Ancient and modern happiness

Now: what contribution have the ancient philosophies made to the modern concept of economic happiness? We have seen that the philosophers did not worry about the 'greatest number': their social sensibility was different from ours. But it has been possible to discover many 'anticipations', especially in Aristotle's writings, of modern economic concepts. To my mind, the most important contribution of the philosopher of Stageira should be recognized in the impetus that some of his analyses, discussed and commented upon, gave to the subsequent economic thought, obviously beginning with Scholastic philosophy, but also continuing later. Odd Langholm's works have demonstrated that certain economic principles beyond doubt originated in Aristotle's texts, and in the elaborate exegesis that was made of them in the medieval period.

Other scholars, in different ways, have found many opportunities for establishing relationships between Aristotle and modern economic theories. For instance, the Polanyi-Finley controversy centred on the fact that according to Polanyi, Aristotle did effect economic analysis by 'attacking the problem of man's livelihood with a radicalism of which no later writer on the subject was capable', while according to Finley he did not44; E. Kauder was persuaded that Aristotle anticipated the main principle of marginalism, namely the subjective aspect of utility in determining economic value;45 also a close relationship between the Austrian school and the Aristotelian background has been demonstrated.46

All this may be accepted or rejected; but it is difficult to deny, I think, that the philosophical reflection upon economic subjects originated in Greek thought, although its development in abstract and systematic theorizing was to come later. I think it is important, however, to hold to a historical interpretation of the ancient doctrines, without being tempted by modern perspectives which could be misleading about the real meaning of the ancient text.471 shall merely recall a good article by Stephen Worland, who maintained that there is a relationship between Aristotle and neoclassical welfare economics, despite criticizing the basis on which this interpretation rested. It was a development of Werner Jaeger's commentary about the function of reason in human choices which led Max Weber and later Lionel Robbins to use Aristotle's concept of moral knowledge (in Nicomachean Ethics) as a philosophical basis for neoclassical welfare economics.48 Worland does not agree with Jaeger's interpretation, and therefore he would be inclined to destroy the whole argument; but his reading of Aristotle leads him to the conclusion that there is, after all, a complementarity between the moral philosophy of Aristotle and neoclassical welfare economics. His argument is based on the concept of eudaimonia in Aristotle's work: according to whether it is perceived to be directed towards contemplation or action, Worland deduces that the quantity of exterior goods needed by the eudaimon man is different: a man of contemplation needs very little, a man of action much more, especially in the ancient world where the virtue of magnificence was inseparable from the man of excellence entrusted with political responsibilities.49

Although Worland's analysis is penetrating and very interesting, I do not agree that an ancient thinker, even a great mind like Aristotle's, could see things in this way. The ancients did not conceive things in a statistical way, so to speak: they probably never thought of lots of people working to produce the goods which were to support the few who did not produce; or of the whole product of a country as a stock to be divided among the inhabitants according to certain criteria; and it is well known that they lacked an abstract concept of labour, not to mention of the workforce. In the present case Worland, despite being familiar with Aristotle's passage concerning the beginning of philosophy quoted above, seems to interpret it the other way round. Aristotle's man of contemplation can philosophize because he is already rich, or at least supplied with all necessities, without being obliged to depend on anybody, as he should were he not self-sufficient.

Not being obliged to work, he has leisure: that is all. Worland takes leisure as a good, a commodity to be provided by the economic activity of others,50 suggesting an awareness of this issue as a problem of social and economic organization and distribution, as if the ancients had asked themselves the question: 'how can we ensure that a certain number of philosophers, out of the whole of society, be provided with leisure and exempt from the necessity of earning their living?' - but it is probable that things were never perceived this way in the ancient world, although the very existence of a 'leisure class' was recognized and even theorized as we have seen.

Ancients and moderns differ mainly on this point of view: the ancients had not yet envisaged labour, leisure, time as commodities, and they did no calculations about them. When I read the article by Frey and Stutzer, 'What can economists learn from happiness research?', I found some sentences which could have been subscribed to by an ancient author, for example, 'individuals who prize material goods more highly than other values in life tend to be substantially less happy',51 or 'their [positional goods] rely solely on not being available to others'.52 Even the passages on freedom (at p. 423), despite referring to a different historical context, could easily have met the approval of the ancients, for whom freedom was the basis of happiness and who transmitted this ideal to the modern world. But interestingly, I found these analogies in the first and the last of the four sections in which the article is divided, namely, 'Effects of income on happiness', and 'Institutional effects on happiness'. I could completely disregard the two central topics ('Effects of unemployment' and 'Effects of inflation on happiness') because both these problems were ignored by ancient thought - although I am not saying that they did not affect personal happiness in everyday life.

