Stone Soup, mutual dependency, and a new economic order

In “The Story of Stone Soup,” as Antonio Dias tells it, a wandering beggar comes upon a village. Hungry and tired, he goes to each door and is met with the same answer again and again. There is, he is told, not enough to go around, and the door, half-opened, is soon closed upon him. Nearing despair, he notices a rusty old pot, an abandoned fire circle, and some kindling here and there, and decides to build a fire. He adds some water to the pot and a stone from his pocket.

As the fire grows tall and the fumes rise high, the villagers, with curiosity piqued, wander out from their homes and ask him what he is about. “I’m making soup,” he says. “Stone soup,” he clarifies. The first villager replies that he has “never heard of it.” In Antonio’s version, we read on:

“It’s a magic stone. It makes a wonderful soup! If you’re willing to wait a little bit, you can have some with me!”

He gave the pot another stir. They sat down together by the fire. She couldn’t take her eyes off the pot. She sniffed the air, trying to detect the aroma of the soup in the smoky, damp, cold air.

“This is a wonderful soup. But,” he hesitated. With conviction he added, “You know! It would be so much better if we had a potato…” His voice trailed off wistfully.

The woman blurted out, “I have a potato!”

And so it comes about that the villagers show up, inquire in turn, and, mesmerized, add to the pot what they have–an onion, some cabbage, some carrots, a ham bone–with the result that the stone soup manages to provide for all.

*

For a while, the skeptic has been standing very impatiently off stage. Let’s give him some lines. No doubt, he would have entered the scene at the point when the first villager arrived and scrunched up her nose. Unmoved and unconvinced, the skeptic would have thrown up his hands and said, “Oh, come now! What is the beggar offering in the end, and what reason do we have for believing him? As far as I can see, he has no goods to sell and no skills to alienate. For observe that he has not laid down any warm clothes, nor has he brought any good food. Lest we forget, he is a beggar: hence not a cobbler, a mender, or a farmer; and not a carpenter, a builder, or a shepherd. He is not even a cook, for his soup is neither edible nor nourishing. Indeed, it is nothing save a stone and some water. Stone soup it is not. In short, with nothing in hand and without skilled hands, he comes empty-handed. It is not clear to me that he isn’t just out to swindle, and I don’t see how one could quiet my suspicions.”

The skeptic poses a reasonable challenge. Give us a reason, he says, show us something, give us some grounds for our beliefs. Unless we can give him some reasons, we cannot be justified in believing that the beggar is anything but a swindler or a charlatan.

Can the beggar be vindicated? The case is more doubtful still. Recall that no villager has ever heard of stone soup so that the beggar can’t even appeal to evidence of the prior existence of stone soup as an anchor point in reality. Stone soup is only a conceit, an idea both vague and indistinct, a vision whose motivating force may come only from Schwarmerei (in German, the word refers both to illusion and to excessive enthusiasm). Following the beggar may lead us into disaster.

*

I have heard and felt the skeptic’s doubts. During the past week, I have read the story many times since Antonio first asked me to write something about it. I have spent some time puzzling over a vindication. Let me open my hands and in just, careful generosity offer a reply to the skeptic.

The beggar’s charm, I would argue, is manifested in charisma, and his art is the art of magic. He offers up the thought that more can come from less, that the staid way is not the only way, and that things can change in virtue of how we change our collective way of life. For consider: as he makes the soup, the beggar is transforming himself from a beggar into a visionary of a different, more just economic order. And what he is offering, it seems to me, is a thoroughgoing transvaluation of the concepts of scarcity and abundance.

