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

D. C. Schindler

“Money has the whole of its truth in being a symbol of the soul’s adherence to the good. It is meant, above all, to be a ‘reminder’ to those who are wealthy in a true sense.”

“[M]oney as such is the most terrible destroyer of form.”
—Georg Simmel

1. Socrates’ defense

After laying out the charges entailed in the old rumors about him, which had been circulating in Athens and which he took to be the most fundamental reason he found himself in court, the first claim Socrates makes in response is that he has never undertaken to teach anyone anything for a fee. The exchange of money was not mentioned in the charges, and yet Socrates took it to be the most directly pertinent fact in his defense. To say that he has never received money is to distinguish himself from a fairly novel group of men in Greek history about whom the Athenians were rather ambivalent: the sophists.1 At the same time, the claim required Socrates to provide an alternative account of the reasons for his actions. As is well-known, Socrates explains that the Oracle at Delphi had revealed to an acquaintance of his that Socrates was the wisest man of all, and he took the revelation as a divine injunction to spend the rest of his life bearing witness to this wisdom precisely by constantly testing it, and thereby deflating the false claims to wisdom of others.2

There are two points to note here that in fact converge into one, which will be the primary point explored in the present essay. In the first place, Socrates’ claim about his own motivation implies that there is a connection between sophistry and money-making. While this implication may not strike one as a great revelation, given that it is a regular and well-known theme in Plato’s dialogues,3 we intend to argue that the connection is more essential than typically realized, and that understanding the connection reveals something in turn about the nature of both sophistry and money. Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, Socrates’ approach to the charges suggests an intriguing either-or: money would have been sufficient to explain his activity, so that its removal as a cause requires something else, in this case a reference to “the god at Delphi.” To put it over-simply, money and God appear as competitors for the role of the good that is adequate to explain human behavior. When St. Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil, it would seem that he is echoing a Platonic insight. Our aim in the following is to understand what it is about the nature, the inner logic, of money that inclines it to usurp the divine throne, to see precisely how the question concerning the ultimate end of action serves to distinguish the philosopher from the sophist, and then to consider what a healthy love of money would be. As we will see, Plato’s interpretation of the significance of money concerns not just teaching, but in fact all human activities.

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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