Xanthippe: The Thrilling Conclusion

Socrates and Xanthippe have been discussing a proposed bailout of the cartmakers in the Peiraeus.  They are joined by a very young Plato and  Pheidippides, the dissolute son of Strepsiades, who sent him to study in order to find out how to evade his debts.

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.  It seems that the two conclusions we have reached contradict each other. 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!–

Xanthippe: But, I just don’t like the way these smart-alecks like Pheidippides talk.  They always say they believe in  the free market, but when’s the last time you saw one of them actually working for a living?  Most of them I know are sponging off some rich man who pays them to corrupt his sons or else they are picking up money by serving on a jury.  Why doesn’t Pheidippides go out and start a business instead of talking all day about the virtues of selfishness?  To me they seem like the worst parasites, because they not only do nothing but are forever trumpeting the glory of the work they never seem to do.  Then, too, they talk about liberty, but when they are caught with another man’s wife–or more likely his son–they are the first to scream for help and demand government protection.  Thank the gods, here in Athens a seducer can still be killed.  Anyway, what offends me most is the way they talk about not owing anything to anyone–as if they made themselves and did not depend on parents, family, friends, and the city for everything they have and everything they are.

Still, there is no need to side with the cartmakers, just because Pheidippides is a punk.  On the other hand, there is my sister’s husband, you know,  Harmatocles?  He has a small chariot shop in the Peiraeus with one or two free helpers and a half dozen slaves.  He works right there in the shop all day, but they are barely scraping by.  I don’t know what’s to become of them.

Socrates:  Do you think it is fair that other people, who may make even less money–us. for example?–should buy  their food?

Xanthippe: No, I don’t, though we would certainly do what we can to help, if he goes broke.  But isn’t all of Athens like a family?

Socrates: In one way, yes, but in other ways, no.  We are like a family in that we owe to our fellow-Athenians what we do not owe to anyone else, but we are not like a family in that we owe to our kinsmen far more than we owe to just any Athenian.

Xanthippe:  So, if a starving Athenian and a starving Megarian–both of them strangers to us–came to the door begging for food, and we only had enough for one, we would give it to the Athenian?

Socrates:  Yes.

Xanthippe: Even if we thought the Megarian deserved it more?

Socrates:  Personal merit would certainly be a factor, but you just said they were strangers.  We are not savages like Pheidippides, and so we do not think we can reduce moral life to a single rule or set of rules. Obviously, kinship, citizenship, and virtue would all go into a decision.  However, in most cases virtue would not trump kinship, especially close kinship, though I can imagine giving money to a stranger before giving it to your brother’s son, a perfectly useless excuse for an Athenian.

Xanthippe:  Would we also, Socrates, distinguish between productive citizens who make carts or wine and the money-lenders who try to breed wealth out of wealth–an unnatural act–without actually making anything?  (The Greek for interest, tokos, is the same word as progeny.)

Socrates:  Yes, Xanthippe, we would.

Pheidippides:  Let’s not get too high and mighty against the money-changers and money-lenders.  Before too long you’ll be kicking them off the slope of the Acropolis, lest they pollute the Virgin Athena.  Your brother-in-law, Xanthippe–what’s his name, Harmatocles?–where did a bum like him get the dough to start up his shop?

Xanthippe:  He borrowed it from Pasion.

Pheidippides:  Has he ever complained about paying the interest?

Xanthippe:  No, he was glad to get the money, and Pasion gave him a lower rate, because Harmatocles is an honest man and there was not too much risk involved.

Plato and Socrates together: But, surely, Pheidippides, you would agree that only a base sort of person would engage in this business?  The executioner and the ragpicker both perform useful functions, but you would not invite them to dinner, would you?

Pheidippides:  You may think I’m crazy, but I am a gentleman, after all, and my mother’s family were all knights.  But what’s respectability got to do with it?

Xanthippe:  Nothing, I suppose, but couldn’t we distinguish between men like Pasion who help businesses to start up and the money-changers who speculate on changing rates and get rich off people’s misfortunes?

Pheidippides:  Someone’s got to change the money for foreign merchants.

