Near the Parthenon, Socrates encountered Glaucon, a young serial entrepreneur, walking slowly with a furrowed brow. Socrates greeted him warmly.
“Glaucon,” he said, “I’m surprised to see you here, I expected you to be down at the Agora selling the shipment of Phrygian wines you boasted about last week. You seem downhearted.”
“I’m glad to see you Socrates,” He replied, “I’ve come to the Parthenon to seek council. The new gods of Epiphany and Iteration have failed me, for I have validated my assumptions, and yet the people of the Agora pass by my shipment of wines and find no value in them. You must help me.”
“Come,” said Socrates, “walk with me and we will inquire into this mystery.” As they walked, Glaucon reminded Socrates of his plans to sell Phrygian wine. He lamented that he had invested all his resources into the enterprise. He said that he had planned to sell the wines, offer his trade routes and other secrets to one of the great wine merchants of the city for a large amount of gold, and purchase a trireme. But that now, all seemed lost.
“I’m astonished,” said Socrates, “This plan has little about it to please the gods of Epiphany and Iteration. And yet you are talked about in the city as the leanest of the new breed of entrepreneurs. How did you come by this plan? What product/market fit did you imagine, and how did you seek the truth of it?”
Glaucon nodded miserably, “It’s true that until this week I would have called myself a fervent zealot for the new gods. You can be sure that I worked like a Trojan to validate the assumptions I made of my customers. Indeed I cannot conceive that anyone in the city could better validate them, and yet they distain to buy my wine.”
“Tell me,” said Socrates, “Before selling the wines, did you describe them to customers, and request that they inscribe their names onto your scrolls, so that they could purchase when your wines arrived?”
“That and more,” said Glaucon. “I asked for down payments to secure the wine, and many complied. I published several scrolls, some describing the wines’ exotic flavors, others the great distance they traveled from beautiful Phrygia, and still others commending their taste with cow, pig, and goat. I assessed how many customers signed to each scroll, and was pleased to see that many did. I determined mathematically that the most wines would be sold by describing their taste with goat.”
Socrates nodded. “Did you allow your customer to freely sample the wines?”
“I did,” Glaucon replied, wincing at the expense. “The wine received great praise, with many people swearing fervently that they would purchase it for their banquets, once I made quantities available.”
Socrates went on, “and did the heralds of the city herald your wine?”
“Many of the loudest heralds praised it,” said Glaucon, “more than I expected.”
Socrates smiled, “and by these methods you determined the validity of your theory?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Glaucon, “by what other methods would I do so?”
Socrates did not reply to this, but asked instead, “and tell me, dear Glaucon, what was the theory you set out to prove?”
At this, Glaucon was astonished. “What could be clearer than this Socrates?” he asked. “My theory was that customers were thirsty for good wine, and would purchase my offerings. I validated this theory in every possible way, as I have described. And yet when my first shipment arrived, few purchased the wine. Even those who had given me a down payment neglected to return to pay the balance and collect their amphorae.”
Socrates nodded. “Yes, Glaucon, I see your position. You do seem to have validated your theory. But tell me, was it part of your theory that slaves and servants would buy it?”
“No,” Glaucon snorted, “slaves and servants have no denarii to buy Phrygian wine.”
“I understand,” said Socrates. “So your theory was that people would buy these wines unless they were slaves or servants. Tell me, though, would you expect them to buy it if they were priests dedicated to Athena?”
“I don’t understand you,” said Glaucon, the priests of Athena take a vow to drink no wine, they wouldn’t buy it.”
“And I suppose,” continued Socrates, “that you wouldn’t expect the northern sailors who visit Athens, the ones who drink only mead, to buy the wine either?”
“No” said Glaucon.
“So the theory you set out to validate,” said Socrates, “was that people would purchase your wine, provided that they were not slaves, servants, priests, or northern sailors?” asked Socrates. Glaucon nodded. “And could other categories of customers be joined to these?” asked Socrates. “For example teetotalers, old men with gout, children? And perhaps many more?”
