Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Economic Ideas in Aristophanes
Aristophanes often discussed economic topics, sometimes putting arguments in the mouths of his characters, other times showing different possible economic systems.
Aristophanes’ plays frequently explore interesting economic ideas. Since he’s writing comedies. it’s often difficult to tell which ideas he’s endorsing and which ideas he’s satirizing (or even whether those two possibilities are mutually exclusive). For example, his endorsement of free trade in the Acharnians certainly appears sincere;1 yet his Birds offers a sympathetic portrayal of a trade embargo (albeit a rather fanciful one: the birds of the sky interfering in commerce between human beings and the gods). All the same, the economic proposals he discusses are worth our attention regardless of what attitude he himself may have taken to them.
The legitimacy of charging interest on loans is a topic on which libertarians have historically been divided. Many of the 19th-century individualist anarchists rejected interest as either a form of exploitation2 or a consequence of exploitation.3 Economists of the Austrian School, by contrast, have defended interest as a reflection of the value spread between earlier and later satisfactions4 or, alternatively, between means and ends.5 The French libertarian economists Frédéric Bastiat and Pierre‐Joseph Proudhon famously debated the issue, in an exchange that began as friendly but grew increasingly acrimonious, arguably generating more heat than light.6
In Aristophanes’ Clouds, the main character, Strepsiades, rejects interest as unnatural:
— Interest? What kind of animal is that?
— Nothing less than the tendency of money
to multiply itself day by day
and month by month, on and on.
— Very true, but do you think the sea
is fuller now than it used to be?
— Of course not, it’s the same.
To be fuller would be against nature. …
— So if the sea never gets fuller
even if rivers pour into it,
how can you possibly expect your money to get fuller?7
Since, in the context of the play, Strepsiades is using this argument for what the author seems to present as dishonorable motives (Strepsiades has just been studying the technique of “Unjust Argument” in order to learn how to avoid paying his debts), we may well suspect that Aristophanes intends the argument to be rejected as a piece of sophistry. But certainly the idea that it was unnatural for money to generate an increase is one that shows up in ancient Greek thought – in Aristotle’s Politics, for example.8 And even if Aristophanes had himself held the anti‐interest view, he might well have disguised his views by placing them in the mouth of an unsympathetic character in order to avoid the charge of advocating subversive economic ideas.
In his Assemblywomen, once the women of Athens seize power in the city, their leader Praxagora announces the establishment of a communistic economic system:
[L]et everyone have everything there is and share
in common. let everyone enjoy an equal living –
no more rich men here, poor men there;
no more farmer with a huge extensive farm
and some impoverished farmer with absolutely nothing .…
You see, I’ll make one level of life for everyone. …
The very first thing I’ll do is make all land,
valuables, and money, public property .…
I’m going to make the town
into a single home: all barriers would be down.
It’ll be like one sole edifice
and people can wander in and out of one another’s space.9
Part of Praxagora’s argument for this system is that communism is appropriate to a gynocratic state because women are already accustomed to managing a sharing economy, inasmuch as “women lend each other / dresses, jewelry, money, goblets – one to one / without the need of witnesses and never loath / to give back everything .…”10
Praxagora considers the obvious objection that self‐interested people will tend to abuse the system – an objection that would later be elaborated by Aristotle – but she argues that they will have no incentive to do so:
— And you mean no one’s going to be a thief?
— How can you thieve what you already have? …
If someone wants to pinch a coat
the owner will simply give it to him.
What would make him want to fight?
He’ll go to the communal store and get another .…11
(A libertarian would of course want to know what incentive the coatmaker will have to produce coats for the communal store – as well as how, without a price system, the store will know how many coats to commission.)
Praxagora extends communism to sexual relations as well as economic ones, but again argues that the system contains incentives to prevent abuse:
— [T]hese girls, too, I’m making common property
for men to sleep with as they will and make a baby.
— Yes, but everyone’s going to pounce on the prettiest girl .…
— Ah, but the ugly and the pug‐nosed will
be sitting cheek by jowl with the desirable,
and if a man wants to hump one of these,
he’ll first have to service one of the ugly ones.12
In the play, however, this proposal somewhat backfires when the ugly women, initially enthusiastic about the plan, find that they have to surrender their desired lovers so long as there are any women even uglier.
