have an obligation to protect all businessmen and their employees from the consequences of bad decisions?

Pheidippides, breaking in: No, people enter the marketplace to buy and sell, and the system only works if poor businessmen are allowed to fail and good ones prosper.

Socrates:  Pheidippides, at last, has contributed something to the discussion, even if it comes from the Phoenician they call Redbeard.  He is an honest man and, despite his ancestry, a gentleman.  Yes, we can certainly accept his principle that buying and selling operate like the laws of arithmetic.  You make a better product, more people want it, scarcity ensues, the prices goes up, and the  producer makes more money and in his affluence is able to hire workers and contribute to the city.  These laws of his are very much like the laws of nature--right, Pheidippides?

Pheidippides:  Yes, Socrates, and they cannot be infringed.

Socrates:  Not infringed?  You mean cannot be infringed without some damage.   For example, we know that if we jump out the window we shall fall to the ground, possibly hurting ourselves.

Pheidippides: Yes, Socrates.

Socrates:  But suppose we are being attacked by a man who intends to rob us?  Should we not then be justified in jumping out the window, even at the risk of breaking a leg?

Pheidippides:  I suppose so, but what does this have to do with what we could call the law of supply and demand?

Socrates:  Simply this:  These natural laws of the market place--if only Greek had some word for them--are simply the way things are, but, on the other hand, we might conceivably wish to break them for a higher reason.  For example, Athenians make the best pots in the world, but they are costly as well as beautiful.  Suppose some Phoenician bought a load of cheap Etruscan pottery and brought it to the Piraeus, where they sold so well he hurt the business of the potters whom future races will celebrate as one of the glories of Athens.

Pheidippides:  Tough luck, Socrates.  If people want cheap, they should be able to buy cheap.

Socrates: Why, Pheidippides?

Pheidippides:  Why, because...because... because...

Socrates:  Because we have a right to buy at the cheapest price?

Pheidippides:  That’s it exactly.

Socrates:  Where does this right come from, in your philosophy?  Wouldn't a rugged individualist like you say, instead, that if the potters were strong and could drive the Phoenician out of the market place, they would be doing a smart thing?

Pheidippides:  But that would not be fair.

Socrates:  Fair?  Where does an egotist get off talking about fairness?  We are talking now about power, not justice.  What you really mean to say is that while I may like the amphoras painted by Euphorion, you like cheap junk well enough to be satisfied with it so you can save your money to spend on little boys.  We've been through all that.  Perhaps my slave boys did not explain it clearly enough?

Pheidippides:  Why do we always have to go back to threats?  Don't you have any arguments?"

Socrates:  My dear Pheidippides, what you don't understand is that I am using your own arguments--or rather those of your demented masters.  If there are no standards of the beautiful and the ugly, the virtuous and the vicious, the just and the unjust, then we are left only with the law of tooth and claw.  So, to return to the point:  The laws of the market tell us what price we shall have to pay if we increase tariffs or ban some imported gods  or give public money to the cartmakers, but like other natural laws they cannot tell us what we ought to do on any occasion.  The fact that water flows down hill does not mean that we should be wrong to row upstream, if that were the direction we wished to go.

Pheidippides:  I suppose not, Socrates.

Socrates:  “Suppose not” will have to do for the moment, but you still think it is wrong to spend money on potters or cartmakers.

Pheidippides:  I do.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    I really have enjoyed every episode of The Xanthippe and hope you will put them together as a book, “Servility Revisited.” or a movie called, “A Conversation against Destroyers.” Its a natural form for you too after years of editing and refereeing various shouts into the night for help from every drowning ideologue known to man. Also your experience between the feminine and masculine advantages of seeing things is quite humorous and it is just overall pretty damned good reading in my opinion.

  2. Dot says:

    Socrates had such an exceedingly high opinion of himself that he refuted any and all arguments and opinions put to him. There was no opinion but his. Humility was not one of his qualities. He was earthbound to his gods and could not recognize that the universe exhibits a quality of Godness – a Supreme Being.

    Marcus Aurelius was a better philosopher who recognized that life was opinion and that there was a daemon or God who was in control. His Meditations should be better known.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Dot, I can understand why such an opinion of Socrates might be entertained, but please remember that his proudest boast was that he only knew that he knew nothing. I have mostly been a critic of Socrates as teacher, and it is admittedly, from the historical evidence, difficult to grapple with so complex a character, but both in living and in reading I think it is valuable to begin by accepting people as they are, without bestowing prejudicial epithets, and then try to figure out the implications. Let us assume for the moment that the Platonic version of Socrates is some part of the man’s reality. Is it really arrogant to value reality–perhaps a better translation of the Greek and Latin words we generally render as “truth”–so highly that you will spend all your time grappling with it by means of a difficult dialectical process? People who cherish the opinions they have borrowed from others as some ultimate truth they have come up will of course be angry and want to put such a man to death–or at least get him dismissed from his job.

    Marcus was a wonderful and insightful philosophical essayist, but he picked and chose from the Stoics and others and contributed very little that was original. That most of life is mere doxa–a word that means, variously, opinion, appearance, and illusion–was something acknowledged by thinkers as early as Heraclitus, from whom Marcus’s Stoic mentors borrowed much. If life really were nothing but opinion or Maya–which Marcus certainly did not believe–then rational discourse would be a waste of time.

  4. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming: “but please remember that his proudest boast was that he only knew that he knew nothing.” That is precisely the problem I have with him. He boasts that he knows nothing and then proceeds to nail down anyone who disagrees with him. It’s best that I ignore him.

  5. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming:
    In this piece I do agree with Socrates. However, in paragraph or conversation line #17 he states, “suppose some Phoeneician bought a load of cheap Etruscan pottery and brought it to the Piraeus, where they sold so well he hurt the business of the potters whom future races will celebrate as one of the glories. of Athens.”

    “Tough luck, Socrates”, Pheidippides replies. “If people want cheap, they should be able to buy cheap.”

    Here I am thinking of. I think, the 19th century in New York – in the garment district. There expensive clothing was made for those who could afford them. Then someone got the idea of creating similar but less expensive clothing on a mass market scale. This idea was well received and the business of copying fashions similar to expensive clothing of the wealthy was created. At that time though there probably were no copyright laws.

    How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis; Men at Work by Lewis W. Hine; and New York in the Forties by Andreas Feininger, text by John Von Hartz – all from Dover Publishing Co. show photographs of how New York used to be. Great books for a glimpse of the past.