Wealth virtue and happiness for Greeks and Romans

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So, social or collective welfare, or happiness, was treated mainly with these kinds of argument; but there were, on the other hand, plenty of instructions on attaining personal or individual happiness, and this was the target of (moral) philosophy rather than of political thought.

It seems commonplace to say that, for the classics, happiness did not consist of material things. But what people should have, rather than wealth, was independence from 'material' necessities: this was the meaning of schole, leisure in order to be able to devote oneself entirely to something different from earning one's living.20

From this point of view, therefore, welfare had an instrumental character, according to a well-known formulation by Aristotle: men begin to philosophize only when they have satisfied all their material requirements (Met. 982 b 19-24).

Welfare is therefore needed for the exercise of the 'superior' activities; but there is also the other side of the coin: this superior knowledge was not to be used for practical purposes. The philosopher loves knowledge for its own sake, not because he may gain any advantage from it. In short, true intellectual activity must be free even from the suspicion of an involvement in material things, that is, in the world of 'necessity' relating to the body.21 It has been puzzling for modern scholars, unable to cope with this waste of economic potential, that the advanced scientific knowledge of the Greeks was never used for practical 'utilitarian' purposes but rather, sometimes, for creating theatrical mechanisms or toys.22

The practice of the 'superior' activities worthy of a freeman presupposed that the latter be exempt from whatever kind of dependence, which, in the ancient world, meant not exclusively servile labour, but also free labour: according to another Aristotelian saying, the only difference between a slave and a craftsman is that the first has only one master, while the second has many (Pol. 1278 a 11-13). We may observe here an analogy between public and private values: the city was allowed to trade in order to secure its independence and not to be in the power of other states, as it would be if it owed its livelihood to them; the individual must also prize his independence above all the rest, and must be free from whatever necessity, including that of earning his own living. The value of independence is enormously emphasized in both cases.

Greek morals, it has been frequently observed, had a strong intellectual character: knowledge was the first step towards the good, and it was conditioned by the possibility of consecrating time to speculation. Here we meet a well-known feature of Greek philosophy: the separation between theory and practice, which relegates all economic activities to the field of the latter, qualifying them as inferior to scientific, disinterested knowledge.

So, it was necessary to be (already) rich to give oneself up entirely to study, knowledge and contemplation which led to happiness: only wealth brought a command of one's own time. And we may suppose that it had to be considerable wealth: literary sources do suggest a sort of incompatibility between leisure and wealth, but this was not, as we would expect, because being idle one becomes quickly poor, but because 'a life spent in worries about the administration of one's possessions cannot be conducive to schole'.23 To be obliged to work was bad, but to bustle about becoming very rich was not good: in this case, survival was not at stake, but this behaviour was deemed to be inspired by greed. Besides, it meant a waste of time and energy, even intellectual energy: Socrates did not like the conversation of those who had made a fortune because they were unable to speak of anything else (Plato Rep. 330 C).

Certainly in everyday life wealthy men were respected, as has been the case since the world began; but philosophical theories asserted that one should not look for wealth because the true values are to be found elsewhere. Which ones? Happiness, I would say, namely personal realization through the pursuit of knowledge and virtue, not of money: and this is true both of men and of cities (Aristotle, Pol. 1323 b 21-31).

It would be necessary, however, to distinguish between the different authors and the various schools of thought: I am aware of the risk of giving too uniform a picture. There are different ways of answering questions about happiness in the Greek philosophies: for instance, Stoic indifference offers a marked contrast with Aristotle's persuasion that external goods are necessary for a good life; as a result, virtue alone is sufficient for the Stoics, but not so for Aristotle.24

The connection with virtue, however, is inescapable: the unending discussions about Aristotle's eudaimonia (see note 24) are ultimately grounded on the dualism theory/practice or - to put it another way - contemplation/activity, where the latter must obviously be virtuous activity.

We are also indebted to Aristotle, however, for a thorough treatment of 'other-regarding' virtues like justice, friendship and liberality in particular, which is, as observed by the Renaissance commentators, the only virtue connected with wealth, and which can be practised only by a rich man. But the rich man will not practise it for the sake of his own happines and self-satisfaction; rather to 'do good', and to secure a good reputation among his fellow citizens. There is much evidence, including epigraphic evidence, on the role of the good rich citizen: he was 'to benefit his friends and the city',25 that is, to spend his money to help individuals (political supporters, frequently, but not only) and to offer splendid monuments or useful buildings to his city. These liberal donations of the most influential persons in the city were important: state intervention in public works had not the same importance as today.

