This research project examined Aristotle’s theory of the Greek “household” as a spatial and functional (buildings, real estate and other property), social (nuclear family) and power-based (male-female, father-child, master-slave relations) phenomenon. The objective was to situate this theory in the framework of Aristotle’s analysis of the polis societies of his day, and to interpret the theory as a reaction to real historical economic changes occurring in Greece in the late 5th and 4th c. BC.
Aristotle’s so-called “economic thought” has experienced a mixed reception in classicists’ research. On the one hand, scholars noted that his remarks in the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics exhibit a keen interest in and earnest study of economic phenomena such as money, exchange value and division of labor. On the other hand, his strong condemnation of “the art of profit seeking and money making” (combined in the untranslatable Greek word chrēmatistikē) earned him the reputation of being a reactionary and idealist, blind to the realities of contemporary commerce. A renewed study of Aristotle put into context challenges such a simplifying judgement on three grounds. First, Aristotle was well aware of contemporary commercial practices. Second, Aristotle explicitly formulated his theory counterfactually, because he believed certain mechanisms to disintegrate the Polis societies of his day. Third, Aristotle’s theory about proper household management (oikonomia) is less about economics in itself as it is about representations of household management in the sphere of public discourse.
Aristotle was aware of the commercial practices of his days. This is reflected in many allusions (e. g. as simile or example) to trade, manufacture and credit transactions. These allusions to everyday business even creep into discussions of purely theoretical nature. More directly, Aristotle formulates his normative theory of household management (Politics, Book 1) explicitly in a counter factual voice. People should devote their efforts to philosophy and politics, but, alas, they are seeking monetary profit instead. Book 1 of the Politics names hunting and agriculture as the most “natural ways of acquisition” (ktētikē kata physin). In Book 7, however, Aristotle makes clear that even his “best possible city” will need to import and export goods by trade to compensate for its lack of autarky! Aristotle, thus, judged an active involvement in trade as a “necessity”: not praiseworthy, but legitimate, if serving a greater cause. Aristotle speaks about the polis here; but as remarks in his own works and other contemporary writing makes clear, the same notion of the “necessity of acquisition” applied to the individual household, too. Aristotle assumed that his audience would share this notion. Hence, he considered his upper-class audience to hold conflicting views: on the one hand, they condemn the sordid love of gain. On the other hand, they are actively pursuing monetary gain themselves, due to “necessity”. This makes sense: Due to their constant sociopolitical competition, Greek elites were in constant need for financial funds.
Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, holds the opinion that the constant profit seeking of Greek elites would endanger the polis itself. In oligarchies as much as in democracies, citizens abuse their political power for their private gain. This jeopardizes the existence of the polis itself since it provokes discord and civil strife (stasis). Hence, a good citizen should not use the polis for the ends of his household (oikos) but rather the other way round. Additionally, Aristotle’s disdain for traders and usurers is not a narrowly aristocratic perspective. Even merchants and moneylenders themselves stressed their own honorable reputation and nonprofit expenditure on the commonweal. Hence, everyone agreed that sordid profit-seekers were wicked, while the question how to identify these individuals was rather avoided.
This statement leads to the final hypothesis: Aristotelian theory taught more about representation than about economics. In the first book of the Politics, Aristotle states that theorizing about household management (including acquisition) befits a free man, while its practice is a mere necessity not dignified enough for literary treatment. His own text applies this rule: Aristotle knows fairly well about the practice of chrēmatistikē, citing historical examples and specialist treatises. Yet, he himself sticks to high-flown theory, embellished with poetic quotations. Doing so, Aristotle teaches an important lesson to his audience of wealthy youths aspiring to honor and reputation: even as a gentleman (kalos kagathos), you will have to manage your household efficiently; but you should not advertise the activities you merely pursue due to “necessity”.
Iris Därmann, Susanne Frank, Moritz Hinsch, Wolfram R. Keller, Verena Olejniczak Lobsien, Antonio Lucci, Helmut Pfeiffer, Thomas Skowronek, Peter Spahn, Joseph Vogl, Thorsten Welgen and Aloys Winterling, “From the Oikonomia of Classical Antiquity to Our Modern Economy. Literary-theoretical Transformations of Social Models”, in: Space and Knowledge. Topoi Research Group Articles, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 6 (2016), 306–348