Tuesday 19 August 2014

Nectar for the gods: how money made Western culture different

I've never really thought that the fact Greek gods lived off nectar and ambrosia was particularly consequential, but having read Richard Seaford's book, Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, it seems to have played a fundamental role in the development of Western culture, particularly science, politics and finance.

Unless you are a racist, it is difficult to explain why Western culture delivered wealthy democracies faster than other equally well endowed societies.  Since reading Richard Halden's On the shoulders of merchants and Joel Kaye's Economy and nature in the fourteenth century I have been interested in the role that commercial practice played in the emergence of European science, notably how commercial mathematics lead to the mathematisation of science. More recently I have become interested in how commercial practice facilitates the development of democratic politics; that is, a political system that is open to public criticism. In my recent paper on reciprocity I identify connections between finance, science and democracy. My thinking has focused on events in the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, Seaford's argument takes us right back to the origin of Western thought in the pre-Socratic philosophers and the transormation from beliefs in gods with personalities to abstract, universal conceptions and presents the case that money was central to this transformation.  Reading the book reinforces my belief that society should  develop a shared conception of what money is in order to support social cohesion

Seaford compares Greek culture principally with the nearby culture of Mesopotamia, with the occasional reference to Egypt.  He is currently working on the a comparison of ancient Greek and Indian cultures.  This leaves out China, but I feel Mesopotamian beliefs can be regarded as representative of Egyptian, Indian and Chinese beliefs in Seaford's argument.

John Maynard Keynes became obsessed with Babylonian economics before writing his Treatise on Money, noting that the Babylonians employed money as a unit of account such that credit money pre-dated bullion money. This supports state, or chartalist, theories of money as a social construction.  Seaford presents a richer argument.

Mesopotamiam societies were, what Seaford labels, redistributive
In the elaborate state systems of Mesopotamia the centralisation had reached an extreme point: redistribution has become the enforced collection of goods and services at a central building (notably temple or palace), where they are used for the upkeep of the central institution, redistribution amongst the population, and for communal functions such as storage against famine, the administration of justice and irrigation [p 69]
Mesopotamian religion believed that humans existed to feed the gods and the priests/monarchs were the direct servants of the gods [p 74].  People worked to deliver resources to the centre and the centre re-distributed the resources to the population. Power originated with the gods and could be tapped by the performance of the appropriate ritual, and personal seals (amulets) carried the personal power of the ruling classes.

The Greeks believed that their gods lived on nectar and ambrosia, when they made a sacrifice the smoke of the cooking meat 'honoured' the gods, the cooked meet was distributed equally amongst the community.  The fairness of this sharing was fundamental to Greek culture with both the Iliad and the Odyssey resting on problems resulting from unfair (re)distibution [p 44-45].  Seaford emphasises how in Mesopotamian cultures the wealth of the temples was owned by the ruling classes, where as the wealth of the Greek temples was 'owned' by the community
the provision of sacrifice was a matter not just for the sanctuaries but also for the polis. The relationship between the polis and sanctuaries in this matter is hard to disentangle. [p 81]
Seaford then goes on to argue that this process of communal, fair, distribution of sacrificial meat, is the origin of 'money'.

To claim to have identified the origin of money, Seaford must first define what is meant by money.  In the context of his work Seaford identifies the characteristics of money as something that:

  1.  has the power to meet social obligations (i.e. exchange value, legal compensation, tribute).
  2. is quantified (i.e. it is not valued for subjective value)
  3. provides a measure of value (i.e. facilitates transitive relations between objects)
  4. is generally accepted (i.e. everyone recognises it)
  5. is exclusively accepted
  6. carries fiduciarity, (i.e. it is trusted, people have confidence in its immutability as money.  Gresham's Law was first described by Aristophanes around 405 BCE in his play The Frogs).
  7. may be associated with the state.
The emergence of Bitcoin since the book was published in 2004 might undermine properties (5) and (6), but otherwise  these seem reasonable.  Seaford notes that modern modern money, what he describes as 'token money', is distinct from Greek money because it is un-related to the religiously significant precious metals, electrum, gold and silver.  However, he also notes that Greeks were less concerned with the purity of coin circulating amongst themselves than others were [p 137].

The basis of the relationship between Greek sacrifices and Greek money is linguistic: the lowest value Greek coin was the obolos, and its took its name from the spits (obelos) that were used to distribute sacrificial food and it is almost certain that the word drachma comes from obeliskon drachmai, 'handfuls of spits' [p 102].  It is harder to explain why spits turned into coin money [6.B] but I think the following passage is significant
socially central sacrificial communality was unknown in the redistributive economies of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where accordingly money functions were performed by mere substances (silver, barley, copper, etc.).  Just as entitlement to participate in the Greek sacrificial meal comes to embody participation in the polis as citizen [3.A], so the inheritance of sacrificial distribution in generating collective confidence is reinforced, and then replaced, by the mark stamped on the metal by the polis.  The polis, controlling communal sacrifices and the temple treasuries that developed out of the sacrifices, stamps on the metal distributed a symbol that transcends the particularity of specific treasuries and sacrificing groups, establishing the value of the metal, and enhances the identity of the polis among both its own citizens and outsiders [p 113-114].
What I find striking in this passage, and the surrounding text, is that money is essentially 'owned' by the community.  I believe this is a significant  point in the context of the current 'crisis in confidence' of our financial system.  In addition, pre-Socratic Greek culture was not blind to the problems of money, they recognised a connection between tyranny and the personal control of money ([p 99], ''Greek tyrants, wealthy in precious metal'' [p 118], [p 121]) and there appear to be problems when wealth becomes personified, as the Mesopotamians personified power.  Shortly after reading Seaford's argument I read Brett Scott's piece 'Much soul, very emotion: Why I buy into the cult of Dogecoin' and I sense that the answers to many of Brett's questions could emerge from Seaford's analysis.

