Socratic Ignorance in Democracy,
the Free Market, and Science


Much controversy continues over Socrates's attitude towards democracy. I.F. Stone (1907-1989), embarrassed that the first democracy should have killed a man for exercising freedom of speech and freedom of religion, attempted to justify this by going after Socrates as an enemy of democracy (The Trial of Socrates, 1988); but since Stone was busy defending Josef Stalin back in the Thirties, and even wrote a book in 1952, the Hidden History of the Korean War, defending the communist invasion of South Korea, his own democratic credentials are suspect. (Now we know, indeed, that Stone had dealings with the KGB, though how far it went, whether he was a paid agent of the Soviet Union, is unclear.) Indeed, an evaluation of Socrates essentially depends on the question of what democracy is supposed to be. That can be answered in due course.

There are three places in the Apology that provide evidence about Socrates's attitude towards the democracy in Athens. The first is at 20e, where Socrates relates the story of Chaerephon asking Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. He says that Chaerephon was his friend and the friend of many of the jury, sharing their exile and their return. Exile and return? Well, of course, the exile of the democrats from Athens, after the fall of the city in 404, and during the Spartan occupation and the regime of the Thirty Tyrants. That makes Chaerephon sound like a pretty serious partisan of the democracy. Would such a one think of Socrates as the wisest man, to the point of asking Delphi about it, if Socrates were conspicuously against the democracy? Not likely. That is not decisive evidence, naturally, but it is suggestive in connection with other things.

The next point, logically, is at 32c, where Socrates relates his experience under the Thirty Tyrants. An enemy of the democracy, and a sympathizer of the Spartans, should have been in seventh heaven after Sparta had actually conquered Athens and installed its sympathizers. But Socrates didn't want to have anything to do with that government and crossed them to the extent that his life might have been in danger if they had not been overthrown. That complements the positive impression from the side of Chaerephon. The logically final point, however, occurs previously at 32b, where Socrates relates his actual clash with the power of the Assembly, over the question of trying the admirals from the battle of Arginusae. Socrates was the only one of the prytanes (in office through lot) to refuse to do anything contrary to the laws (parà toùs nómous). In his view it was his duty to stand for the law and for justice despite the wishes of the Assembly. So he did so, at risk of prosecution or death.

To foil the will of the Assembly doesn't sound very democratic, but then the will of the Assembly was often arbitrary and vicious. The will of the Assembly discredited the very idea of democracy for centuries. In Federalist Paper #10, James Madison comments on the problem of democracy to be overcome:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Socrates himself was among the original type of "obnoxious individual" against whom a pure democracy may turn. A fine statement about the danger of the tyranny of the majority comes from Alexis de Tocqueville:

If it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength. And for these reasons I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to any one of them.

James Fenimore Cooper, the author of classic American novels like The Last of the Mohicans, said in his political statement, The American Democrat, in 1838:

The common axiom of democracies, however, which says that "the majority must rule," is to be received with many limitations. Were the majority of a country to rule without restraint, it is probable as much injustice and oppression would follow, as are found under the dominion of one.

By James Madison's day some notion of a workable democracy returned only with an eye to the very kind of criticism that Socrates implies in the Apology: that even the Will of the People must be subject to the Rule of Law. That is already implicit in the idea of democracy as Thucydides (in The Peloponnesian War) expresses it in the funeral oration delivered by the great Athenian leader Pericles:

We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

No, we can neither expect nor demand respect for the law just because it has been promulgated, regardless of its content. What matters is not respect for this or that (often accidental) decision of the majority in a parliament or of a judge. Rather, what matters is respect for the moral law, which may or may not coincide with the positive law and which involves the legally irrelevant distinction between good and evil.

Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009), "Crime and Punishment," Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.236]

The rule of law means that it is not left to the discretion of those in executive power to decide what actions to approve and what actions to condemn. They must follow the standards laid down in the law. Just as important, however, the rule of law does not mean that any actions can be approved or condemned just because some legislative authority happens to pass a law about them. Pericles's reference to "unwritten laws" is consistent with the views of John Locke (The Second Treatise of Civil Government), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even Martin Luther King Jr. [note] that the fundamental basis of positive law is the unwritten natural law dictated by reason itself (ultimately by God, as far as they were concerned), and that the fundamental protection of the individual is not in some positive grant of rights by legislative authority but in the natural rights which are part of the unwritten natural law. Thus, the Ninth Amendment of the United States Constitution says:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The "others" are clearly natural rights. Yet it is now common for people, even lawyers and judges, to "deny or disparage" certain rights, like privacy, just because they are not mentioned in the Constitution. Perhaps such people would do well to actually read the Bill of Rights.

Those who "disparage" unwritten laws and rights often defend the rule of law as a principle of blind obedience; and they use it to argue that people must obey written laws whether they agree with them or not [note]. Indeed, that conception of the rule of law would have forbidden the American Revolution, or any acts of civil disobedience -- which were justified by Martin Luther King by quoting St. Augustine that, "An unjust law is no law at all." But how, one might ask, can people just go around judging for themselves whether a law is just or not? The answer is that they have to, and that is the principle of freedom of conscience -- as when Socrates tells the jury, "I will obey the god rather than you," or when Martin Luther himself told the Imperial Diet and the Emperor Charles V at Worms in 1521, "Here I stand; I can do no other; God help me!" ("Hier stände ich, ich kann nicht andres, so hilf ich Gott!"). The rule of law is not contrary to that; for the rule of law is not an injunction to blind obedience.

To be "ruled by laws, not by men," is the old expression. Now, American colonies declaring independence, or a jury nullifying a law to find a defendant innocent, or a protester practicing civil disobedience, are not engaged in ruling. Instead, they are doing the precise opposite: negating the instructions and actions of government. The principle of the rule of law does the same kind of thing, for it means that the authority and power of government and of individuals in office is limited to those spheres, those issues, and those actions that are specified by the law. The rule of law denies to government unlimited or discretionary power and authority. The rule of law is thus part of a system of checks and balances to prevent dictatorship and despotism. Civil disobedience, etc. is simply to say that the authority of government has gone too far and must be further limited.

Whether it is properly understood or not, much talk about democracy holds the rule of law in contempt, either because it contravenes the Will of the People or because it also denies power to those who would rule according to Jean Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "General Will": The "General Will" of the people is what they would want if they knew what was best for themselves. Such a theory could justify, and has justified, the worst tyranny, like the Soviet Union, as in fact a "democracy." It is a theory implicit in Marx's notion of "false consciousness": that people have "false" desires and don't really know what they want -- but we can know for them. Karl Popper (in The Open Society and Its Enemies) traces all that sort of thing to Plato: the problem Plato has with democracy in the Republic is not the absence of the rule of law but just the fact that the wrong people are in power -- people without the proper virtues. With the philosophers in power, ex hypothese, the wise will rule -- although Plato himself, like Socrates, elsewhere (as in the Symposium) defines the philosophers as those who are not wise but are simply aware of that.

