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?