Pythagoras Today

Slate recently reran a New Scientist piece about the similarities between mathematical patterns musicologists use and mathematical patterns  researchers to explore other fields.  Pythagoras did something similar two and a half millennia ago, and built a whole religion around it.  The Pythagorean cult was apparently still up and running in 1959, that’s when no less a celebrity than Donald Duck was initiated into Pythagoreanism:

 

The internal structure of the calendar

The ancient Roman calendar gave special names to two days in each month: the Kalendae (in English, “Calends,”)which was the first day of the month; and the Idus (in English the “Ides,”) which was the fifteenth day of March, May, July, and October, but the thirteenth day of every other month.  Other days were specified by counting the days until the next Calends or Ides.  So, the last day of April was pridie Kalendas Maias, the first day before the Calends of May.  There was some special significance to what came to be called the Nonae (in English the “Nones,”) that is to say, the ninth day before the Ides.  So, in March, May, July, and October, the Nones would fall on the seventh day of the month, and in other months they would fall on the fifth day.  So today, being the fifth, is the Nonae Decembris.   As far as the formal language of law and religion were concerned, this arrangement around the Calends and the Ides constituted the whole internal structure of the month.  The Romans did experiment with various forms of the week, most notably an eight-day week that determined when markets would be held.  Undoubtedly these sequences of days would also have influenced the Romans’ perceptions of time, even if they were not regularly integrated into the official calendar.

I bring this up because of an xkcd strip that appeared a week ago today.  Cartoonist Randall Munroe used Google’s Ngram search to tabulate the number of occurrences of each date by its name (ordinal number + month name) in English-language books since 2000.  In months other than September, the 11th is mentioned substantially less often than any other date.  It's been that way since long before 9/11 and I have no idea why.

His results suggest that our months do have some kind of internal structure that is not illustrated on our usual calendars.  Those simply display numbers in a grid of weeks.  Yet Mr Munroe’s findings suggest that there is more to it than that.  As the mouseover text points out, in eleven of twelve months the eleventh is mentioned much less often than any other date.  The exception is of course September, where references to the events of 11 September 2001 propel that date to the very top of the list of frequently named dates.  Yet this pattern was already well-established before 2001, and there is no obvious explanation for it.

Some variations in frequency are relatively easy to explain.  The first of the month is usually a day when many bills and reports are due, and so the first is among the most named dates of each month.  Holidays are also prominent; notice, though, that the eleventh of November, Veterans’ Day in the USA and Remembrance Day in the countries of the Commonwealth, is no bigger on Mr Munroe’s chart than the little elevenths of the other months.  The 15th of April is quite prominent; that has traditionally been the day when income taxes were due in the USA.  But, in addition to the mystery of the obscured elevenths, we also notice that the fourth and nineteenth are bigger than average in most months.  Why would that be?  Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, but perhaps there is some explanation that would become obvious if we were in the habit of thinking of calendars, not as the grids of weeks that are usually tacked on walls in the West, but as structures built around major days, structures like those the ancient Romans used.  Too bad we can’t raise some ancient Romans from the dead and put them in charge of investigating the question, their perspective might result in a most fruitful study.  I suppose the best substitute would be classical scholars who have spent time studying the ancient Roman calendar.

A possible etymology of the name “Acilius”

I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC.  It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.

A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name.  Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan.  In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:

I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:

*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)

The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.

This intrigues me very much.  If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading.  Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.

On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself.  This is where the Acilii come to mind.  Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius.  A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley.  So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.

Paul Elmer More fans, take note!

Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) and Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) were the co-founders of a school of thought known as the “New Humanism” or “American Humanism.”  These literary scholars sought to establish that a particular set of propositions about morals and psychology could be found in the most respected books of many of the world’s great literatures.  Babbitt was an irreligious man, but he dutifully included the Bible on his list of Great Books; he took a serious academic interest in early Buddhist writings, and late in life began a study of Confucius.

