Fall 2009

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.

1The word “sophist”—in Greek, σοφιστής, from σοφός, “wise”—literally means “wise man,” or “expert,” “master in one’s craft.” The word was used as aname for those who began the practice of traveling around Greece as teachers, which began in the fifth century. These men would charge students for courses, or at greater cost, for a period of time to spend in their company as “associates.” The prices were generally very high—a standard rate for a course seems to have been about 30 minae: a mina was worth 100 drachmas and a drachma was a standard daily wage in fifth-century Athens—and the sophists subsequently became exceedingly wealthy. They were generally known by name throughout Greece, though they had an ambiguous reputation more or less from the start. To capture the ambiguity, we might translate the Greek term as “wise guy.”

2Apology (=Ap.), 20c–21a. All quotations of Plato’s dialogues in translation are taken from Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Bloomington: Hackett, 1997), except for The Republic (=Rep.). Quotations from this work are taken from The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

3Plato mentions the connection, for example, in the following places: Laches 186c; Meno 91b; Protagoras 310d, 313c, 349a; Gorgias, 519c–d; Greater Hippias, 281b–283b; Sophist 223a, 224c, 226a.