Xanthippe:  Yes, but now we are talking about who deserves a handout from the city.  What I am wondering is this:  As a people, don’t we owe something to every Athenian?

Socrates:  Theoretically yes, but we discharge that obligation by paying our market tolls, serving in the army and discharging other offices, in other words in doing our duty as citizens.  If you want the city treasury to bail out Harmatocles and his colleagues, you have to ask where the money is going to come from, or rather, what do we take it away from?  The war-chest?  The Panathenaic festival?  Completing the Parthenon or Erechtheum?  Even an empire has a limited supply of gold, and paying the cartmakers–however positive we expect the outcome to be–means taking it away from something we are already committed to.  The alternative would be to adulterate our coinage, which causes prices to rise.

Xanthippe:  But Socrates, Athens is the most powerful city in Greece.  Why couldn’t we just coin drachmas out of copper and say they had to be used as legal tender for all debts public and private?

Socrates: And if someone refused to accept our fiat drachma..?

Xanthippe:  The city could fine them heavily or exile them..

Plato:  What an excellent idea!  Why shouldn’t a commonwealth be able to declare what is valuable and what is not?

Socrates:  Do you see why not, Xanthippe?

Xanthippe:  You mean because then the city would in fact own everything, at least potentially?  After all, if I could tell the wine and oil merchant he had to accept some piece of worthless papyrus instead of money, then I could buy out his whole stock for nothing.

Socrates:  Yes, and if he refused, you could put him on trial for treason.

Xanthippe:  But what does this have to do with helping the cartmakers?

Socrates:  Nothing or perhaps everything.  You are asking the city to spend money it doesn’t have.  This means we have to make the city’s rulers into  tyrants who rule not according to law and custom but in the best interests of the citizens.  Is that what you want?

Xanthippe:  Certainly not.  So what you are saying is that while we as citizens have obligations to each other, the city itself has to play be a set of rules we have inherited from our ancestors and agreed to our whole life.  Well, then, what about Pericles, who made cushy offers to Ionian businessmen to come here and establish factories.  Was Pericles a tyrant, and if he was not, then couldn’t we consider a bailout to be nothing more than an extension of his policy?

Socrates:  Well, Xanthippe, as I think you know, I am no great admirer of Pericles.  Do you remember me telling you some of what Thucydides told me, after he was exiled and I ran into him somewhere?  He said “They call it democracy when it is really the rule of one man.”

Xanthippe:  Well, suppose you and that Thucydides are right?  That is not the common opinion, and so Pericles’ policies might be the foundation for a better set of policies aimed not at helping foreigners but at rescuing our own people?

Socrates:  All right, so it is theoretically true.  Once a bad government embarks on a foolish or even a wicked course of action, it sets a precedent for future follies.  But we are in the midst of a war, Xanthippe, and the city has countless obligations to my friends the stone-cutters.  In practical terms, we would be bankrupting the city–or continuing the process of bankruptcy started by Pericles.  Besides, do you really want to put the generals and archons in a position of spending so much of what is, after all, our money?  Plato here would say the people’s money should be spent for the common good, while Pheidippes would insist that he doesn’t want his taxes to go up.  Really, you have to pick the one or the other point of view and stick to it.

Xanthippe:  When Pericles invited Cephalus of Syracuse–a friend of yours I believe–to set up shop in Athens, it was because he manufactured arms that Pericles knew would be needed in war.  What if the army needed transport wagons and the cartmakers were out of business.

Socrates:  We could just import them from foreigners who knew how to make less costly wagons and had stayed in business.

Xanthippe: But what if, say, the best shops were in Syracuse, and we were at war with Syracuse?

Socrates:  How you talk, Xanthippe!  The Athenian people are too wise to listen to those trouble-makers from Segesta who keep on promising gold if we go to Sicily.

Xanthippe:  How you talk, Socrates!  You are the one who is always telling us that democracy can never work because the mass of people are as stupid as they are greedy.  Besides, what if the Spartans and Corinthians could blockade our ports, and we could get neither wagons nor arms?