The rule of law represents one aspect of living with limited knowledge, the ouk oîda, "I do not know," of Socrates, that neither the People nor selected rulers can be trusted to know the good well enough to rule at their discretion or to abridge the principles and rights that exist in natural law and can be set down in fundamental law like the Bill of Rights. Without hoi sophoí, "the wise," no one can be trusted with too much power. The rule of law is the shield of every honest person against those who want to claim superior power out of their supposed superior understanding. That was the principle of the Constitution, though, as Jefferson anticipated, it has been steadily eroded by the natural power-seeking of government, the craven accommodations of the courts, and the constant quest of those pursuing their own interests through the authority, agency, and coercion of government.

Thus, Socrates may be seen not merely as a partisan of democracy, but as a partisan of a proper and true democracy, a constitutional democracy, where the People and the government cannot be trusted with absolute and arbitrary authority any more than a king or dictator can be. Such a democracy is a compromise and is accepted, not because the majority can be always trusted to be morally superior, but because it may be less susceptible to abuse than other forms of government. Thus Winston Churchill said that democracy is the "worst form of government," just better than all the others. Churchill echoes an earlier statement by James Fenimore Cooper again, that "We do not adopt the popular polity because it is perfect, but because it is less imperfect than any other." That, indeed, is the democracy of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison: the Liberal Democracy of the 19th century. But it is not democracy as many people refer to it today. If the Law is whatever some court (even the Supreme Court) happens to interpret it to be, then none of us can rely on it not to be interpreted away as a protection. This is much of what has happened, just as Thomas Jefferson anticipated that the Supreme Court, although a check on the other branches of the federal government, would not impose a check on the federal government as a whole, to which the Court itself belongs. That is why the federal government, with zero authority from the enumerated powers of the Constitution (violating the Tenth Amendment), can seize your house (violating the Eighth Amendment) and put you in jail just for growing a marijuana plant in your yard -- because, I suppose, it is bad for you. This would have appalled and astonished most Americans living before this century. It would have outraged the likes of Jefferson. It is greater tyranny than King George III ever dared exercise. And it is justified, not by the principles of Liberal Democracy, but by the principles of Social Democracy: which abridges freedom for the purpose of the "social good," as that is determined, naturally, through political power and the majority.

The Free Market

The Socratic principle of the limitation of our knowledge may also be seen as a fundamental ground for capitalism and the functioning of the free market as understood by Ludwig von Mises (Socialism), F.A. Hayek (The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit), and, currently, Milton Friedman (Free to Choose) and Thomas Sowell (Knowledge and Decisions, Markets and Minorities, Race and Culture, etc.). One of the basic principles of all of them -- a basic principle of the whole Austrian School of economics -- is that individuals, or special organizations, cannot have all the knowledge that would be necessary to calculate the value, as a relationship of supply and demand, and so the proper prices, of things in the market. There is just too much to know for it to be rapidly acquired and continually updated, especially when demand depends on what people want, and this changes and generally cannot be known at all until people actually spend their money. Only the free market itself can serve to coordinate the dispersed knowledge of multitudes of producers and consumers into the determination of a market clearing price. Anything else will not clear the market -- i.e. it will produce surpluses (e.g. unemployment -- a surplus of labor) or shortages (e.g. rental housing in New York City under rent control) -- waste and inefficiency.

Thus, in 1920 von Mises began to argue that, since the knowledge of the needs, desires, and abilities of people is too vast to acquire, and so, since thereby prices cannot be calculated, an economy without a free market, i.e. socialism, cannot succeed. This is a lesson well illustrated by the Soviet block states that boasted for decades about the rationality and efficiency of their "planned" economies. They were neither rational nor efficient -- relying instead on Marxist pseudo-science bolstered by tyranny. In fact they were almost unbelievably wasteful and inefficient, leaving shortages of nearly everything, poor quality, etc. Equally important to economic calculation is the fact that anybody anywhere can dream up some new innovation that changes production and the quality of life. That is radically non-predictable and led Karl Popper to contend that there cannot be a predictive "science" of history, or of science itself, the way Hegel or Marx wanted. Today the theory of chaotic events puts the stamp of mathematical description on non-predictiveness. But all this is a lesson poorly learned by many still pushing "industrial policy" and economic planning in the West.

Without a free market, somebody else must decide what kinds of good things will be produced for us. Even if there is some way for us to communicate our desires to them, that is not good enough. They will decide whether our desires are "socially worthy" of being satisfied. The same goes for new products. The entrepreneur who proposes a new product must run the gamut of bureaucrats who will decide whether the product is worthy of being produced. In the Soviet Union, the result of a setup like that was that what people wanted was pretty much irrelevant. There were shortages even of things that were regarded by one and all as necessities. And nothing new ever got produced. Even technological innovations in production that were regarded by higher authorities as brilliant and necessary often took decades to be implemented, if ever. In the free market, an entrepreneur produces a new product without asking anyone's permission, offers it on the market, and then sees if people will buy it. What people then want is evident in what gets bought. Audio cassette tapes, CD's, and VHS machines get bought; Edsels, 8-Track tapes, and Beta machines don't. People go see Terminator II, Jurassic Park, and The Fugitive; they don't go see Super Mario Brothers or The Last Action Hero. The result of this is a system damned as "commercialism" by the authoritarian Left and as "permissiveness" by the authoritarian Right: Each, of course, regards the things that people are willing to buy as unworthy. What they want is the power to prohibit people from producing what might be wanted and from buying what is wanted. Each see people as victims either of false consciousness produced by advertising (the Left) or simply of moral depravity, of whatever source (the Right).

At the same time each might claim to be implementing the democratic will of the people. Sometimes they are. Often they are not. Even if they are, their prohibitions are usually an example of the tyranny of the majority. A majority of Americans believe that mood or mind altering drugs are unworthy. Because it took more than a century for the clear understanding of the role of American government to be eroded, it was not until 1914 that any drugs were actually prohibited (opium first); but since then it has gradually come to be the case that every drug is prohibited until it is approved by the FDA -- which now wants to extend its power to vitamins as well. And if you are found in unauthorized possession of a "controlled substance," you can be put in prison, your property seized, and your life deliberately ruined. All to persuade you either that such drugs are unworthy or that you don't have the right to decide on your own. But force and terror have never been persuasive as arguments -- especially when they involve blatant violations of the Constitution as any literate person with a copy of it can discover.


Aristotle reasoned that not everything can be proven. If we ask that everything be proven, then nothing would ever get proven, since we can demand a new proof for each answer we can give. But if not everything can be proven, then there must be some propositions that don't need to be proven. Those propositions are called, by definition, the "first principles of demonstration." The classic example of first principles of demonstration are the axioms of geometry. The question then is, How are first principles known to be true? How are they verified? That is the "Problem of First Principles." Aristotle thought that first principles are self-evident: He said that their truth is intuitively known through noûs, "mind". But to get to the point where we can understand first principles and get that intuitive insight, Aristotle thought that we relied on experience and used the logic of induction: An inductive inference is the generalization that results from counting individual objects or events. The "Problem of Induction" is the realization that we can never know how many individuals or events we need to count before we are justified in making the generalization. That is why Aristotle introduced noûs; for as soon as we reach the point where first principles are seen to be self-evident, then it is no longer necessary to answer the Problem of Induction.

