Socrates, Money, and Virtue: Apology of Socrates 30a-c

What I would like is success. I’d like to do a thing well, get something good, and feel secure about what I can accomplish. 

Maybe “success” is the wrong word. Maybe what I want is a certain kind of security.

Socrates, in the Apology, seems to speak to this type of desire, albeit in a riddling way. His words: “Not from money does virtue come, but from virtue comes money and all of the other good things for human beings both privately and publicly.” Virtue makes money, he claims, and gives us “all of the other good things.” 

Um. I should probably check how much I’ve been drinking. Okay, let’s try his words with a bit more context:

[Socrates:] “…I suppose that until now no greater good has arisen for you in the city than my service to the god. For I go around and do nothing but persuade you, both younger and older, not to care for bodies and money before, nor as vehemently as, how your soul will be the best possible. I say: ‘Not from money does virtue come, but from virtue comes money and all of the other good things for human beings both privately and publicly.’ If, then, I corrupt the young by saying these things, they may be harmful. But if someone asserts that what I say is other than this, he speaks nonsense.”

Plato, Apology of Socrates 30a-c.

What is Socrates up to? This is one part of a series of arguments where he says he does no less than the bidding of Apollo. That he exhorts all to virtue, pushing everyone to make their souls “the best possible.” To that end, he tells the whole of Athens that if they’re virtuous, they’ll make money.

Rude, I believe the kids would say. I’m tempted not to take Socrates’ speech terribly seriously. After all, for whatever virtues he displays, he’ll be put to death. And he is pretty much saying that money is all Athens understands.

Still, one thing gives me pause. He says he tells the young this. On the one hand, you could say this serves as a sarcastic denunciation of their elders. But the young need more than savage takedowns, and Socrates of all people knows this. There’s a positive teaching hiding here. In what sense does virtue make money?

All my life I’ve found people who have some success and are chill about it to be incredible. Someone happy to celebrate you, happy to spend a bit more money or spend time listening. I wouldn’t say explicitly their virtue made them rich, but it’s not like their virtue made them poor. I want to believe they deserve to have what they have, since they care to give.

Is that enough to say virtue makes money? That there are those of us who believe the virtuous should be rich? That we would give to see them prosper? That doesn’t quite work, but I feel like I’ve stumbled upon some sort of moral circumstance of which we’re not always aware. Money seems to have exceptional value when in the right hands.

This could be challenged. “What about someone who kills a bunch, gets a lot of money, and uses it to evade capture and get what he wants? Isn’t money providing a lot of value for him there?” It is, there’s no doubt of that. But most of us are inclined to argue against this objection, I imagine. It looks like value to the one criminal isn’t quite the same as value to more of us combined with the reputation and legacy of the one giving. Aristotle speaks highly of generosity and magnificence, of private and public giving, calling them both virtues.

That’s not the end of the discussion, certainly. But it makes sense to move on because we do need an answer to whether virtue is money. This world is unrelentingly materialistic. Survival might depend upon reconciling some notion of a moral good with a desire for gain.

I’m wondering about Socrates’ declaration that virtues gets money and all the other good things “privately and publicly.” Why that qualifier? Why not just say money and all the other goods, and leave it at that? Only knowledge—only the truth—makes a private/public distinction irrelevant in this case. If virtue is knowledge, then virtue is wealth, because one must know in order for wealth to actually be wealth. This can be a trivial argument. For example: someone given money who has absolutely no idea what to do with it is in real danger of losing it. On a more profound level, for money to do the things we want it to do, knowledge is absolutely necessary, otherwise we would be just as well off without the money. That, I suspect, is the real teaching to the young. It’s a teaching I need to take to heart. What knowledge do I need in order to appreciate success? What knowledge do I need to feel secure?

References

West, Thomas G., Grace Starry West, Plato, and Aristophanes. Four Texts On Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, and Aristophanes’ Clouds. Rev. ed. Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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