While Babbitt included sacred texts in his studies in an attempt to show that there is a form of moralism that is compatible with many religions but dependent on none of them, More took a different approach.  He had a strong, though vague, religious leaning; after youthful studies of the Upanishads and other holy books from ancient India, he settled into Anglo-Catholicism.  By far the most popular of More’s books in his lifetime was The Sceptical Approach to Religion; I suspect its popularity is based solely on its title.  While the rest of his books are written in a remarkably clear, easy style, The Sceptical Approach to Religion is largely unreadable.  Intended as a work of apologetics, the book consists primarily of disavowals, qualifications, and backpedaling of every sort.  The Sceptical Approach to Religion appeared in 1934, the year after Irving Babbitt’s death.  I suspect that if the notoriously pugnacious Babbitt had been alive to give his opinion of the book, More would never have dared release such a mealy-mouthed production.

Although The Sceptical Approach to Religion presents readers with an extraordinarily murky version of More’s religious ideas, his most sustained scholarly work, the five-volume treatise known as The Greek Tradition, paints a clearer picture.  The full title of the series is The Greek Tradition from the Death of Socrates to the Council of Chalcedon (399 BC to 451 AD.)  Its thesis is that the development of ancient Greek philosophy beginning with Plato found its logical culmination in the debates at the Council of Chalcedon and the doctrines that emerged from those debates.  The study has its eccentric aspects certainly, and shows its age.  Nor can a nonbeliever quite take More’s thesis seriously.  Nonetheless, I can say that it has repaid me well every time I’ve read it, for all my skepticism.

Now we have a new book that apparently reflects a research program similar in scope, if not in theological purpose.  Marian Hillar, a professor of philosophy and biochemistry* at Texas Southern University, has published a book called From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.)  A review of the book by Patricia Johnston of Brandeis University was recently sent to members of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South.  Professor Johnston writes:

In this sweeping review, Marian Hillar attempts to trace the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, from the early pre-Socratic philosophers to Tertullian, with a special focus on Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), Justin Martyr (115–165 CE), and Tertullian (160–225 CE).

Paul Elmer More would have been alarmed at that part; he objected to the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that early Christians thought of the Holy Spirit as something on a par, not with God the Father and God the Son, but with the communion of the saints or other expressions that might very well name something of great religious importance, but that no one thought of as one of God’s Persons.  Still, More had some reservations about Justin Martyr’s orthodoxy and thought of Tertullian primarily as a notorious heretic, so he might not have found it too hard to believe that they were precursors of Trinitarianism.

*Professor Hillar was a medical doctor before earning his philosophy Ph.D.

Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria, by Maren Niehoff

Nowadays there’s a lot of controversy among believers as to what if anything the latest trends in historical scholarship, literary theory, and the social sciences can teach us about how to read holy books.  That isn’t new; Professor Maren Niehoff of  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written a book called Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria about evidence that sheds light on how the Jews of Alexandria read the Bible in the years from 322 BC to AD 50.

The ethnically Greek residents of Alexandria had developed the study of Homer’s poems in directions that sometimes seem unsettlingly modern, and some Jewish Alexandrians had applied their techniques to the study of the Bible.    People who think it’s anachronism to hear about Mikhail Bakhtin or Judith Butler or Wolfgang Iser or Wendy Doniger in a study of the Bible might sympathize with ancients like Aristeas and Philo of Alexandria who were incensed with their fellows who seemed to think that you had to read Aristotle and other cutting-edge intellectuals to understand the scriptures.

I haven’t seen Professor Niehoff’s book yet.  I’ve read a review of it by Bruce Louden that was sent to a mailing list I’m on.  Here’s an interesting paragraph from Professor Louden’s review:

Part II, “Critical Homeric Scholarship in the Fragments of Philo’s Anonymous Colleagues,” situates Philo by demonstrating his differences with his contemporaries. Some anonymous contemporary exegetes, for instance, apply something close to the techniques of comparative mythology to analyze the Tower of Babel episode (comparing it to the myth of the Aloeidae), which he rejects. In their analysis of biblical texts they evidence the influence of Aristotle, and Alexandrian Homeric text-critics, seeing parallels between Homeric epic and the Bible. They place the story of Isaac in a context of actual narratives of child sacrifice, resolving interpretive issues by arguing for historical distance, as Aristotle does in the fragments of the Aporemata Homerica. They thus argue that the Bible, and its religion, has developed and evolved over time. Philo himself espouses a strongly conservative perspective, that Moses has written “eternal, unchanging truth” (95). His contemporaries, in strong contrast, criticize some of God’s acts, such as the confusing of languages in Genesis, as making matters worse for humanity. The section concludes with discussion of how the biblical exegetes, applying Alexandrian Homeric text-critical methods to passages with grammatical problems or flaws in the Greek text, were willing to correct words or phrases. While neither Philo nor his anonymous colleagues know Hebrew (they only know the Old Testament in the LXX), Philo nonetheless argues that the “flaws” could be explained by finding deeper meaning of some sort.