Francis Bacon believed that empirical science uses induction, and his views influenced everyone's view of science until this century. But Bacon didn't believe in self-evident first principles and couldn't answer the objection that induction never proves anything. Nor could anybody else. Aristotle, of course, understood the difficulty that would create, but it finally wasn't until David Hume that the point was really driven home in modern philosophy. Finally, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper shattered the conundra of verification and induction by just dismissing them. Induction never had proven anything. Aristotle's problem of verifying first principles is resolved by Popper with the observation that deductive arguments can go in two directions: ponendo ponens ["affirming by affirming": if P implies Q, and P is true, then Q is true] held out the mirage of verification, but a deductive argument can also use tollendo tollens ["denying by denying": if P implies Q, and Q is not true, then P is not true], which means that premises can be falsified even if they cannot be verified [note]. Replacing verification with falsification explains many peculiarities in the history of science and is, indeed, the "logic of scientific discovery," although people like Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, have muddied the waters with other issues (some of them legitimate, some not).

In relation to the Apology, the matter of interest is how Socratic Method uses falsification. The form of Socratic discourse is that the interlocutor cities belief X (e.g. Euthyphro, that the pious is what is loved by gods). Socrates then asks if the interlocutor also happens to believe Y (e.g. Euthyphro, that the gods fight among themselves). With assent, Socrates then leads the interlocutor through to agreement that Y implies not-X (that the pious is both loved by the gods and hated by them). The interlocutor then must decide whether he prefers X or Y. That doesn't prove anything, but one or the other is falsified: just as in science a falsifying observation may be itself rejected instead of the theory it discredits. Although Y often has more prima facie credibility, the heat of the argument is liable to lead the interlocutor into rejecting Y for the sake of maintaining their argument for X. Socrates then, of course, finds belief Z, which also implies not-X. After enough of that, X starts looking pretty bad; and the bystanders and readers, at least, are in no doubt about the outcome of the examination.

Why it was always possible to find another belief that would imply not-X is a good question. The late Plato and Socrates scholar Gregory Vlastos thought that Socrates already believed, and Plato certainly believed, that it was because not only did everyone already know the truth, but that they were really unable to consistently function in life without it. The principle of inquiry, then, was that only the truth allows for a completely consistent system of belief. That is not because of the inherent logical qualities of the beliefs (as though they were all self-evidently true), but just because people will always use them. As Hume said, whatever our philosophical doubts, we leave the room by the door and not by the window -- the same Hume who ruled out, not just miracles, but also free will and chance because he thought they all violated the same principle of causality that he so famously doubted. That still, in sense, doesn't prove anything positive, but it does give Socrates, and us, an endless opportunity to pursue the inquiry.

Socratic Method thus shares the logic of falsification with Popper's philosophy of science and thereby avoids the pitfalls that Aristotle encountered after he formulated the theory of deduction and faced the problem of first principles and of induction. Both Socrates and Popper are left in a certain condition of ignorance because the weeding process of falsification never leaves us in a final and absolute cognitive state: we always may discover some inconsistency (or some observation) that will require us to sort things out again. Our ignorance, however, may be of a peculiar kind. We may actually know something that is true, but the limitation will be in our understanding of it. Galileo was in a position to know that the sun was a star, but his understanding of what a star was still was most rudimentary. Isaac Newton had a theory of gravity that still works just fine for moderate velocities and masses -- the force of gravity still declines as the square of the distance -- but Einstein provided a deeper theory that encompassed and explained more. When it comes to matters of value that scientific method cannot touch, Plato had a theory of Recollection to explain our access to knowledge apart from experience, and his theory was actually true in the sense that we do have access to knowledge apart from experience; but Immanuel Kant ultimately provides a much deeper, more subtle, and less metaphysically speculative theory that does the same thing.


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Socratic Ignorance in Democracy, the Free Market, and Science, Note 1

To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.

Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 1963.

Return to "Judicial Positivism"

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Socratic Ignorance in Democracy, the Free Market, and Science, Note 2

For instance, in the Los Angeles County criminal courts, prospective jurors are often asked these questions:

Do you understand that the Court will be instructing you on the law to be applied to this case and to the facts, as you determine them to be? Regardless of your opinion of the law, whether you agree or disagree with it, you will be required [sic] to follow and apply this law. Will you have any difficulty with this order?

Even though it denies to a defendant a right to trial by jury as that was understood by the authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, most judges will dismiss jurors who express any "difficulty" in accepting the "order" that they "follow and apply" the law as dictated by the judge. Ignoring the charge of the court and finding a defendant not guilty in spite of the law is called "jury nullification." Apart from the disinclination of the powerful to have the unwashed void their instruments of tyranny -- i.e. their "laws" -- there is also the motivation that comes from the common legal ideology of "judicial positivism," whose distortions and evils are discussed at the link.

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Socratic Ignorance in Democracy, the Free Market, and Science, Note 3

Popper says that this is a form of Kantianism, and in fact it is rather like what Immanuel Kant says in the Critique of Pure Reason at A646-647 under "The Regulative Employment of the Ideas of Pure Reason." Popper also says that it is conformable to the Friesian variety of Kantianism, since Jakob Fries and Leonard Nelson, returning to a consideration of the original problem in Aristotle, stoutly maintained that first principles cannot be logically proven/verified (the modern terminology is that they must be "non-inferentially" justified).

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Money in Plato's
Apology of Socrates

Socrates mentions that the Sophist Evenus charges a "moderate fee" of 5 minas (μναῖ). But how "moderate" is that? What kind of money are we talking about? Liddell and Scott [An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 1889, 1964] give the value of an Athenian mina as £4 1s 3d (4 pounds sterling, 1 shilling, 3 pence), based on the silver value of the drachma (δράχμα). They wrote in 1888. Starting from that, on the gold standard (at $4.86½ to the pound), a mina would have been $19.77, a drachma (100 per mina) 20 cents, and an obol (what the boatman Charon charges the dead to ferry them across the Styx into Hades -- 6 per drachma) 3 cents. Since then,[note] until 1990, the dollar has inflated by about a factor of 15. So a mina would now be $296.56 -- let's say $300 -- a drachma about $3, and an obol about 50 cents.

However, silver was worth more in the Athenian market that this by a considerable factor. John Burnet, who in 1924 published the Greek text that is actually used by G.M.A. Grube for our translation, mentions that five minas was "about the price of a superior oitekēs," a household slave, and that one mina is mentioned by Aristotle as the common price for a ransom of a prisoner of war [John Burnet, Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito, Oxford University Press, 1924, 1967, pp. 87 & 160]. Will Durant estimated that a drachma was worth about a dollar in 1938: "A drachma in the first half of the fifth century buys a bushel of grain, as a dollar does in twentieth-century America" [In The Life of Greece, volume II of The Story of Civilization, now on CD-ROM by the World Library, Inc.]. The editors of our text [Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo] also mention that a drachma was the standard daily wage of a laborer in late fifth century Athens.