Plato often seems to be picking up on Aristophanean themes; just as his description of democratic Athens as a panarchic “supermarket of constitutions” appears to be a nod to Aristophanes’ Acharnians,13 so the ideal city in his Republic reproduces three of the central features of Praxagora’s utopian project in the Assemblywomen: women as rulers, community of property, and abolition of the family. Praxagora and Plato even give the same answer as to how, under sexual communism, incest is to be avoided between parents and children. From Aristophanes:
— That’s all very well but how’s a man to tell
which are his own brats?
— Why should he need to? The children will take for granted
that older men of mature age are their dads.14
And from Plato:
— But how will they know who are fathers and daughters, and so on?
— They will never know. The way will be this: – dating from the day of the hymeneal, the bridegroom who was then married will call all the male children who are born in the seventh and tenth month afterwards his sons, and the female children his daughters, and they will call him father .…15
We saw last time16 that Praxagora treats women’s role in managing the finances of the household as a justification for giving women political power; evidently she accepts the view, defended by Plato and Xenophon but rejected by Aristotle, that the art of political rule is simply a form of household management writ large – in which case it makes sense to treat the entire state as a single household, and all the possessions within it as part of a common stock. Hence it is perhaps no coincidence that Plato endorsed communism while Aristotle rejected it.17
The characters of the play offer both defenses and criticism of Praxagora’s proposals. One citizen expresses skepticism as to whether they are consistent with human nature, or at least Athenian nature:
— So you’re not going to surrender your stuff?
— I’ll wait and see what most people do.
I’m not going to jump.
— Why wait? They’re already turning in their stuff.
— I’ll believe it when I see it.
— It’s already happening in the town, they say.
— They say? Of course they would. …
— You’re killing me. You think nobody’s any good. …
— Do you imagine that anyone in his right mind
is going to give everything up? That’s not our national style.18
Since the play ends before Praxagora’s reforms have been in effect for more than a day, the question of their practicability remains unanswered by events; we see some evidence that they are working and some evidence that they are not working – but nothing definitive.
It is often assumed that Praxagora’s communistic proposals would generally have been regarded as completely fanciful; but in fact Aristophanes’ audience would have been aware of a society that embodied some aspects of her plan, namely Athens’ archrival Sparta. In his description of the Spartan constitution, Xenophon describes a number of features of its laws that coincide with Praxagora’s utopia. Spartan law, Xenophon tells us, aims to “secure to all the citizens a considerable share in one another’s goods without mutual injury,” so that, e.g., a Spartan citizen “has a right, if he sees a horse anywhere, to take and use it, and restores it safe and sound when he has done with it.” Likewise “each one should have an equal power of his neighbour’s children as over his own.”19 There are even aspects of sexual communism, though to a less extreme degree than in the Assemblywomen; the law of Sparta make it “incumbent on the aged husband to introduce some one whose qualities, physical and moral, he admired, to play the husband’s part and to beget him children”; and likewise “a man who might not desire to live with a wife permanently, but yet might still be anxious to have children,” is authorized to “select some woman, the wife of some man, well born herself and blest with fair offspring, and, the sanction and consent of her husband first obtained, raise up children for himself through her.”20
Aristophanes certainly has Sparta in mind; he even has Praxagora institute communal meals on the Spartan model. If Aristophanes was an admirer of the communistic aspects of the Spartan system, this could even help to explain his opposition to the Athenian campaign against Sparta, and in particular his insistence, in the Acharnians, that Sparta more than Athens was the aggrieved party in the Peloponnesian War. On the other hand, however, his principal objection to the war, in the Acharnians, was that it interfered with commerce and industry – which hardly suggests much sympathy with the anti‐commercial, anti‐industrial Spartan regime.
Along with the Acharnians and Assemblywomen, Aristophanes’ other most economically‐focused play is his Ploutos. The play’s protagonist, Chremylus, states the theme:
So let’s start with what I think everyone
fully agrees on:
That it is perfectly fair that the good should prosper
and the bad suffer. …
It hardly needs to be pointed out
that some are rich
Yet without the smallest doubt
acquired their loot
By swindling others, whereas some poor
Is in a mess and ravenous
and spends the year
Closeted with Poverty.21
The issue of a mismatch between merit and worldly success, as we saw earlier, was a central theme and source of anxiety in Hesiod, who both lamented the existence of the mismatch and denied that the gods would allow it to persist in the long run, since honest industry brings divine favor.22
In Aristophanes’ play the cause of the mismatch, it transpires, is that Ploutos, god of wealth, is blind, and so is unable to determine whether he is bestowing his blessings on the deserving or on the undeserving.23 The solution, then, is to restore Ploutos’s eyesight, “so he’ll be able / To visit the good and boycott the bad”24 – which is what then occurs.
