December 24, 2003

Notes: The Scarcity of Wage-Labor in Classical Athens

From G.E.M. de Ste. Croix (1981), The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press):

... the Socratic dialogues included in Xenophon's Memorabilia... demonstrate very nicely how small a role was played by wage-labour in classical Athens.... [T]he charming conversation between Socrates and the high-class call-girl Theodote.... Socrates... quizzes the girl about the source of her income... nice furniture... good-looking and well-set-up slave girls. "Tell me, Theodote," Socrates asks, "have you a farm?"... "No," she says. "Then have you a house that brings in rents?"... "No, not that either." "Then haven't you some craftsmen?"... When Theodote says that she has none of these, Socrates asks where she does get her money from, as if he had exhausted all possible alternatives.... The point of the story that particularly concerns us is the nature of the three questions that Socrates puts to Theodote. They suggest... that anyone at Athens [with leisure]... might be expected first to own a farm (which of course he would either work with slaves under an overseer or let outright); or secondly to own a house, which he would let either as a whole or in sections... or thirdly to have slave craftsmen...

...a conversation Socrates had with Eutherus... a member of a respectable propertied family... Eutherus tells Socrates that he has lost his property... been obliged to... earn his living by working with his hands.... Socrates points out that he will soon be an old man and advises him to take a permanent job as overseer or bailiff to some landowner.... Eutherus's reply is very interesting: I think it would have been made by any Greek citizen who belonged to what I am calling the propertied class, and perhaps by a good many humble men too. He says, "I just couldn't stand being a slave."... What Eutherus cannot endure is the idea of being at another's beck and call.... If one is making or selling things oneself... one can at least answer back, and at a pinch betake oneself elsewhere. To take the sort of permanent [wage labor] emplyment which most people nowadays are only too glad to have is to demean oneself to the level of the slave: one must avoid that at all costs.... When we meet identifiable bailiffs or business managers in the sources, they are always slaves or freedmen...

Posted by DeLong at December 24, 2003 07:20 AM | TrackBack


All we need is love...

All we need is machines to replace labor...

All we need is machines in place of slaves of ancient Greece...

We can then all become aristocrats....

Simple, no?

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 24, 2003 09:03 AM


So did Socrates ever find out where Theodote got her dough? Talk about clueluess.

Posted by: Alan on December 24, 2003 09:10 AM


Take a look at P. O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series, especially some of the later books which look at the impact of enclosure. Not much changes from Socrates to Napolean: men should be able to make a living off the land, not reliant on an employer. The cash economy is scorned by the books' heroes.

Posted by: FDL on December 24, 2003 10:07 AM


It brings to mind a nice passage in Chapter 7 of Trollope's 'Phineas Finn,' where he discusses Mr. Bunce, the law-copyist who finds himself sinking from the class of artisan into the class of mere employee. "He suffered from political grievances, or, I should more correctly say, that his grievances were semi-political and semi-social. . . . And he had ideas, which he himself admitted to be very raw as to the injustice of the manner in which he was paid for his work. So much a folio, without reference to the way in which his work was done, without regard to the success of the work, with no questions asked to him was, as he thought, no proper way of remunerating a man for his labours." Bunce occupies most of a house in Great Marlborough Street but he does not have the vote because he is not the "tenant." He has joined a trade union. "He longed to be doing some battle against his employers ... because some such antagonism would be manly, and the fighting of some battle would be the right thing to do." On the same topic, see more generally Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846.

Posted by: jda on December 24, 2003 10:49 AM


A family legend goes that my dad wanted to name me Murat but grandfather would not allow that cause there was a carpetmaker downtown by the name of Murat. Carpetmaker!? Menial work! Yuk!

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 24, 2003 12:24 PM


The Confederacy had a similar take on wage laborers as one step above the slaves, but much below the propertied class and (in second place) independent artisans.

For the sci fi view, see "The Last Castle".

Posted by: Andrew J. Lazarus on December 24, 2003 02:47 PM


Admittedly there is some sort of aristocratic bias in the matter, but in Aristotelian metaphysics there is a basic distinction between that which has its end in something else and that which has its end in itself, with the latter accorded higher ontological rank, to the degree that it is the case, as if more real, indeed, more god-like, since the godhead qua pure actuality is the telos telion, the ultimate end, to which all things aspire insofar as they participate in the cosmic metaphysical order- (the godhead is the unmoved mover in that all other things elsewhere are moved by their desire for it). Transferred onto the realm of practical reason, it is independent participation in the polity that is valued, as distinct from subordination to the household,- (idiotas, from which the modern idiot derives, means a person without public standing, belonging solely to the private realm of the household, such as women and slaves)-, so that working for another for wages amounts to the failure to maintain an independent standing for one's household, as the basis for one's public standing as a citizen. This is not to say that such a mentality is realistically or pragmatically "correct", leaving aside the dialectical chicken-and-egg conundrum of whether ideas reflect material conditions and structures or in-form them, but it does suggest something of where this mentality comes from and of how a given perception of reality informs and limits its understanding. Something of this Aristotelian conception remains in Marx, with capital as the independent value and alienated- (i.e. sold)- labor as the dependent condition; Marx' idea of overcoming alienation amounts to raising economic activity from the realm of necessity to the political level of "freedom". Of course, this could be construed as just a category mistake.