Comparing Greek wages with modern wages is difficult, since real wages increase over time as productivity and the size of an economy increase. For example, Henry Ford increased the daily wage of his workers in 1914 from $2.34 to $5 in 1914 [note]. That $2.34 wage was already high. The old saying, "Another day, another dollar," reflects circumstances when a dollar a day was a good wage -- actually a very good wage; the King's Shilling (1 shilling = 24¢) is the daily wage one might have gotten in the 18th century in the British Army. A recent movie, The Picture Bride [1995], mentions that Japanese cane field workers in Hawaii in 1918 were paid 65¢ a day [note]. When the sixteen year old John D. Rockefeller got a job as a bookkeeper in 1855, he was paid 50¢ a day, which is what David Horowitz tell us his grandfather was paid (for a six day week) in a sweatshop when he arrived from Russia in 1905 (in the book Radical Son [The Free Press, 1997], p.9) -- $6 a week would be $156 a year, or $1240 in 1990 dollars, which is still comparable to the per capital income of the United States in 1945: $1,223. In 1932, a 24 year old Herman W. Lay got a job delivering potato chips for $23 a month -- $5.31 a week. Before many years, however, Lay had turned a delivery franchise into Lay's Potato Chips, which later merged into Frito-Lay. Union Civil War soldiers were paid $13 a month, which comes down to about 50¢ a day (if we don't count Sundays). Now, if a gold standard drachma would be worth 20 cents, then we might estimate, very roughly and conservatively, using the dollar-a-day wage, another factor of 5 to get us from the gold standard back to Athenian silver. In 1990 dollars this puts the mina at $1500, the drachma at $15, and the obol at $2.50 [note].

With that in hand, Evenus's fee, the first sum of money mentioned in the Apology, would be $7500. That's a lot more than what it costs to go to Valley College, though comparable to going to the University of California these days. By comparison, Protagoras is said to have charged 100 minas, or $150,000![note]. Not surprisingly, according to Plato in the Meno, Protagoras died a very wealthy man, even wealthier than Phidias, the sculptor who did the sculptures on the Parthenon in Athens and the great statue of Zeus at Olympia, regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The second sum mentioned in the Apology is the cost of a book by Anaxagoras: 1 drachma. So that's about $15 -- a little expensive, but no more expensive, for an era before printing presses, than a lot of books today, and a lot less expensive than many textbooks.

The third sum mentioned is the fine assessed at prosecutions that fail to gain a fifth of the votes of the jurors: 1000 drachmas -- $15,000. A very large fine.

The fourth sum is what Socrates proposes as a fine: 1 mina (μνᾶ). Then he raises this to 30 minas (the fifth sum), with the support of Plato and others. So that's $1500 and then $45,000. Xenophon says that Socrates's entire net worth was only 5 minas, so even 1 mina was a lot of money to him; and 30 minas was far beyond his means.

Another unit of money at Athens was the talent (τάλαντον, 60 minas), which would then be $90,000. A few talents are going to add up to some real money. J.B. Bury [A History of Greece, 1900] says that the "tribute" Athens received from the League of Delos was about 460 talents a year.
60 minas
60 shekels,
100 drachmas
2 shekels
10 oboloi
6 oboloi
1/10 shekel
So that's at least $41,400,000. By comparison, in 55 BC, King Ptolemy XII Auletes of Egypt (father of the famous Cleopatra), who had been deposed from his throne, bribed the Roman governor of Syria to restore him with the promise of 10,000 talents, perhaps the entire annual revenue of Egypt. That would be $900,000,000, almost a billion dollars, nothing to sneeze at even today.

Comparing Athenian money with that of other Greek cities gets pretty complicated. The whole system is basically a Babylonian system of weights:  60 shekels (Bab. shiqlu, , Gk. σίγλος, siglos) to the mina (Bab. mana, , Gk. μνᾶ, mna), and 60 minas to the talent (Bab. biltu, , Gk. τάλαντον, talanton). The first coins (struck by the Kingdom of Lydia) were στατῆρες, staters, equal to two shekels. The odd number of obols to the drachma may result from their being a tenth of a shekel. Having ten obols to a shekel and 100 drachmas to a mina represent a partial decimalization of the basic Babylonian sexagesimal (base 60) system.


I find the following statement in Ancient Greek Athletics, by Stephen G. Miller [Yale University Press, 2004]:

...but the lowest value assigned to the drachma in recent times is $22... More helpful, perhaps, we know that one drachma was about the daily wage of a skilled workman at the time of this inscription; by that standard the drachma must have been worth at least $100 in today's terms, and probably much more. [p.134]

$22 is in the ballpark of my estimate. With the $100 figure, Miller may not take it into account that modern wages reflect long term increases in productivity and in the increased value of capita intensive labor. If we accept the $22 value, this puts Evenus' fee up to $11,000 and Protagoras' up to $220,000.

There are some statements about money in A War Like No Other, How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson [Random House, 2005]. Hanson says that 6000 talents is the equivalent of "some $3 billion" [p.27]. That is consistent with some equivalences elsewhere in the book; but, unfortunately for his consistency, in a footnote on the very same page he says that the Athenian tetradrachm would be worth "over $300." The former equivalence would give us a drachma of $83.33, but the later would put the drachma at $75. These are, of course, within the range mentioned by Miller, but at the high end. With Hanson's values, Evenus' fee would come out at from $37,500 to $41,666.67. This hardly sounds "moderate," since it could get one a year, with all expenses, at an Ivy League university. Similarly, Protagoras' fee would be from $750,000 to $833,333.33. This would work for the CEO of a middle range corporation but is really off the map for a student's tuition anywhere. However advanced for its day, it is hard to think of the level of wealth in 5th century Athens as conformable to these values. We must also remember, of course, that 5 minas was the net worth of Socrates. Does a net worth of $41,666.67 put Socrates in the Athenian poverty category? This doesn't indicate anything about his income or expenses, but it doesn't sound quite like the poverty that Socrates offers as evidence of his disinterest.

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Money, Note 1

Actually since 1891, as estimated by Milton Friedman in Money Mischief (1992). There was a mild gold strike inflation after about 1897, which leveled off after 1920. The United States went off the gold standard in 1933. President Roosevelt unconstitutionally confiscated gold and the gold coinage and unilaterally voided the gold clauses in both United States securities and in private contracts. The purpose of that was to expand the money supply, but the Great Depression caused such deflation that prices actually remained stable until a sharp inflationary surge starting in World War II, through the late 40's. Serious long term inflation started in about 1965, after President Johnson determined to cease redeeming dollars for silver, and then in 1971 when President Nixon determined to cease redeeming dollars (to foreign governments) for gold.

Long term inflation can be estimated with a few simple ratios, using data from Milton Friedman above, the Historical Statistics of the United States (1975), and Consumer Price Index data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Price levels of 1928 were about twice those of 1891; those of 1967 were again about twice those of 1928 (4x 1891); those of 1983 were about three times those of 1967 (12x 1891); and finally those of 1995 were about 3/2 (1.5) times those of 1983 (18x 1891, 9x 1928, or 4.5x 1967). Since the average price level between 1865 and 1914, according to Friedman, was about 57% of 1929 prices, we can round this off to about 60% of 1928 prices (the price level in 1910) for a gold standard average. This gives a factor of 15 between the gold standard average (1910) and 1995 prices, which is a bit closer to the present [1997]. This can be seen displayed graphically at "A Simple Deflator."

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Money, Note 2

$35.10 to $75 in 1990 dollars. The latter would be $19,500 a year, if we reckon on a five day work week with no layoffs -- although Ford worked a six day week but laid off everyone for a while every year when he closed down the factory for retooling. That is comparable to the 1992 per capita gross domestic product of Canada: $19,600.