 

Walking in Roman Culture

For years I’ve had it in the back of my mind to prepare a study called Posture and Gait in Classical Antiquity.  We have a variety of sources that could help us reach conclusions about how various types of people tended to stand and move in ancient times.  There are literary descriptions of posture and gait, visual artworks depicting people standing and walking, clothes that required a particular posture and gait if they were to stay on the wearer’s body, shoes that exhibit particular patterns of wear, buildings with entryways that accommodate some strides better than others.  Were such a study completed, it could open the door to investigations in topics ranging from dance to infantry operations to architecture to the status of the disabled and the expression of social class in antiquity.

I’ve never got around to beginning such a study, and now I find that someone has had a similar idea.  Timothy M. O’Sullivan of Trinity University has written a book called Walking in Roman Culture.  According to a review by Alana Lukes that circulated on an email list of members of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, a professional organization of American classicists, Professor O’Sullivan’s book presents “a compilation of citations from ancient sources which mention the physical activity of walking by the ancient Romans,” and does not go into depth on any other sort of evidence.  Still, that’s quite enough material for one book.  The magnum opus I have occasionally toyed with the idea of creating would be the work of decades, and Professor O’Sullivan appears to be  quite a young fellow.  So perhaps he’ll end up writing such a thing.

Some interesting comments by Michael Peachin about a new book on the Emperor Claudius

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

As a subscriber to Classical Journal, I regularly receive emailed reviews of new scholarly books concerning ancient Greece and Rome.  The other day, for example, they sent me Michael Peachin‘s review of Claudius Caesar: Image and Power in the Early Roman Empire, by Josiah Osgood (Cambridge University Press, 2010).  The only other notice I’d seen of the book was a drearily dutiful one in The Bryn Mawr Classical Review, so I was surprised that Peachin found some exciting points in the book.  I’ll quote two of these points:

Several recent accounts of Roman emperors have sailed off on a new tack. Instead of attempting a traditional biographical interpretationof the man, and thereby also a chronicle of his reign, each of thesehas sought to present an emperor on his own terms, and/or to view himas he was perceived by certain groups of contemporaries (other than theelite authors, who usually monopolize discussion). Thus, Caligula was notout of his mind; he simply had no taste for playing republic, when thereality was despotism; and so, he fashioned himself overtly as a tyrant,regardless of the consequences – or perhaps precisely to elicit certainones of those (A. Winterling, Caligula: A Biography [Berkeley, 2011]).

 

When I was in graduate school, I took a seminar on Roman history in which the professor horrified about half the class by spending a day arguing that Caligula was probably not a lunatic.  A few of my classmates were committed to the view of the third emperor presented in the ancient historical texts, and were appalled to hear a revision of that view; the others were committed to the idea that the only sort of history worth doing was social history that focused on the most numerous groups in a society, and so were appalled that we were spending so much time on the question of one man’s mental health.  I was not in either of those groups, but loved the day and have been defending Caligula ever since.  By the way, there’s a fine review of Winterling’s book in September’s New Criterion.  I recommend it to the the general reader.

Peachin makes a point that I found especially fascinating:

Augustus, in fine, had played his part well; but as Osgood aptly demonstrates, he fated all the various players in the sequel to write their own scripts as they went. In any case, Osgood argues that Claudius quite actively tried to shape his own time as emperor, and that in doing so, he contributed materially to the development of the imperial ‘system.’ As we observe this particular emperor at work, we are also being nudged slightly away from Fergus Millar’s  picture of a more passive, and perhaps generic, sort of monarch (The Emperor in the Roman World [Ithaca, 1977]): “…who the emperor was mattered” [136]). Still, Osgood sees quite clearly that Claudius (or any emperor) was indeed only one person; and hence, the princeps’  direct involvement with his subjects was perforce limited. Thus, when an emperor did choose to intervene, the event was so momentous as to carry an aura of the divine. That said, Claudius was no lone actor. We are reminded, throughout, that “…much of this emperor’s image, like any other’s, was constructed in dialogue with his subjects” (317.)