Socrates:  You have a point.  Even if this war with Sparta is our own fault, as I believe it to be, it is our duty to fight for our country and to take steps to prevent our land from being conquered.  So, if it is an issue of “national defense,” what should we do?

Plato:  Obviously, the city should take over all the industries related to defense, including the makers of carts and clothing and the producers of oil and wine that will be needed on campaign.

Pheidippides: Obviously, that is stupid because we can all move somewhere else–I hear Thurii is hospitable to free-market individualists like me.  But even if I agreed that it is more prudent to defend the city I live in before seeking a better one where I can make more money, I would still say Plato’s idea is stupid, because  Athens does not know run a business.  Remember the corruption in all those Parthenon contracts?  And in that case Pheidias was simply hiring contractors and shops, not directly managing the projects.  If you think fiat drachmas is a bad idea, just wait until the government can create fiat businesses.  Let’s just take Plato’s point about feeding the army.  Why do you think this cannot be done in the usual way by private businesses?

Plato:  Because businessmen are greedy and corrupt?

Pheidippides:  More greedy and corrupt than politicians?  Come on!  Involving politicians just insures a nother level of corruption.  You  must have  a better reason than this.

Plato:  Well, in an emergency, it is more efficient to have one or two people directing a business than a whole flock of quarreling craftsmen and merchants.  This way we insure a supply of food.

Pheidippides:  Tell me, Plato, do the Athenians eat every day?

Plato:  Yes, they do, except for the occasional famine when the grain ships from the Black Sea get held up.

Pheidippides:  And how does this happen?  Is there some boss who sets it all up with his SuperZeus or is it just that flock of quarreling merchants?

Plato:  The latter.

Pheidippides:  So if the petty and greedy merchants actually manage to deliver the goods during peace, wouldn’t we be running a terrible risk to entrust such a vital business to amateurs during wartime?

Xanthippe:  You have a point, but what if the city had allowed all these vital markets to be taken away by foreigners?  Is that a good thing?  Don’t bother to give me your usual answer, Pheidippides.  Let’s say you cannot simply emigrate.

Pheidippides: (With apologies to Bob Johnson):  We could simply reciprocate by imposing the same tariffs on products  coming out of their market that they impose on products  coming out of our market. And by tariffs I would include, also, any tax benefits they receive in their own country but do not extend to ours.  The way those Persians behave, they must think we are a pack of idiots!

Socrates:  We are a pack of idiots.  That is why democracy never works, at least not for very long.

Xanthippe:  Try not to get sidetracked, dear husband, by these boys.  Let us suppose that there are some circumstances under which the city might lend money to support an important industry.  We have already agreed that we should not support the money-lenders, who engage in base activities, and we would say the same thing, probably, about prostitutes and their panders, and the supplier of luxury goods that decent people do not really need to live a good life.  Could we go further and distinguish among useful products?  For example, Attica does not grow enough grain for our people.  We can get grain, however, in exchange for our beautiful vases filled with olive oil or wine.  Then we should at least not want those industries to disappear?

Pheidippides:  I  don’t like the idea of any subsidies or special benefits..

Xanthippe:  But if we were going to do such things, you agree, we  would be more likely to support a vital industry that produced wholesome goods?…. I take your silence to be assent.  Well what about carts and chariots?

Plato: Some of these things are useful on the farm and others in religious cults.

Xanthippe:  But we could probably import enough for our needs?

Plato:  Probably, except in an emergency.

Xanthippe:  But even then, we could always fix up the old carts for a long time.

Plato:  I suppose so.

Xanthippe:  But, Plato, what do you think about those expensive chariots that young men waste their money on.  Is that something we should encourage?

Plato:  I hardly think so.

Xanthippe:  Well, what if they improved carts to the point that farmers would no longer walk out to their fields in the morning but drive to faraway farms, or that families would uproot themselves and live not on the property they inherited from their ancestors but anywhere in the Greek world?

Plato:  That would be very bad indeed. We should end up with a race of rootless and self-seeking cosmopolitans.

Pheidippides:  Sounds good to me. Then we’d be liberated from our parents and all this religion jazz.

