A Lost Dialogue


S: My young friend, Glaucon, how good to meet you here. How are your studies coming? Are you learning things that elevate the soul, which you might share with me?

I have just come from the agora. You know how they are there, always talking about who the people favor, who made or lost a fortune, what to do with the city treasury. I almost understand why men write those beautiful stories about how we might live on some distant island like Atlantis with a better race than our own. But shall we imitate them, or talk about something more noble?

G: I have a scroll to read to you, Socrates. It's my first. Many things seem wrong to me and the other students at the Academy, which could easily be put right—if we overcome our usual self-deceptions and power struggles. It's a little long, but it's not one of those grand treatises that go into useless questions that never end. It's pragmatic, non-partisan. A plea for reason and civility. Do you want to hear it?

S: It's admirable that you want to help others. And that point about self-deception is a good insight, especially for a young person. But may I ask a few questions first?

G: Of course.

S: What kinds of problems do you think are easy to solve?

G: Well, for example, we should all take care of one another, especially those in need and the sick.

S: Most true, O noble Glaucon! And how will you do that?

G: We'll simply pass laws requiring everyone to pay for relief of the poor and medical care for the sick. Law seeks justice, and what could more promote social justice than making everyone responsible for everyone else, especially the needy?

S: I know nothing of politics, Glaucon. But I hear talk in the agora. So please don't be annoyed by my questions. Are you saying that tax collectors will now gather money from some to distribute to others rather than for the usual purposes of the city?

G: Yes.

S: And tax collectors will decide who gets the money?

G: No, there are experts for that. They know what society needs and will implement it. It's been done for years in Sparta.

S: Well, the Spartans are used to taking orders. They run their city like a military camp. Do you think our people would accept that?

G: Once they really understand what's good for them. We have a very gifted orator at the Academy, Socrates. He's inspired us all. It's just a matter of time before he works his magic on the people.

S: Perhaps so, Glaucon. I do not understand public enthusiasms. But I have heard our fellow citizens complain about such plans. Taxes go to politicians. The people have a low opinion about politicians, who have a low opinion about each other. And in the agora, the politicians constantly disagree. So the people—not always justly, to speak truth—think that they know better how to use their own money. They give freely and generously to the priests, however, because they know the holy ones perform the sacred rites and share with the poor.

G: That's precisely what must change, Socrates. We can't rely on charity to do anything important. We need organization—rational, impartial, run by experts.

How will you get justice, one of the gifts of Zeus—perhaps even a goddess herself—out of mere descriptions of facts and relations? Justice must exist as a virtue in the soul before even one of your great scientists will be able to see what is just, let along establish justice in the city.

S: Glaucon, I do not have your gift for high thinking. But many say that our Athenian Constitution was given us by the ancients to moderate the fickleness of the people and the haughtiness of the nobles.

G: You can't be serious.

S: Even at the practical level, your specialty, I remember that some years ago the city experimented with handouts to the poor, "a hand up" the nobles called it. It often encouraged idleness and irresponsibility. People even came from other cities for the dole. I'm sure you have thought how to avoid that.

G: Back then they didn't understand science. We're going to restore real science to its proper role in governing the people.

S: My young friend, forgive an old man. I am not familiar with the latest thinking. But when I was a boy we were told that science was value-free. How will you get justice, one of the gifts of Zeus—perhaps even a goddess herself—out of mere descriptions of facts and relations? Justice must exist as a virtue in the soul before even one of your great scientists will be able to see what is just, let along establish justice in the city. Yours is a very new idea, indeed.

G: We think justice is much simpler. We will all just share the wealth of the community.

S: I have tried to understand what justice is my whole life. It would be a great blessing to know that. The wisest of my teachers told me long ago that there is one thing that has started more wars than injustice, namely, the pursuit of justice.

G: We're going to leave all that behind and just make sure that everyone has enough. Then the philosophers can pursue their endless questions about the will of Zeus, or whether the soul is immortal, or when human life begins. No one will bother you then.

S: I hope you are right, Glaucon, because philosophers and holy men are often exiled from our city, as you know, when they are not actually executed by the nobles and people. I myself have lately been accused of corrupting the youth by asking questions.

G: Don't worry. When we're through, no one will much care about those questions. And we have planned humane facilities, secluded camps out of doors, for whoever needs treatment for such irrational obsessions and insists on bringing them into the agora.

S: You give an old man much to ponder, owl-eyed Glaucon. But the sun is setting. Let's save your scroll for the light of day, when it can receive the attention it deserves.



Robert Royal. "A Lost Dialogue." The Catholic Thing (February 8, 2010).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info@thecatholicthing.org.

The Catholic thing—the concrete historical reality of Catholicism—is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which bring you an original column every day that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current situation along with other commentary, news, analysis, and—yes—even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Michael Novak, Ralph McInerny, Hadley Arkes, Michael Uhlmann, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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