Within this play, Chremylus’s proposal to distribute wealth according to merit is treated as an egalitarian measure. This might initially seem surprising, since that would seem to assume that merit is likewise distributed equally – a provision contradicted by the complaints about wicked rich people and virtuous poor people. But it can be explained on the assumption that the wicked rich are a small minority, and the virtuous poor a vast majority, so that redistribution according to merit will at least closely approximate to equal shares. (What in turn explains that assumption? Perhaps simply an observed correlation between wealth and political power, together with a recognition that political power tends to be the province of a minority, and tends to be used badly.)25
As with Praxagora’s proposals in Assemblywomen, Chremylus’s plan receives arguments both pro and con. The chief arguments against it are raised by Penia, goddess of poverty, who warns Chremylus:
[I]f Wealth does see again
and can begin
To give himself to everyone
No one will practice the arts and crafts
For once these have gone, who’ll be
at all ready
To ply the forge, to build ships,
Make wheels or shoes, do bricklaying .…
once you can
Succumb to inactivity
and do nothing? …
You’ll find life harder than it was before. …
What is more,
Don’t expect to sleep in a bed
or under a cover.
You won’t find either. Who’d be so mad
to toil and moil
When they’ve got it all? …
Because of me
You get every necessity.
I am she
Who by the pinch of poverty
compels the hood
To earn his daily bread.26
Back in the 1990s I knew an Ayn Rand devotee who used to cite this speech of Penia’s as an incentive‐based argument for the free market. But it’s not clear that Penia’s argument makes any sense. Penia initially assumes that an equal division will leave everyone rich; and since everyone is rich, then no one will have an incentive to produce anything, and so everyone will be poor. But as soon as everyone is poor, the incentive to be productive would seem to return – so why isn’t the problem self‐solving?
In any case, Chremylus’s complaint is not just that a lot of people who have wealth are not nice, but more specifically that a lot of people who have wealth have acquired it unjustly, by “swindling others” – and remedying that is not something a free‐marketer has any reason to object to. On the other hand, it’s true that free markets would not guarantee a match between wealth and merit broadly speaking – though there’s also good reason to think that wealth would be distributed more equally in a free market than it is under the existing regime of state privilege.27
Penia also offers a different and more coherent argument:
I raise better men than Wealth
with all his money.
In mind and body they’re much more fit
but with him,
They’re gouty, have swollen limbs
and bloated tummies.
they’re also obscenely fat.
but with me
They’re slim, wasp‐waisted, and defeat
Here the claim is that wealth leads to dependence and physical weakness – a position that would also be taken up by the Cynic philosophers (and, much later, by Rousseau). Be this true or false, it is at least not internally incoherent as Penia’s other argument seems to be.
Does Aristophanes side with Chremylus or with Penia? It’s hard to say – and, as in the Assemblywomen, the play ends before the economic experiment has had much time to play out for good or ill. As in most of these economic questions, Aristophanes’ own allegiances are unclear. But from a libertarian perspective he is at least raising a crucial set of questions: what incentives for productivity or its opposite arise from wealth or poverty, equality or inequality, communism or private property?
See, e.g., Stephen Pearl Andrews, The Science of Society (Boston: Sarah E. Holmes, 1888).
See, e.g., Benjamin R. Tucker, Instead Of A Book, By A Man Too Busy To Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (New York, 1893); and Francis Dashwood Tandy, Voluntary Socialism: A Sketch (Denver, 1896).
See, e.g., Jeffrey M. Herbener, ed., The Pure Time‐Preference Theory of Interest (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2011).
See Jörg Guido Hülsmann, “A Theory of Interest,” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 5.4 (2002), pp. 77–110.
On the other hand, while Xenophon treats political rule and household management as the same expertise, he does not appear to draw communistic conclusions. Admittedly his treatment of the communistic and anti‐commercial aspects of the Spartan economic system in Polity of the Lacedæmonians appears to be admiring (certainly more so than Aristotle’s attitude toward Sparta); yet his economic remarks in On Revenues and Economicus evince a preference for private property and commercial exchange.
Ploutos, the god of wealth whose name forms the root of “plutocracy,” is not to be confused with Plouton (Pluto, Hades, Aidoneus), god of the underworld – although some traditions do equate the two.
Ploutos 493–494; Roche translation, p. 686.
One might expect a citizen of a democracy like Athens to think that political power lies in the hands of the majority. But Aristophanes makes clear that in his view, the common people who believe they hold the power in Athens are in fact the dupes of an elite; see his Wasps 650–668.