Seaford's argument is that Greek philosophy was a consequence of the unique way the Greeks percieved and used money, in everyday transactions.  He basis this case on the features of (Greek) money:

  1. It is homogeneous.  While the metal coins might vary in weight and precious metal content coins are made homogeneous by being stamped with the mark of the polis.  The homogeneity enables money to be a measure of value.  While coin is homogeneous, it also homogenises its users.   Kaye [p 74] makes a similar point in the context of scholastic analysis.
  2. It is impersonal.  Because money is homogeneous, it is impersonal; we do not have our favourite coins.  This makes money 'promiscuous', we can use it for (almost) anything with anyone.
  3.   Because it is impersonal it is a universal means: "A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things".
  4. It is a universal aim.   Sophocles Antigone of around 411 BCE considers "the desire to make profit out of everything" and the Greeks became aware of the problems resulting from intemperate desire for money.
  5. It is unlimited.  Solon (c. 638 BCE – c. 558 BCE) is reported as saying "Of wealth there is no limit that appears to men.  For those of us who have the most wealth are eager to double it".  Solon lived in a pre-monetised Athens and money only facilitates the acquisition of wealth.  the homogeneity and limitlessness of money leads to associations with the ocean.
  6. It unites and transforms.  Theognis (c550 BCE ) argues that wealth persuades the good to turn bad, the ugly become beautiful and so forth.  Similarly money can transform corn into meat and "In Aeschylus's image of Ares as 'gold-changer of bodies' the large and personal (bodies) is transformed into the small and impersonal (dust, money). [p 171]"
  7. It is both concrete and abstract.  There is a discrepancy between the value of Greek money and its metallic value, and so it is abstracted from the concrete and becomes ideal and invisible.  We think of money in terms of number, not objects.  But, this abstraction is dependent on the concrete symbol signifying their value.
  8. Money is distinct.  Its ability to buy everything along with the ability to store, conceal and transport, makes money a  unique substance.  I observe that it is almost the social equivalent of physical energy.

 Having identified these properties Seaford makes the case for the role of money in the development of Greek philosophy.  He starts by criticising the two leading explanations for the emergence of Greek philosophy offered by Vernant and Lloyd.  Vernant argues that "In the polis (in contrast to monarchy) citizens are ruled by, and are equal in respect to, impersonal law" while Lloyd emphasises the "freedom of public debate characteristic of the polis: specifically, on the radical revisability of laws, and constitution by the citizens, on their expectation and evaluation of rational justification (evidence and argument), and on the public contexts of competitiveness".  Seaford (along with others) challenges these accounts with the questions "when" and "where", arguing that the argument is not supported by when and where Greek philosophy actually emerged.

The earliest recorded Greek philosopher is Thales of Miletus (c. 624 – c. 546 BCE), but Seaford does not discuss Thales in detail because our understanding of his thought comes primarily from Aristotle.  However, it is worth noting that the earliest coins are from Miletus, Aristotle reports that Thales was rich on account of his commercial expertise and is associated with rejecting the role of anthropomorphic gods in natural phenomena.  

Seaford does discuss Thales 'student' Anaximander (and Xenophanes, a fellow Milesian, Parmenides and Heraclitus) at length focusing on the most important aspect of his thought, the principle of  to apeiron.  The aperion is the primal source of the universe, it is unlimited and encapsulates opposites.  Vernat argues that the origin of the aperion is in the 'equilibrium and reciprocity between equals' that was a feature of the polis. But it is difficult for Vernat to associate the process of opposites emerging and being consumed by the aperion to the polis.  Seaford offers an explanation in the use of compensation in resolving conflicts and this is only possible in a monetised society, and the first society to be monetised was Miletus.  Seaford identifies nine other analogues between money and aperion:
  1. Both are unlike all other things and unique.
  2. Each, in a sense, contains all things.
  3. Both precede and persist all other things (money must exist before it can be used)
  4. They are both dynamic, in perpetual motion.
  5. They both surround and steer all things
  6. They are both impersonal (the aperion is not god-like)
  7. They are both perceived as being unlimited
  8. They are both homogenous
  9. they are both abstract
Seaford then addresses the issue of monism, the belief that the the universe is based on a single essence.  This is counter-intuitive in general and would have been particularly problematic in a polytheistic society.  Monism is somewhat distinct from monotheism, which pre-date Greek philosophy, in that the essence of the Greek philosophers was impersonal and abstract: unlike Yahweh or Ahura Mazda.  This distinguishes Greek thought, ultimately democratic, from other monisms that centre on a supreme monarch.  These observations relate to Kaye's discussion [pp 19-36] of the cultural, both political and scientific,  impact of the public realisation that the French king Phillip IV had no sovereignty over the market in the first decade of the fourteenth century.