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Money, Note 3

After deductions for purchases, this came to about $11 a month, or $132 a year. Sounds pretty miserable; but by comparison the average annual income in Turkey in 1996, the seventeenth largest economy in the world, was $1560. On the gold standard, that would be $104 a year or less. In many Third World countries (or even a European country like Moldova) the per capita annual income is still only about $300, or less than (gold standard) $20. Thus, amazingly, the sugar cane workers turn out to have been rather well paid -- their annual income, $3042 in 1990 dollars, is actually larger than the per capital income of the United States in 1965: $2840. This, after all, should not be so surprising, considering that the workers were drawn all the way across the Pacific from Japan -- it must have represented an improvement over their prospects there.

The original contract "coolie" labor from China to Hawaii was paid $3 a month, rising to $5, which was also about par for Chinese labor in California in the 1850's & 1860's. $5 a month comes to about 19¢ a day, perhaps $3.85 a day or 38¢ an hour (for a 10 hour day) in 1990 dollars. This is what inspired the horror of "Cheap Chinese Labor," , in the competing workers, especially Irish labor, of 19th century America. Taking the $13 a month pay of a Union Civil War solider, which comes out to 50¢ a day, as a benchmark, the Chinese were willing to work for less than half as much. What is astonishing about this now is not just that the Chinese were able to live on these kinds of wages but that they were able to also save enough money to start businesses and rise out of poverty. It is all but incomprehensible to the modern (Marxist) sociologist how that could be posssible. The Chinese in America were only held down by ferocious violence, discriminatory laws, and legal disabilities like the prohibition of their owning property in California. Where anti-Chinese violence was absent or rare, and the legal regime more equitable, as in British Malay, Chinese labor, brought in under similar conditions as in Hawaii and California, soon developed into Chinese entrepreneurs who dominated the local economy. This was resented when Malasia became independent, resulted in discriminatory laws, and so led to Singapore, with a Chinese majority, leaving the new state.

The most striking thing about economically successful minorities is the degree of hostility directed at them, not just by contemporary economic competitors, but by modern academics in history and such "pseudo-sciences" as sociology. The academic animus is certainly due to the counter-examples that such minorities pose to pet academic theories. People who believe that economic power is the result of political power, or that "underprivileged" and oppressed minorities are always poor -- principles that are axiomatic on the Left -- react with anger and personal contempt when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Historically, the Jews, Hindus, and Chinese are the worst offenders as economically successful but politically oppressed minorities, and draw the worst ire. This results in considerable ironies, as when Jews, for decades conspicuous in the Civil Rights Movement and often identified with Leftist activism, including notorious participation in Communist Parties, nevertheless become the targets of Black Nationalism and the Palestinian-sympathizing Left. No neo-Nazi remnant on the Right produces anything like the volume of anti-Semitism now seen in Islamic Fascism and its allies.

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Money, Note 4

The obol was actually divided into eight smaller copper coins. Those would be worth 31 cents in 1990 dollars.

Other historical levels of wages are worth noting. In the 1860's and '70's, the miners in Nevada's silver mines, the Comstock Load, were regarded as having about the highest wages in the world, $4 a day (working in horrific conditions, which limited their lifespan). Union Civil War captains made $60 a month ($13.85 a week, $2.31 a day), and sargeants $17 ($3.92 a week, 65¢ a day). Much later (like the 1920's), the "Harvey Girls" who worked for facilities run by the Santa Fe Railroad in the Southwest made $25 a month (about 96¢ a day). Workers at Hoover Dam (1931-1935) started at about $4 a day. Drivers made $5 a day, and the top wage, for the most dangerous work, was $5.60. Workers at Mt. Rushmore made $26 a week, or about $4.33 a day (1927-1941). The best paid workers on the Golden Gate Bridge made $11 a day -- longshoremen provoked a general strike in San Francisco to get the same wage (this at a time, the Great Depression, when unemployment generally was over 15%).

Going back further, a typical lower class income in England in 1883 was £110 a year. That was about $10 a week, or $1.72 a day (six day week). Earlier, in the 1850's, the per capita annual income of England was £27 a year. That means that average income was going to be lower than £27 a year, or only about $2.53 a week, 42¢ a day. That is getting us back to the point where a shilling (24¢) a day was a typical wage. But even that can be compared to something else:  In the 14th century, after the Black Death carried off a third to a half of the population of England, the labor shortage drove up wages, and the government instituted a law on the maximum wage that could be paid. That was all of sixpence (6d), or about 12¢ a day. It is possible that sixpence in the 14th century was worth more than a shilling in the 18th or 19th, but it is also possible that it was worth less than a sixpence in the 18th or 19th, because the loss of population would have shrunk the economy considerably, without shrinking the money supply, which would have meant inflation. Since it was very difficult to enforce laws like that in the Middle Ages, chances are that wages were actually rather higher. Sixpence probably represented typical wages before the Black Death. Be that as it may, by the time of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), a British soldier was being paid 8d a day, which was not good wages at the time, since during the period British agricultural wages rose from 10d to 121/2d a day -- slightly more than a shilling (12d).

This can all be compared to current wages. In the United States, the minimum wage is now larger than $5 an hour. That can be used for convenience, since it is a frequent matter of public debate, even though most of the workforce makes far more. A 40 hour week and 52 week year gets an annual income of $10,400. This is larger than the annual per capita GDP of Mexico in 2000, $8,300. On the gold standard, $10,400 in 1999 would be $520 in 1891. That would be $43.33 a month, $10 a week, or $1.67 a day (six day week). $520 would also have been £106 15s61/4d, or 6s10d a day. So this is close to the typical income in England in 1884 (£110), when England was still just about the most prosperous country in the world (with the United States and Germany rapidly overtaking her). The 50¢ a day wage that Civil War soldiers got, or that John D. Rockefeller was paid when he began work, is now far below the legal minimum.

A different kind of comparison can be made. One of the better jobs to be had in Upper Egypt these days is as a workman on an archaeological dig in a place like the Valley of the Kings. An ordinary digger for such an operation, however, may only get paid about $5 a day (see The Lost Tomb, by Kent R. Weeks, Quill, William Morrow and Company, 1998, p. 190 -- this is about the rediscovery of the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II). Assuming that this was around 1995 (when the tomb was rediscovered), and we only deflate back to 1910, then the wage is only 33¢ a day on the gold standard, well below our Civil War soldier, but above Chinese "coolie" labor. With an annual per capita GDP of $2,850, Egypt is not the poorest country around, but if this is really a good wage in Upper Egypt, then the situation is of the sort that makes international labor activists blanch. Indeed, Kent Weeks also mentions that ordinary agricultural laborers in Upper Egypt might expect to earn only $1 a day -- 7¢ on the gold standard.

In all this it must be remembered that the nominal value of wages, i.e. 5 dollars or 5 Yen, is irrelevant to the real worth of wages. That depends on the real value of the money. The real value of money depends on how much money exists in relation to the size of the economy and so the transactions that are called for. The size of the economy then depends on the amount of production. The value of wages thus ultimately depends on what is produced for wages to buy; and the amount of production depends on capitalization. All this is the point of Say's Law, an economic principle that would instantly resolve most political debates about economics.