In the beginning, the villagers assume that scarcity holds sway. Times are tough, hostility is the way of the world, and distrust abounds. They assume that there is no other way to get on during hard times but to hoard, to turn away the guest, and to turn aside from their fellows. For them, nothing apart from scarcity is remotely conceivable. So that the visionary, once a beggar, must turn things around. In this, he does no more than invite each who comes forth to conceive of an economic order in which the little bit that he has can be “alchemized” such that the whole can become more than the sum of its parts; in which each can contribute something, a little, a little bit, whatever it is he can give; in which contributing to the common good can entail partaking of the final bounty; in which the lack of social trust can be overcome in a blessed time of amends making; in which–and this may be the most important riposte to the skeptic–the vulnerability of each person can be honored but limited (it is a potato, yes, but only a potato; in giving this potato, I might bleed and lose, true, but even if I lose, I won’t lose my skin; I am not asked–no, not once–to give more than I can spare).

What the beggar-cum-visionary is offering, then, is the conceit that our fragile mutual dependency can be the basis for an economy of abundance. And that, I think, is quite a radiant vision of life brought to order.

Do you find my reply to the skeptic convincing, or am I courting Pollyannaism? How can someone who is neither an expert nor a salesman avoid the fate of the con man? Do we have reason to believe in such a vision, or are we making a groundless leap of faith?

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3 thoughts on “Stone Soup, mutual dependency, and a new economic order

  1. Thanks, Eldan, for the kind words. Very kind words. The resemblance between the protagonist and me was definitely what led me to write the blog. Also his concern with the common good.

    I think there’s a real question about what confers legitimacy or credibility on someone (like me) who doesn’t fit into typical credibility-conferring arrangements. Consider:

    1.) ‘Technician’: someone who comes with a set of marketable skills and who can make or fix something. (E.g., a plumber, a computer scientist, etc.)

    2.) ‘Expert’: someone who either promises to predict how events will likely unfold (policy wonk, economic forecaster, etc.) or who is privy to a discrete body of knowledge (academic, business consultant, etc.).

    3.) ‘Builder’ or ‘Craftsman’: someone who make something beautiful, useful, etc.

    4.) ‘Guru’ or ‘Sage’: someone who gives a recipe or step-by-step guide for a good life (e.g., certain religions, self-help gurus, etc.).

    Like the protagonist of the story, though, I don’t fit 1-4. Neither do lots of people today. So, to put it simply, how do we help, what do we do, and (frankly) why–for what–would somebody pay us?

    The thought that I’d be a guide–come along and walk a bit with me and let’s see what happens–requires a great deal of courage and trust from the walking companion. But for me that’s what also makes all my relationships with my conversation partners quite special, moving, and meaningful: their willingness to walk along and dwell in uncertainty in hopes that things will become clearer with time and with each tentative, but courageous, word and step.

  2. I feel that insecurity too, over the difficulty of establishing legitimacy without fitting any of the obvious moulds. In my case I feel like my work has elements of 1-3, but doesn’t fit any of those completely, and I’d be underqualified for a pure form of each. I find an analogy from martial arts helpful here:

    I’ve studied three sorts of martial arts over the years. The first kung fu club had the full rainbow of belts, so that it was immediately obvious who had seniority, and this was very explicitly justified in terms of making it easy for a newcomer to figure out whose example to follow and who to ask for advice. The second kung fu club simply had red belts for students, blue for assistant instructors and black for instructors, with a similar rationale blended with the idea that among the red belts the more knowledgeable and accomplished students weren’t that hard to spot. The tai chi group I’m practicing with now has no uniform or insignia whatsoever, and there’s a clear implication that actually anyone can tell from watching for a few minutes who is further along with their practice and a better example to follow.

    The striking thing is that it’s really obvious, not only from how people perform the form, but from their bearing in general. This sort of thing can be forged–I’ve certainly seen very confident, smooth people con others into overestimating their skills and/or knowledge–but for the most part it is quickly obvious when a person is worth listening to.

    Hrm… I think I have the bones of an answer to your question about “radiance”!

  3. Eldan: The martial arts analogy is excellent. Now all we need is better education for the soul: cultivating *good perception* of the strengths of others in young persons…

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