The most exciting section of the book is the discussion of the Pythagoreans.  I believe that modern science, in particular mathematics and physics, rest on the foundations laid by Fibonacci and the generations of financial mathematicians that followed him.  Seaford takes this viewpoint back to the Pythagoreans (again Seaford avoids Pythagoras himself as he is largely mythic).

The priests of the Pythagorean cult were known as  the mathematikoi, which is the Greek for someone who studies and captures the difference between Greek and other, such as Bablyonian, mathematical traditions.  In other cultures mathematics was based principally on observation: the Babylonians observed the Pythagorean triples, the Greeks attempted to prove a theorem explaining the observation. In this respect the Greeks can be seen as focusing on theory rather than practice.  Seaford argues that this separation has its roots in the Greeks' experience of money.  Fundamentally money involves a universally acknowledged quantitative abstraction, and on this basis mathematics can be developed by applying these principles to all phenomena. 

In particular Seaford discusses the Pythagorean belief that 'all is number'.  Anthropologists widely report that people associate things with numbers, that is they project the characteristic of a thing onto a number.  However Seaford argues that the Pythagoreans are being atypical in projecting a number onto a thing.  Seaford has a simple explanation for the Pythagorean belief: they are putting a price on everything.

Archytas of Tarentum writes about the impact of the mathematikoi  in the early fourth century BCE
The discovery of calculation (logismos) ended civil conflict and increased concord.  For when there is calculation there is no unfair advantage, and there is equality, for it is by calculation that we come to agreement in our transactions. [p 269]
I have argued that the concept of reciprocity is embedded in financial economics for precisely these reasons.  Richard is not comfortable with this position because he associates reciprocity with 'inalienable' gifts, that is the giving of something that is inseparable from the giver.  However I take the broader definition of reciprocity given by Sahlins and am principally concerned with transactions that are temporally separated, and hence intrinsically uncertain.

I see the process Seaford describes: monetisation of society leading to the development of mathematics and scientific thought and the more democratic politics, repeating itself in the medieval period (the twelfth century monetisation, Fibonacci, Albert the Great) and the early modern (Gresham and Stevin followed by Descartes and Newton).  I associate this, very public, process as being in opposition to hidden and authoritarian (magical)  processes.  It is striking to me that the Mesopotamian state looks soviet, at least, and possibly communist while the Greek states, based on individuals speaking and trading freely, is a more Austrian formulation.  This was surprising, and challenging, for me, not least because I do not associate Austrian economics with chartalism, but this probably highlights my ignorance. 

Reading Richard Seaford's book emphasises to me the importance of developing a shared conception of what money actually is.  His argument stresses the importance of money as being something that is shared by and connects a community.  In this respect people need to control currency, not banks, and there needs to be more deliberation about what the financial system is about: profit maximisation or social cohesion?  It also has implications in the Scottish Independence Referendum: why would an independent Scotland, with a unique identity,  want to share a currency with the rest of the UK?

I feel Richard's arguments support my belief that both democracy and science emerge out of commerce: the political centre of the polis was the agora, which was also the market place.  The idea that mathematics rests on commerce is anathema to most of my fellow mathematicians, and I doubt that the arguments in Richard's book will have much effect on these positions.  Richard notes that most of his colleagues in classics prefer to see the origins of philosophy in written texts and mathematics in music.  However I think academics should take these ideas seriously in order to ensure social cohesion.


  1. It is a wonderful book. Nice to learn what Prof Seaford is working on now.

    In my review I was harsh about his definition of money in the first part of the book. Its a pretty standard way to approach money, but often it serves to put blinkers on us. Especially in respect of the relation between money and value. However, when Seaford started talking about the features of money that you list above - homogeneity, impersonality, universal aim, unlimited, concrete & abstract etc - I really got into the book. And as you say, the way works forward form these features to philosophy is brilliant. I've read the section on Parmenides and The One and the Many a few times now. I've seen Heraclitus used in quite a few academic works on money & value - Graeber uses him in his Value book - but its not often remarked that BOTH Parmenides and Heraclitus believed in the The One. The focus in generally on stasis vs flux.

    I annoy myself by always recommending other books when I comment, but this of public processes vs hidden magical processes has come up a lot in your work. If you haven't already - and while your mind is on the ancient Greeks & the like - you might want to check out Marc Shell's discussion of Gyges in The Economy of Literature. I have a slightly different take but his focus is on the theme of visibility and invisibility. He looks at how the theme plays out in Plato & Herodotus - I think you'd find it particularly relevant to your polis/democracy & commerce.

  2. Great post. Thanks for putting up these things and it's one thing that gives us interest. Fairly entertaining as well. financial services consulting firms


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