Fall 2009

Why Socrates Didn’t Charge: Plato and the Metaphysics of Money

D.C. Schindler

2. The ontological meaning of money

The danger of the love of money is a common theme in ancient Greek literature;4 when Plato identifies it as a problem in his discussion of justice and the nature of the city and the soul in the Republic, he is thus giving expression to a familiar concern. The question, however, is: precisely what sort of problem does the love of money pose? We would normally think that this is basically a moral issue: we assume the problem has little to do with the nature of money, but only with the way we relate to it. In other words, we take for granted that, while money in itself is good, or at least neutral, and a necessity for life in community of a certain size, people need to learn to moderate their desire for it so that it does not lead to a willingness to do unlawful or unethical things for profit. But the question of money has a different profile in Plato’s philosophy. Moral questions, for him, always turn out to be epistemological questions, which in turn are determined by ontological or metaphysical realities.5 In Plato’s understanding, the way one acts (virtue) is inevitably a function of what one takes to be real (knowledge), which depends on the various ways reality can present itself—and vice versa. Before we ask how money ought to be used, it is necessary to ask the more fundamental question what it is. We would suggest that what Plato contributes to the ancient moral tradition regarding money is to reveal that the question at stake here lies deeper than the attitudes of particular individuals: it is first a question of order, and thus a metaphysical question. To show this, we need to explore what Plato says about money within the context of his broader philosophy.

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4See Malcolm Schofield’s discussion of this theme in Plato: Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 251–53.

5In his classic study, A History of Greek Economic Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916), Albert Trever writes: “Plato was the first great economic thinker of Greece. Plato, however, was primarily interested in neither economics nor politics, but in moral idealism. . . . All his economic thought is a direct outgrowth of it, and is shot through with its influence” (22). This judgment requires qualification, however: it would be truer to say that “moral idealism,” too, was not Plato’s primary interest, but rather an implication of his most basic interest, namely, metaphysics.