Passages quoted below are from Steven Forde’s translation, found in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Pangle. Ithaca: Cornell, 1987.
The short dialogue at hand opens with something remarkable: Socrates asks questions directly, questions that even we – advanced as we think we are – may consider philosophic:
Socrates: So what is the love of gain? Just what can it be, and who are the lovers of gain? (225a)
I realize there’s a temptation to dismiss these questions on our part as too moralistic. Do they come loaded with pious notions that make the inquiry a cheap form of reproaching others? The unnamed companion to which Socrates addresses the question shows where a lack of reflection truly lies:
Comrade: In my opinion, they are those who think it worthwhile to make a gain from worthless things.
Socrates: But do they, in your opinion, know these things are worthless, or do they not know? For if they don’t know, you are saying the lovers of gain are fools.
Comrade: I say they’re not fools but villains and evildoers who are overcome by gain. They know that the things from which they dare to make gain are worth nothing, yet they still dare to be lovers of gain through shamelessness. (225a-b)
“Worthwhile to make a gain from worthless things:” taken just by itself, this does not imply a moral critique. But the companion (comrade) claims those who love gain are “villains and evildoers.” He makes it sound like people who love gain consistently trade something they know is total garbage for more of something else. It is hard not to associate the companion’s notion of “love of gain” with greed, and not just any sort of greed. It sounds like the type of greed where one’s desire to want more is a sickness: they only feel secure having more. They pride themselves on being able to take from others. Perhaps I should use the word “comrade” to describe Socrates’ interlocutor. However, do note the companion is concerned with “shame.”
Going back to the companion’s first statement, we realize the discussion could go another direction entirely. To get what is worthwhile from the worthless: isn’t that what a skilled craftsman of any sort does? What about science? People study things like fungi (which may be characterized as worthless), find cures for diseases, understand the world around them that much more. Socrates even follows up the first statement with a question about whether the lovers of gain are knowers. The companion obviously does not care to go this direction. It looks like “love of gain” means “excessive love of money” to him or being someone like a hoarder that steals. Either way, the companion seems to think love of gain ignoble. Those who love gain may be part of a class that wants to buy its way to the top (oligarchs) or are an unrestrained, base sort of person (self-interest wrongly understood). Again, the notion there is restraint in shame is important. The tyrant can be defined as one who wants everything at the cost of nothing. Perfect tyranny – the most perfect injustice – would disguise itself as justice, after all (cf. Republic 344a, following Bruell).
Let us continue, knowing the puzzles will deepen:
Socrates: Then do you say that the lover of gain is of this sort, like a man who is a farmer, who plants knowing his plant is worth nothing and raises it thinking it worthwhile to make a gain from that? Do you say he is of that sort?
Comrade: The lover of gain, Socrates, thinks he ought to make gain from everything.
Socrates: Don’t answer me so aimlessly, as though you had suffered some injustice from someone, but pay attention to me and answer as though I asked you again from the beginning: don’t you agree that the lover of gain knows about the worth of this thing from which he considers it worthwhile to make a gain?
Comrade: I do, indeed. (225b-c)
Forde notes that “to plant” and “plant” have “the same root as the Greek word for nature (physis)” (Forde 22). So first Socrates brought up the question of whether the lovers of gain know anything. Now he’s asking indirectly whether or not they know something about “nature.” Does knowledge of nature translate into gain? “Nature,” as you know, is not birds and trees and rocks and stuff. It is the question of whether we, independent of society, have an “end.” A “human nature” might be summed up by saying “man is a rational animal whose happiness is achieved through pursuit of the virtues.” If gain can be reduced to money, then there is a nature/convention tension at play very early in this dialogue. Money is conventional: it is because we declare gold to be valuable that it is valuable.
Now what is curious about the farmer is that yes, strictly speaking, his knowledge about nature does turn into a conventional gain. But that’s very strictly speaking. Most farmers have been dirt poor for thousands of years. This is a difficult point to think about: how exactly do nature and convention relate? Unsurprisingly, the companion repeats himself in a not-so-bright manner. We should note that Socrates used “worthwhile to make a gain” in describing the farmer’s actions (Bruell 5). This is slick: the companion had pretty much reduced “love of gain” to greed where the worthless were traded for things. “Worthwhile to make a gain” does not seem to be what the companion meant as “love of gain” (not much later Socrates brings out the contrast between “worthwhile to make a gain” and whether one ought to make a gain. But he doesn’t do that here). And yet I don’t feel sorry for the companion, and neither should you. It’s like the companion’s opinion is too crude to be serious, despite the fact it has obvious benefits for Athenian society. It may keep away tyrants and may help establish a nobility that is not entirely self-serving. Can the good be preserved even as someone is forced to be a bit more intelligent about what he considers evil? How unjust is it to be accountable for your notion of justice?
“Hipparchus.” trans. Steven Forde. The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Pangle. Ithaca: Cornell, 1987.
Bruell, Christopher. On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.