Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Poverty: from Plato to Laurel & Hardy

‘Poverty, first of all was never a misfortune for me; it was radiant with sunlight… I owe it to my family, first of all, who lacked everything and who envied practically nothing.’  (Albert Camus)

Poverty (Penia) is a goddess with two sisters, Amykhania (helplessness) and Ptokheia (beggary). In Plato’s Republic,  poverty is a terrible evil, a source of meanness, viciousness and discontent. Similarly, Aristotle, in the Politics, regards poverty as a social ill, the parent of revolution and crime. In Wealth (Plutus) – read an excellent, Australian-dialect translation here, by George Theodoridis) – Aristophanes asks what would happen to society if everyone suddenly became rich and answers, paradoxically, that inequalities, conflict and misery would increase. In the play, the goddess Penia appears as an old hag, who warns those who think bestowing wealth on all Athenians will be an unmitigated blessing that:

‘[Poverty] is the very fountain of all joy! Of all life, even!… If Wealth were to… spread himself around to everyone, who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?'’

The goddess then goes on to suggest that the poor are in fact more virtuous than the rich:

’And let me tell you another thing about the poor. They are modest and civil, whereas the rich are all arrogant.’

The virtues – or otherwise – of poverty become of increasing interest in Greek ethics. Although never endorsing the alleged moral advantages of penury, Socrates does make clear, in the Apology, that he is indifferent to wealth and that a preoccupation with wisdom is far more important than, and perhaps even incompatible with, any pursuit of money or luxury.

The belief that neither wealth or poverty have much to contribute to virtue is shared by the Stoics and Epicureans – who regard poverty as just one of life’s many misfortunes, fear of which should be confronted and overcome. (Seneca advocated living rough from time to time, for a period of three to four days, to get used to poverty in case we should fall victim to it).

The Cynics, however, didn’t just denounce wealth as a prohibition to virtue, they went one stage further and developed a cult of poverty, embracing indigence as a positive way of life, ‘an unending task in which one strives for a more and more complete renunciation of possessions and the desire for material possession’.* Previous Greek virtues of beauty, honour and independence were turned on their head by the Cynics, who valorised, instead, ugliness, humiliation, dishonour (adoxia) and dependence – begging and, more radically, slavery, were positively accepted.**

Finally, we note that it was not a big leap from Cynic humiliation to Christian humility, from Cynic destitution to Christian asceticism, and from the Cynic exaltation of poverty to Christian love of the poor.

 *E. McGushin: Foucault’s Askesis.
**M. Foucault: The Courage of Truth (The Government of Self and Others II).


Hermes said...

John, stop wasting your time and start writing for a living. I'll gladly pay for it. This is a very good post.

John Akritas said...

I've developed quite a liking for the Cynics, H. I don't know why, because I'm rather conservative myself. They remind me of Dada and the Surrealists. Also, I've never been that interested in Foucault, but I like what I've read of his excursions into Greek philosophy by way of parrhesia – or fearless speech as he calls it.

His short book Fearless Speech can be downloaded here:

While The Courage of Truth is available here.

Foucault's got a good take on the Cynics.

And Theodoridis' translations are noteworthy, particularly of Aristophanes, so much better than the turgid, reticent and unfunny translations you get in the Penguin editions of Aristophanes.

Hermes said...

The Cynics were brilliant and necessary but a society cannot be built on their ideas; hence, why they remained a marginal school of thought which made important contributions.

Theodorides’s translations do seem interesting. I have been searching for a translation of Aristophanes but it is disappointing Theodoridis has not translated Menander’s The Difficult Man. That is a fine comedy. Lately, I have been reading, and reading about, the brilliant but underappreciated Greek novels. Longus is a very fine writer. Next I will trying a find some of the Byzantine novels of the Third Sophistic.

On the Greek economy, Greek Default Watch by Nikos Tsafos is an excellent non-technical English language blog. Much better than the self promoting recycled SYRIZA dribble by Varoufakis. Here is a recent post on Greek political philosophy:

And some older ones:

Lastly, here is a post from the Greek Economists for Reform:

John Akritas said...

What is boils down, regarding the Greek economy, are those Greeks that believe the Greek way of doing things has got Greece into this mess; and those who believe, like YV, that Greece is a victim of global capitalism, neo-liberalism, the Greek ruling class and so on and all this stuff about corruption, clientelism and the bloated state are red herrings. I think this second approach – articulated by this appalling rubbish ( is nonsense. For someone who's good on explaining the ins and outs of why the eurozone has come apart, Varoufakis is poor when it comes to analysing the specifics of Greece's problems. HIs ideology gets in the way here.

Anonymous said...

The Euro zone was doomed from the start. Through the years, undemocratically borne, it morphed into the present dictatorship , in the garb of democracy, globalism, internationalism. The EU primary visible objectives today are robbing its members of sovereignty, managing dysgenic mass immigration, and devouring its members state into the abstaraction of supranational institutions. As it behoves all ill gotten children, the party is over for the EU, and the party is over for its members states who in the first place should never have founded themselves in.The USSR went bankrupt and it desintegrated into its national consitituents.The EU is careening into a non workable, non viable adventure. There are serious winners from this growing miasma, the political elites, political classes, and there are serious losers such as the nations, its peoples. Poverty has arrived into Greece to stay. New adjustments to new conditions have to be made. The populace lies powerless and impotent. Taxes soaring through the roof, extra property taxes, whenever you look it is more taxes with reduced levels of employement or unemployment.It is a boiling cauldron ready to spill over. Contemporary bankrupt ideologies are making matters much worse.