Pericles and the Socialization of Economics – Part I

By Tadit Anderson

[Part I]


There is an interesting provenance between the defaming of the democracy of Pericles’s Athens as dysfunctional and the use of this fiction to support an “aristocratic” form of governance in opposition to democracy, even two thousand years later. The life of this misrepresentation was then extended in fabrication of creation myths about the peculiar nature of allegedly modern “democracy.” By the end of the 19th century a more reliable analysis of the Golden age of Athenian democracy was available. This new narrative should have replaced the misrepresentation by Plato and his lineage, but propaganda, if repeated often enough will begin to seem true. Making a distinction between a form of oligarchy and a functional democracy seems to be difficult when gaining unearned wealth is such a disincentive.

Authentic democracy evolved in classical antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean region in a community discourse about the functionality of the political process of the Greek city-state, Athens. Foremost it is Plato who has been allowed to defame the legacy of Pericles’s Athenian democracy and to press the supposition that democracy limited to aristocratic land owners was a superior form of governance. In fact Plato and the interests that supported his Lyceum represented the opposition to popular democracy in Athens.

Further, when the history of Athenian democracy is properly contextualized, the long standing misrepresentation and Plato’s advocacy for timocracy as participation in governance limited to land owners falls apart. Even so Plato’s centuries long list of would be aristocrats and their courtier academics continued substitute their self interests over broad participation in the processes of governance. The stunning part is that the conflicts between authentic democratic functionality and oligarchy as “democracy” have been carried forward into our present context, for instance in the current certification of free speech as measured and permitted based upon the aristocracy of wealth. The implications for the current political and economic fictions seem substantial, as in plutocracy wins again over democratic participation the economic life of the community. Perhaps this knowledge can assist in dissolving the continuing misrepresentations about the leadership of Pericles, so that the true golden age of Athenian culture and democracy can be identified for its actual economic functionality, particularly toward ELR capacities and the democratic application of modern monetary economics.

There is much in the actual history of Pericles’s Athens which demonstrate the functionality of economics under an authentically democratic culture and an ongoing communal discourse in the management of community, ie eikos-nomia. Reversing the centuries long investment in Plato’s misrepresentations about the functionality of authentic democracy is going to be a difficult but necessary process, made more difficult by the for profit occupation of the commons, including public education. Plato’s idealistic materialism also provides the template for neo-classical economics, and it also defies any sense of appropriate scientific reasoning within economic history or economics as a social science.

the evolution of democracy

The establishing of the Persian Empire was initially about the reliably safe passage along the Silk Road through foothills, valleys, and plateaus for commerce moving along the Silk Road. As an event it was a major step forward in the development of both civilization and economy. Rather predictably the xenophobic would and still frame this social and economic revolution as a conflict between the cultures of the mirrored despotism upon the east against the vanities of the nominal west. In its decline the Persian Empire became a self continuing process of the collection of tributes and taxes to support that empire as a territorial and economic monopoly. Cyrus, the Great began his accomplishment with the civilization of a jubilee process common to the region which included the freeing of slaves and probably the erasure of debts. Solon’s reforms adopted similar points, such as the re-patrioting of Athenians sold into slavery.

By the time Pericles was established as Strategos and had succeeded Ephialtes the reforms of Cleisthenes, Pisistratus, and Solon were still being resisted and explored as political capacities. Reasoning as applied within a democratic discourse reached a high point under the leadership of Pericles and under the influence of Ionian natural philosophy. Pericles’s friendship with Anaxagoras as a teacher and natural philosopher played an important part in the resulting Ionian Renaissance in Athens. Additionally the popular participation in the performance arts of theater and poetry paralleled and furthered serious public discussion of questions regarding civic governance.

