Abstract–Socrates in the Marketplace

Why does Socrates frequent, and often use the language of, the marketplace? Why, when so many of his elite interlocutors vehemently express disgust for craftsmen and merchants, does Socrates feature them and their products in his arguments? Elites express tremendous anxiety about the banausic nature of workers and their corrupting influence in politics. And Socrates himself is sometimes represented and understood as an oligarchic elitist who shares in contempt for commerce and commercial people. By other accounts, however, he can be found seeking the company of cobblers and painters.

To account for this commercial language and a tradition that represents Socrates as a regular visitor of workshops and studios, I will begin with other philosophical accounts that not only vilify craftsmen and commercial interactions but imagine and promote their exclusion from politics and elite spaces. I will then turn briefly to portraits of Socrates as contemptuous of workers and technicians, and the motivations or misunderstandings behind these representations. In contrast with these elite utopic designs and their shared contempt, I will reconstruct a portrait of Socrates who observes and engages with the marketplace in ungrudging ways that contribute directly both to the objectives and methods of his philosophical activity and ideally to political concord. This Socrates uses the language, relationships, and transactions of the marketplace to define and promote new intellectual and moral “products”. I argue that he makes the study of the production, advertising, acquisition, and use of market goods crucial to understanding the production and promotion, acquisition and value of moral good.

By situating himself between the marketplace and elite spheres and cultivating relationships in both, this Socrates creates new opportunities for learning. The relationships of commerce (dominated by so-called “weak ties”) can be more conducive to innovation and learning than the stronger homophilous ties of kinship and friendship. Put simply, the values and habits of our friends tend to overlap with our own; acquaintances, by contrast, run in different circles and thus have more novel information to offer. By associating with and interrogating anyone he runs into (Ap.29d)—citizen or alien, elite or craftsman of any trade—and chasing after purveyors of goods and good, not only can Socrates recast the experiences and concerns of elites in unfamiliar and unsettling terms, but he can also draw attention to the ways in which they unwittingly participate in the market though they disparage it. His interlocutors should in this manner learn to assess the claims of merchants of all kinds, including sophists who eulogize technē without aiming or being able to teach one.