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Greek Economics: The Ancient Edition

In his new column Peter Adamson wonders what the ancient Greeks had to say about economics.

It’s a rare philosophical argument that is actually decisive. Good thing too, since otherwise we philosophers could be out of a job pretty quickly. But I think that Aristotle did manage to give an incontrovertible argument against the proposal that the good life lies in the acquisition of wealth. Whatever else we say about the happy life, he observed, happiness is surely something we desire for its own sake. You don’t seek to become happy in order to achieve some further goal. Money, by contrast, is not something that can sensibly be desired simply for itself. It is valued only for what we can acquire with it, such as security, pleasures, and the opportunity to show virtue. Therefore a life that seeks to pile up wealth with no other end in view is incoherent.

This argument is found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 BC) as part of an adjudication between four contenders for the good life: the lives of money-making, or of seeking honor, pleasure, or virtue. Aristotle has a similarly persuasive case to make against the life devoted to honor: we wish to be honored not just for any old reason, but because we deserve to be honored. At most, then, honor comes as a kind of bonus on top of what we really want, which is to be or to have achieved something worthy of the honor. As for a life of pleasure-seeking, Aristotle dismisses it out of hand as suitable only for beasts. (Later in the Ethics he rehabilitates pleasure to some extent, admitting that the best life would also be a pleasant one – but again insisting that the pleasure comes only as a kind of bonus on top of whatever it is that would make life really worth living.) Out of the contenders for a happy life, that leaves the life of virtue. And virtue is complemented by pleasure, because the virtuous person takes pleasure in being virtuous; and by honor too, at least if one’s fellow citizens apportion honor rightly.

This may be pretty much what you expect from classical philosophers: forget about the pleasures of sex or the table, scorn the fat bank account, and turn up your nose at statues and medals: happiness lies in virtue alone! As it turns out, though, it’s rare to find ancient Greek philosophers saying that without qualifying it. (The one exception would be the Cynics, who indeed spurned societal norms to live ‘in accordance with nature’, which could mean living rough in voluntary poverty.) And although Aristotle insisted that the good life is the virtuous life, he cautioned that we need money as well. You can hardly hope to be virtuous without money, if only because generosity is a virtue: you need wealth to give it away. Common sense also tells you that such things as health, a flourishing family, and friends, belong to the good life, and Aristotle wasn’t against common sense on this score. For this eminently reasonable stance he would be roundly condemned by later classical philosophers, who saw his inclusion of ‘external goods’ in the best life as a sign of softness, and a departure from the true ethical teaching that virtue alone suffices for happiness.

Among his critics were the Stoics. Their famously rigorous ethical teaching was inspired by the Cynics, and they agreed with their ill-groomed colleagues about the sufficiency of virtue. Yet they admitted that other goods, such as health, could be ‘preferred indifferents’: indifferent because health is not needed for happiness, but preferred because all else being equal, it makes sense to opt for health over disease. So the Stoics did not follow the Cynics’ example by dropping out of society, living in wine barrels, having sex in public, and so on. Stoicism may have begun as such a counter-cultural movement, but in the end it would provide an ethos for well-to-do Romans. One of the most famous Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, was even Roman Emperor between 161 and 180 AD, and in terms of wealth and power that would make a Nineteenth Century robber baron gasp with envy. A similarly relaxed attitude towards wealth could be adopted by the neo-Platonists. The official teaching of that school was to place no value on bodily things; but this was consistent with holding on to the comforts that life has put in your way, if you’re lucky enough to be the son of a Roman aristocrat.

The rich male aristocrat was of course usually the intended reader, as well as the author, of ancient ethical writings. Hence the easy transition from ethics to the political sphere (a domain from which women and the poor, to say nothing of slaves, were typically excluded in antiquity) and to the art of overseeing one’s property. Aristotelian practical philosophy included the discipline of ‘economics’, which originally meant ‘household management’ (from the Greek oikos, meaning ‘home’).

Aristotle devoted no treatise to economics himself. That was left to later authors, who, despite their various philosophical allegiances, generally took the attitude candidly expressed by British political fixer Peter Mandelson: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” Was this mere hypocrisy – a sign that ancient ethics was nothing more than the landed gentry giving cozy advice to itself? I don’t think so. Plato had long before proposed that wealth can be a good thing, but only when used with wisdom. This is consistent with Aristotle’s knock-down argument that money is not an end in itself. And the Stoics do advise us to prepare ourselves for disaster, economic or otherwise.

In these days, when whole countries are faced by economic disaster, ancient advice remains useful: accept money and use it wisely when it comes, but do not sacrifice virtue to get it – and remember that there are things in life compared to which money, in any currency, has zero value.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2015

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, vol.1, Classical Philosophy (2014), vol.2, Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (2015), both based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast, and available from OUP.

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