So, it was precisely because the emperor’s position was inherently weak that he inspired awe in his subjects.  This is just the sort of paradox I can never resist.

Many readers will be familiar with the theory that historian Arnaldo Momigliano developed and that Robert Graves popularized in his novels about Claudius.  Under this theory, Claudius wanted to phase out the principate and restore the old Republic.  Peachin explains Osgood’s view of this theory with admirable concision:

Following Momigliano’s observations (Claudius: the Emperor and His Achievement [Oxford, 1934]), Osgood stresses the fact that Augustus’ uneasy amalgam of republic and empire remained a befuddling puzzle  for Claudius (indeed, for every emperor). In particular, the quasi-retention of a republican state meant that a new imperial system of   government could not be crafted with anything even approaching clarity, or in any detail. Thus, to start at the start, when Gaius [a.k.a. Caligula] was murdered, and had not indicated a successor, a conclusively ‘proper’ or ‘constitutional’ way forward was nowhere to be discovered. That notwithstanding, Claudius was quickly on the throne; but then, the awkward facts of his accession, not to mention the earlier vituperation of him by members of the Augustan house (and others), seriously undercut his authority. Attempting to counter such hindrances, and just generally in his zeal to rule as he found appropriate, Claudius was too fastidious.     The result was a nasty paradox: “The loftier the goals the emperor set  for his administration, the more likely he was to fail, and to open himself to allegations of incompetency, or even corruption. Yet precisely  to try to win loyalty and increase his prestige, Claudius had to set   loftier goals than those of Tiberius, even those of Caligula” (189).

Considering that the written law in Rome in 41 BC was predicated on the idea that the Republic was still functioning, and that Claudius owed the principate to the very group of men who had just violently murdered his predecessor, it would have been quite a challenge for him to find a way to present his accession as legitimate without appealing to the idea of a restored Republic.   In no position to prosecute the assassins of Caligula, Claudius could only appeal to the right of tyrannicide, and thus evoke the two Brutuses, one who according to legend struck against the Tarquins in order to end the monarchy and establish the Republic, and the other who struck against Julius Caesar the Dictator in an attempt to prevent a new monarchy from ending the Republic.   If there were people who took this forced imposture at face value, one can hardly blame Claudius.

 

Did astrology originate in cities?

I wonder if the first astrologers were city-dwellers.  True, archeologists have found evidence that people who lived before the rise of cities paid close attention to the orbit of the Moon and identified constellations, and have argued that the orientations of temples and other religious structures from those days suggest that they attached a religious significance to the movements of heavenly bodies.  Those activities are hardly surprising; farmers need a calendar to plan their year, as hunter-gatherers also need to plan their expeditions for times when game will be relatively plentiful and fruit ripe for the picking.  Still, it might not be too much of a stretch to look at a society that invests heavily in maintaining and publicizing its calendar and to see a suggestion of something like what the western branch of organized Christianity used to call “natural astrology,” a set of ideas about ways in which heavenly bodies might influence the earth’s weather and various medical phenomena related to the transmission of disease.

Quite distinct from natural astrology are the various studies to which the Western Church used to refer as “judicial astrology.”  That’s the part that includes horoscopes, sun signs, and the like.  The difference matters when considering the origins of astrology; we have very ancient documents relating to the movements of heavenly bodies that seem to have some special significance and that predate the earliest references to judicial astronomy by centuries.  So, I’ll use the terms.

It is sometimes said that our earliest evidence of judicial astronomy comes from Mesopotamia, but that is misleading.  The nation state didn’t exist in those days; Ur and Lagash and Akkad and Babylon and the other urban centers that rose and fell in that region interacted with the political and economic systems of the countryside around them in a variety of ways, but in other ways they remained quite distinct.  It is in such cities that we find the first documents describing judicial astrology.