Now let us draw some conclusions about ancient thought. The above-mentioned trends of thought tried to reach the same result by means of different approaches. As happiness does not consist of material things, it is necessary either (i) to have them already; or (ii) to be able to do without them.

The concept of happiness therefore was understood in the ancient world as 'freedom' in the sense of independence both from other men, and from material needs. Maybe another paradox was that they did realize that the two things were connected, but their connection was contrary to the modern one. In fact, since Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations at least, we have considered labour as the element which rids us of dependence, while for the ancients the opposite was true, and not only in the case of slave labour. The fact that the free labourer was paid counted for nothing because they considered that the man was obliged to work, and to work as an employee for another man. So he was not free, first, because he had a master, and second, because he could not devote himself to doing what he preferred. We must also bear in mind that because the world of 'necessity' was seen as inferior, the ancient philosophers generally refused to discuss it, and left little intellectual work on the issue. And what they did leave (for example, the concept of utilitas, so well exploited in Cicero's De Officiis), does not exactly correspond to the modern meaning.

So ancient thinkers did not emphasize the relationship between happiness and wealth, and would not have been puzzled, as the moderns seem sometimes to be, by the discovery that economic growth does not increase subjective happiness. Their utility, on the other hand, had nothing to do with rational choice and was rather connected with a concept of personal advantage that did not reflect common good, justice or solidarity.53

The most 'modern' contribution of ancient thought to the concept of happiness connected with economics was the idea of authority in the sense of decision making. The only economic literature of the ancient world, the treatises on the administration of the oikos, are a 'schooling in command'. The successful paterfamilias decides for himself and others. This is the 'classical' attitude, revived in modern thought, which transferred to the state the concept of good administration of the household, so creating the new discipline of political economy. In the classical world it did not exist: economic administration54 was mainly a 'private' matter. Among the tasks of the head of the family there was also that of administering his property well; but this was not his most important function: his most relevant qualification was citizenship, a political quality. Man had to realize himself in all his qualities, but to be clever at earning money was not, usually, one of them: this activity could be entrusted to servants or strangers. Only certain philosophers55 maintained that the head of a family should also be a good oeconomus, but simply because he had to be able to do well whatever activity was part of his role. Even the most famous administrator of ancient literature, Xenophon's Ischomachus, speaks about the management of his estate in terms of commanding an army, and defines the good housemaster as a 'royal' character.56 So, if this kind of activity enjoyed a minimum respect it was because it reflected the authority of the chief of the household in one of his functions as a member of the community of citizens with full rights.

The Hellenistic approach was different: the man of tranquillity makes decisions only about himself and finds his serenity by ensuring that he is not under the power of others. So men tried to be masters of themselves and to maintain spiritual rather than material independence. This was especially the Stoic stance, with their 'arrogant' vindication of deciding for themselves about their own good, interest or happiness without recognizing any external authority. And here again I refer to Frey and Stutzer's observation: 'people whose goals are intrinsic, i.e., those who define their values by themselves, tend to be happier than those with extrinsic goals, i.e., those oriented towards some external reward'.57 Why so? Because they are independent, an ancient philosopher would answer. This would seem the last frontier of an independence which no longer has political and civic relevance; nor is it related to a concept of authority over other persons (in the family and/or in the state).

So the first important characteristic of ancient happiness, namely independence from wealth, evolved into extreme individualism.

But during the Renaissance the important role of the ancient paterfamilias was (re)discovered. During the Middle Ages it was paralleled with the 'administrative' organizational role of the Deity in the universe, and of the King in the state. In modern times, therefore, leading qualities and power were stressed, but also a good end result was important, namely that the 'administered' people were prosperous and happy. Cicero's relationship between good and useful was read, in modern political philosophy, 'in terms of the needs of the public'58 - so that the main justification of a politician was that of serving the common good, or public utility. This paved the way for the quest to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

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