Mar 30

I came across this text over at and it got me into a lot of thinking. I would like to thank NikolaosX1 for sharing the original post in Greek and Danae for the translation in English that follows.

Here is what NicolaosX1 wrote:

“If you have problems in understanding the substance of Free Software, read the following dialogue between Socrates and Antiphon (Xenophon, Memoires A, 6).

ANTIPHON: I believe that you are a fair man. I do not consider you wise, though. I even think that you know this yourself, since you do not receive any money for your teaching. Your clothes, however, or your house, or any other of your possessions, which you think that may be of value, you would not give it for free or for a lower price than what it’s worth. It is, thus, obvious that if you consider your teaching of value, you should have been receiving some money. You might therefore be fair, because you do not deceive anybody out of greed, but you cannot be wise because you know things with no value.

SOCRATES: Antiphon, I find selling one’s beauty or wisdom a foul deed. Because, if one sells his beauty to whoever wants it, then we call him a prostitute, but if one meets somebody who is beautiful in body and soul and befriends him, then we call him a wise man. This is exactly what happens with wisdom. The ones selling it to those who want it are called Sophists*. Whoever, though, understands that somebody is clever and teaches him something good and makes him a friend, we believe that he is a good and virtuous citizen.

The same way, then, that somebody is pleased to have a good horse or a dog (tangible goods), so am I, and much more, when I have good friends and if I know something good I teach and I recommend it to others, which I think will benefit when it comes to virtue. And I study together with my friends the treasures written in the books of the old wise men and if we find something good we say it and we consider it to be a big profit if we become friends through this.

*Socrates, greatly averse to the Sophists who were paid for the classes they gave mainly to young rich Athenians, compares them to prostitutes (of knowledge).”

After discovering this article I really wanted to write a post here expanding my thoughts on it and how they relate with Free Software. I decided to just express some initial points of concern I have instead, leaving it open for discussion. Here’s what’s troubling me:

  1. In general I don’t like taking words of great people out of context, nor misusing them just to make a point. I only use this quote here, with respective differences taken into consideration and respecting the analogy, to trigger a conversation. I already feel awkward, but I felt this was something worth sharing.
  2. I am aware that FLOSS has other “rules” and “freedoms” to define itself and I have in mind that the quoted text is far from expressing the Free Software ideology. However I agree with the initial writer. For me, the idea behind  Socrates’ words  in a way demonstrates the substance of Free Software, and the “sharing knowledge” concept is one of the reasons that drove me into this community in the first place.

How do you feel about this? Does it represent the essence behind FLOSS to you? And in what perspective? Please leave your comments below, always remembering to keep a contributing spirit.

Mutatis mutandis

10 Responses to “Socrates on sharing knowledge”

  1. Majki-Fajki says:

    I would be nice if author of this post give us a title of book, where we can find this dialogue… :-/

  2. fel_is says:

    citing the article: “dialogue between Socrates and Antiphon (Xenophon, Memoires A, 6)”.
    “Xenophon, Memoires A, 6” refers to

  3. Lev says:

    Few thoughts:

    I think this is very much “on the spot”. As I understood Socrates’ answer, he tries to explain that there are other ways of benefiting from sharing knowledge then simply charging a fee for imparting it.

    In fact, one of the points that supporters of free culture / creative sharing or whatever term you want to use to collectively describe free software, works under “Creative Commons” license and similar endeavors, emphasize is that this method of creativity is more productive and has faster rate of innovation.

    By not impairing the ability of others to build on your work and promoting collaboration you gain new and more useful creations.

    If we take this idea back to software land, we can look a the following example:
    Even though Microsoft is the biggest software company in the world, it can not rival the amount of developers working on free software such as Linux.

    It is still limited to developers it can hire, while with free software developers from many companies can work on the same project regardless of who pays them.

    Also, the opening claim by Antiphon has one fatal logic flaw: He compares knowledge to a house or clothe.
    This is similar to people who claim that FLOSS will fail because it is based on the ideas of communism, and communism is impractical and has failed just about everywhere.

    But there is a fundamental difference between a physical object like a house and knowledge or software:
    If you give away your house you will not have a house.
    If you give away your knowledge you will still have your knowledge. Same amount of it (unless you learned something in the process of teaching in which case you have more).

    Because scarcity can not exist naturally for knowledge, sharing works for it in ways it con not work for physical goods that are always limited in number.

    Tomas Jefferson once wrote that it is the nature of ideas to spread and fill all available spaces without diminishing.
    (3rd paragraph)

    Seems that some great historical figures did not share todays entertainment industry view on knowledge sharing.
    Then again, most people who oppose free software and free culture in general are not creators of anything, but merely distributors of things others have created.

    If everyone can share, there will be no need for dedicated publishers because everyone will be a publisher.
    Thus, some folks in the industry are afraid for their salaries.

    This is understandable, but it will not last (I hope).

    By contrast, it should be noted that unlike entertainment industry that keeps lobbying for more draconian copyright laws, many companies in the software industry have embraced the FLOSS way and are benefiting from it.

