Junior Philosopher

cimg5128The past several lunchtimes, my kids and I have been listening to Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, with varying levels of attention. Today, my son and I had this conversation:

son: “Are both Socrates and Plato philosophers?”

me: “Yes. They are both lovers of wisdom.”

son: “I’m a lover of wisdom.”

me: “Then maybe you’re a philosopher.”

son: “But I don’t even know how to be a philosopher.”

me: “All you need to do to be a philosopher is to love wisdom and seek wisdom.”

son: “Okay.”

I might need brush up on my Socratic dialogue skills now that I have a seven-year-old philosopher in the house.


  1. Owning stocks gives you power? Perhaps. But, I suspect that most individuals own stocks or other investments in the hopes of providing a better life for their families, or at least as a hedge against inflation. (Most of the individuals that I know do not flaunt their investments, and so I don’t see it as a power trip).


    1. Well, owning a majority of shares in a company would give one power, yes? I might argue that, depending on your definition of power, feeling secure in one’s retirement savings could provide a sense of power. People derive a sense of power from odder things.


  2. This is a great question, CJ. There is a controversy surrounding the concept of Intrinsic Value and Artistotle’s references to it as one of the properties of a functional currency. Does gold have intrinsic value? Today, apart from investment or coinage, it is used in jewelry, dentistry and electronics. But in ancient Greece, it only had value in jewelry and decoration. This application seems to be related to personal desire and adornment rather than today’s definition of intrinsic: as a universal property or characteristic in-and-of-itself. And so, some scholars believe that “intrinsic” (or more accurately, “εγγενή” may have had a broader definition 2300 years ago.

    Regarding credit and interest…

    Although I used an analogy to plastic credit instruments and checkout queues, this was a metaphor. The ancient Greece legislative assembly offered soldiers and official message couriers letters attesting to the amount that they would be paid upon their return. These letters—and any similar proof of recognizable collateral—were used as a form of credit instrument, especially for individuals traveling far from the seat of power. The assigned creditor would issue a fractional guarantee against the official document with witnesses (typically a trusted individual or organization on site and another who would document the promise and bring it back to the city). Of course, the letter itself had to be authenticated on site (much as a dollar bill is checked for forgery). And then, there is the question of proving that the promise described in the letter had not already been sublet out to other merchants (the double-spend problem!!). My point: Promises to pay soldiers and couriers are an early form of credit.

    I am not sure of interest or inflation. I don’t know to what extent the concepts were critical or understood…

    As the Assembly gradually replaced the promise of gold with a picture and commitment of Caesar (especially after the birth of the Roman Empire), I don’t know to what extent they inflated their reserves or over-extended credit. These things tend to devalue currency in circulation. Incidentally, this is exactly what the Nixon administration did in August 1971, when the USA dissolved The Bretton Woods Agreement in Ithaca NY. In that meeting, the Nixon annulled the guaranteed convertibility of dollars with Gold. In this video (made on August 15 1971) Nixon claims that the strength of a currency is based on the strength of a nation’s economy and not on the value of gold. He concedes that buyers of a foreign-made car would see immediate inflation, but that the majority of American’s buying US goods and services would barely notice a minor “technical” event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_Xw5tWsOQo


    1. This is exactly the difficulty with applying in the present the ideas of the past, and one of the reasons Socratic dialogue relies on hashing out definitions in the present rather than giving authority to the opinions of others. What Plato, Aristotle, or Socrates would think about any particular issue is much less important than how they would discuss it.

      I personally find the discussion of intrinsic value the most interesting of our exchange, and I would argue that no material good has intrinsic value but rather its value depends on its utility and on the opinion of the individual (“gold is pretty, owning stocks gives me status and power, therefore I value these things”). It’s the primary reason I’ve never been interested in economics. It’s all based on ephemera.


  3. Did you know that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle formed a chain of teacher/mentor and student? Also, Aristotle is not Greek, although he traveled to Greece to study under Plato. He is Macedonian.

    Here is an interesting factoid to which I often refer in my Bitcoin presentations: Aristotle was a statesman deeply concerned with spreading the concept of currency (rather than bartering), to the distant realms of lands influenced by Greece. (There was no Roman empire. He lived 250~300 years before Julius, the first Roman Caesar). In effect, Aristotle was the Alexander Hamilton of the 4th century BCE.

    He reflected deeply on the difference between currency made of Gold –vs– currency backed by convertibility to Gold –vs– currency that was backed only by a King or country and the promise of redemption for grain or something of value. He even understood the value of an interconnected society (think of the Internet or an ATM network) that could quickly verify the validity or expiration of gift cards and credit instruments. That’s quite a remarkable prescience, considering that in those days, the only connection between far flung places like Rome and Jerusalem was a months long chariot ride. Add to this that the verification of a promissory note or letter of credit requires (at least) a round trip. I would not want to wait at the grocer’s checkout line in ancient Greece, while a cashier checks out my Roman Express Card. That would be a long wait!


    1. “He even understood the value of an interconnected society (think of the Internet or an ATM network) that could quickly verify the validity or expiration of gift cards and credit instruments.”

      But doesn’t Aristotle’s list of the necessary qualities of sound currency include intrinsic value? Not sure how that would apply to plastic gift cards or credit cards, and it seems to me that intrinsic value (rather than an interconnected society) was a big part of how he proposed to solve the verification of validity issue. As I understand it, both he and Plato thought interest was a no-no, so intrinsic value aside, I doubt either would have looked kindly on credit cards for that reason, either.


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