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.

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15 thoughts on “Stone Soup, Mutual dependency, and a New Economic Order

  1. Ah. And the stone soup could be thought of as a way to seed another sort of attractor out there… which I suppose is another way of saying what Andrew is saying. Carry on, just musin’….

  2. No no. Don’t giveth in one hand and taketh away in another. Come play. How ludic this talk of “seed[ing] another sort of attractor out there.” Explain further perchance?

  3. Pleasure to meet you, Andrew. I wuz just referring to complexity theory, in a sort of a discreet way. Come check out my post on complexity thinking. And yes, I am a luddite in the making. 🙂 How perspicacious of you!

    http://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com

    If it still does not make sense… well then, I’ll just have to make something up! Tee-hee!

  4. Yes, I follow you. I think these lines did it for me: “There appears to be a force that attracts the living forms to that in-between space where they can flourish. Such a force, such a “lure” – a point or region to which a system is drawn – is appropriately enough called an attractor.”

  5. Cool. Does it resolve the conman dilemma? After all, what tools does the beggar have apart from trying to seed another story to be in? Maybe that’s all that anyone has….

  6. I think we could say a few things. One is that he has become a visionary. What he’s offering is a vision of a life together. Two is that that vision isn’t, Platonistically, ‘out there’ but already unfolding and lived out in the actual making of the soup. Three is–and this a certain reply to Cynicism–that the visionary doesn’t stand to gain much nor the villagers stand to lose much. I don’t know how much I like putting it that way, but there is the sense in which they can see themselves in this picture, they’re learning how to really trust and love each other, *and* the likelihood of being wounded or injured is quite minimal. In a way, it’s like a first kiss: a soft beginning, an invitation, a trying out.

    (Obviously, I see the resemblance between my philosophy practice and the visionary’s soup.)

    1. Beautiful, Andrew! Thank you. That is so it!

      And since my particular preoccupation is not so much with food deprivation but power deprivation, it occurred to me last night that the parable applies somehow to us powerless. Except I don’t yet know what “cooking stone soup” means in this instance…

      You just made my day. 🙂

  7. It’s wonderful to see this dialogue unfolding here! Thank you Andrew for your post and comments, and thank you Vera for your generosity of response.

    We find ourselves dancing around the question of trust. It’s even playing out here in this exchange. There is a getting acquainted phase in every relationship made out of a willingness to make our vulnerability available, even though our caution expects us to do so incrementally. This is the way the urge to join into the Gift is tempered by our habits of negotiation, our expectation of quid pro quo, our anticipation that intention can be understood and that it is in fact causative.

    Entrances into trust in the Gift, like what transpires in our story of Stone Soup, work within this boundary between negotiation and dialogue, between expectation and acceptance, between intention and what is.

    The problem of the skeptic, who is there in each of us, is this insistence on bargaining. I don’t think this position can be negotiated with to reach a point of trust. Each round of negotiation may reassure the skeptic on one count, but it also reaffirms the validity of his stance that negotiation is all there is.

    The art within our hero’s actions is in his being a catalyst for the others to reach across the barriers of distrust and disintegration. Mostly this is through appealing to their curiosity, but also in some sense using their greed against itself, not to con them, or trick them; but in a way that lubricates their passage across the void of distrust they are otherwise afraid to cross.

    This isn’t using the villagers as means to his end. He has no end. He is making soup with what he has. He offers his generosity without strings, even if it appears to also lack substance. Warm water with a stone in it may be meager fare, but still warming and thirst quenching, and potable, if not more than that.

    In their kindled enthusiasm, the villagers have left quid pro quo behind also. Their trust comes in a rush, not incrementally. It is not based on how each bit contributed improves the broth. It rises in them at the moment of joy when they let go of the skeptics mantle of distrust. They are fed by trust, long before they are fed by the soup!

    This illuminates our most ubiquitous catching point. It’s there in all the posturing in politics and commerce, lies couched to be convincing, not to give but only to find ways to take advantage. It’s also there in all of our attempts to find solidarity, no matter what the “cause” we wish to pursue.

    What the tale illuminates is the that while none of these means to ends work. They maintain us in the traps of futility, the fate of the skeptic, as we’ve looked at him here. It illuminates that it is only through a wholehearted acceptance of the Gift – no matter what its apparent worth – will lead us to the joys of community and the satiety of enough.

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