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A History of Greek Economic Thought

A History of Greek Economic Thought
Title: A History of Greek Economic Thought
Release Date: 2018-10-30
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Transcriber’s Note:

Footnotes have been collected at the end of the text, and arelinked for ease of reference.


A History of Greek Economic Thought

The University of Chicago
2Copyright 1916 By
The University of Chicago
All Rights Reserved
Published August 1916
Composed and Printed By
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.


The need of a reinterpretation of Greek economic theory in thelight of our modern humanitarian economy is presented in theintroduction to this work. If this volume may, in some degree,meet such a need, by awakening the classicist to the existence ofimportant phases of Greek thought with which he is too unfamiliar,and by reminding the economist of the many vital points of contactbetween Greek and modern economy, our labor will have beenamply repaid. There are doubtless errors both in citations andin judgment which will not escape the critic’s eye. We trust,however, that the work is, on the whole, a fair representation ofthe thought of the Greeks in this important field. In the courseof our study, we have naturally been obliged to make constantreference to the actual economic environment of the Greeks, asa proper background for their theories. It is therefore our purposeto publish, at some future date, a general history of economicconditions in Greece, which may serve as a companion to thisvolume.

We gladly take this opportunity to express our gratitude toProfessor Paul Shorey, of the University of Chicago, for his suggestionof the subject of this work, as also for his many helpfulcriticisms and suggestions during the course of its preparation.

Lawrence College, Appleton, Wis.

November 1, 1915



I. Introduction 7

1. Previous works on Greek economic thought.

2. Scope, purpose, method.

3. General characteristics of Greek economic thought.

II. Economic Ideas before Plato, and Reasons for the Undeveloped Character of Greek Economics 14

III. Plato 22

1. General standpoint.

2. Theory of value.

3. Wealth: theory; moral attitude.

4. Production.

a) Agriculture.

b) Capital.

c) Labor and industry:

(1) Plato’s attitude toward.

(2) Division of labor.

(3) Slavery.

5. Money: theory; moral attitude; interest.

6. Exchange: theory; criticism of Plato’s negative attitude.

7. Population.

8. Distribution: theory; attitude toward laboring classes.

9. Communistic and socialistic ideas.

a) Reasons for such tendencies in Greek thought.

b) Republics before Plato: Hippodamas; Phaleas.

c) Plato’s Republic.

d) Plato’s Laws.

IV. Xenophon 63

1. Double standpoint.

2. Theory of value.

3. Wealth: practical interest in.

4. Production.

a) Theory; positive interest.

b) Agriculture.

c) Capital.

d) Labor and industry.

(1) Positive interest in its development.

(2) Division of labor.

(3) Slavery.

65. Money: theory; in favor of unlimited increase.

6. Exchange: proposed means for its free development.

7. Population.

8. Distribution: attitude toward masses.

9. Socialistic tendencies in the Revenues.

V. The Orators—Demosthenes, Isocrates 77

VI. Aristotle 81

1. Attitude toward matters economic; domestic and public economy.

2. Theory of value.

3. Wealth: theory; negative attitude toward.

4. Production: theory; negative standpoint.

a) Agriculture.

b) Capital: theory; negative interest.

c) Labor and industry.

(1) Negative attitude.

(2) Division of labor.

(3) Slavery.

5. Money: origin; theory; interest; reasons for the negative attitude of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.

6. Exchange: theory; tariff; criticism of “chrematistik.”

7. Population.

8. Distribution: theory; attitude toward masses.

9. Communism and socialism.

a) Negative criticism of Plato’s Republic and other systems.

b) Positive theory.

VII. Minor Philosophers, Contemporaries or Successors or Plato and Aristotle 125

1. The Academy, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Crantor.

2. Theophrastus.

3. Economica; the pseudo-Aristotelian Economica.

4. Cyrenaics: Aristippus; Bion.

5. Epicureans.

6. Cynics: Antisthenes; Diogenes; Crates.

7. Pseudo-Platonic Eryxias.

8. Teles.

9. Stoics: Zeno; Aristo; Cleanthes; Chrysippus; Plutarch.

10. Communistic tendencies after Aristotle.

VIII. General Conclusions on the Importance and Influence or Greek Economics 146

Bibliography 151

Index 157



For a complete list of scholars who have devoted more or lessattention to the economic ideas of Greek thinkers, the reader isreferred to the bibliography at the conclusion of this work. Onthe surface, the list appears to be reasonably extensive. It will beobserved, however, that the majority of the works are not of recentdate; that many of them deal largely with the practical phase ofeconomics; that most of the larger works on economic history treatGreek economic and social theory in a merely incidental manner,and that nearly all are written from the general standpoint of theeconomist rather than with the more detailed analysis of the classicist.The work of Souchon, the most extensive, careful, and satisfactorydiscussion of the subject, is no exception to this latter rule,and since his standpoint is too exclusively that of the older Englisheconomists, his criticism of the Greek theories is not always sufficientlysympathetic. The monumental volumes of Poehlmannhave treated Greek social theories thoroughly, but the chief interestof the author is rather in the actual social conditions, and hiswork is marred by a constant overemphasis of the analogy betweenancient and modern capitalism and socialistic agitation. Moreover,there is no book in the English language, on Greek economicthought, that treats the subject in anything more than the cursorymanner of Haney and Ingram.[1] There is, thus, still a place fora work of this type in the English language, written from thestandpoint of the classicist, but with a view also to the needs oftwentieth-century students of economics.