Glaucon nodded again.
“It becomes cumbersome,” said Socrates, “to describe your theory precisely. Perhaps we should combine all such exceptional people: slaves, children, and all the others, into a single group, ‘people who do not buy wine.’ Would that make the argument clearer?”
“Yes,” said Glaucon.
“In that case,” said Socrates, “the theory you set out to prove was that people would buy your Phrygian wine, except for people who do not buy wine. Was that your task?
“It was,” said Glaucon
“I see,” said Socrates. “But perhaps that is not the end of it. Do the wines of Phrygia taste like our local Cretan wines?”
“Certainly not,” said Glaucon, “the tastes are quite distinct.”
“And is it true that some people might desire one taste and not another?”
“Yes,” said Glaucon, “otherwise there would be no reason to buy Phrygian wine.”
“And could it be that some who drink Cretan wine might dislike the Phrygian taste?”
“It could be,” said Glaucon.
“So,” said Socrates, “that makes the theory clearer yet. It is now a theory that all people, excluding all people who do not purchase wine, and also excluding those who do not wish to drink Phrygian wine, would buy your wine.”
“Yes,” said Glaucon.
“Perhaps it would be clearer still to cast this as a positive, rather than negative proposition, saying that the people who will purchase your wine will purchase your wine, and that others will not. Is that, in the end, the nature of your theory?”
Glaucon agreed that this was true.
“Is that the theory that you strived to prove through scrolls and samples and by other means?” Socrates asked.
Glaucon admitted that he did not see why such a theory would need any proof at all.
“No,” agreed Socrates, “it doesn’t seem to require proof. Why distribute samples and publish scrolls and trouble heralds only to learn that the people who will drink your wine will drink it, and the others will not.”
“For no reason,” said Glaucon.
“Why do you suppose,” asked Socrates, “that your inquiry did not lead you to a more useful answer?”
“Although the theory appeared capable of producing useful predictions, the predictions it actually generated now look simply like reflections of the theory itself. Perhaps a different sort of theory would be better.” Said Glaucon.
As they walked on, Socrates began a new line of questioning.
“Tell me;” he said, “with respect to your business, how many sorts of people would you say there are in Athens?”
“What do you mean?” said Glaucon, “there are many sorts of people here.”
“Of course there are,” Socrates said. “As Glaucon the young man living in Athens, you notice other youths, as well as children and elders, soldiers and merchants and priests and many other sorts. But as Glaucon the wine seller, you sit in your booth in the Agora and how many sorts are apparent to you?”
“Two,” said Glaucon. “Those who walk past without buying Phrygian wine and the sort that stops to buy.”
“As I thought,” said Socrates. “You sit in that booth for many hours each day. You must know a great deal about these two sorts of people. Tell me about them.”
“Oh yes,” said Glaucon. I have made a study of them. The great majority of them walk by without slowing their pace. Sometimes a man’s gaze will light on the amphorae in my booth, but before I can hale him, his eyes slide away without seeming to focus.”
“Is this true with all the non-buying sort?”
“Not all. There are some who seem to regard my wine with anger or disgust. They gaze on it, snort, approach the booth aggressively or back away, and sometimes even become agitated and flee.”
“Very good,” said Socrates. “Now tell me about the other sort, the buying ones.”
“There is not much to tell,” said Glaucon. “Most of them act just as anyone acts in a wine merchant’s shop. They say they require wine for a banquet, ask about the price, and exit with their wine.”
“You said ‘most’,” said Socrates. “Is there another sort of buyer?”
“Yes,” said Glaucon. “There are a few who approach eagerly, ask many questions about the wine, taste it, smack their lips, and declaim to me about the flavor.”
“So I ask again, with respect to your business, are there two sorts, as you said?” asked Socrates.
“I suppose there are four,” said Glaucon. “The largest group, which pays no attention to my shop, the second group, those who seem angered by my business, the third group, customers who make no distinction between my Phrygian wine and any other, and the fourth, customers who seek my wine out. There are few in this last group, but it should be large, because Phrygian wines are superior to others.”