We will not dwell on the fact that the liberal disposition, having been spontaneous at the beginning, became compulsory through time, especially in Athens. We should rather underline the link between wealth and the 'civic function', so to speak, of rich men: it is expected that they spend their money to help their fellow citizens and the city itself.

This may be a first paradox: ancient thinkers seem to have contemplated only inherited wealth, so to speak, since they looked down on acquisitive activities and on efforts to become rich. At the same time, as their model of behaviour was one of expenditure rather than of production, they seem to have scarcely realized that (inherited) wealth would soon be consumed. This is an oversimplified picture, naturally.

The Roman attitude, it would seem, was more pragmatic and less intellectual. E Gabba, in an article of 1981, pointed out that increasing the riches of the family by correct means was considered, in archaic Rome, a laudable enterprise. Rome had a less philosophical and more juridical-political attitude than Greece: the rights conferred to the richest citizens by its constitution based on the census had to be carefully preserved, because the loss of estate precluded access to a political career. The ancient Cato had severe words for the man who did not preserve or increase his estate (Plut. Cat. mai, 21).

It is true that senators were prohibited from conducting commercial activities on a large scale,26 because these were considered, according to a controversial statement of Livy (XXI, 63, 3-4), harmful for their dignitas. The fact that prohibition was regularly eluded by means of men of straw clearly indicates that the Romans considered enrichment desirable, and did not think only of spending money. They, too, had an instrumental concept of wealth, but it was instrumental to the political career, rather than to the exercise of intellectual activities.

We should bear this in mind, in order to understand the extent to which Greek theories were received by Roman thought. After the Romans had conquered Greece and were in turn conquered by its culture, they were fascinated and subdued, but they did not change their nature.

In broad outline, the Greeks proposed a model of liberality and con-sumption,27 a model which disapproved of attachment to money: money had to be freely given, if one had it.

The Romans, although deriving many of their ideas from Greece, adapted them to their own traditions. It is Cicero who says that certainly liberality is a virtue, but it must not be pushed as far as to waste one's estate (De Off. I, 44): evidence that he had fully grasped the relationship between expenditure and impoverishment. On the subject of 'public expenditure', Cicero portrays a politician who endows the city with useful, rather than merely representative, buildings (ibid. II, 60). Cicero is speaking in the framework of an analysis of virtues, but his liberalitas, although somewhat indebted to Aristotle's treatment of it, is less theoretical and more concrete. Aristotle describes liberality as a mean between prodigality and meanness: a simple juxtaposition between a virtue and two extremes.28 His analysis, as so often, is applied to the origin of things or concepts. Men who are born rich, he affirms, are more liberal than those who have grown rich because they have not experienced necessity. On the other hand, it is difficult for a man with a generous temper to be rich, because he is clever neither at earning money, nor at keeping it (NE1120 b 11-18). Aristotle's conclusion is that of a dispassionate observer: 'Hence people blame fortune because the most deserving men are the least wealthy. But this is really perfectly natural: you cannot have money, any more than anything else, without taking pains to have it' (ibid. 1120 b 17-20, Rackham's translation). What a difference from Cicero: 'those who wish to be more open-handed than their circumstances permit . . . do wrong to their next of kin; for they transfer to strangers property which would more justly be placed at their service or bequeathed to them' (De Off. 1,44, Miller's translation). Aristotle, too, opposed a foolish expenditure, but as being disproportionate and suited to immature minds (frg. 89, p. 90 Rose).

Cicero gives very detailed instructions about the best way for a man of goodwill (and trusted with political responsibilities) to accomplish his task by doing good to his fellow citizens, so opening the way for Seneca's De Beneficiis, where, among other things, we find the first allusion to the difference (not so obvious as we may think today) between gift exchange and market exchange.29

This aspect of exchange was a protagonist in anthropological studies.30 Again in this case we cannot dwell on such a widely debated topic, although it would be interesting: classical studies could not ignore it, and indeed devoted many important works to the subject. Here I shall simply say that I do not intend to speak of 'gifts' in the sense made famous by Marcel Mauss's famous 'essay', and thoroughly elaborated later by studies on 'reciprocity',31 but of the difference between a commercial relation which begins and ends with the transaction itself, and a relation involving other aspects besides the economic one, which cannot come to an end unless the relationship between the two persons ceases. The personal relation was important in ancient economic behaviour, even from a political point of view: both the liberal benefactors of Greek cities and the Roman politician portrayed by Cicero gave 'gifts' to the public which were the material expression of the link between themselves and the city.

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