The present work aims to fulfil such a need. Its scope differsquite essentially from all other accounts of Greek theory previouslypublished, in that our purpose is not merely to considerthe extent to which the Greek thinkers grasped the principles of8the orthodox economy of Ricardo and Mill. We shall also endeavorto ascertain how far they, by the humanitarian and ethical toneof their thinking, anticipated the modern, post-Ruskin economy,which makes man, not property, the supreme goal, and recognizesthe multiplicity of human interests and strivings that belie theold theory of the “economic man.” Our verdict as to the importanceof the Greek contribution to economic thought is thus likelyto be somewhat more favorable than that which is usually rendered.

We purpose also to emphasize more than is often done theimportant fact that Greek theory is essentially a reflection ofGreek economic conditions, and that a true interpretation of thethought depends upon a clear understanding of the economic historyof Greece. However, as we shall see, this by no means impliesthat the anti-capitalistic theories of the Socratics are evidence ofan undeveloped state of commerce and industry in fifth- andfourth-century Athens.

The method of presentation is primarily chronological. Thusthe ideas of each thinker can be discussed in a more thorough andunitary manner, and more in relation to the contemporary economicconditions that gave rise to them. Moreover, despite somepractical advantages of the topical method, it savors too much ofan artificial attempt to force the Greek thinkers on the procrusteanrack of the concepts of modern economy.

The general characteristics of Greek economic thought haveoften been enumerated. They may be restated with advantage,at this point, together with some additions and needed criticisms.

1. Simplicity.—The theory of economics as a separate sciencenever developed in Greece. The consideration of economic problemswas incidental to the pursuit of politics and ethics. In so faras Greek thinkers treated such subjects, their theories reflect thecomparative simplicity of their economic environment. Withoutprejudging the issue as to the actual extent of capitalism in ancientAthens, we need only to think away the vast international scopeof our modern commercial problems, our giant manufacturingplants with their steam and electric power, our enormous wealthand its extreme concentration, the untold complexity of modernbusiness and finance, the vast territorial expanse of modern nations,9almost all our luxuries and commonplace comforts, to begin toappreciate something of this ancient simplicity.[2] However, asa direct result of this limitation, the Greeks were led to deal withtheir problems more in terms of men than in terms of things, andthus their economic vision was sometimes clearer and truer thanour own. Aristotle struck the keynote in Greek economic thoughtin stating that the primary interest of economy is human beingsrather than inanimate property.[3]

2. Confusion of private and public economy.—As a result of thissimplicity, the terms οἰκονομία and οἰκονομική were, both in derivationand largely in usage, referred to household managementrather than to public economy.[4] Domestic and public economywere regularly defined as differing merely in extent.[5] Aristotle,however, distinctly criticizes the confusion of the two.[6] Moreover,there is no warrant for the frequent assertion that Greekthinkers never rose above the conception of domestic economy.Xenophon’s treatise on the Revenues of Athens, and Aristotle’sentire philosophy of the state are a sufficient answer to such generalizations.The statement of Professor Barker that “politicaleconomy,” to Aristotle, would be a “contradiction in terms,” isextreme.[7] There is also a certain important truth in the Greek10confusion, which has been too generally missed by modern criticsand statesmen—that the public is a great property-holder, andthat politics should be a business which requires the application ofthe same economic and ethical laws as are admitted to govern inprivate affairs.

3. Confusion of economics with ethics and politics.—The assertionthat Greek economic theory was confounded with ethics andpolitics has become a commonplace. The economic ideas ofGreek thinkers were not arrived at as a result of a purposeful studyof the problems of material wealth. All economic relations wereconsidered primarily from the standpoint of ethics and statewelfare. “The citizen was not regarded as a producer, but onlyas a possessor of wealth.”[8] Such statements are too commonlyaccepted as a final criticism of Greek thinkers. Though the confusionwas a source of error, and caused Greek economic thoughtto be one-sided and incomplete, yet some important considerationsshould be noted.

a) The Socratic philosophers are our chief source for the economicideas of the Greeks. Too sweeping conclusions should not,therefore, be drawn from them as to the general attitude of theGreeks. Xenophon is much freer from the ethical emphasis thanthe other Socratics. Thucydides is entirely free from it, and veryprobably his standpoint came much nearer being that of theaverage Athenian citizen.

b) The confusion was not merely with individual ethics, forGreek moral philosophy always had the welfare of the state forits goal. Indeed, the basal reason for this close union of economics,ethics, and politics is the true idea that the state should rise aboveinternal strife, and unite all in a care for the common interest.[9]

c) The standpoint of the Greek philosophers is certainly nomore to be criticized than is that of the so-called orthodox politicaleconomy.[10] They represent two extremes. If the

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