A mother buys her 5-year-old son, Socrates, an assorted set of Play-Doh from the local toy
store. One week later, Socrates enters the room of his teenage brother with an interesting
“I CAN MAKE ANYTHING!” Socrates announces.
“Really now? Prove it.” Glaucon replies skeptically.
“Alright, ask me to make somethin’.”
“Um…how ‘bout a stapler.”
“You got it!”
Socrates scurries back to his room to take up his brother’s challenge and three
hours later, he returns triumphantly.
“Here ya go, a brand new stapler!”
A grin of accomplishment spreads across his face as he proudly raises his new
creation. Annoyed, Glaucon snatches up the misshapen mass into his hands and studies it.
“That’s not a stapler. It’s just Play-Doh…”
“Noooo, it’s definitely a stapler.”
“No. It’s Play-Doh…”
The sequence of “No’s and Noooo’s” persists until Socrates finally makes his own
“Fine. How ‘bout YOU show me a stapler then.”
Glaucon reaches into his drawer and pulls out his pocket stapler.
Socrates takes the stapler into his hands and examines it carefully, upon which he
“This is not a stapler!” (Nor was it a pipe for that matter.)
“What are you talking about? Here, look…it staples.”
Glaucon hands his brother the paper which he had just stapled.
“So it’s a stapler…”
“It’s too small!” Socrates declares, “plus mine looks more like a stapler. Yours is all
funky and stuff.”
“What are you talking about? This IS a stapler. Your Play-Doh can’t look more like a
stapler than an actual stapler,” Glaucon replies matter-of-factly.
“Noooo, some guy made that thing just like I made mine!”
“It’s not like that one’s the first one ever! You’re just jealous ‘cause my stapler’s
Socrates storms out of the room with his nose held high, marching away with what he is
convinced to be the pioneering stapler of all stapler-ness.
Following the argument, Glaucon sits at his desk a while, contemplating what his
brother had said moments ago. Maybe he’s got a point, Glaucon thinks. He picks up his
stapler and examines it, fingering the plastic casing, then opening it to examine its inner
“What makes a stapler a stapler?” he inquires aloud.
For while what in front of him was most certainly a stapler, his brother’s words had
an odd air of truth to them. There was no certainty in the statement “This is a stapler”—only
a mere association between the word “stapler” and the general characteristics of paperbinding
contraction. Thus, Glaucon began to question. He wondered, who invented the first
stapler? Could there ever be a first stapler? Or was any physical stapler just a manifestation
of the original idea of a stapler? As he continued to think, Glaucon realized that Socrates’
Play-Doh stapler had more in common with his handy pocket stapler than he had originally
thought. For both Socrates and the industrial designer had simply molded staplers based
on their own conceptions of “staplerness”
They’re all just copies, Glaucon thinks, manifestations of the essence of stapler-ness.
Growing more and more tired, Glaucon finally places his “stapler” back into the drawer and
That night, Glaucon has a dream, and in it, both he and Socrates are years older, sitting in a
stone building, and engaged in dialogue. In the exchange, Socrates is explaining the human
condition: how we are somehow trapped in a metaphorical cave and unable to escape—
unable to see the sun. Looking to his side, Glaucon notices another person sitting with them.
He is a younger man, eager, listening, and vigorously scribbling down notes.
“Who is this man?” Glaucon asks.
“Oh, that is my pupil, Plato. He will be taking notes on our discussion today.”