Bryan Caplan meets Socrates

Socrates and Glaucon are walking down from the Acropolis, when they encounter a stranger from a distant land.

Caplan: Greetings, Socrates.

Socrates: Greetings, stranger. From whence do you come?

Caplan: I am from a faraway land.

Socrates: Sparta? Thrace?

Caplan: Much further out than that.

Socrates: Where, then?

Caplan: It is not important right now. I have heard that you are the wisest man in Athens, and I have sought your expertise. Socrates, what is the purpose of education?

Socrates: To refine virtue, of course.

Caplan: And so those with an education are more virtuous than those without?

Socrates: Yes.

Caplan: Is it not true, then, that those with an education will be entrusted with greater responsibilities? That they will be made rulers, put in charge of important military expeditions, and will be respected craftsmen?

Socrates: Of course.

Caplan: After a time, will men not seek out an education just for these good consequences?

Socrates: They surely will. It would be better if they sought education for its own sake. Some men will seek it for its good consequences, but at least some will refine their virtues in doing so.

Caplan: What if sophists took over the academies, and no longer taught virtue at all? Men would learn nothing of import, and only become educated to enter the skilled professions.

Socrates: No one would trust such academies.

Caplan: Perhaps. But what if the academies taught both virtue and sophistry? Would the self-interested man not take lessons so as to give the appearance of virtue, while exerting himself to the minimum extent? And imagine, Socrates, that you are employing a skilled professional. Would you not employ that man with the greatest education?

Socrates: I surely would.

Caplan: Is it not the case, then, that to the professionals looking for workers, it does not matter whether they had a valuable education? It only matters that their education signals them to be good workers, who will show up on time and work to their greatest extent?

Socrates: It appears so.

Glaucon: Your words are indeed convincing, traveller. However, I do not see their import. Athens is the most learned city of them all, and even here boys are educated only for a few years. Boys will not sit around learning sophistry if there are wars to fight, or if there is food to grow.

Caplan: That is no doubt true, Glaucon. However, consider this: a ruler will be popular if he supports education. The people are not trained in philosophy, and they cannot follow the argument I have given you. And if they can, they do not wish to.

Socrates: The purpose of a ruler is not to be popul-

Caplan: Yes, yes! But it is only natural for a ruler to desire to be liked by his citizens.

Socrates: The education of a ruler should rid him of such desires, as I discussed before with Glaucon.

Caplan: Have we not already said that the academies can be infiltrated by sophists?

Socrates: I know of no such academy that philosophers respect.

Caplan: But men in the military and the skilled professions are not philosophers. They must rely on crude appearances, to save time. But let us put this aside for the moment. Rulers will be popular if they support education. They will also have been told from a young age that education instils virtue, even if it does not. Teachers themselves stand to gain a great deal from maintaining the prestige and wealth that rulers grant them. Rulers therefore will give much more wealth and esteem to education than it deserves.

Glaucon: Rubbish!

Socrates: Glaucon, restrain yourself! Our traveller has proved himself to be philosophically learned. But it is getting dark, and Glaucon must return home. I will think this over and we will discuss it in the morning.

The next evening.

Caplan: Socrates, I have been looking for you. I have visited the priestess at Delphi, and she has told me of her premonition about education.

Glaucon: Impossible! How have you returned to Athens so quickly?

Caplan: Never mind that for now.

Socrates: What did she say?

Caplan: She said that, in the land from which I come, boys (and girls too!) will eventually be educated for as many as seventeen years. Those entering advanced professions may study for more than twenty. They will not exert themselves in the course of their studies, but instead, drink wine and play games. The academies will be luxurious, with man-made rivers flowing through them. They will be treated like royalty, paid for by a tithe on working men. Things will not be much better in Athens.

Socrates: This is one of the most absurd prophecies I have ever been told, but the Delphic Oracle does hold much wisdom… Will your land contain bountiful riches, such that every man lives like a king?

Caplan: Somewhat. However, the gains will particularly go to those that study at the academies. They will gain almost twice as much silver after their studies.

