The Dark Secret of ancient Greece . . .
What was the secret of Greece? In the first millennium BC, Greece produced one of the most vibrant cultures the world has ever seen. But how did this rather harsh landscape suddenly produce such a remarkable culture? Let me introduce the secret of ancient Greece. The Greeks invented money. Now money has a bad reputation – money is the root of all evil is the popular belief. But let me persuade you that this is all wrong. Money gives you choice, and choice gives you freedom. Choice allows you, indeed encourages you, to indulge in trial and error and this leads to an entrepreneurial spirit that is the basis of the Greek revolution.
The best way to see the result of this new spirit is to compare the Greek city with the great empires that came before. I start therefore, by looking at the predecessor to the Greeks, the Minoans, who flourished in Crete in the second millennia BC. The Minoans were typical of the other great empires of the time, the Egyptians, the Babylonians and others, in that it was a palace state, where the cities were centred round the palace, where the ruler lived and presided. In a palace based society, everything was organised around the ruler. It was in modern terminology a totalitarian state, where you pay tribute to the emperor, a tithe (or more) of all your produce. It was a feudal society where you owed fealty to your superior, you served in his army, tilled his fields, gave him a part of all your crops, and in return you received ‘gifts’ in what is termed gift exchange, though the gift was basically his surplus rather than what you needed.
The Greek city was very different. The Greek cities were centred round the agora, the market place, an open area where the citizens could meet together, set up market stalls where they could buy and sell the goods that they wanted rather than having them distributed by the ruler in his palace. Here too they could discuss and debate, and where the high brow ones could invent philosophy, and where everyone could talk about scandal and gossip and invent democracy. Life in the market based cities was very different from life in the palace based cities.
There were so many aspects in which the Greeks tried new ideas. They had new forms of art in sculpture, in architecture and in painting. They invented drama, a fine combination of poetry, religion and boozing. They invented history, looking at the past, not to glorify the King, but to explain to the people what really happened. They invented organised games and gave a new twist to religious festivals. They invented philosophy and brought a new rationality to the ways of thinking. They discussed (and invented) ethics and poetics, rhetoric and geometry, and tried to make sense of zoology and biology. And they invented that most controversial of all political aspirations, democracy, which put the fear of redundancy into all other forms of political organisation.
But the Greeks were too individualistic to be very good at real politics and it was left to the Romans to establish the first great empire based on a market economy. Today the Romans are out of fashion. They are seen as brutal militarists and are compared with the British Empire: they were colonialists and imperialists and must therefore be bad. Yet in fact they brought peace and prosperity to much of the Mediterranean and Western Europe, and we must investigate first how they built up their territory, then how Augustus changed the republic into an empire, and how eventually Rome declined and fell and was followed by a long, long dark age.
I am not just putting forward a new story of the Greeks and Romans, I am also rethinking some of the basic features of economics. In traditional economics, money is usually defined as being a store of value or a medium of exchange. This however, overlooks the main feature of money is in that it is a device for giving choice, and that as such it is a revolutionary feature that changes society, not only in economics, but also by introducing an entrepreneurial frame of mind which spreads into all aspects of society:
It is a rethinking too of what is somewhat unhappily called capitalism. The real heart of our western society is the secret that the Greeks first learnt, of giving the individual choice, encouraging us all to be entrepreneurs, to indulge in trial and error to find out what best suits our individual tastes and realising that while we may not always get it right the first time, we can always try again. We all have our own individual talents which we can all exercise to the best of our ability. Often we can do this without the need of money, but underneath we all need to have the underlying mechanism where we can interact with others, and see whether what we have to offer is something that others they want to pay. And that intermediate is money, and money is the dark secret that was first taught to us by the ancient Greeks.
21st October 2021