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It is a commonplace that the Greek philosophers had no economic theory. Three reasons are advanced for this absence: (1) the merely embryonic existence of the relevant institutions, esp. the market;(2) aristocratic disdain for trade and exchange;(3) the priority assigned to ethical concerns over technical considerations of exchange and accumulation. While each of these claims contains some truth, the third assumes a modern conception of the autonomy of economics against which ancient theory may make a pertinent challenge.

(1) the merely embryonic existence of the relevant institutions, esp. the market;

(2) aristocratic disdain for trade and exchange;

(3) the priority assigned to ethical concerns over technical considerations of exchange and accumulation.

Plato's discussion of the market is sketchy. Economic analysis proper begins in Aristotle's Politics. Fundamental to the entire discussion is the idea that material goods are tools of human functioning. Their proper use has a limit set by those requirements. Poverty placing people beneath this limit is a problem for public planning; accumulation above this limit is ‘unnatural’ and morally problematic. The accumulation of goods began as a way of ensuring the presence of needed resources. Because some of these had to be imported from a distance, barter arose; barter led, in turn, to the temporary accumulation of surpluses useful for trade. Eventually coined money was introduced to facilitate deferred exchanges. This, however, gave rise to the idea of accumulating a surplus without reference to need or limit, as if wealth were an end in itself. Aristotle's analysis bears on recent criticisms of welfare and development economics which appeal to notions of human functioning in interpreting economic notions such as ‘the standard of living’ and ‘the quality of life’. Elsewhere, Aristotle analyses the relationship between level of wealth and political behaviour, arguing that the essential difference between democracy and oligarchy lies in whether rule is by the poor or the rich; it happens that in every city the poor are many and the rich are few.

Hellenistic thought about money focuses on limiting the desire for possessions. Stoic teleology (see stoicism) is the background for Adam Smith's conception of the ‘invisible hand’, which should not be understood apart from Stoic ideas of providence and justice. See economy, greek; wealth, attitudes to.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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