Glaucon: And so, what fool would not study there?!

Caplan: Indeed, most men of wisdom do. But others leave the academy because they find it so boring.

Glaucon: Boring?! Socrates, this is a strange traveller indeed…

Caplan: Let me explain! Socrates, the priestess told me that your method of instruction spreads far and wide for a time, but then dies out when the use of writing becomes common. It is replaced with a form of instruction that induces sleepiness and, at worst, contempt for the subject being studied.

Socrates: Plato, I told you so!

Plato [scribbling furiously]: Hey!

Glaucon: Never mind all that. Will the craftsman and workers not realise that this situation is absurd, and rebel? You said yourself that popularity is important to a ruler, even if his education is supposed to get rid of such concerns.

Caplan: Alas, the system is popular even among them! There will be one handsome fellow, a philosopher of sorts, who points out the absurdity, but his ideas will receive little attention among rulers.

Glaucon: How odd.

Socrates: While you were speaking, I was thinking over this prophecy, and I have a few explanations. First, the professions of the future may be more complicated, and therefore require many more years of study. For example, ships will be able to travel farther, but only because shipbuilders spend many more years as apprentices. As a philosopher, I have had to read only the works of Thales and a few others, but philosophers of the future will have to read much more widely. Second, a certain level of material comfort is required to learn. We Athenians need only the basic comforts, but perhaps men from other lands need more. We know that Phoenicians need more silver than us to live without strife.

Caplan: These are excellent points. However, I have been told that the growth in education is mostly within the professions and not between them. To build even the same ships requires more years of shipbuilding experience.

Socrates: Be that as it may, there must be some quicker way of giving the appearance of skill, without spending many years in the academy. A contest, perhaps.

Caplan: I thought this also. Rulers from my part of the world restrict how and when you can run such contests, but I do not think this is so important. More important is that the academy gives the appearance of many skills. Intelligence, but also timeliness, politeness, and ability to deal with men from other parts of the world. A willingness to do tasks asked of you without questioning them. All of these are important to the professionals, and they are not easily displayed in a contest. And regarding material comforts, I agree that some of them are necessary to think well. However, the material comforts of which the priestess spoke far exceed this. And worse yet, most educated men believe that the academies should receive more of their wealth, and not less. Especially philosophers!

Socrates [chuckling]: Excuse me, traveller, but you have tickled me, for I misheard and thought you said philosophers believed the sophistry you have spoken of, and wanted more wealth for the academies.

Caplan: You have not misheard! The philosophers love the academies, because they are showered with praise and esteem for their intelligence and hard work. The bulk who dislike the academies often are not skilled in such areas, and so cannot articulate good objections to the philosophers.

Glaucon: Speaking of material comforts, we are leaving now for dinner and wine with the others. Do you wish to join us, and tell them of the premonition?

Caplan: Sounds great!

The next morning.

Caplan: Good morning, Socrates. I have one more topic on which I seek your counsel. It is true, is it not, that most men have no interest in philosophy, and in such fine arts as poetry?

Socrates: Unfortunately so.

Caplan: And therefore education, insofar as it is given to everyone, should not include these elements?

Socrates: This does not follow. The lack of interest in philosophy and the fine arts only shows that people have not received sufficient instruction to awaken their love for it.

Caplan: And what makes you so confident that we all have such a love, waiting to be awakened?

Socrates: As I explained last night at dinner, it is because of the tripartite nature of the soul. Our soul separately houses intellectual, emotive and appetitive pleasures. This is the only way we can account for the paradox of opposites. Love of wisdom, therefore, is part of the soul.

Caplan: People from my country have very different views on this subject, but let us put that aside. Do you think this love of wisdom can be awakened in all people, even women and slaves?