Thanks to Thucydides we have a version of Pericles’s Funeral Oration from the early part of the Peloponnesean War. As a civic custom, funeral orations were produced on an annual basis during times of mortal combat and warfare. This particular oration also describes Pericles’s vision for Athens. It is also a statement of how Pericles and the majority of Athenians saw themselves and in comparison to the politics of Sparta and the Dorians of Lacedaemonia. It also notes contrasts between the neo-Mycenean, “conservatives,” such as Cimon and Plato, and the significance of Delian League as led by Pericles’s Athens.

The Delian League represented a major political and military innovation in its time by being based primarily upon naval power. It was effectively a regional Ionian/Aegean mercantile alliance as a benign sort of classical antiquity NATO led by Athens to diminish the encroachment of Persian imperial interests and against sources of piracy in the region. This process was preceded by the cooperation of the Samian navy with the Persian Empire during Xerxes’s punitive invasion of Greece as planned by his father Darius. At that time the Samian navy was the largest navy in the region, as narrated in Heredotus’s History.

The immediate cause for this funeral oration by Pericles is the Peloponnesean war. It was largely a war by Sparta and its allies who favored a slavery based agricultural centered economy characteristic of the Doric/Mycenaean “heroic” culture. In addition The Spartans and their allies were critical of democratic Athens as an oppressive and imperial force. In 464 BC Sparta requested the assistance of Athens to break a revolt of the Spartan “helot” slaves which had occupied Mt. Ithome. The reason the Athenians were invited to the suppression of that revolt was that Athens had particular success in siege warfare. After the Athenians arrived, they were dismissed because the Spartan leadership feared that Athens would change sides to support the helots. After the helot rebellion was ended Athens assisted in relocating the helot rebels to Naupactus, to establish an ally in the area through which an invasion by Sparta would would approach Athens. (cf Kagan)

The “conservatives” of Athens tended identify themselves with the oligarchic objectives of governance. They thereby sustained an ongoing political relationship and alliance with Sparta. Because the Athenian principle of democracy allowed for dissent, the conservative faction in Athens was not identified as antagonistic to the democracy of Athens, though Cimon was ostracized fairly late in the approach of the Peloponnesean War. Thereby Plato’s Lyceum represented a culturally and politically conservative political agenda, and effectively a disloyal and well funded minority. The objective of the Spartans and its allies was largely to restore the oligarchic governance of the Peloponnese and of the Attic peninsulas. In the present context the U.S. tends to act more like Sparta than Pericles’s Athens

The intrinsic contradiction of the polesis and a democratic culture is in the inclusion of political interests which operate actively to reduce the participation of others and thereby gain greater power to further their more narrow political and economic interests. This pattern of reduction prevails currently in western nations even where democracy is nominally the norm, only partly through the absence of effective campaign finance regulations. Plato’s Lyceum was much like the current 501(c) 4s, rather than part of an open discourse, his influence was also magnified by the support of the Mycenaean oligarchs. Democracy in Athens was greatly diminished after Pericles’s leadership passed due to both the siege by Sparta and its allies, and by a devastating plague of its besieged population. The reputation of the period as an Athenian Golden Age has been misrepresented as also being applicable to the conservatives that actively wanted to reduce the participation of citizens in the political and economic life of the community.


The Ionian Context

Key points in Pericles’s Funeral Oration include Pericles’s recollection that the Athenian ancestors through a succession of reforms established Athens as a free state based upon the participation and respect of its citizens for that legacy. He asserts that Athenian institutions are not based upon rivalry, but based upon the legacy of democracy, and open discourse. Given this context the antagonists are both the Spartans and the Athenian “conservatives.” Further Pericles declares that Athens is an example for all and a school to all of Hellas. Although the practice of slavery continued in Athens under Pericles, Athenians were in most cases free of debt based slavery. The nature of its judicial system was such that a judgment favoring debt based slavery was unlikely to be approved politically. Debt based slavery was also unlikely by the very active nature of its economy and the availability of currency. Part of this was in the rebuilding of the Parthenon, and the development of additional cultural infrastructure. Another part was due the development of Athens into a mercantile and naval power after the invasion of Greece by the Persians in the Greco-Persian Wars and in the resistance by the Ionian cities to occupation.