If astrology did arise in cities, it arose in a social environment where markets were familiar.  Its entire history would have taken place amid money, contracts, and production for exchange.  That calls into question the assumptions that we discussed last year when this xkcd appeared:

Not to be confused with "selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works," which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.

Some people fall into the assumption that, because markets promote something called “rationality,” they must therefore favor every form of reason and disfavor every form of unreason.  However, the rationality which comes from markets is in fact something of a very narrow sort.  A month after our discussion, we noted that Shikha Dalmia had put it very well: “Markets don’t reward merit, they reward value.”  Dalmia summarizes the views of economist Friedrich Hayek:

In a functioning market, Hayek insisted, financial compensation depends not on someone’s innate gifts or moral character. Nor even on the originality or technological brilliance of their products. Nor, for that matter, on the effort that goes into producing them. The sole and only issue is a product’s value to others. Compare an innovation as incredibly mundane as a new plastic lid for paint cans with a whiz-bang, new computer chip. The painter could become just as rich as the computer whiz so long as the savings from spills that the lid offers are as great as the productivity gains from the chip. It matters not a whit that the lid maker is a drunk, wife-beating, out-of-work painter who stumbled upon this idea through pure serendipity when he tripped over a can of paint. Or that the computer whiz is a morally stellar Ph.D. who spent years perfecting his chip.

As markets are neutral as to the virtue or vice of economic actors, so too are they neutral as to the truth or falsity of the ideas that those actors bring as products for sale.  If falsehoods are in demand, falsehoods will sell; if truths are not in demand, their bearers will go begging.  The mouseover text for the xkcd represents a nod to this fact, and an attempt to wriggle out of its implications: “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  That won’t do, since it assumes that we can assign a fixed meaning to the expression “works.”  An investment advisor who believes in astrology may not be any likelier than other advisors to beat the market, but s/he may very well use that belief to “make a killing,” if s/he attracts clients who strongly value such a belief.  In that case, astrology would not “work” in the sense that quantitative analysts officially recognize, but it would make the advisor every bit as rich as it would if it did meet their definitions of success.  As for whether it makes the clients rich, well, Fred Schwed answered that one in 1940:

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, an out of town visitor was being shown the wonders of the New York financial district.  When the party arrived at the Battery, one of his guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor.  He said, “Look, these are the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts.”  “Where are the customers’ yachts?,” asked the naive visitor.

Clearly, markets have not dissolved belief in astrology, any more than the continued non-existence of the customers’ yachts has discouraged people going to brokers and bankers.  If the practice of judicial astrology first arose in cities, it may in fact be a by-product of market society.  Perhaps we might find that judicial astrology began, not simply as a more elaborate version of a natural astrology that had long been a feature of rural life, but as an attempt to understand market interactions and the power of the market.  In that case, it would qualify as a school of economics.  One may wonder whether judicial astrology would be the most absurd such school in practice today.

The Loeb Classical Library

A logo Harvard commissioned to celebrate the publication of the 500th volume in the Loeb series

In honor of this year’s 100th anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, the Barnes & Noble Review posts a piece by Adam Kirsch on the books in that series that describe Socrates.  These include not only the dialogues of Plato, but also Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Aristophanes’ Clouds.

If I were given Kirsch’s assignment, I would not have chosen these as examples of the strengths of the Loeb Library.  Most of the 518 volumes in the Loeb series have the same format: a brief introduction, combining remarks about an ancient Greek or Roman author with remarks about the manuscripts in which that author’s works have come down to us; then one of those works, presented in the original on the left hand page and an English translation on the facing page.  A few years after the Loebs began to appear in the USA, the Collection Budé began to appear in France.  The Budés are rather like the Loebs, only with French translation on the left and the original on the right.

When the Loeb series began in 1911, the texts and translations were of wildly uneven quality.  The great problem the series faced was that each volume was entrusted to one person, who might be an accomplished textual critic or an accomplished translator, but who was not especially likely to excel in both of those fields.  Very poor translations were produced when, as some critics put it, men who had never before tried their hand at English verse were required to translate Greek verse into it; A. S. Way’s translation of Euripides was long famous as an example of this.  The translations by David Kovacs that replaced Way’s version are certainly readable, though, perhaps in reaction to Way’s ludicrously purple versifying, they are so resolutely unpoetic as to obscure the fact that Euripides was writing verse drama.

