BMCR 2003.01.07

Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens

, Greed and injustice in classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. x, 291 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 069104855X $39.50.

As Ryan Balot explains on the first page of this perceptive volume, he aims to “explore various facets of greed in Athenian society and political discourse from roughly 600 to 300 B.C.” (p. 1). Indeed he does, in a learned analysis of elite literary evidence, set in the intellectual framework of liberal political philosophy and of a functionalist model of social stability. Greed and Injustice offers, rather than new evidence, a reinterpretation of Athenian political history, with an emphasis on its turning points. Although B’s approach is selective rather than comprehensive, his is an ambitious project.

The title helpfully indicates what B means by his most important term. Greed in the mind of Athenians, B argues, was many things but, above all, it was a form of injustice. Archaic and classical Athenians offered two critiques of greed. The ethical critique condemns greed because it is an impoverished conception of the human soul which cannot lead to happiness or well-being. The societal critique attacks greed as a violation of fair distribution among individuals and groups. A greedy man takes more than is due to him. Callicles in Plato’s Republic is the very model of such a man. At least he is in every way except one, because Callicles wants pleasure, money, power — in short whatever he can get, whereas B’s typical greedy character wants material goods. B focuses on the societal critique and on the Callicles’s of Athenian thought and life because they have much more to say about the relationship of ideas and history than does the ethical critique and its avatars.

Whether this societal and justice-based conception of greed be true to the Athenians or not — and B makes a strong case that it is — it is not true today. The modern, common-sense English language notion of greed carries with it the connotation of insatiability. Our word greed has been connected with an Indo-European word meaning “to crave.” That is, greed today is mainly a psychological concept. A greedy Athenian needed philosophy; a greedy American needs therapy. Or maybe all he needs is a publicist, since on the societal level, as B points out, the notion of the invisible hand suggests that greed is good. We are a long way from Solon, as B is aware: he helps the reader to see what he calls “the historical distinctiveness of ancient Greek greed” (p. 15). B offers a stimulating overview of the evolution of greed from the Romans to the present day, though unfortunately it is only 7 pages long.

Rather than focus on a single Greek word for greed, B casts his net widely. As he states, the most important Greek term for his study is pleonexia (greediness) but synonyms also come into play, such as koros (greed or satiety), philochrematia (love of money), aischrokerdia (base covetousness), and epithumia chrematon (desire for money) as well as “variety of periphrastic expressions suggesting the idea of grasping for more in excess of what is needed, useful, or just” (p. 4). B’s approach is closer to that of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix in his use of the term class conflict or of various Mediterraneanists in their use of honor and shame than to it is to the semantic approach of, say, Fisher or Cairns in their studies of, respectively, hybris and aidos.

B defines political discourse broadly. Some of the texts he studies are those of practicing Athenian politicians, like Solon, Critias and Antiphon the oligarchs, and Andocides. Most of the book, however, traces the status of greed in the thought of leading intellectuals in Athenian history. B begins with Aristotle and his magisterial discussion of greed.

Next B offers a brief treatment of greed in Homer and Hesiod. Other subjects of B’s study, like Herodotus, were outsiders or quasi-outsiders, like the Athenian exile and sometime Athenian general Thucydides or the Athenian resident alien and speechwriter Lysias or the Athenian turned first mercenary and then Spartan pensioner, Xenophon. There are Athenian dramatists here, namely Aristophanes and Euripides, and there is the all-but unclassifiable essayist known as the Old Oligarch. The book ends with a philosopher again: this time, Plato, mainly of the Republic.

Although the fifth century gets more attention than any other period, Aristotle is B’s most important single text. For B, Aristotle offers, in the Ethics and Politics, a theoretical model that goes from human psychology to “the struggle between rich and poor over the polis’s divisible goods” (p.44). Aristotle argues that “the real root of political instability is self-aggrandizing behavior of every sort” and B applauds the Stagirite’s analysis of the psychology behind such actions (p. 56). The advantages of using Aristotle as a template are numerous and include that philosopher’s genius, breadth of vision, and his local knowledge mixed with the perspective of a foreigner resident in Athens. But there are disadvantages too. Philosophers run the risk of systematizing the unsystematic. And, as Judith Shklar noted, when it comes to understanding injustice (or greed), philosophers have not done as well as historians and especially as novelists (a point quoted by B, to his credit, p. 56).

Perhaps the most engaging of B’s arguments is his discussion of imperialism, which appears most prominently in his chapters on Herodotus and Thucydides. In Solon, greed leads to civil strife. Fifth-century Athenians solved Solon’s problem by exporting greed abroad. The arche gave every Athenian a piece of pie, so at home they were all able to just get along. This was of course not very comforting to the Aegean islanders and the rest of the allies who were at the other end of the stick. And instability in Athens followed Athens’ declining fortunes in the Peloponnesian War: oligarchy in 411 followed allied revolt in 413, and the Thirty rose in the shadow of Aegospotami.

B offers a subtle and nuanced discussion of democracy and imperialism in Herodotus. B’s thesis is summed up in his brief analysis of the Persian Tritantaechmes’ contrast between the Greeks and barbarians: Greek athletes compete for wreaths, barbarians compete for money (Hdt. 8.26.2). Yet it turns out that not all Greeks are equal. Spartans are much more noble than Athenians. The trouble is democracy. B refers to Athens’ decision in 499 B.C. to intervene in the Ionian Revolt on the Ionians’ side, an intervention declined by Sparta. And according to Herodotus, a risky intervention it proved to be — nothing less than the proximate cause of the Persian Wars (5.97.3). B writes:

The Athenian Assembly, by contrast [to Sparta], is persuaded not by considerations of nobility and honor, but by Aristagoras’s promises of material wealth. It is not only Themistocles who embodies the traits of Persian imperialism but the Athenian citizenry as a whole. (p. 122)

For Herodotus, democracy made Athenians not just imperialists but barbarians. According to B, the driving force was greed.

B also offers an insightful analysis of the implicit comparison in Thucydides between Corcyra with its relative lack of domestic political stability and Athens with its relative abundance. But not even Athenians can maintain ranks when their goods go bad. By the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athenian political thought “either expressed resentment at the greed and injustice of the demos, or incited aristocrats to embrace greed as an ideal of behavior” (pp. 219-220).

The result was, in turn, oligarchic rebellion and then the re-imposition of democratic hegemony. B reads Plato’s Republic as a response to the problem of greed in Athenian politics, especially in the oligarchic revolutions. The philosopher attempts to eliminate greed by the work of a supremely fair-minded and self-restrained ruler.

This book leaves a number of questions for future debate. Is it appropriate to use a modern rather than an ancient term to describe a phenomenon — to speak of greed rather than of pleonexia ? Was the crux of political contention in classical Athens in fact greed or was it something else — injustice, immoderation, or class conflict? Does an emphasis on materialism in Athenian politics do justice to such motives as ambition philotimia and shame aidos ? How would B’s account be confirmed or changed by a more detailed analysis of certain genres of literary texts (e.g., comedy) or by consideration of other sorts of evidence — e.g., inscriptions, grave goods, tombstones, domestic architecture, painted pottery? One thing is certain: this rich book heightens the reader’s appreciation of classical Athenian culture.

What stands out in B’s pages is just how communal Athenian culture was and how different were its conventions of behavior from our individualistic mores. Likewise, it is hard not to leave this book without being impressed by how materialistic democratic Athens was, even if materialism is not the whole story of Athenian culture. B is an admirer of Athenian democracy, but in the hands of a different thinker, the evidence that he amasses might serve as an indictment of democratic shallowness. It is greatly to B’s credit that his rich book enlivens the continuing debate.