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There is a widely shared story about Plato and Socrates finding wheat in a field, and using it as a metaphor, generally for love. Examples: Actorsfit.com, David Ding and Love, Marriage, Happiness, Affair, and Life:

One day, Plato asked Socrates What love is. Socrates said: I ask you to go across this rice field, pick up and bring back the biggest and best ear of wheat, but remember one thing, you cannot go back, and you just have one chance. [...]

A Chinese version of the story, titled The Largest Ear of Wheat, appears in a primary school textbook. It uses it as a metaphor for seizing opportunity.

I have always doubted that dialogue actually happened. I read just a little of the Socratic dialogues, so I can't say for sure.

So does this really appear in one of Plato's dialogues?

---- update ----

I try to translate the Chinese version here:

Socrates asked his disciples to pick up the biggest ear of wheat along their way on one condition, they can NOT go back to pick wheat they have already passed.

The disciples walked through the field, looking at an ear of wheat and shaking their heads; looking at another and shaking their heads again. Some disciples did try to pick a few ears, but they were not satisfied and threw them away. They thought that the biggest one was still lying ahead, as they believed there were still many opportunities, so there was absolutely no need to make decisions prematurely.

...

In the end, they walked out of the field with empty hands. Socrates then said seizing opportunity in life is like walking in the wheat field while looking for the biggest ear of wheat. Some people saw a full-grained one and picked it up without overthinking if this was the biggest one; some people looked around and missed the opportunity again and again.

...

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  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Qiulang
    Aug 25, 2022 at 8:20
  • 2
    Deleted partial answers, complaints about lack of notability references, and similar responses. See chat for more.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 25, 2022 at 14:28
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    "rice fields"... "wheat".
    – fdb
    Aug 30, 2022 at 19:56
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    Yes I had though whether I should correct that from "rice fields" to "wheat fields", but I left it there as it was the word used in that article.
    – Qiulang
    Aug 31, 2022 at 5:15
  • I asked the question to ChatGPT and got the answer "There is no record of Plato or Socrates discussing the scenario of picking the largest ear of wheat in a wheat field. This scenario is not mentioned in any of their writings or dialogues that have survived to the present day. It is possible that this scenario is a modern creation or a fictional example and not a part of classical Greek philosophy."
    – Qiulang
    Jan 31, 2023 at 9:31

1 Answer 1

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No, that story is not in Plato’s Dialogues. You have here Jowett’s translation of Plato’s dialogues. I didn’t read it, but I looked up all instances of wheat (it is a PDF), there are 9, and they have nothing to do with our story. There are also 12 instances of corn and one cornfield, but again they have nothing to do with the story.

Then I thought, what if Socrates asked Plato to go and find the largest bunch of grapes in a vineyard? Or the largest olive in an olive grove? As the whole point was to explain what love is, any of these would do. So I just looked up love. There are 1,631 love strings. This includes lover, lovely, and even things like cloven feet. I checked them all (my tricks to find whole words only would leave 10 love strings unaccounted for) and again did not find your story.

Then I thought, what if it was Xenophon who wrote the story? Xenophon was also a disciple of Socrates’, and he wrote a number of Socratic dialogues too: Apology, Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, and Symposium. I checked them. In all there are 187 love strings, mostly in Memorabilia and Symposium; 6 instances of wheat, 41 of corn and one corn-field, nearly all in Oeconomicus; but nothing of our story.

Then I thought I wouldn’t leave out Diogenes Laërtius. He is thought to have lived in the 3rd century, six centuries after Socrates died, but he is our best source after Plato and Xenophon. So I checked his The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers, found 94 love strings, 5 instances of wheat, 7 of corn, and one cornfield. My heart nearly stopped when I came across “the highest ears of corn,” but it wasn’t about love. Nothing of our story in Diogenes Laërtius either.

So, if the story is not in ancient sources, where did it come from? The earliest version I could find is in a 2004 blog, “Learnings from live. A pearl pot gathering wisdom thoughts! …from unknown sources I stumble upon!!!” Socrates is always referred to just as “Plato’s teacher”, otherwise it is the same story. Plato returns empty handed because although he saw large ears of wheat he kept hoping of finding an even larger one, and Socrates tells him that is love. Then Socrates sends him for the tallest tree. This time Plato brings back a decent one, saying it was probably not the tallest tree in the forest, but he would not run the risk of returning empty-handed again, and Socrates tells him that is marriage.

Then the story appears in a 2005 book (The golden key to strategy by Gary Gagliardi). Student and teacher are unnamed, and this time, when the student first returns empty-handed it is “ideal love;” when he returns with a decent tree it is “real love.”

None of the many retellings of the story I have seen gives any sources. In a discussion in reddit nine years ago, a commentator said the story sounded nothing like Plato, and that if anything its format reminded him more of a Confucian analect. So maybe the story did come from China.

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  • Wow, thanks for spending time in doing this! BTW, what about the Chinese version of seizing opportunity instead of what love is ?
    – Qiulang
    Aug 29, 2022 at 12:42
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    @Qiulang, I found some that were not about love, but about making the "best choice", where again the lesson was it is best to choose something that is good enough, rather than ending up with nothing because you kept hoping for something even better. The 2005 book I link is sort of a hybrid: it tells the story of what love is, but uses it to make the general point: "choose the best imperfect alternative instead of waiting for perfection." That's the closest I found to "seize the opportunity."
    – Jacinto
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:21
  • Hi that is exactly what our textbook words ,"it is best to choose something that is good enough, rather than ending up with nothing because you kept hoping for something even better. " Seizing the opportunity is my own summary to that story. I will try to translate the text in my question later. So you found that ! That is great!!
    – Qiulang
    Aug 30, 2022 at 0:27
  • Hi, please check my translation.
    – Qiulang
    Aug 30, 2022 at 1:37
  • @Qiulang, thanks for your translation (it could benefit from some improvements; I can do that for you if you like). That's the story I found. Now, on a closer look, most of the examples I found are very recent and they come with what looks to me like Chinese characters, like this one, so maybe they've come from China. I found this Chinese(?) 2009 blog that makes a reference to the story (the students fail to find the biggest wheat but learn "the meaning of life and opportunity through this experience")
    – Jacinto
    Sep 1, 2022 at 16:52

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