This is an interesting little dialogue. I’d encountered bits of it, as it is one of the sources (besides Herodotus and Thucydides) for the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and it is also a source that tells us something about the herms which my 415 project has me interested in. So the middle part of the dialogue, about Hipparchus, was familiar to me. But I’d never read the full context.
The subtitle for this one is “lover of gain” as it is this term (philokerdes) Socrates and an unnamed friend set out to define. The term is derogatory for the Athenians as it is for us (although we don’t have a single word for this, do we?). The dialogue shows up the paradox here: gain is of course good, so are we all not lovers of gain? The friend keeps trying to shift the definition to show that it’s a bad thing, but Socrates refutes each attempt.
The Hipparchus story is attached only because of the wise saying “don’t deceive a friend” found on a herm; Hipparchus set up the herms with their wise sayings, and Socrates (accused of deception by his interlocutor) denies that he would ever disobey the saying. But the digression is really interesting for a couple of reasons. First, because on Socrates’ account the tyrannicides didn’t simply act because of a love rivalry gone wrong (as in Thucydides’ narrative), but rather because of an educational rivalry. Harmodius was in love with a boy who at first thought him a good teacher, but then when he encountered Hipparchus thought him wiser; Harmodius therefore plotted with Aristogeiton to eliminate his rival in wisdom!
This is cute, and probably a little tongue-in-cheek. But lurking in back of Socrates’ alternate story, as well as the larger dialogue, are some really interesting class issues. Socrates’ Hipparchus may be the sole ruler of Athens, but he is educated and enlightened, and cares deeply about educating all his citizens — those in the countryside as well as those in the city. His educational program is in fact superior to those of the regular citizens, Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Score one for the aristocrats. (Contrast Thucydides’ version, which seems much more to democratize the normally elite erastes-eromenons relationship, and mobilize it in the service of political rights for all classes; Virginia Wohl’s take on this is really interesting.)
But the whole dialogue seems to lean in a different (much less characteristically Socratic) direction. The negative charge philokerdes seems made for aristocrats, with old money, to level against upstart tradesmen. One definition attempted is this: “The right view of the lover of gain is that he is the one who concerns himself with, and thinks fit to make gain from, things from which honest men (hoi chrestoi) do not dare to make gain” (227d). Chrestoi is notoriously code for aristocrats; the “useful” men who benefit the city with their wealth and intelligence; it is commonly contrasted with poneroi which literally means “wretched” but generally means poor. Philokerdes becomes an instrument of social control — a means for the current elite to beat back competitors for their place in society.
Now Socrates’ questioning of the “friend” here doesn’t of course make this charge, but the exposure of confusion over the moral value of “gain” certainly might lead down that path. But along the road we’d find one of Hipparchus’ herms, reminding us of the excellence of the nobility after all!