The Xanthippe, Part 4: The Tyranny of Expertise

Socrates:  Then where does this leave us?

Xanthippe:  Why ask me?  You're the philosopher in the family.  I have no idea where we are or even when we are.  Can this really be  Athens in the archonship of Diocles?

Socrates: But even if you don’t know the time of day, you know where we stand in the argument.  First, we are agreed that Pheidippides' philosophy, which he got third hand from the Scythian she-wolf, is false. We cannot simply dismiss our obligation to fellow-citizens by saying that everyone is master of himself.

Xanthippe: :  Certainly we cannot.

Socrates: So we have to have some concern for the fate of the cartmakers, even if they live in far off Peiraeus.

Xanthippe:  Yes.

Socrates: Because if we rejected them, we would proceed to reject our neighbors, our kinsmen, our children, and even-though it is monstrous to say--our parents?

Xanthippe: Yes again.

But we also had to conclude that Plato was wrong, more wrong in some ways even than Pheidippides?


Socrates:  Because there are no experts to whom we could safely entrust our fortunes, much less our families?

Xanthippe:  Yes, Socrates, but it occurs to me that there is another reason.

Socrates:  Another reason?  You surprise me with your "reasons."

Xanthippe:  Well, if we do to Plato's argument what we did to Pheidippides'--

Socrates:  You mean, extrapolate the consequences?

Xanthippe: Yes, but in reverse..

Socrates:  I don't follow you.

Xanthippe:  It's easy.  Imagine we had a set of experts to run all the business in Athens, why should we stop there?

Socrates: Why indeed?

Xanthippe: Perhaps I should let  Plato answer this.  Listen, my young idealist, you think Pheidippides is wrong in saying, "every man for himself"?

Plato: You know I do.

Xanthippe: But would you also say he is wrong in treating people as interchangeable parts in the city?

Plato: Yes, because my experts are unique and cannot be replaced by common people.

Xanthippe: But the others, the cud-chewing members of the common herd?

Plato; Oh yes, they are more or less the same.

Xanthippe:  Even though some are strong, others weak, some are handsome others ugly, some are rich and others poor...?

Plato Those are trivial differences.

Xanthippe:  ...though some are neighbors, while others live in the Peiraeus.

Plato:  --A geographical accident--

Xanthippe: Some are cousins, others unrelated...

Plato:--Another accident:  All that matters is whether they are good or not.

Xanthippe:  And you would say only the experts are good?

Plato: Yes, of course, because they have reasoned their way to the basic principles of virtue.  The rest, even the best of them, do not think, and so, while they may appear to be virtuous, they are only accidentally good out of habit or fear.  True goodness can only come from the process of sifting good and evil that we are now engaged in.

Xanthippe: So you would admit that I might be good?

Plato:  I suppose so.

Xanthippe: And I might even become an expert, suppose I could have started my education early enough.

Plato:  Yes, you might indeed.

Socrates:  Good grief, Plato, what's next?  Running Xanthippe for strategos?

Xanthippe: I'm flattered, my young champion, but that is not my point.  If neither sex nor age, beauty nor strength nor kinship matter, why should citizenship matter?

Plato: It should not Xanthippe: Then there is no reason why our experts should not also rule, say, Megara--the Megarians are such troublesome neighbors..?

Plato: None indeed.

Xanthippe: Or Thebes?

Plato: Why not?

Xanthippe: Or Sparta or the Ionians or the Persians or even the yellow-skinned silk-makers who are said to live on the other side of the earth?

Plato.  Perhaps not, but there would be practical problems.  The experts couldn't be everywhere at the same time or know all the different languages or understand the different locales.  You know Hippocrates claims that different climates produce different temperaments and different diseases.

Xanthippe:: But all those obstacles could be overcome.

Plato:  How Xanthippe: For one thing, the experts have an army and they could force everyone to speak Attic Greek and adopt our customs.  Then, too, they could appoint junior experts in every place, apprentices who would be loyal because some day they would hope to become senior experts and rule the world.

Plato: That would help of course, but there would still be the problem of communication.  If the experts were in Athens, it would take weeks to get the news from Susa or Carthage Xanthippe: But, since we are only dreaming--and a pretty ugly dream it is too--we could imagine that the experts had a flock of winged messengers--little Hermeses--flitting back and forth.

Plato: Yes, but how would our experts sift through and arrange all the bits of information Xanthippe:  You're a clever boy, Plato.  You could create your own mechanical Zeus, who would know all the things you put into " the tablets of his diaphragm," and he would sort and pull out everything you needed,  whenever  you asked him a question.

Plato: What a brilliant concept!  It’s impossible today, but imagine some mechanical genius could invent such a device.  With this SuperZeus and flocks of little Hermeses, why a very few people could rule the entire world.

Xanthippe:  That, Socrates, is what I was getting at by by reverse--what did you call it?

Socrates:  Extrapolation, but what is this "what" you are speaking of?

Xanthippe: Do you really want to live in a world made in the image of Plato and run by his mirror-images.  We should all be slaves or those mechanical servants that waited on King Alcinous in Phaeacia.  Surely, you remember the Odyssey ?

Pheidippides:  That's giving it to him, auntie!

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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

2 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    How I interpret this conversation is that, in addition to Socrates’s philosophy that “We cannot simply dismiss our obligation to fellow-citizens by saying that everyone is master of himself”, another philosophy is evolving in which “experts” cannot be replaced by the common man because only the experts have “expertise”. This way of thinking and doing is the tyranny.
    Socrates doesn’t understand this “what” that is evolving.
    The what that is evolving are the technological devices that now engulf the world – the computer, the I-pad, the I-phone, tablets- all good but with potential and real deadly consequences. This is the “Super Zeus with flocks of little Hermeses”. This is the “Tyranny of Expertise”. With these devices experts become technicians – for good and deadly purposes.
    The Socrates’s of the day are receding into the past. We are living in a dangerous world.

  2. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Well, we may be slaves, but we will not be wage slaves. According to a 15 minute video I recently viewed, most human labor will be replaced by robots. In fact, that has largely occurred and is accelerating.