Socrates: Huh, I had not previously considered women and slaves…

Caplan: While you think, I shall tell you more about the premonition I was told at Delphi. In the future, every girl and boy will be instructed in fine arts and disciplines like philosophy, literature, and poetry. Whether or not their interest can be awakened, it is not in almost all cases. Teachers with love for their subjects flee into other professions, and this leads to a chicken-and-egg problem. If the students are uninspired because of bad teachers, and good teachers will not teach uninspired students, how do you fix that?

Socrates: Chicken-and-egg… That’s a humorous comparison… I may use that.

Enter Thrasymachus.

Socrates: Thrasymachus, our friend here is talking about awakening the love of knowledge in students. If students are uninspired, then only uninspiring teachers will choose to teach them.

Thrasymachus: This is perhaps true. But consider this: students may show promise in other ways. The skills gained in philosophy and poetry sharpen the mind, and teach you how to think, even if you do not love them for their own sake. These skills may be applied to other areas. And educators teach those who show promise in any area. For example, I mentored a boy as a favour to a friend. I was reluctant at first, but the boy was a prodigious mason. I saw promise and applied myself to him. At the end of our time, I saw in him the beginnings of a love of philosophy and the arts.

Caplan: My contention is only that such cases are rare. Socrates, can a youth not go to the Acropolis and hear all manner of ideas about philosophy?

Socrates: Yes, he can.

Caplan: And yet youths do not go, as a rule. Why is that?

Socrates: Because they have no interest.

Caplan: And consider also this. Thrasymachus, does training as a stonemason make you a better shipbuilder?

Thrasymachus: Surely not, except in the broadest ways of using some tools.

Caplan: Precisely. The transfer is there, but it is limited. So: why does learning poetry make you a better stonemason? Shipbuilding is surely more similar to masonry than to poetry, is it not?

Thrasymachus: Poetry and philosophy refine the mind, and the mind can be applied to anything. While shipbuilding only refines the hands, and the body, which can only be applied to certain tasks.

Caplan: Excellent, Thrasymachus. I just have one question: what makes you confident that the mind is a single entity, where training one part of it trains the entire thing? If you train your hands through pottery, that does not train your legs for running, merely because they are both parts of the body. Perhaps poetry only refines the poetry part of the mind.

Thrasymachus: The mind is unified because we can exert a will. When you exert yourself toward a goal, you will use every skill that your mind is capable of. But the body cannot exert a will. When the body moves in a coordinated fashion, it is only because our mind is controlling it. An unconscious man cannot move in a coordinated way.

Caplan [aside]: Wow, Athens really doesn’t have sleepwalkers?

Caplan: Very well, Thrasymachus. This issue is complex, and I must return home soon. Socrates, I have one last thing to ask of you. I worry that knowledge from philosophy and the arts is only learned in theory, and not in practice, thus not justifying the large public expense of which the Oracle spoke. For example, when visiting the temple, philosophers do not pay a tribute at any greater rate than men of similar social standing. I love the realm of ideas, Socrates, and this is why I have travelled so far to speak with you. However, most men don’t. And I fear that learned rulers enforce their interests on the rest of the populace, and that this is an incalculable waste of time and wealth.

Socrates: If what you speak of is true, I admit it is troubling. Perhaps philosophy is what allows men to live ethically, but on average does not change their behaviour. I always pay a tribute upon visiting the temple.

Thrasymachus: You already know my views on justice, but it is commonly said that Socrates is the most just man in all of Athens.

Caplan begins packing up his bags to leave.

Socrates: You have certainly given us much to think about, traveller. And I see now that you must return home. I don’t wish for you to carry those heavy bags by yourself, so I will send a slave with you.

Socrates calls out for a slave.

Caplan: No, it is fine! Thank you, Socrates, this has been a most informative visit. Send my best to Xanthippe.

Caplan leaves.

Thrasymachus: What a strange fellow.

Socrates: Indeed, Thrasymachus, indeed.

1 thought on “Bryan Caplan meets Socrates”

  1. I really enjoyed this. I have 3 teenagers. It clear to me – sophistry or not.. they need a college degree. The “crude appearances” that it provides seem to be mandatory for now.

    Liked by 1 person

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