Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: A Tale of Two Sisters
Hesiod distinguished between market competition and war, saying “The two Strifes have separate natures.”
In 1888, a reader of Benjamin Tucker’s individualist anarchist periodical Liberty wrote in to contest Tucker’s defense of free‐market competition. “Competition, if it means anything at all, means war,” argued W. T. Horn, “and, so far from tending to enhance the growth of mutual confidence, must generate division and hostility among men.” Tucker, in response, contended to the contrary that “[w]hen universal and unrestricted, competition means the most perfect peace and the truest co‐operation; for then it becomes simply a test of forces resulting in their most advantageous utilization.”1
The question of the relationship between war and economic competition is an old one. One of the most justly famous passages in the Greek poet Hesiod – and one of especial interest to libertarians – is his discussion of the “two Strifes.”
First, some background. Strife, or Discord, personified as the goddess Eris, is an important figure in Greek mythology. She is generally associated with the war‐god Ares, whether as his sister or as his lover or both; some sources, including Homer, identify her with the war‐goddess Enyo, though other sources distinguish them.
According to Greek mythological tradition, Eris had been responsible for the entire Trojan War, by provoking the leading Olympian goddesses into a dispute as to which of them deserved a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest” – a dispute whose adjudication by Paris of Troy led to Aphrodite’s awarding Helen to him without consulting Helen’s husband.
In another ancient story,2 a human couple, Aëdon and Polytekhnos, are punished by Eris for having boasted that their mutual love was greater than the love of the gods; Eris lures the couple into a handicrafting competition, which Polytekhnos loses, leading the resentful husband to avenge himself on his wife Aëdon by raping and enslaving her sister, which in turn prompts Aëdon to avenge herself on Polytekhnos by killing their son, cooking him, and feeding him to the father – thus effectively establishing that the couple’s love had indeed been a bit more fragile than they had proclaimed.
In short, Eris is bad news.
This goddess of Strife figures in Homeric epic as follows (the translator renders “Eris” as “Hate”):
Hate [= Eris] whose wrath is relentless, she the sister and companion of murderous Ares, she who is only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurled down bitterness equally between both sides as she walked through the onslaught making men’s pain heavier.3
Notice how Strife is here depicted both metaphorically – starting as a little thing but then growing, like literal strife – and anthropomorphically, as an armed warrior strolling around the battlefield. Homer’s small‐but‐growing metaphor shows up in one of Æsop’s fables as well:4 the wandering hero Herakles finds a small object blocking his path and, being Herakles, tries to smash it with his club, only to find it growing larger with every blow – until the goddess Athena intervenes to advise him that he is unknowingly doing combat with Strife, Eris, who only feeds on opposition. 5
Eris also appears in Hesiod’s Theogony, which comprises inter alia a genealogy of the gods. Hesiod depicts Eris (here translated as “Discord”) as the source of most of the miseries of human life:
And she, destructive Night, bore Nemesis, who gives much pain to mortals; and afterward cheating Deception and loving Affection and then malignant Old Age and overbearing Discord [= Eris]. Hateful Discord in turn bore painful Hardship, and Forgetfulness, and Starvation, and the Pains, full of weeping, the Battles and the Quarrels, the Murders and the Manslaughters, the Grievances, the lying Stories, the Disputations, and Lawlessness and Ruin, who share one another’s nature, and Oath, who does more damage than any other to earthly men, when anyone, of his knowledge, swears to a false oath.6
But then, in Works and Days (which presumably was written after Theogony), Hesiod issues a kind of retraction. The goddess he’s been describing is actually two different goddesses; and while one of them is just as harmful as he’d previously described, the other is beneficial:
It was never true that there was only one kind of strife [= Eris]. There have always been two on earth. There is one you could like when you understand her. The other is hateful. The two Strifes have separate natures. There is one Strife who builds up evil war, and slaughter. She is harsh; no man loves her .… But the other one was born the elder daughter of black Night. … she is far kinder. She pushes the shiftless man to work, for all his laziness. A man looks at his neighbor, who is rich: then he too wants work .… Such Strife is a good friend to mortals. Then potter is potter’s enemy, and craftsman is craftsman’s rival; tramp is jealous of tramp, and singer of singer.7
Here Hesiod is drawing the crucial distinction between two kinds of conflict: war on the one hand, and economic competition on the other. The kind of rivalry that leads to bloodshed is condemned; but the kind of rivalry that leads competitors to seek to outdo each other in the provision of goods and services is celebrated. The engine of the good Strife is the desire for wealth and material benefits; far from being an ignoble motive, to be compared unfavorably with the glories of military honor, self‐interested commercial ambition is here lauded as the incentive of progress.
Back in his Theogony, before any good Strife had been identified, Hesiod had described the bad Strife as the daughter of Night. But in Works and Days we’re told that the good Strife is the elder (literally “earlier‐born”) daughter of Night, implying that the bad Strife is the good Strife’s younger sister. The suggestion, perhaps, is that the good Strife is the original and healthy form of conflict, and the bad Strife a later perversion of it – a theme that fits with Hesiod’s narrative of a gradual decline in human civilization from an original Golden Age of peace and prosperity to the cruel and savage Age of Iron into which he regrets having been born.8
The opposition that Hesiod draws between economic competition and violent conflict is not generally made by other writers on Eris. In the aforementioned story of Aëdon and Polytekhnos, for example, the Eris‐inspired conflict between the two lovers begins as a competition in productive labor before developing into a vendetta of violence; the escalation is presented as a shift in degree, not in kind. The recognition of an essential difference between Strife that is expressed in bloodshed and Strife that is expressed in vying to provide the best goods and services is distinctive to Hesiod’s account.
Now Homer too, as we’ve seen, had contrasted the ways of war with the ways of peace; but he had not highlighted the role of economic competition in the latter. The one conflict that Homer portrays in his “city of peace,” the pacific alternative to warfare, is a lawsuit9 – a form of rivalry that Hesiod is rather more pessimistic about, regarding the lawcourts as the arena not of the good Eris but rather of the bad, “that Strife who loves mischief,” where the participants are to be found “scheming for other men’s goods” while the judges “eat bribes.”10 The link between market competition and peaceable prosperity seems to be an innovation of Hesiod’s – which makes Hesiod an important forerunner of libertarian ideas.
1. Benjamin Tucker, “Does Competition Mean War?” Collected in Instead Of A Book, By A Man Too Busy To Write One. Originally published in Liberty, August 4, 1888.
5. This theme of a famously powerful warrior being unable to vanquish a seemingly insignificant opponent who turns out to be the embodiment of some vast cosmic force is also found in Norse mythology, in the story of Thor’s visit to Utgard, where his disguised opponents include Sea, Fire, and Old Age: The Younger Edda: Also called Snorre’s Edda, or The Prose Edda trans. Rasmus B. Anderson, Chapter 14: “Thor’s Adventures.”↩
6. Hesiod, Theogony 223–232; Richmond Lattimore, trans., Hesiod: The Works and Days; Theogony; The Shield of Herakles (Ann Arbor: University of Chicago Press, 1959).