BMCR 2022.05.16

Oikonomia: philosophie grecque de l’économie

, Oikonomia: philosophie grecque de l'économie. Kaïnon - anthropologie de la pensée ancienne, 18. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2021. Pp. 200. ISBN 9782406106692. €26,00.

Probably the best-known argument about the ancient Greek oikonomikos logos is that it has hardly anything to do with economics in the modern sense of the term, with the result that ancient Greeks had no conception of economics comparable to the contemporary one. This argument is put forth in M.I. Finley’s seminal The Ancient Economy. Whether one agrees with Finley or not, the argument does not rule out the possibility that the oikonomikos logos can, and perhaps even ought to, be studied for its own sake. We might want to talk about oikonomia rather than ‘economics’ to avoid any anachronisms, but even if the former does not share presuppositions, assumptions and methods with the latter, it can still be studied in order to examine ancient attempts to theorise wealth acquisition and management. Helmer’s Oikonomia: philosophie grecque de l’economie undertakes this task: it sets out to examine the nature of ancient oikonomic discourse, with its distinctive preoccupations, concepts, and commitments. This book is the first volume of two, focusing on oikonomia as a theory, while the second volume will cover applications of the theory to trade practices and institutions, markets, and discourses on money (p.18).

The author acknowledges that studies of Greek economic behavior on the basis of archaeological and textual evidence are not rare, but maintains that Greek oikonomic thought, that is, the way in which economic activities were theorized by ancient people, is still fairly understudied. This book aims to rectify this situation. A significant aspect of Helmer’s project is an attempt to approach and study Greek oikonomic thought on its own terms. After all, in the author’s own words: ‘stricto sensu, les Grecs ne produisent pas, ne consomment pas et ne distribuent pas: ils acquièrent, ils conservent et font usage’ (p.14).

In order to motivate the historical study of oikonomia as relevant to economics, all the while maintaining the awareness of its distinct preoccupations, Helmer introduces Karl Polanyi’s notion of substantive economics. Polanyi famously drew a distinction between the modern ‘formal’ economic discourse, focused on the management of scarce means and rational thinking (in the sense of the homo economicus model), and the substantive economic discourses which are embedded in the relation between people and their environments (p.16). Helmer argues that the latter notion is a productive way of approaching Greek economic thought as well. Thus, we can read surviving oikonomic texts as historic discourses on economics without incorporating modern assumptions about what elements such discourses ought to contain or what subject matter they ought to focus on.

One of the more significant assumptions, highlighted in the Introduction, is a distinction drawn by, among others, Hannah Arendt, between those aspects of human life that are dictated by necessity and those that are dictated by liberty. Oikonomic behavior seemingly falls into the former category, making it distinct from any political or philosophical engagement. This assumption contributes to the impression that oikonomia is concerned with the necessities of life, a focus which relegates it to the unremarked background of the ancient Greek intellectual world (p.15). Helmer challenges this division with a well-developed and multi-faceted discussion of Greek oikonomic texts, concluding that oikonomia was an integral part of the political and ethical discourses. The main argument convincingly shows that Greek oikonomic thought is best approached as a branch of ancient philosophy.

The main Greek oikonomic corpus is delineated early on in the book, and it turns out to be surprisingly large (pp. 38-42). Overall, the primary focus of this work is on texts from the Classical period, together with a few Hellenistic texts. The most prominent authors are Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, ps.-Aristotle, and Philodemus of Gadara. The book is structured not by author but by key themes emerging from this corpus. Overall, the book is divided into three parts which are further subdivided into chapters.

The first part of the book is largely methodological. It is dedicated to examining oikonomia as a type of expert knowledge, raising such questions as the objects of its study, the relationship between the oikonomic and the political, and the nature of oikonomia as a philosophical enquiry. The remaining two parts address various concepts that are key to ancient Greek oikonomia. The more detailed contents of each part are as follows. The first part is divided into two chapters. The first chapter addresses the question of the nature of ancient oikonomic discourse. Making various distinctions between ‘economy’ and ‘oikonomia’ and outlining the ancient Greek oikonomic corpus (the scope of which is mentioned above), the discussion sets out the key parameters that lay the foundations for the remainder of the study.

The second chapter examines the subject matter of oikonomia, as well as its distinct status as a kind of expert knowledge. The key question here is the relationship between oikos and polis, and, consequently, between their respective areas of expertise. The argument particularly focuses on the question of the degree of similarity (or even identity) between oikonomia and political expertise. Helmer shows that major texts in the corpus parse this relationship in slightly different ways, thus assigning different epistemic roles to oikonomia. The most outstanding is the treatment of Xenophon. In a relatively lengthy discussion, Helmer argues that Xenophon aims to establish a close similitude between oikonomic and political expertise (pp. 51-7). In this way, he departs significantly from Plato and Aristotle, who took management of the oikos and management of the polis to be fundamentally different types of skill.

The second part of the book is dedicated to the treatment of animate members of the oikos, primarily women and enslaved people. Like the first part, it consists of two chapters, the first one dedicated to the question of marriage and the role of women in the oikos, the second to the treatment of the enslaved. The detailed discussion of how different philosophers define and describe marriage and gender roles within it shows that there is an interesting correspondence between the conceptualization of oikonomia and accounts of marriage. The way in which an author understands the oikonomicexpertise also shapes the roles of the members of the oikos.

The second chapter in the second part looks at the ways in which different texts present the role of the enslaved people in the oikos. Here, again, Helmer notes various aspects which differentiate the stances of key authors from one another, while sketching out the key points concerning the reliance on enslaved people’s knowledge and strength, moral standings, and social status. The key takeaway here is the often-uneasy ways in which the pertinent texts portray both the similarities and the differences in the social status of members of the oikos.

The third part of the book looks at the ways in which the oikonomic corpus presents the management of inanimate parts of the oikos, that is, goods. This discussion is divided into three chapters in accordance with the three processes that constitute oikonomic transactions: acquisition, preservation, and use. One of the more outstanding points emerging from this overall discussion is the close proximity between the concerns of oikonomia and moral philosophy. The key theoretical preoccupation of the latter, the control of the appetites, is made into applied expertise in the former (p. 161).

The conclusion reiterates these key arguments, noting that oikonomia was an integral part of the philosophical discourse on the concept of the human as a social or political animal. Helmer also briefly notes the ways in which even contemporary economic discourses, methodologically far removed from oikonomia, echo the latter in their preoccupations, such as the notion of growth.

Thus, this volume convincingly delineates the scope, subject matter, and key themes of ancient Greek oikonomia. Given that the aim of the work is to examine fairly general preoccupations of this genre which emerge from reading a large number of texts, the study tends towards the big-picture discussion, sometimes at the expense of the more detailed treatment of specific issues. For example, the discussion pertaining to physiognomics is too short to be informative and not reflective of the current state of scholarship in this area. Having said this, it is important to note that such omissions are very few, and they do not have a significant impact on the main argument of this study. And, after all, certain restrictions of scope are inevitable when discussing the key characteristics of a fairly broad topic.

In all important respects, this volume presents a significant study of the key aspects of ancient oikonomic thought, not least because it is first of its kind to offer a comprehensive overview of this thinking. With the help of clearly-presented arguments, it convincingly places oikonomia on the curriculum of ancient philosophy, thus paving the way for further work in this promising area of study.