The Beginning of Justice: Socrates Speaks With Cephalus (2)

Emmet Penney
3 min readJul 14, 2020

You can read part one here.

2. Money and the Question of Character

Naturally, when Socrates hears all this he feels “full of wonder,” and wants Cephalus to say more — a sure sign of trouble for Cephalus.

“[W]hen you say these things,” Socrates tells him, “I suppose that the many do not accept them from you, but believe rather that it is not due to character that you bear old age so easily, but due to possessing great substance.” It’s worth pausing here to appreciate that political element this reply to Cephalus brings into the text.

First, the political concept of “the many” — in Ancient Greek, hoi polloi — or “the mob” arrives for the first time. This denotes not just the majority, but a class of people, people who make up a large part of Athens and who conflate having money with having a good life — a crude perspective, it’s implied. Who makes up “the many” and who makes up the “few” is a distinction that undergoes its own refinements as the dialogue unfolds.

Secondly, the idea of living an ethical life is differentiated from the possession of material means. Certainly, living a good life does not rely on having money alone. Anyone who’s met the obscenely wealthy can recognize at once that most of them are half-insane and generally miserable. Whatever it means to be a good man, it cannot be supplied through goods alone. Something else is required. Socrates sustains this assumption throughout his engagement with Cephalus.

Cephalus gives Socrates his perspective, which he borrows from Themistocles (a pro-democratic figure from the earlier years of the Athenian democracy). A Seriphian once told Themistocles that he owed his fame less to himself than to his city, Athens. Themistocles replied that “if he himself had been a Seriphian he would not have made a name, nor would that man have made one had he been an Athenian.” Thus, “the decent man would not bear old age with poverty very easily, nor would the one who is not a decent sort ever be content with himself even if he were wealthy.” The man, the quality of his character, determines his lot, wealth aside. A morally weak man will have a miserable go of it whatever his milieu and that a better man will fair better — a commonsensical perspective that will meet with scrutiny later on in the dialogue.

Before they move on, Socrates let’s slip a quite aristocratic perspective. He asks Cephalus if he inherited his wealth or if he earned it. We learn that it’s a little bit of both: he inherited some money from his father who had depleted much of what he’d inherited from Cephalus’ namesake and grandfather. Cephalus worked enough that he’d restored the family business to his grandfather’s glory.

Socrates asked him, we discover, because he figured Cephalus had inherited most of his money because like poets love their poems and fathers love their sons, money-makers love their money. Both because it’s what they produce and because of its power. People who simply inherit don’t obsess over it. And people who inherit certainly aren’t hoi polloi. The beginnings of Plato’s aristocratic sympathies begin to reveal themselves. But that Socrates, himself not a wealthy man, serves as something of a vehicle for these ideas should inspire caution lest we fall into the assumption that Plato’s interested in typical ruling class ideologuing. He’s no democrat, but neither is he an aristocratic traditionalist. His project is both more ambitious and more desperate than that.

But what’s important for now is that Cephalus and Socrates agree that wealth isn’t everything. Not that agreement alone ever satisfies Socrates as we shall see.

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