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Money, Note 5

Burnet quotes the Greek historian Diogenes Laertius. Protagoras would accept less if a student swore that he couldn't afford this.

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Women in the Apology

The most striking thing about women in the Apology of Socrates is their absence from where we might expect them. Only two specific women are mentioned: 1) the Πυθία, Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, who answers Chaerephon's question that no one is wiser than Socrates (21a); and 2) Θέτις, Thetis, the mother of Achilles (who himself is not mentioned by name but only referred to as ὁ τῆς Θέτιδος υἱός, "the son of Thetis"), who warns him that he will die if he kills the Trojan hero Hector (28c).

Only two other times does Socrates even mention women: 1) a disparaging reference that those who embarrass the city by coming into court, weeping and carrying on to win the sympathy of the jury, "are in no way better than women," οὗτοι γυναικῶν οὐδὲν διαφέρουσι ("they differ nothing from women"; 35b); and 2) a remark that Socrates would enjoy questioning people in the hereafter, καὶ ἄνδρες καὶ γυναῖκες, "both men and women" (41c) -- although everyone he actually names here is male, we know from Xenophon that Socrates did question women, but perhaps not on the street. Socrates himself, as attested by Plato, does not mention questioning women in his investigations. Nor do women occur either as spectators to his questions or in relation to all his talk about educating the "youth." The "youth" are obviously all young men (νέοι). And again, Socrates mentions his family and his sons without mentioning his wife. Plato relates some relationships Socrates had with women (especially with Διοτίμα, Diotima in the Symposium), but those may be fictional, and Socrates is instructed by Diotima, without questioning her. The only episode of Socrates questioning a woman that is clearly historical is related by Xenophon in his Recollections of Socrates: Socrates questions the courtesan Θεοδότη, Theodotē, who is famous for her beauty and poses for artists.

Socrates lives in a world where the spheres of life of men and women were radically separate. In Plato's Symposium, which is a drinking party, both men and women are drinking and partying, but they do so in separate parts of the house. The musicians and dancers go back and forth between the men's party and the women's party. Political life was regarded by the Greeks as part of the male sphere of things, and so there were certainly no women in Socrates's jury; but it is hard to know whether there were any in the audience. There has been some dispute about whether women attended Greek plays, the comedies and tragedies, when they were staged -- though there are references by Plato to women in theater audiences. We have this difficulty in part because it was not considered proper for strangers to address respectable women in public. The device of addressing a group of strangers as though there were only men present is also conspicious in the New Testament. Note Matthew 5:27, where there were certainly women present in the crowd that Jesus spoke to, here in the Sermon on the Mount, but he merely says "everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." There is nothing about what happens if a woman looks at a man lustfully. We are left to assume that this must be equally as bad for women, but Jesus doesn't actually say so.

There certainly were no women actors in Greek plays, which would have been unacceptably scandalous -- the same situation as in Shakespearian Britain and in the Kabuki plays of Tokugawa Japan. By Roman times there were some female actors, but when the future Roman Emperor Justinian married the former actress Θεοδώρα, Theodora, they were afflicted with vicious rumors from then on that she had been a prostitute. Unmarried Greek women attended events like the Olympic games -- where the athletes went naked -- but married women did not. Respectable women did not even go shopping in the marketplace. The only women who freely moved in public life were courtesans (like Theodotē).

Although Plato will later question separate spheres and roles for the sexes (at least among his Guardians) and admitted women to the Academy (Ἀξιοθέα ἡ Φλειασία, Axiothea of Phlius, and Λασθένεια ἡ Μαντινική, Lasthenia of Mantinea -- as Pythagoras is supposed to have admitted at least one woman, or two of the same name, Θεανώ, Theano, to his order), Socrates does not. Indeed, the spheres of life of men and women remained radically different in every culture and civilization until this century, and that situation was not seriously questioned in political discourse until within the last two centuries -- a process whose first major influential statements perhaps were Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869), which were, significantly, written first in the shadow of the American and French Revolutions and then after the abolition of slavery by both Britain and the United States. In traditional cultures, however, the idea that everyone should be free to do the same kinds of things would not even make sense for men, let alone for women. Some feminists talk about the "silence" of women in something like Greek literature. The great poetess Σαπφώ, Sapphō was the exception. Will Durant mentions (in The Story of Civilization) that Plato wrote about her "an ecstatic epigram":

Some say there are Nine Muses. How careless they are!
Behold, Sappho of Lesbos is the Tenth!

But of course, besides most women, most everyone alive at the time was silent. The rare thing is that we happen to hear from anyone. Nor is it surprising that writing belonged, mostly, to the sphere of men: in all three thousand years of Egyptian history, we have many statues of scribes, usually shown sitting cross-legged with a papyrus scroll laid across their laps, and not a single one of them is a woman.

What is perhaps surprising about Greece is the degree to which the role women played in Greek life was conspicious, not hidden. A lot of that was because of religion, where women participated at all levels, from the Pythia and other priestesses on down. Aristophanes's play Thesmophoriazusae deals with an annual three day festival (the Thesmophoria) in which the women of Athens took over the Hill of the Pnyx, where the Assembly met. The festival was religious, but Aristophanes's play is about the women prosecuting the playwright Euripides for slandering women (because of characters like Medea). The possession of the Pnyx thus implied, however briefly, the powers of the Assembly. Aristophanes wrote another play, Ecclesiazusae, the "Women's Assembly," but this seems to have been an imaginary function, not based on something like the Thesmophoria. Aristophanes exploits this kind of thing for its comic possibilities (as he does in Lysistrata, where the women of Athens go on a sex strike until the men agree to end the war with Sparta), but such themes also have a serious side, i.e. the implied judgment that Athenian men have so botched political affairs that it is time for the women to put in their two cents.

The Courtesan Phrynē

Since the degree of participation by Greek women in politics and public life might suggest the situation today in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, another surprise is that Greek women were nowhere near as physically covered up as Saudi women. To be sure, women did not go naked as did male athletes, although Plato proposed just such female athletics. The Greeks never quite got to that point -- and respectable women would cover even their hair in public. Instead, although the ideal of physical beauty was originally male and all early nude art shows males, an ideal of female beauty rapidly gained ground in the century around Plato. In the three phases we can distinguish in the decoration of the Parthenon, the female figures are shown with progressively more diaphanous and revealing clothing.

One of the earliest complete female nudes was a statue of Aphroditē, Ἀφροδίτη, that the great sculptor Praxiteles, Πραξιτέλης, did for the island of Cos, Κῶς (whose inhabitant is a Κῷος). He used as a model a famous courtesan, and reportedly his mistress, named Φρύνη, Phrynē (the scene of Phrynē posing at right is by the National Geographic painter H.M. Herget in Everyday Life in Ancient Times [National Geographic Society, 1961]).

This was all rather shocking for the good people of Cos, who asked Praxiteles to do a more modest statue. He did, but the original went to the island of Cnidus, Κνίδος (whose inhabitant is a Κνίδιος), where it became a major local attraction (it is also said that Praxiteles had already done the clothed statue, just in case).

In Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia mentions that male visitors were so excited by the statue that they sometimes embarrassed themselves after the fashion of Pee Wee Herman -- I don't know a citation for this. Of course, in India, we have stories where seeing a naked woman of sufficient beauty, usually a goddess or an otherwise divine being, is enough to induce spontaneous ejaculation in men (which I would have not thought possible until I saw Naomi Watts hold Laura Harring's breast in Mulholland Drive [2001], then I began to wonder). Eventually, the goddess herself was quoted as saying, "Alas, where did Praxiteles see me naked?"

Having been transfered to Constantinople, ultimately to the Lauseion Palace, the Aphrodite of Cnidus is supposed to have been destroyed in a great fire in 475, in the time of the usurper Basiliscus (although I have seen the claim that the fire was during the Nika Revolt against Justinian in 532). What is the most noteworthy about this, however, is that Christians tolerated this infamous nude in their midst until it was destroyed only by accident. They certainly had grown accustomed to female nudes in Greek art.

Today everyone is familiar with Sandro Botticelli's painting, the "Birth of Venus" [c.1486]. But this goes back to an original by the Greek painter Ἀπελλῆς, Apelles, who first did an Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη, Aphroditē Anadyomenē, or "Aphrodite Rising From the Sea."

Aphróditē is supposed to have risen from the sea at particular place, which is at Paphos, Πάφος, on Cyprus, which we see at right in 1970. Aphróditē is so closely associated with Cyprus, Κύπρος, that she is called the "Cyprian, Κύπρις (genitive, Κύπριδος; otherwise the general adjective is Κύπριος). There is more than one account of the birth of Aphróditē. One is that she came from the severed testicles of Ouranos, which fell into the sea here. This is the sort of mythological mayhem, of course, that Socrates found disturbing.

There are various stories about the painting by Apelles. One is that Phrynē posed for the painting, after its form was suggested to Apelles when he saw her naked, hair free and flowing, coming out of the sea at a festival to Poseidon. However, it is also said, by Plutarch, that, although the painting was inspired by Phrynē, the actual model was another women, Campaspe, Καμπάσπη, who was actually the mistress of Alexander the Great -- who was himself so impressed with the painting, and the appreciation of Apelles of the model, that he gifted Campaspe to him. There are no contemporary accounts, however, of Alexander having such a mistress or of disposing of her in such a way.

Little of Greek painting survives, and certainly not the original painting by Apelles, but a fresco of the same form, below, was found at Pompeii. It may be a copy of the actual painting by Apelles. The Romans were fond of copies of Greek art. Hopefully, Apelles himself did not represent Aphrodite's right leg in such an awkward fashion -- it looks like it has been broken. We see, however, that such a painting displays Aphrodite on a shell, just as with Botticelli, who cannot have known yet about any of the art at Pompeii.

When a charge of blasphemy was brought at Athens against Phrynē, putting her life in danger, the orator Hyperides, feeling words to be inadequate, is supposed to have won the case simply by stripping off Phrynē's clothes and displaying her naked to the jury. Since the Greeks in general believed that the good and the beautiful, καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν, were one, the acquital of Phrynē vindicated the reality of female beauty. By the Hellenistic Age, female nudes were as common as male nudes [note].

Pages on Feminist Issues
Confucius on WomenIrene of AthensAnna ComnenaLe déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-1863, Édouard Manet
Against the Theory of "Sexist Language" Abortion Defense of Christina Hoff Sommers published in The Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 66:7
Gender Stereotypes and Sexual ArchetypesAnaesthetic
Feminism Pornography Letter in defense of Christina Hoff Sommers sent to the Los Angeles Times

The Erotic as an Aesthetic Category

Human Breasts

Ethics, Critique of Feminism

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2011, 2016, 2018, 2019 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Women in the Apology, Note;
The Courtesan Phrynē

Phryne as imagined in court by Milo Manara,
in Manara, the Model, Eurotica, 2003
Curiously, Φρύνη, Phrýnē was a nickname, meaning "toad," for her skin color -- Μνησαρέτη, Mnesaretē was her real name. This sounds peculiar now, since we think of toads as green, which generally is not regarded as a possible skin color. However, "olive" definitely is a skin color -- that of my own first wife (she used to joke that it was just a euphemism for "green") -- so this may be what was meant. It may or may not have helped the character nicknamed "Toad" in the movie American Graffiti [1973], played by Charles Martin Smith, if he had known that he shared a name with one of the most illustrious of Greek courtesans. At right we see an impression of the trial of Phrynē by pin-up artist Milo Manara.

Although the stories about Phrynē are marvelous and have taken on a life of their own, the common versions of them may not be quite right. One source of many of them is in Athenaeus of Naucratis. There we find that Phrynē did not actually go naked, but "she always wore a tunic which wrapped her body closely, and she did not resort to the public baths." Apelles did not see her bathing entirely naked; and Hyperides neither exposed her completely in court -- just her breasts -- nor did he do so wordlessly. Indeed, Athenaeus speaks of his "piteous lamentation in his peroration," while Phrynē herself "clasping the hands of the judges, one by one, she with the help of her tears saved her life at last." This sounds more like an Athenian courtroom, even if less dramatic and striking than the form taken by the modern story.

While a defendant baring her breasts in court would certainly create a sensation today -- and I have never heard of it actually happening -- the meaning of this at the time was perhaps a little different. We find in both Greece and Egypt that women baring their breasts in mourning was more or less customary, and we also see this in the supplication of the surviving women of Troy, as recounted in several sources, none of whom, of course, were present at Troy. While female breasts have a high sexual valence today, earlier ages had a stronger sense of them in relation to motherhood and nurturing. We have examples of Greek women baring a breast just to remind someone of her motherhood. This sense would be completely lost today, and most people would find such an act both puzzling and disturbing, with neither the Greek sense nor modern sexuality suggesting themselves.

Just why Phrynē was not convicted may also be a little different. Athenaeus says that the judges (i.e. the jury) began to feel "superstitious fear"
"Phryne revealed before the Areopagus,"
Phryné devant l'Aréopage, by Jean-Léon Gérōme, 1861
that condemning Phrynē would offend Aphrodite, of whom she was a servant. One consequence of the trial, however, was a new law that defendants should remain clothed in court.

Despite what we see in the primary sources, the expanded stories about Phrynē are nothing new. We have paintings from the 19th century that illustrate the popular versions. Thus, there is Gérōme's painting from 1861 that differs in no material way from Manara's of 2003. The only difference I see is that Phrynē, dramatically revealed, perhaps with more of a flourish than in Manara, seems more embarrassed, covering her face -- Manara shows her with a sort of peek-a-boo look. Of course, if she has commonly been going naked, as we otherwise are told, this is a little inconsistent.

"Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis,"
by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1889
Next we get a painting from 1889 illustrating the story about Phrynē emerging naked from the sea. So here she is indeed naked, although there seems to be some minimal fabric mysteriously in a strategic position.

Obviously the stories about Phrynē have a serious hold on the imagination, even the imagination of Victorian art. Nudes were not, after all, unusual in the 19th century; but there is also a wide suspicion that this vented an interest in sexuality that was otherwise not tolerated in public life. Now it is all out in the open, and perhaps Phrynē gets less attention than formerly; but we also might reflect that we would expect the 19th century to be more familiar with the primary sources and not be promoting ahistorical fantasies. But perhaps the fantasy was the point.
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Questions about Socrates

While Plato never does this in a formal way, we can say that what Socrates did raised a set of questions and created a series of problems that Plato endeavored to solve.