Historically the Athens of Pericles was a center of democracy, high culture and of Ionian natural philosophy, which is recognized as the early stage of natural science. A popular accusation of Pericles and the Ionians by the Athenian conservatives was “impiety,” which roughly translates in this context as “opposition to superstition.” Science likely developed in Ionia earliest in the west because of its concentration of builders, crafts people, merchants, navigators, and engineers. The Lacedaemonian and Mycenaean culture sustained a strong reliance upon agriculture and slavery which was connected to their aristocratic love of wealth and disdain for manual skills and labor except in and as related to warfare. FN Farrington.

The xenophobia of particularly the Lacedaemonians and the Neo-Mycenaeans also contributed to a retardation of natural science in that it led to a refusal to adopt scientific methods even from older and more sophisticated cultures such as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. Reason and reasoning through public political and cultural discourse , and through the conduct of technologies based upon natural science came to epitomize Pericles’s vision for Athens as “the school for Hellas.”

Ionia as a region of origin generally indicated an involvement in the commerce of the Silk Road, and the shipping of finished goods and raw materials throughout the known world, both eastward and westward, north into Black Sea and then into Europe, and north and south along the Atlantic coastal areas. Before establishment of cities in Ionia, Phoenicians more specifically came originally from one of the Phoenician cities such Troy, Sidon, Byblos, and from prior settlements along the Red Sea (Erythraean Sea). This also establishes a probable connection to the long established Indian Ocean rim mercantile communities, and to the Harrapan culture of the Sarasvati River valley, and to intra regional land routes of Silk Road commerce east of Persia. FN Rajaram/Frawley. Miletus was a city state that was located originally on the Pelopennesian peninsula, which then moved to Ionia. The Phoceans were originally from the Black Sea coast of Ionia, and like the Phoenicians, established a number of settlements along the length of the Mediterranean Sea. It is also true that in about 2000 BCE there was a major flood in Asia Minor which washed away not only the Temple of Artemis near Sardis, but also a number of Ionian coastal settlements.

“Ionia” was less of an ethnic identification than an indication of participation in a network of commercial and mercantile nodes. The Ionians were by their mercantile nature xeno-phillic, in stark contrast to the xenophobia of the Spartans and the conservative Athenians. They also had a mixed economy including production and technologies related to the fabrication of finished goods. The technology of iron smelting and thereby the advent of the iron age is credited to the late Hittite empire which was also located in Asia Minor. The wealth of the early Mycenaean cultures were based upon land occupation, slavery, tribute economics, and piracy. We know that Pericles and the intellectual culture of Athens were strongly influenced by Ionian artists, engineers, and teachers such as Anaxagoras.

The Greek practice of ostracism as a means of dampening local political conflicts also had a secondary positive effect in the importation of culture and connections from Ionian communities surrounding the Aegean. Pericles was first elected as Strategos (general) as a quasi-executive position in 461 BCE and he succumbed to a plague that hit Athens in 429 BCE. Much of the legacy credited to Athens in its contributions to western culture through its “Golden Age” can be traced back to Pericles’s advocacy and leadership, relative to military matters, economic policies, public education, and cultural institutions. This all included the importation of Ionian skills, technology, and natural philosophy, and the analytical reasoning associated with natural philosophy, in contrast to rhetorical reasoning.

As a side point, though Pericles’s received his personal name at birth, it translates as “surrounded by glory,” the heroic compulsion to live up to that naming and his family legacy should not be ignored, as an additional source of his leadership. Along the way the accomplishments of Pericles and the Ionians have often been mis-represented due to the superstitions and idealistic materialism of Plato’s Academy. Structurally and conceptually neo-classical economics has strong affinities to Plato’s idealistic materialism. as being based upon idealized fictions and anti-democratic intentions including the concentration of wealth by oligarchic forms of governance of that community.

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