The Xanthippe, Part 3
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.