  1. How could Socrates be so inconsistent? He says he knows nothing (or "practically nothing"), but then makes several claims to knowledge. He knows that the god cannot lie; he knows that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong; he knows that a good man cannot be harmed by a bad one; etc.

    As a matter of fact, it would have been impossible for Socrates to be consistently ignorant, for everything that we do, or he did, presupposes some judgment about value. We may go to bed because we are sleepy, or eat because we are hungry, but we also judge that it is better to sleep than to be tired and better to eat than be hungry. And it is certainly better to sleep on a good bed than on a bad one, and to eat something good rather than something bad. Each such judgment, then, opens us to Socrates' typical question, "What is the good?" But we could ask the same kinds of questions of Socrates: In the Apology he certainly acts like someone with strong judgments about right and wrong. Indeed, like Euthyphro, Socrates does what he does because it is pious.
  2. What is everyone talking about if we don't actually know what goodness, virtue, justice, etc. are? If we were simply ignorant, we wouldn't even be using the words.

    A version of this question actually occurs in the Meno, where Meno asks Socrates:

    How will you look for it [i.e. virtue], Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? [80d, G.M.A. Grube translation]

    This answer given to this in the Meno, of course, is just the theory of Recollection, that we already know what virtue is.


  3. How can we use terms like "justice," "goodness," etc. to judge and condemn every actual instance of justice or goodness in the world? What are we talking about if it is not anything that we can actually see or point to in the world?

    This is still a very serious issue in the 20th century, often called (after David Hume) the problem of "Is and Ought" (or "Fact and Value") since what we see in the world merely "is," yet when we talk about matters of value, we mean what "ought" to be. What "ought" to be doesn't always, or often (or ever), seem to exist, so how do we know about it?
  4. What are the objects of mathematics? Numbers and geometrical objects, the way we talk about them in mathematics, do not and cannot possibly exist among the ordinary objects of the world. Geometry begins by defining things, points, lines, planes, etc. that do not exist as such in the world we experience. Socrates does not seem to have been too interested in this himself, but it is a problem similar to the previous one that came to particularly fascinate Plato.

    This is also a very good issue in the 20th century. Philosophers tend to say that mathematics is simply something that we have made up and which exists only in our minds. Thus, the July 20, 1998, issue of Newsweek magazine, in an article on the relationship of science to religion, says, just along the way, "Humans invent abstract mathematics, basically making it up out of their imaginations..." (p. 49). This casual claim reflects a real climate of opinion. Such a view, however, is paradoxical in that mathematics has become the most powerful tool in human history for manipulating, and presumably for understanding, nature. Practicing mathematicians tend to think that they discover mathematics, not make it up. For thinking that, such mathematicians are often called Platonists, but this is usually used to mean that they simply think mathematical objects are real, not that they necessarily agree with Plato that mathematical objects exist in the World of Forms. On the other hand, astronomer Allan Sandage, who is quoted in the August 1998 Scientific American saying "I am a Platonist," also is said to believe that the equations of fundamental physics are all that is real and that "we see only shadows on the wall" (p. 22). This sounds like Platonism indeed.
  5. What are universals? When we talk about dogs, we may refer to actual dogs; but the nature of being a dog, which is not an individual dog, is what enables us to refer to individual dogs or to talk about dogs in general. That nature is a universal, not an individual, thing. So how do we know about it? There are no universal things in the world of experience. Since Socrates was always asking for universal definitions, not for particular examples, the question about universals inevitably follows from what he did.

    The Problem of Universals is still a good issue too, but historically it is of special interest because it was the Great Issue of philosophy in the late Middle Ages, pitting those called Realists, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed with Plato and Aristotle that universals correspond to real essences in the world, against those called Nominalists (from Latin nomina, "name"), like William of Ockham, who believed that universals corresponded to nothing real in the world but were merely words, or "puffs of air," in language. This debate foreshadows the later division between Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism. The Empiricists were all Nominalists, and subsquent Anglo-American Analytic Philosophers have tended to follow in those terms.

    It turns out that the question about mathematics is a function of the Problem of Universals; for if mathematics begins with numbers, numbers only exist because universals allow there to be more than one of each kind of thing. John Locke said that without "abstract ideas," i.e. universals, "Names must be endless." Indeed, names are endless; and considering that there six billion people on Earth, there are more proper names just for them than the words in any, or perhaps every, language. But because we can number individuals of each kind, we do not need proper names to ask for a dozen oranges. Thus, although I doubt that Socrates had any real interest in mathematics, Plato's interest in the same is related to the problem raised by the interest in definitions, and so universals, that Socrates did display, as when he asked Euthyphro, not for this or that pious thing, but for the "idea itself" that characterizes all piety.


The fundamental paradox of what Socrates did, and the fundamental paradox of Plato's answer, may be stated in this way:

SOCRATES: What we think we know, we don't.
PLATO: What we really know, we don't know that we know.

To explain how we can know something without knowing it, Plato's develops the theory of Recollection (introduced in the Meno) and the theory of the Forms (introduced in the Phaedo). Neither of these have been very popular since Plato, but it is important to remember that they simply account for Plato's basic response, which is the paradox of "knowing without knowing." This paradox is addressed by the Friesian School in the doctrine of non-intuitive immediate knowledge.

Socratic Method

By introducing Recollection in the Meno, Plato also demonstrated its practical application. When Socrates questioned people, it had been to find contradictions and thus to demonstrate their ignorance. This is called the Socratic ἔλεγχος, "elenchus," or refutation, which vindicated the assertion of the Oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates. "Socratic Method," therefore, as practiced by Socrates, never had more than a negative result -- it is a form of falsification. This is what we see in all of Plato's early dialogues.

If, however, what we really know, we don't know that we know, thanks to knowledge being Recollection, then by asking the right questions, the implicit knowledge already possessed by the subject can be elicited. This becomes "Socratic Method," not only in the version now developed by Plato, but in the general sense that "Socratic Method" is used today of teaching by asking questions.

In the most famous passage of the Meno, Plato has Socrates carry out a geometrical construction simply by asking questions of someone who is apparently no more than an uneducated slave boy. We can imagine that Plato did this himself in the Academy -- although his faith in the practice seems inconsistent with the sign reportedly over the door of the school, "Let no one ignorant of geometry (ἀγεωμέτρητος, ageōmétrētos) enter here" (although this is attested by no one earlier than John Philoponus). His own theory would make it unnecessary for anyone to have previously studied geometry.

Plato's faith in and expectations for his Method, however, were unwarranted. For, even if his theory of Recollection is true, there is a grave limitation on the effectiveness of teaching by asking questions:  you must know what questions to ask, and this usually means you must know the answers yourself already -- as in the lawyer's precept, never to ask a question where you don't already know the answer.

If you are dealing with something where no one knows the answers, then your initial problem will be figuring out how to obtain the answers to things when you don't even know what questions to ask. Indeed, the sense that inquiry rests on the nature of the questions is really a modern, if not an actual 20th Century, discovery. Considering the general sterility and fiasco of 20th Century philosophy, this was a substantial insight, largely part of the development of Hermeneutics, which itself is rather old.

History of Philosophy

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