The Market for Philosophers: An Interpretation of Lucian's Satire on Philosophy

Article excerpt

I can't imagine how you can think philosophy and wine are similar--except in this one respect, that philosophers sell their learning as shopkeepers their wares; and most of them dilute it, too, and defraud customers.

--Lucian

with the recent publication of Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner (2001) once again has extended the reach of economics beyond its traditional confines of industry and commerce, taking it to the arena where political and ideological themes are discussed before a general audience. Although the book represents, as Posner mentions, the first application to intellectuals of the complete arsenal of analytic tools now available to economists, a precedent had already been established eighteen hundred years ago, albeit not in so systematic a fashion as Posner's, by a Syrian-born rhetorician and satirist who made his mark in the Roman Empire, Lucian of Samosata.

Among the eighty-two works credited to him by the Loeb Classical Library, we find two dialogues, Hermotimus ([153-65?] 1965a) and The Sale of Philosophers ([160-70?] 1965b). The first portrays a committed follower of Stoicism convinced by a skeptic to give up on philosophy and live an ordinary life, and the second depicts a fictional auction of the major philosophical schools in the ancient Greek-Roman world. In both, key elements of the economic approach are present, inasmuch as Lucian adopts methodological individualism, presumes self-interested pursuit of utility, insinuates a theory of stable preferences, gives a rich description of the high information costs of philosophy, refers to the impact of sunk costs in explaining the dogmatism of philosophers, uses a risk-return framework to assess philosophic investments, and suggests that the interaction of consumer preferences and costs determine the following and prestige of different teachings. Just as Posner does with the present-day market for public intellectuals, Lucian concludes that the second-century A.D. market for Greek-Roman philosophers, the public intellectuals of the time, fails to deliver anything of real informational value. In other words, no philosopher succeeds in providing the truth.

Rather than taking the economic approach, philosophers and intellectual historians have either interpreted philosophical activity as the independent and disinterested pursuit of truth (1) or adopted a sociological approach that treats philosophic thought as being determined by the class, religious, cultural, and political imperatives of the day. (2) Neither of these approaches is fully satisfactory.

The former cuts against the strong correlation between philosophers' teachings and the ideological currents of their societies and times. To give just a few examples, Aristotle offered arguments in support of slavery in a society where slave ownership was accepted; medieval philosophers generally insisted on reason's capacity to prove the existence of God; and virtually all the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers criticized the landed nobility's value system and defended private property at a time when commerce and industry were in the ascendant and agriculture in relative decline. Thus, the chances that philosophers have been entirely disinterested and independent are slim.

By contrast, the other view, sometimes called the sociology of knowledge, is plagued by a self-referentiality dilemma. The proposition that all thinkers are bound by their spatiotemporal conditions must include the person who is advancing it. Yet this person is implicitly asserting that his mind can escape the confines of space and time by grasping how people think in every era. Hence, the proposition does not really apply to all thinkers, but only to everyone but the person making it. Why this exemption? An economic approach, however, does not automatically rule out the capacity of philosophers to think outside their spatiotemporal boxes, while still underlining the incentives they have to fit their doctrines to the preferences of local consumers. …