The Xanthippe, Part 5

In the last installment we heard Xanthippe as she refuted Plato's argument for a society run by experts

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!

Part 5

Xanthippe:  And you think the same argument doesn't apply to you?

Pheidippides:  Not me, I believe in free markets, remember?

Xanthippe: I don't want to go through all of this again with you, but if I did we would reach the point where you would say that we should have one market, with no distinctions between China and Athens, and to keep the markets free, there would have to be another set of market-experts, every bit as tyrannical as Plato's, and we'd all be slaves in your silver mines.  I didn't think I had to spell it out for you.

Socrates: Well, Xanthippe, this is a bit far-fetched and a long way round to say what I was about to say when you interrupted me, namely, that we have reached an impasse.  It seems that we may neither ignore our fellow-man nor rule him.  That is what comes of dividing a problem up and following each strand until we reach contradictory conclusions.  It seems we can conclude nothing.  I sometimes wonder why I bother with this philosophizing.  So, then, either we help no one or we  have to help everyone.  Is that where we are?

Xanthippe:  I don't think it is that simple.  Suppose, for example, that one cartmaker was a hardworking honest man, but his business was ruined by the demagogues in the Assembly.  Maybe they taxed him too much or allowed the Phoenicians to flood the market or perhaps they started a war that cost so much that no one had enough money to buy a cart.  It would not be fair, would it, to treat this honest man in the same way we would treat a lazy and dishonest businessman who squandered his money on fast horses and faster women.

Socrates: But, Xanthippe, suppose I agreed--what then?  If Athens gives money to the cartmakers, won't the city end up owning their businesses, at least as a partner? And, we have already established that politicians--even Plato's experts--should not run the market.  And we are going to do this, for exactly what purpose or reason?  So their slaves can live high on the hog?

Xanthippe:  Let us set aside the question of the slaves, but what about the free workers?  Should they be ruined and reduced to begging or to selling themselves into slavery in some foreign place, simply because the manufacturers or the politicians made bad decisions?

Socrates: But you said earlier, they were overpaid....

Pheidippides:  They certainly are, the worthless scum...

Xanthippe:  Too much?  According to whose philosophy?  It is one thing for Plato make an argument but not you.

Pheidippides:  What do you mean Xanthippe:  Look, Plato here would say there is a perfect right or wrong in every human transaction--right, Plato?

Plato:  Yes, of course.  It's a bit like math or geometry, where there is only one right answer.

Xanthippe:  Then, it should be possible to calculate, in a rough way, what a good general is worth, or a skilled potter, or a craftsman who makes wheels.

Plato: Yes, of course.  I don't say that I can come up with the exact numbers today, but let us say the manual laborer should earn enough to feed a wife and children but not enough to waste on trips to the Olympic Games or on buying a chariot or two of his own.  Base men of this type, if they have too much money or too much leisure, can only hurt themselves, because they are not morally free

Xanthippe: I wonder if you would be so glib about the way poor people waste money, if your own family were not so rich?  Any way, I grant you the point.  It is better for men without higher interests to work hard every day and only enjoy enough leisure to take part in religious festivals and family gatherings.  Watching athletic contests or buying expensive clothing and carts only degrades them.  At any rate, Pheidippides, that argument is natural to Plato, who believes in universal principles of justice, but surely you don't think that you can say there is such a thing as a just price or a fair wage!

Phedippides:  Certainly not.  Since it is every man for himself, the employer is entitled to pay as little as he can get away with, even if his workmen's wives have to take in laundry to afford bread and oil.

Xanthippe: As little, but also as much as the employees can force him to pay?

Pheidippides: Well, I suppose so.

Xanthippe: So, if the cartmakers, for whatever reason, have agreed to pay those exorbitant salaries, you cannot blame anyone or say it is unfair.  It's just the way the market works, and there is no right and wrong in the market, which is a force of nature.

Pheidippides: But what about this?  Skilled carpenters and wheelwrights are in short supply.  What if they formed a conspiracy to keep wages high, by walking off the job, just when a big order came in? This way they would unfairly extort higher pay from their employers.

Xanthippe: That's just the way the market works...

Pheidippides:  But what if the Assembly  sided with the employees, who may have bribed the politicians?

Xanthippe: That's just the way the market works.

Pheidippides:  But what if...

Xanthippe: That's just the way the market works.

Pheidippides:  You don’t even let me offer any scenario, no matter how preposterous.  What if the employees bribed and threatened the politicians into taking care of them and their families from the cradle to the grave—don’t say it!  All right, I get your point.  You want me to say that in the absence of an external standard of right and wrong, people--employers and employees, buyers and sellers--can do anything they can get away with because the market is, like money itself, amoral.  It doesn't matter how you make money, so long as you don't get caught stealing or selling your body, because money is money and you can spend it on anything you like.

Xanthippe: Exactly.  No one who believes only in the Free Market can believe even in that, because the Market has no means of justifying its existence.  If I were a businessmen and could gain control over the entire market, my rivals--who failed to stop me or create their own monopoly--could hardly cry "foul," because there is no such thing as fair. Yes, I know they always talk about fair play and honest deals, but that is because we are Greeks, not savages, and the gods have taught us rules of right and wrong that these marketeers appeal to.  They may even believe them, but they are inconsistent with with your basic principle, Pheidippides, and, for the most part, with theirs.

Socrates:  Well, I see we have reached another impasse, Xanthippe.  You are truly my wife and have really been listening all those years when you were saying, "Yes, dear" just to shut me up.  What shall we do about those cartmakers, then, flip a coin?

Xanthippe:  To tell the truth, my dear husband, I don't really care very much about them one way or the other--

Pheidippides:  Amen to that, it's every man and every woman for himself!--

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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

3 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    There currently is an impasse in the Legislature of my State on the transgender issue – that a male can go into a female locker room because he thinks he is a female. The suggestion in today’s paper is that there should be a compromise. The concern is that my State’s economy would suffer as several companies and professional sports have threatened to boycott the State over this issue.

    According to Plato, there is either a right or a wrong.

    Xanthippe is less exact, suggesting the possibility of calculating the general worth of an individual. She is willing to accept a case of “an external standard of right and wrong, … because the market is, like money itself, amoral. Her way of thinking can justify wrongs.

    There should not have to be an external standard of right and wrong because right and wrong is built into our conscience. There are some who defy that and many who agree or who have no opinion. They are boisterous enough to change the culture and take down the country.

    Regarding the transgender issue, nature follows a certain path. A lilac bush doesn’t grow into a maple tree. Man’s XY chromosome doesn’t change into the female XX chromosome because the male wills it.

    For a male or female to believe the opposite is rationalizing a lie for the truth. For the believing public to accept this lie or not care as did is accepting a lie.

    Plato is right. Things are either right or wrong. There is no compromise. A compromise to satisfy both parties is accepting a half truth. A half truth is always a lie. There is no half truth. Thing is, who cares?

  2. Dot says:

    Correction: In the second to last paragraph the last sentence should read “as did Xanthippe…”.

  3. Joshua Smith says:

    I had fun read all five of these in character voices to my wife and oldest daughter yesterday.
    Gave Socrates a NYC accent, Pheidippides was a dope,
    Plato was full of smarmy confidence. I do Xanthippe a disservice because the only female voice I can muster sounds more unintelligent than she deserves in the monk translator’s telling.