Posted by: john c. halasz on December 24, 2003 04:31 PM


Wage-labour in the dark ages of Greece was even lower-valued. The shade of Achilles tells Odysseus that it's preferable to be a thes in the world of the living than to reign in the afterlife. Being a thes, a landless, propertyless labourer, is the worst thing Achilles can think of. Worse than being a slave. A slave is part of the oikos (the "eco" of economics); the thes hasn't even that attachment.

Summarized from Moses Finlay, The World of Odysseus.

Posted by: jam on December 24, 2003 04:53 PM


There's a reason that we call it wage slavery today. If you don't control how you spend most of your waking time ...

Posted by: Ian Welsh on December 25, 2003 12:57 AM


BTW, I should say I don't share grandfather's view of menial work. As far as I'm concerned, you work with your mind any way, no matter what you do, and especially so if you are in crafts. And an individual is a worthy one as far as I am concerned, regardless of occupation, if the individual is (a) honest, (b) competent, and (c) well mannered, all three equally important.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 25, 2003 01:20 AM


Achilles didn't say that to odysseus, the author said that, and put it into his mouth.

Posted by: big al on December 25, 2003 03:53 AM


big al is accusing Homer of MAKING THINGS UP about what Achilles said to Odysseus in Hades? I'm shocked! What's next--questioning the accuracy of the Washington Post?

Posted by: rea on December 26, 2003 02:52 AM


In the days of Turkish dominance there was a custom that the children of the wealthy should be taught a valuable trade so that they would have value as slaves if they were ever to fall on hard times and get captured (the alternative was usually death). Under Islam generally, slaves were more likely to be high value specialists than the low grade bulk labour of the New World (they were usually physically better off than the exploited peasantry). I'm sure Bulent Sayin can give us further and better particulars, but here's some stuff I remember.

At least one of the Ottoman Sultans was a gardener ("bostanci" - sorry, I don't have the right keyboard). There is a Central Asian folk tale that has a prince narrowly escaping death when he is kidnapped and remembers just in time that he can make carpets. Travellers reported that there was a Central Asian clock tower with a clock made by an Italian who somehow wound up there and never got his freedom.

And these traditions may well have reached France in the 18th century Persianising and influenced Louis XVI's hobby of clock making - not that that commercial value of his interested his own later captors.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on December 26, 2003 05:18 PM


Bulent Sayin writes:

"All we need is love...

All we need is machines to replace labor...

All we need is machines in place of slaves of ancient Greece...

We can then all become aristocrats....

Simple, no?"

I agree it's a wonderful idea for the future. Indeed, when housecleaning robots become widely available, and you interact with cooking robots at your favorite fast-food joint, and Wal-Mart employs sales robots for holiday shopping, there will be little for most of humanity to do. However, the concerning thing is that if there are very few jobs left for undereducated humans, what, if anything, will the vast majority of humanity employ themselves with. The legacy of the Bush administration will be towards an "ownership society", such that only gainfully employed people will be able to participate in financial planning. And what about the rest? Where do the common laborers fit into the new conservative-libertarian world order?

I forsee a relatively small, elite, highly trained workforce that is economically productive in business management, health care, financial services, robot maintenance, sales, etc., and everyone else starving to compete for the few robot maintenance jobs available. With the current efficiency of our police forces, perhaps 20-30% chronically unemployed, poor, famished people, another 20% in prison at any one time, and the select few workers living in closed/gated/policed communities to keep the hungry criminals out. Indeed, this will be the conservative future republicans are so eagerly pursuing.

Another possibility- with the boundless increases in capital, wealth, and productivity to come from the future technological advances, we will, as human societies, become quite humane and introduce reasonable, progressive taxation, provide for free health care, good public education, and a "living wage" for all adult citizens such that they may maintain themselves at a reasonable level without having to work. Coupled, naturally, with an increased public interest in arts, architecture, and the humanities will provide for an unprecedented cultural golden age of innovation in music, art, and culture that will provide a creative outlet for the newly unchained masses who will channel their energies into artistic expression.

I know which future I would prefer to live in.

Posted by: non economist on December 26, 2003 07:05 PM


The first alternative you describe is not sustainable.

Therefore the alternatives really are

(a) self-destruction of human civilization and starting all over again (that's the reason why some maniac ultra-right-wing ideologs who are no believers at all are salivating about religious concepts like Armageddon, etc and if not that, just a tiny miny little war here and there all the time) or

(b) the second alternative you desciribe.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 26, 2003 10:08 PM


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