    In fact, sometimes it is the only way to compete against entrenched monopolies.

  4. Ashish Barot. says:

    Very Good.
    Very interesting.

    Ashish Barot.

  5. Bob Robertson says:

    Well, I was going to post on the topic, but I see that Lev said most of anything I would have.

    Let me add some more economics into the situation. The “monopoly grants” on ideas were created because of the theory that invention would be increased if there was good money in it. But it didn’t turn out that way.

    Copyright/patent end up not benefiting the creators, but the duplicators. As Lev points out, “merely distributors of things others have created.”

    The non-scarce nature of ideas does not imply that the creation of ideas is non-scarce. I consider innovation to be the most valuable resource of all, the most scarce, the most beneficial.

    F/OSS authors have found remuneration not for the software itself (in the vast majority), but in being contracted to solve problems. Heck, most programmers aren’t paid for copies of their software, but for the code they write because someone requested code be written.

    Even while the solving of a need has great value, once written, that code is non-scarce.

    By bottling up ideas, individuals must constantly endeavor to solve the same problems over and over, rather than move on to new problems.

    That is how intellectual property ends up retarding innovation, not advancing it.

  6. Jose_X says:

    Creating artificial scarcity is not about promoting the progress. It is about creating more opportunities for certain individuals to make larger quantities of money.

    Let’s repeat this.

    Creating IP monopolies is about improving the bottom line of a small number of people and not about growing the wealth or knowledge of society in the aggregate.

    Think of creating the monopolies as breaking everyone’s knees so that the one without the broken knees can beat others in races.

    So who are these few people benefiting disproportionately?

    Well, in the days where distribution, manufacture, etc, were required in order to distribute knowledge or where costly factories and laboratories were needed, etc, then those who owned those assets gained significant leverage in becoming principle beneficiaries of these monopolies in time. Like any other asset, you had the initial owner (sometimes the creator, but not always) and then a bunch of business savvy traders eager to buy from them low and sell high, using any and all levers they could find to achieve their goals.

    The end result was that those most willing to abuse markets and/or who were among the most savvy ended up with a lot of the IP. This is normal business development. What is important to recognize is that the government-induced monopolies created a bad deal for society but a great deal for the owner, and that this business asset, over time, would have a likelihood to land in the hands of someone likely to be able and willing to exploit it as much as possible.

    And why does it matter that society have less wealth overall? Because it means more poor people (those with lower business skills and fewer opportunities — the majority of us) will be missing out on things we otherwise could have. Eg, prices are generally higher and progress doesn’t go as fast as it otherwise could go, so those with money end up getting these things generally but others do not when they otherwise could. This is particularly troubling perhaps when we look at life saving drugs being held hostage through patent monopolists that try to reap the greatest possible profit over the 20 year monopoly lifespan. Many people will die because the government will forbid competitors from helping out these individuals and each other.

    The Internet has changed the story around these monopolies because it is now easier than ever to publish, create, experiment, etc. This means more people are able to compete and trade with others more on their ideal terms instead of first having to negotiate with others holding crucial components.

    And some would say it is ironic that, now that people are more empowered, many successful creators have decided to voluntarily remove most of the restrictions enabled by IP monopolies (copyright restrictions, patent restrictions, and trade secret restrictions). This sharing is superior in terms of promoting growth and ultimately giving those doing the creating a large amount of satisfaction and additional wealth.

    [Patents are still a big problem to most poor people (but mostly in subtle ways and to a limited extent due to M.A.D. dynamics) because that game is very biased to rewarding the wealthy and not even the person most skilled or that does the most work. The copyright issue and trade secret were beat importantly because of “copyleft” conditions. Removing a large amount of trade secret put a larger number of people on an equal footing and on higher ground overall, but this was given added support (against the trade secrets of others) because of copyleft effects.]

  7. darth vader says:

    is there no direct quote by the ancient philosophers on sharing of knowledge? the one above seems to be anti-sophers, not philo-sophers. all i can say is how am i to learn foreign tongues if free speech does not incorporate the training to learn foreign tongues.

  8. tetris4 says:

    thnx so much for your link!

    @Lev, Bob Robertson, Jose_X:
    Thnx for contributing with your thoughts. Am following the discussion over at LinuxToday. Very interesting stuff said!

    @darth vader: Sorry but am not sure I understand your point. =(

    @all: I am still interested in how much of the “Sharing Knowledge” concept is behind “FLOSS” for ppl of the community.

  9. Atasa says:

    there are some situations were using words of wise people is a very wise thing to do.
    Because these words are there for you to get inspired.
    And it is not only the free software the problem and the life attitude we have.
    Because we born wise and innocent and we die greedy.
    Thanx for putting out this dimension for software developers…

  10. Wise humans freely share truth and wisdom so that they may peacefully live amongst other wise and peaceful humans.

    As one example:

    If Microsoft rescinded all license, access, and usage of their software then *nix distros would instantaneously fill and fulfill the void.

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