Xenophon, suppose I think you have a spear. You deny it. You had a spear at one time, you say, but you got rid of it. Yet I believe you retain it. Could you convince me you do not?
Of course I could, wise Socrates. I would swear an oath that I had no such weapon.
But suppose you are not the man of honor I know you to be. Suppose you lack integrity, and have lied and deceived many times before. Should I be convinced merely by your oath?
By the gods, you should not.
Then how else might you convince me?
You might enter my home and see for yourself I have no spear.
Could I search your home, that is, not simply observe, but inspect?
And could I come at any time, without announcement?
If this was required to redeem my honor, then yes, you could.
And could I bring a group of men with me to validate my findings?
But if we assume you are a man of guile, would you hide a spear in your home, where there is a chance it might be found?
I am certain I would not, were I such a man.
Would you hide a spear in the places where spears once were manufactured?
Would you hide it where spears were known to have been stored?
That would be absurd. Even spears forgotten but thought destroyed would make me look a liar.
But if you were artful in the ways of trickery, might you not bury the spear in the desert, in a place far from those traversed by men, and give no indication to me that such a place exists?
That would be a superior stratagem. Who can know every desert dune?
And if more clever still, perhaps you could place your spear in a wagon full of goods, a nondescript cart that is kept moving and seems a mere part of the city bustle?
I could hide many spears in many such carts. I could move them between cities, between countries. You would be none the wiser.
Indeed. And perhaps spears could be kept in the private homes of those I would have no reason to suspect. Could I possibly search every building in the city?
Such an undertaking would require many hundreds of men and a like number of days.
So you could hide your spear, and thus deceive me.
It seems that it would be so.
You would be content.
But let us assume that you are not satisfied. Let us assume you are psychopathic and paranoid. And that you rule over a city that is held in awe and fear of your wrath.
You commit torture and murder when necessary.
As it must be.
But you also subvert with various forms of influence, bribery, blackmail, extortion.
Such is the way of things.
Would you not try to so influence me? Would you not seek to blunt the vigor of my inquiries through some corrupt means?
This is foolishness. What man would seek to corrupt Socrates?
Then consider those who conduct the inspections for me. Perhaps they would be more corruptible?
It seems likely. A few, at least.
And if some of the spear seekers were so influenced, would I likely be able to find a spear?
It is doubtful. Were some of the men seeking the spear under my thrall, they could tell me in advance where you would look, and I could move the spear before you arrived, if necessary.
But let us assume that I have been seeking your spear from a position of true knowledge. Assume that I know a spear exists, in fact, many of them do, and I may even know where they are.
But how could you, wise one?
Could I not have informers? Could I not have sources of information from within your city? Could not the fear you inspire also lead to betrayal? Would not other cities that fear your spears give me information they have amassed from years of patient observation?
This would be reasonable. Yet, if you knew such, why not reveal it?
Perhaps the information was given me by someone close to you. Perhaps the source would be compromised if I let the information be known. And maybe I have more important things for the source to accomplish in the future. Prudence would counsel against such a revelation.
This, too, is reasonable. Nevertheless, could you then not simply tell your seekers the information in private and let them appear to find the spear on their own, without artifice?
But we have already concluded that you may have corrupted them. I cannot trust them.
Just so. Giving them information might also compromise the source or sources that you value.
So again, it appears that deception prevails.
This is a conundrum.
But all is not lost, young warrior. One can suggest hints that will guide the assistants. One can make insinuations that point to the truth. Such methods would not betray my sources. Moreover, even a blind squirrel will find an occasional acorn.
Hope is a slim reed, Socrates.
True. But bear in mind your task. You must prove to me that you do not have the spear that I already know you have.
You set an impossible charge, my teacher. I cannot prove false what you know to be true.
So you would give me the spear?
I would not. If you cannot speak the full truth, I can continue to deceive. If no spear is uncovered, it will seem as though there is no spear to be found. If you cannot convince others, they will think you demented. They will give up the search.
Therefore, reality is reduced to mere words and perceptions, and the chanting of the hoi polloi.
It would seem so.
And the spear remains hidden, until such time as you need to use it.
Barring my ill fortune, it does.
But I am not convinced, for I know the truth.
Yet, O Socrates, does the truth matter? Given what we have concluded, what can one man do armed only with the truth?
Assume also precision-strike weapons.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.