Even some of the prose translations were unreadable; at times I’ve picked up A. D. Godley’s Loeb of Herodotus to sort out some thorny passage in the Greek, only to find that I was using the Greek as a crib to decipher Godley’s English.  The Loeb translations of the Socratic writings aren’t as badly rendered as that, but none is among the best translations of its original available in English. Other volumes were feature readable translations, but unreliable texts.  Again, the Socratic volumes aren’t the worst offenders, but neither would their Greek texts be useful to a scholar.

If I had to choose a single volume to praise the Loeb series, I would pick A. W. Mair’s edition of Oppian, Colluthus, and Tryphiodorus.   Not only are the texts exemplary, but the translations are sufficiently sensitive that even a Greekless reader might be able to understand why the two poems attributed to Oppian are unlikely to have been produced by the same person.  (Granted, it helps that the author of each poem starts by telling us where he was born, and it isn’t the same place, but still, the style is important.)  And the footnotes represent a fine commentary on these three neglected authors.

Two items of interest to Classics types

When the world was young and I was in grad school, many of my classmates went to Rome to hang out with Father Reginald Foster.  Reggie, as they all called him, is an American priest who at that time was in charge of translating official Vatican documents into Latin.  His schedule was light in the summer, so Reggie ran a summer institute in conversational Latin.  Granted, there aren’t any native speakers of Latin around to converse with, but there is a substantial body of permanently interesting Latin literature, and it is easier to read the language if you can also speak it.

Reggie moved back to Milwaukee after Pope John Paul II died.  He teaches conversational Latin there from time to time.  No future generations of graduate students will be studying under him in Rome, but two current graduate students have revived the Rome summer program  They call it the Paideia Institute Slate magazine ran a piece about it recently.

David Graeber

Also of keen interest to classicists is this recent interview that economic anthropologist David Graeber granted to the website Naked Capitalism.  Graeber summarizes Adam Smith’s hypothesis that money originated as an advancement on barter systems that had prevailed before its adoption.  He then points out that in the 235 years since Smith published that hypothesis in The Wealth of Nations, observers have examined thousands of cultures in search of examples of pre-monetary barter economies, and that they have yet to find one.  Graeber concludes that Smith’s hypothesis is thereby defeated.  Societies which have not invented money do not organize markets around barter; they do not organize markets at all.  Money and markets arise together, and barter becomes widespread only when currency systems collapse.  Non-monetary societies distribute goods and services, not through markets, but through hierarchies in which obligations are based on force.  The king or chief or whatever he is has what he has because everyone else is indebted to him for protection and status, and they have what they have because of their relations with him.  When multiple authorities lay claim to the same person, they need a way of sorting out whose claim comes first and which authority is entitled to demand what deference or service.  Sometimes they develop a way of sorting those claims that involves quantifying them and making them transferable.  Once claims on a person’s deference or service can be quantified and transferred, there is a need for tokens to signify the quantification and contracts to enforce the transfer.  That is to say, there is money, and with it the dawn of market society.

Graeber makes some remarks that are similar to points that come up in some classes I teach.  For example:

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.

When I’m talking to a class, I’m rather more emphatic than Graeber in saying that in this conclusion Aristotle was a man of his time, and that our view of wage labor as a form of freedom may be as legitimate in its own way as was the Greek view of wage labor as a form of slavery.  Partly that difference in views stems from the fact that so many slaves in ancient Greek cities were paid wages, and that those who labored side by side with free people in big workshops were paid exactly the same wages as those (nominally) free people, while American slaves were generally denied access to money.  Still, I do have a lecture that unnerves them when it ends with my remark that Aristotle would not have thought that we moderns have abolished slavery, but that we have abolished freedom.

I can’t resist quoting another bit of the Graeber’s interview.  After he derides the idea of money as a development subsequent to a barter economy, we have this exchange:

PP: You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You’ve been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche’s argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?

DG: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.
In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.

But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up.

But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says ‘twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye’ – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don’t pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock’s pound of flesh.
Needless to say there’s zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn’t.

Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.

If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.

Nietzsche may once have been overrated as a political thinker, but I believe that he is now seriously underrated in that wise.  So the bit above made me happy.

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