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).