A Newly Discovered Fragment

(This scrap of papyrus emerged from the sands near Oxyrynchus, Egypt, in recent days. It’s form, style, and vocabulary seem to be those of Plato in his dialogues. But scholarly opinion is divided about attributing it to the great philosopher or some sophist – or an even worse impostor – who may be using the authority of Plato for his own obscure reasons. See a review of the whole controversy over authorship in a future issue of Classical Studies.)

Along the banks of the Ilissos River outside Athens.

Glaucon: “Socrates, what are you doing out here in the countryside? Don’t you know that the whole City is in an uproar? You, who so often warned all of us students that there’s nothing to be learned from trees and grass and wind and water. That we must be among other people to perfect our souls.”

Socrates: “Oh, owl-eyed Glaucon, you are still a very young man. Accept the experience of someone who has lived long. The City is always in an uproar to a greater or lesser degree. I’ve learned myself lately that I was wrong about quiet and nature. Old men, too, are foolish. The City these days often distracts me from my search for truth. But tell me, which is it this time? War, money, power?

G: “All of those, Socrates, and sex, too.”

S: “Sex? Is it like that clever story by Aristophanes in which the Trojan women withhold sex until the men agree to stop making war? A funny play, but he always uses sex, which properly belongs under the tutelage of the Heavenly Venus, on behalf of the vulgar Venus.”

G: “No, this is different. I’m a little ashamed to speak about it, Socrates – it’s about those potions and devices that the magicians and midwives have invented to keep women from having babies.”

S: “Do not be ashamed of feeling some delicacy about these matters, noble Glaucon, which involve divinity and the intimate relations of the family. Only barbarians and politicians speak of them without a proper reserve, as if they were common things like hog-butchering or a fishmonger’s shop in the agora.”

G: “Okay. Let me just blurt it all out and get it over with. The Assembly has voted that those who have someone working for them must pay for these potions and devices, if they have taken on responsibility for their employees’ health. And if they can’t or won’t, the City will pay for those treatments. Others – especially the high priests, but some of the more venerable and influential people as well – have said this is tyranny unworthy of our City, and in some cases murder, because some of the treatments seem to kill babies already conceived in the womb. I don’t know much about that, but they say doctors take an oath formulated the great Hippocrates not to give women such medicines.”

S: “Surely, you have misunderstood my young friend, perhaps because these legal matters are complex.”

G: “I don’t think so, Socrates. Some of the louder women and almost all the politicians said anything else is unfair and maybe even a war on women. The politicians seem especially worried when that’s said.”

S. “But surely someone argued during the debate that the City cannot simply be required to – much less make others – pay for anything anyone regards as essential to his or her health?”

G: “Someone may have made that argument. I’m not sure. There were many voices. That certainly wasn’t a prominent one.”

S:  “But we can speak of it in the freedom of this remote place, can we not?”

G: “Of course.”

S: “So if the principle is once established that whatever someone claims is necessary for his basic health is ‘preventive care,’ what would happen?”

G: “I don’t know, Socrates.”

Explaining the facts of life

 (Socrates Teaches a Youth – possibly Glaucon – by José Aparicio, 1811)

S: “Well, let’s see, shall we? Do you know people who believe they must often take luxurious ocean cruises in our islands for their health?”

G: “Yes.”

S: “And others who visit those spas at Epidaurus every few months?”

G: “To be sure.”

S: “And what of those who drink a little wine for their stomachs or to relieve tensions. And say it helps maintain their health, which the doctors agree is true. They’re common enough, aren’t they?”

G: “Much much more even than the others.”

S: “And what of those who say they need special foods, or special trainers in the gymnasium, or visits to the theater: shall the City pay or order others to pay for them as well as the cruises, spas, wines because some regard them as measures that maintain health or prevent diseases from developing?”

G: “Most would think that absurd, Socrates. But they also think the things that block pregnancies are different.”

S: “How is that?”

G: “I don’t know, Socrates. They just say it is.”

S: “People often say one thing when they mean another. What might we say they really mean in this case?”

G: “You’ll have to explain it to me, Socrates. When so many people are taking a view, I find it hard to resist them.”

S: “You must be a friend to truth, Glaucon, whatever the mobs may be saying. And so should the rulers of the City, even though we know not to expect much from them.”

G: “But what do those people want Socrates?”

S: “Can we agree it’s not the money, since the medicines and devices are not expensive and widely available for free at public clinics?”

G: “Most true, Socrates.”

S: “Throughout the history of our city, there have been demagogues who have sought to convince the people that their welfare comes not from the high gods or the good earth or the people themselves, but from. . .”

The papyrus is roughly torn away at this point.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.