Xanthippe (ignoring Pheidippides): So if we thought carts were damaging our moral and social life, we would definitely not want to help the cartmakers, no matter how much sympathy we have for our friends in the Peiraeus. But let us suppose that carts are basically useful and not harmful, is there some reason why the people of the Peiraeus cannot get together and help the industry that will end up benefitting them?

Socrates:  Well, Xanthippe, that whole area is depressed because of the war.

Xanthippe:  But if the locals cannot help themselves, why should we have to?

Plato: Because all of Athens has more resources than the Peiraeans–or Peiraeoganders, as I hear they call themselves.

Xanthippe:  We won’t have for long, if we get it into our heads to help every business that fails.  And what sort of people are they?  I hear they’re a disagreeable lot, always grumbling against the old families, demanding benefits.  I hear they were big supporters of Cleon the Demagogue, whom your friend Aristophanes (at least I think he’s your friend) claims is not even an Athenian but a Paphlagonian tanner.  With that dark skin of his, who knows?  Besides, has his phratry ever produced proof of his citizenship?

Socrates:  His friends say they have, but who knows.  The city is so corrupt.  But there are worse men than Cleon now, and  in the assemblythe Peiraeoganders vote for the worst rabble-rousers, who promise to buy them houses and fill their barns with fodder.

Xanthippe:  Perhaps the demagogues who promise them so much should pay them out of their own pockets.  If they are so cowardly and weak that they support these low characters, they are little better than jurors who sell their vote.  In any case, from what Harmatocles tells my sister, the Peiraeus is the worst part of Attica.  All these people think about is their bellies and if they had their way, we’d all be sharing our property and income–(looking crossly at Socrates)–small as it is.  Perhaps if the cartmakers were  allowed to go bankrupt, their workers might find a better way of life.  Instead of bailing out the manufacturers, we might set money aside to give these people farms and some training.

Pheidippides:  I’m with you Xanthippe–except that big about the farms and training.  Who wants to be a bumpkin?  These people want something better for their children–they want them to go to school and get better jobs..

Xanthippe:  Go to school?  The way you did?  From what I can see, all your father accomplished by sending you to Socrates was to turn you from a spoiled playboy who still loved his mom and dad into a worthless punk, devoted to the virtue of selfishness.  I think they’d all be a lot better off if they were poor and had to work 10-12 hours a day.  They wouldn’t then have the energy to go to the brothels or drink all night or watch those stupid mime performances they think are so hilarious.

Plato:  That’s right, Xanthippe: We could pass a law…

Xanthippe:  Why pass a law.  Why not instead let nature take its course.  Nothing lasts for ever, and the boom in Athenian-made carts may well be over.  The workers will experience some distress–which we might find some way of alleviating–but why prop up an industry that has enslaved free men and encouraged them to live such sad lives.  Is that the Athenian dream I have heard about all my life?  What suporters of the bailout seem to be saying is that because Pericles made mistakes, we should repeat them, and because the cartmakers have got used to a rather poor way of life, we should perpetuate it.

Socrates:  Well said, Xanthippe.  But what about Harmatocles and his family?

Xanthippe:  His brothers and my brothers will do their best to help them out.  Isn’t that a better way than to make the government bigger by entrusting to it the responsibility that used to belong only to the clan and phratry that is devoted to the worship of our gods?

Plato:  Now, Xanthippe, here is where you are wrong.  Actually, here is a point on which I think I agree with Pheidippes.  Family, kinfolks, religion–all these traditional associations stand in the way of building a more nearly perfect Athens.  What about it, Socrates?  What do you think?

Socrates:  I think you’ve been sniffing the vapors up at Delphi once too often.  I don’t think we shall ever reach a conclusion on any of this, but Xanthippe has taught me one thing.

Xanthippe:  And what, pray tell, is that?

Socrates:  That if you let a woman into the discussion, she will never let you analyze things in themselves but always introduce irrelevant concerns like love and family and religion.  If you let that sort of peripheral stuff intrude, there would not be any philosophy.

Xanthippe:  And would that, Socrates, be such a bad thing?  You might go back to work and start putting food on the table for your children….

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