On Incentives

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Writings & Speeches

The Symposium, Part II, On War
The Powder in the Pouch
by Plato

Alcibiades (A): Come Socrates, my teacher, join me in my endeavor.
Socrates (S): Certainly, my good friend. What shall we do together?
A: We must attack Persia now. Darius is a menace, an evil king who means to do us ill.
S: You can see into his heart? Or have you looked into his eyes?
A: By his actions. By his deeds.
S: Against us, Alcibiades?
A: Against his neighbors.
S: Are we not protected by seas he cannot cross?
A: He will attack our friends. He has a weapon most frightful. He can hide it in the holds of flat bottomed ships and damage hallowed Athens though we be across the sea.
S: But what catapults or arrows or swords could do us harm? We who defeated mighty Troy.
A: Darius, I tell you has a different weapon most frightful.
S: From where does it come? What is it?
A: From Cathay he rendered a magic powder which when stuffed into long barrels of iron, ignites like fire and percussion and destroys all in its path from distances far, far beyond our mightiest javelin throw.
S:  How do we know?
A: The Trojan Horse takes many forms.
S:  Has he used this weapon?
A: Yes, with awful results. He has used it to quash rebellion even in his own lands.
S: Why would he use it against us, if we do not attack him?
A: He fears and hates our tradition, our philosophy, our dominion, our democracy, our influence. He has allied himself with the Stoics –those who despise our beauty, our wine, our nakedness. He greeds for power. He seeks as allies those who do not worship Zeus and Mars but who look East toward the lotus lovers.
S: Can he hide this weapon, secrete it away from prying eyes?
A: To be sure. The powder can be hidden even in the leather pouches of camels in the desert, we know not where.
S: Does he have trusted accomplices—loyal to him always—to use this weapon even in the midst of our fearful attack?
A: Yes, he needs but a few. He has them in his native land and in dispersed places too. Martyrs all.
S: And will he, therefore, not do us great damage with his fearful weapon when we attack?
A: Probably. But we will defend against him knowing full well to expect and accept tragedy inflicted on our young—the best of Athens.
S:  So, my friend, what’s the point of our attack?
A: Look forward, Socrates, my teacher. Look forward. The weapon is not yet fully understood. Our losses will be far less now than if we wait til Darius grows stronger, more adept, more confidant of his weapon. And he seeks other arms even more terrible. And if successful, he will then demand Boetia or deprive us of our spices or do our people terrible harm. Or give the magic secret to our enemies in Sparta or elsewhere in far off lands. We cannot wait.
S:  Is Darius our only threat?
A: No, there are others, but we need to take on the most immediate first.
S: My friend, will he do us harm if we do nothing—if we do not attack?
A: He will. Though even though I do not know the where or when, the immense loss to us, in future times, is worth the pain he can now inflict. I fear someday will come when he will store the magic powder in the holy shrine of Athena with its columns white.
S:  Are you certain of what you have said?
A:  I am.
S: Then, my friend, though sleep overtakes me, and some fear too, may I ask but a few questions more?
A:  Socrates, you only ask questions. Ask what you wish.
S: When we attack with force and if his terrible weapon is not then used, what would you conclude?
A:  But I say his intent is clear — to use it.
S: Yes, yes, perhaps you are right, but let Aristotle be our guide. If the weapon is used, you are proven right—he has it. That is for all to see. But if he does not use his fearful weapon, what reasonable explanation of his failure to use? Did he have a change of heart?
A:  His heart is infected with hatred. He will not change.
S: Then what is the reason he fails to use his fearful weapon?
A:  Perhaps, our assault will be so great and swift, he cannot deploy.
S: But you said, my friend, that you were certain he could secrete away the powder no matter how violent our attack – I believe you said even in the leather pouches of camels.
A: He may not find trusted lieutenants to carry out his evil intent as the shadow of death approaches them.
S: But, my friend, just but a moment ago you said he needed but a few committed and devoted – martyrs even you say he surely has, who always would do his bidding or his wishes.
A: You tricked me by those questions earlier. Why are you asking all these questions? I want to go home to my open spaces and meadows.
S:  Speak to me, Alcibiades, with honesty.
A: You want me to say if Darius does not use his terrible weapon when we attack, then either he did not have it or had no intent to use.
S: A hit, a very palpable hit?
A: Yours is just an exercise in logic. What do you want of me?
S:  Nothing. Sleep well, my friend.
A: I will sleep well.
S: My friend, tell me then, why is your brow so furrowed?
A: A nightmare dilemma quite o’er-crows my spirit.
S: Please, no Shakespeare again, not yet. But tell me, good friend, in simple words, what troubles you.
A: If in vengeance to our victory, if in his defeat, he uses his terrible weapon and our bravest are sent to Hades or have awful wounds, I will go to Delphi, speak of their immortal souls with tears in my eyes – and then be praised for proven right about this evil man. But if he launches no attack with his weapon fearful, I will have caused great suffering to innocent populi for naught, made enemies of our friends and even more enemies and further emnity of our enemies.* I put our children and children’s children more at risk. Which shall I pray for dear Socrates?
S: That is for you to decide. That’s what comes from being Alcibiades.

*A particularly difficult passage to translate.

The translator, Eugene H. Rotberg, a student of classics, has recently found this previously undiscovered dialogue (though he has taken some historical liberties in this translation). He is also a lawyer and former Vice President and Treasurer of The World Bank.