“Superior?” asked Socrates, “That may be as it seems to you. But as of yet, the buyers of wine do not appear to share your opinion. But tell me, of these four groups, which are most precious to you?”
“The two that buy, of course.”
“Why do they matter?”
“Are you mad?” asked Glaucon, “Because they buy my wines. I need customers or I shall fail.”
“I suppose,” said Socrates, “that this answer might suffice if you were a successful wine merchant. But your business has just begun. Are the customers you have now enough for you?”
“No,” said Glaucon, more humbly. “I will fail with only these customers.”
“Your task then, is not to sell to these customers, but to learn from them in order to sell sufficient wine for your business to succeed.” said Socrates. “Let us try to look at these sorts another way, not as they look to you, but as you look to them.”
“I don’t understand you.” Said Glaucon.
“Imagine yourself as the first of these sorts, walking through the Agora, the sort that neither slows down nor sets their gaze on your wine. When one of those passes your shop, what do you suppose she sees?”
“Nothing,” said Glaucon. “With that sort, my booth is invisible.”
“And what about the sort that becomes angry and flees?”
“To them it must look like the lair of a demon.”
“And what about the sort who walk into your booth and buy without examining your wares or asking questions or declaiming?”
“I suppose that to them, like to the first sort, it seems invisible, or at least indistinguishable from any other wine merchant.”
“And the final group?” continued Socrates, “the ones who taste and smack their lips and declaim?”
“It looks to them like the abode of heroes,” said Glaucon,
“Very good,” said Socrates. “So now we have three sorts, those who disregard, those who see a hero, and those who see a demon. Now, since you are at the start of your business and your task is to learn, who among these sorts do you suppose would be the best teacher for you?”
“Not the indifferent ones,” said Glaucon, “they have little to say. The other two sorts are better, the ones who regard my wine as a demon or a hero.”
“Very good.” said Socrates. “Tell me Glaucon, when you first heard of the heroes at Thermopylae, did your heart soar?”
“Of course,” said Glaucon, “mine and those of every other Athenian.”
“Why do you suppose?”
“Because they saved us. We would be Persian slaves if not for those heroes.”
“And if you were to see a demon, why would you quail?” he continued.
“For fear it would harm me,” said Glaucon.
“You surprise me,” said Socrates. “You are a strong and vigorous young man, why should you care about demons or heroes? Why fear one or cling to the other?”
“I am only a man,” said Glaucon. “I cannot face the Persian army alone, or a demon either.”
“I see,” said Socrates. “If you were a god, neither Persian armies nor demons would trouble you?”
“I suppose.” Said Glaucon.
“So as Glaucon-god, would your heart soar gazing at heroes? Or quail if you encountered a demon?”
“No,” said Glaucon, “I suppose I would be indifferent to them both, not needing one or fearing the other.”
“So now,” said Socrates, “as Glaucon the wine merchant, tell me again about the three sorts of customers who pass by your booth.”
Glaucon smiled, “I suppose,” he said, that there are two sorts, not three. There are ones like gods. Both those who buy and those who do not, but who in either case are indifferent to my wine. Then there are the “mortals,” with fear or hope in their hearts. As mortals, their lives are filled with ills, and for this sort of mortal, one ill is a lack of good wine.”
“Would you call this sort of mortal ‘wine drinkers, or ‘ones who do not drink wine?’” asked Socrates.
“Neither,” said Glaucon. ”If they were wine drinkers drinking wine, they would be gods in this way, and not mortals. And if they were ones who did not drink wine, then not having it to drink would cause them no trouble, and again, they would be gods rather than morals.”
“I suppose you could call them ‘those with an interest in drinking wine,’” said Socrates.
“But not wine in general, but rather Phrygian wine sold at a both in the Agora, by you, dear Glaucon.”
“Yes,” said Glaucon.
“But do many exist? And if they do, what is the true and exact nature of their interest?”
“I do not know.” admitted Glaucon.
“Perhaps you can propose a theory on the subject,” said Socrates.